Sunday 28th September @ St Barnabas and St Michael’s
Over the next few Sundays we are exploring the basics of the Christian faith with a course that I have called Building on the Rock. You can find the questions I have written following this sermon on the blog dedicated to the course Building on the Rock
The importance of stories
Who here likes reading stories? Does anyone have a particular favourite? Stories are just such an important part of our life, aren’t they? And even if reading’s not your thing, then I dare say there’s a hardly a day goes by without someone telling you a story. How many of you children rush out of school bursting to tell your Mum or Dad what happened that day? Or how many of you grown-ups sit over a pint sharing with your mates something funny at work? Stories are just such an important part of our life. They have this habit of capturing our imagination, of engaging and educating and entertaining us. We all learn so much from stories. So when we think of, say, love we don’t usually think about the psychology textbook we’ve just been reading or the annual statistics for marriage in the United Kingdom. We think of Romeo and Juliet, or Brief Encounter, or a family tale that has been handed down over the years. Stories shape our thoughts and our ideas at the deepest level, and in many ways make us who we are.
So it’s little surprise, then, to discover Jesus was a master storyteller. To help people understand more about God, He frequently used brilliant illustrations and simple plot-lines that perfectly reflected the ordinary life of His world at that time. So he talked about mustard seeds, and vines, and wedding feasts, in the same way that we might talk about pizzas or fish and chips or Plymouth Argyle. He spoke in a language that people understood and it was little wonder that the crowds flocked to hear His latest tale.
Today we’re looking at one of the most famous of all Jesus’ stories. I guess many of you know it as the story of the prodigal son, although it could equally well be called the story of the forgiving father or the grumpy older brother. And just read as a story it’s an incredibly powerful tale of being lost and found, of welcome and rejection. But Jesus wasn’t just telling this story to make the best-seller list or entertain his friends. He told this story to teach them and us some important truths about God and the way He deals with us.
And what I want you to do is help me work out exactly what this story is saying, and what it might mean to us today. And the way I want to do this is ask you to think about each of the three main characters in the story, who they might represent, and what we can learn from them.
The younger brother
So, to begin with, who is the younger brother? Who does he stand for? Well, the answer really is that he stands for each and every one of us. Now, you might say I haven’t spent all I have on wild living – more’s the pity – and I certainly have never worked down on a farm. But we need to look beyond the details to the point Jesus is making. And what the character of the younger brother teaches us is that all of us in one way or another have wasted the good things God has given us.
I was doing some research the other day, and found some figures about how much food we waste each day in this country. How many packets of crisps do you think we throw away? (Answer 300,000). OK, what about bananas (1.6 million). Or what about potatoes (5.1 million). How about loaves of bread (220,000) In the United States someone estimated that 40-50% of food bought gets thrown away. And most of this food is still perfectly ready to eat, indeed some is never taken out of its packets. If that’s not squandering the good things we’ve given us, then I’m not sure what is.
At this Harvest Time it’s worth reflecting for a moment that sin is not just about bad things we do, like stealing and lying and hurting other people, although of course they’re bad. It’s about waste, and failing to think of those in need, and filling up our world with all kinds of unnecessary junk.
And then there’s the father in our story. Who does he represent? That’s right, he represents God. Now I know some people are uncomfortable with the idea of God as Father. Maybe their own father did bad things to them, or wasn’t around much. But the point of calling God Father is not that He is like our earthly fathers, but He is so much better. He loves and cares for us perfectly, and is always worthy of our trust.
And in this story Jesus shows us the love of the Father in two different ways. First of all, just like He gave the son a share of the estate, so He has given each one of us a very special present Can anyone guess what it is? That’s right, it’s the world we live in. The mountains, the rivers, the fields, the cities, the birds, the plants, even the spiders, the slugs, the worms and the beetles. It’s rather like a generous father giving his son a car on his 18th birthday. “This is yours, son. Take good care of it, and use it well”. He knows full well the son might crash the car, or fail to get it serviced. But he wants to give it to him any way to show his love and to teach his son how to care for the important things of life. In the same way we have been given this world as a gift from God – even though, as we thought just now, we have made such a mess of looking after it. Did you know that if we stopped throwing away all this perfectly good food the effect on our greenhouse gases would the same as taking one in five cars off the road?
How else does the father show love in this story? That’s right – by the way the father welcomes the son. If you remember, He runs up to him, throws his arms around him and gets ready the biggest party you have ever seen. He doesn’t tell him off and tell him how silly he’s been. Nor does he ask for all that money back the son is wasted. He is just so relieved to see him that He welcomes him with open arms and then gets the best things ready.
The point is, that’s exactly how our Heavenly Father treats us when we say we are sorry and turn back to Him. Now Jesus doesn’t explain here why our Father should accept us in this way. To find out more, you’ll have to come back over the next three weeks and hear the rest of the Christian message. But the single issue here is that our Father loves us with an overwhelming, passionate love and He has room in His heart for every single one of us. All we have to do is say sorry for the way we have treated Him and the world He has made and the people around us. And He will give us the best party ever, the joy that comes from knowing Him as Father and as Lord.
So what’s stopping you from enjoying the Father’s love?
The older brother
Maybe we need to look at the third character in the story, the grumpy older brother. This is a slightly harder question. Who does he stand for? Does anyone have any ideas?
Well, today, apart from being Harvest and the start of our course Building on the Rock, it’s also Back to Church Sunday. And sadly, the reason why we need Back to Church Sunday is the fact that sometimes certain groups of Christians have stopped people knowing the Father’s love. It may be that the church didn’t like having children. They caused too much noise and ran around too much. It may be that the church forgot to visit the elderly and the sick, or imagined that the vicar would do it all. It may be that the church only welcomed people who spoke and dressed in the right kind of way, and only sat in the same seats every week. If that’s been your experience of church, I can only say that I’m sorry.
I said at the beginning that if we want to know what love is like, we read a good story. Well, the story of the prodigal son is a story all about love. Not, of course, about the soppy, romantic kind of love that’s only for grown-ups, but about the endless and wonderfully patient love of God our Heavenly Father. And if there’s only one thing that you take away from this service this morning is that the Father’s love is for everyone and no matter who you are, or what you have done, He is waiting to receive you into His kingdom and give you the joy of knowing Him for yourself.
So what’s stopping you from enjoying the Father’s love?