Come Home!

A few years ago, I preached a sermon on this text, and after the service a couple told me they didn’t enjoy the message. When I asked why, they replied, “The story is just not fair.”

That little incident reminds me once again how peculiar Jesus’ teachings must have been perceived at times. Some of these stories are so familiar to us that we lose the sense of newness and oddness it elicits.

A well-known preacher, at a workshop I was attending, once told how he prepared his sermons. He said, “When I am studying a text, I always look for what is odd and weird. When I see it, I figure it is something people need to hear.” The story in today’s text has an element of that in it.

What is the peculiar part of the story of the prodigal son? I don’t feel that the sons’ behaviors are so unusual, for children all through the generations have been rebellious and thus have gotten themselves into trouble as they get out on their own. Humanity has disappointed and demeaned its fathers all through the generations just as both these sons did in this story.

The surprising part of this story is the father’s behavior. Any middle-eastern father would have punished his son severely and disowned him for asking for his share of the inheritance. The request was in effect saying, “I want your money, but I don’t want you. I wish you were dead.” But instead of disinheriting his son, this father sells part of his property (which provides his family their living) and then gives the proceeds to the son. This could well have put his own income at risk as well as his standing in the commu-nity. This boy’s request is terrible, and yet this father gives him what he asks and lets him go.

And then, the story suggests that the father missed his son dearly. Picture the father, looking out over the horizon every day, searching for a sign that his son is returning home. Then one day the father sees a familiar figure out in the distance. And as it gets closer to the village, he sees that it is indeed his son! So, with tears in his eyes, the father runs to his son and embraces him.

It must have been quite a sight to see the middle-eastern patriarch of a family run. He would have had to lift his robe and expose his legs, perhaps even his under garments. However, the father did not care.

Then the son, in an effort to make things right, tries to use his practiced speech. “I’ll work as one of your hired hands. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father cuts him off and says, “No question about it Ð you are my son.” And he had his slaves get the best robe of the house Ð the father’s robe Ð to put on the son. They put shoes on his feet, and give him the signet ring, a sign of the father’s power and authority. They then kill the fatted calf to celebrate the son’s return. It is unexpected behavior for a father in this situation.

The older son also acts badly toward his father. He insults and humiliates his father in front of the village by refusing to go to the celebration. So the father does the unthinkable by getting up from his position of honor at the party to plead with his son to join them. But the son spouts off at him,”Look, at you! All these years I have slaved for you. I’ve always done what you asked me to do. Never once have you given even a goat for me and my friends. And yet this reprobate son of yours, who goes off and blows everything, comes back and you kill the fatted calf for him.”

The father had every right to disown him right there. Instead he continues to plead. “Son,” he says. “Everything I have is yours. You’ve always been with me. But this brother of yours has come home. Once he was dead, and now he’s alive. We had to celebrate.”

Two lost sons in this story Ð the son who went away and the son who stayed home and slaved for his father, waiting for the day when he would receive all that was his. Who is the prodigal in this story?

The word prodigal means reckless, lavish, extravagant. The real prodigal is the father, for he was lavish and extravagant with his forgiveness toward his sons.

When Jesus told this story, his listeners must have scratched their heads thinking that no father acts like that. But this story is a picture of God our Heavenly Father. He shocks our sensibilities and our common sense as humans. His wisdom and his ways are far above ours. Our sinfulness is finite; his grace is infinite. Although both boys are wrong in this story, they both are also loved.

See the Heavenly Father’s love in this story as he pleads with you to come home. Whether you ran away and were given up on, or you stayed at home and need to swallow your pride Ð no matter what you have done with your life, he wants you to come home. Come to your senses. The Father wants you with him in joy.

This invitation to come home is not meant to trivialize our sinfulness, for coming home isn’t cheap. A huge cost was paid for that possibility. The cost was, God gave his one and only begotten Son to die upon the cross as a payment for our sinfulness so that we might have a restored relationship by trusting in that Son, Jesus Christ. A great sacrifice was made to get you back home again.

Two lost sons, one prodigal father, one message Ð come home. Come home, lost sons and daughters, for the Father loves you.

Jesus Looks At His World

When we see the world through the eyes of the media, we see many sad things Ð killings, murders, stealing, corruptions of all kinds. It appears that very little spiritual understanding exists among the masses of what it is to know Jesus Christ as Lord.

Today’s text gives us an understanding of how our Lord Jesus Christ views this world, and in many ways committed Christians view it the same way. However, we have much to learn from the Lord Jesus. So I speak to those of you who are wrestling with your faith about Christ and to those of you who are not only committed to him but are also anxious to know how he might view this world differently than we do.

When I view the world through the eyes of the media, I am ready to turn it off. The world is corrupt, and has little hope. This is my viewpoint as an orthodox Christian who believes man is born sinful and will remain so to the very end.

Yet, notice Jesus’ attitude toward sinful man in today’s text. He knew the world was sick and denounced the people’s sins far more than we could ever do, because he is holy. But he also recognized that many in that broken world have the potential to become great people of God through faith in Jesus Christ if they will only turn their hearts over to him.

Jesus did not condone their sin, but instead he wanted to help them. The disciples wanted to send the people home, but Jesus saw them as sheep without a shepherd. He knew that without a leader, false prophets would lead them into places that are not good for them. Because we are Christians and know what Christ has done for us, we are to go out and help this old world that we denounce. The world needs a shepherd, and the only shepherd that will do them any good is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Notice the difference.

We are sometimes ready to write people off and live in our cozy Sunday morning group. We love the Lord Jesus and are anxious to serve him, but we want a nice church in our town where everything is hunky dory. Jesus says it is okay to want to belong to a nice church, but the time comes when we need to go out into this depraved world and help others where it is possible. We find a time to visit them and tell them how meaningful their lives could be if they would just turn to Christ. We tell them they have a Shepherd who loves them so much that he came into this world to suffer and die on the cross of Calvary that we might have the forgiveness of our sin and the promise of life everlasting. That is what Jesus is challenging his church to do.

The Lord loves these lost people and wants to be their shepherd even when they will have nothing to do with him. He has not quit on them but wants to walk with them that they might be his forever. So, as agents of Jesus Christ, we begin to teach them.

Just stop and think of all the places people in our world go in a given year. Some will be in the school rooms where they will have fellowship with students and other teachers. What an opportunity to witness in a place where many do not know Jesus Christ as Savior. And while the rules of a school may prevent them from speaking about faith in the classroom, no one can stop them from talking outside of the school so that others can see a love that stems from the love of Christ. If you are in those public schools of our land, be a public witness to those who do not know Christ. Do not write off this world, for you are working within it.

To those who are physicians, after you have done all the tests and find nothing more can be done, reassure your patients that this is not the end, for they are facing an eternity. And when their last breath is breathed, they will have a home with God in heaven. This gift is given through the merits of Jesus Christ.

Those who are a part of the legal profession have many things they can do. When a marriage is over and the couple is looking for a divorce, the lawyer can say, “I can give you the divorce easy enough, but I can help you in other ways if you will only listen. I happen to be a Christian and while God is disturbed at the things we do, he is always willing to forgive us and take us home to heaven.”

That is how Jesus sees this world differently than I sometimes see it. As a Christian, I get disgusted with people and say they cannot be helped because they don’t want to be helped. So we turn our backs on them. But Jesus never forgets them.

Jesus says to the consecrated financial professional, “Look at your values. You live for money. You belong to the church and contribute to it, but you go only so far because you have to deal with the profits. Don’t you have enough? Don’t you think you need to change a little bit? Tell people the story of Jesus when the opportunity comes to you, for this world is broken.”

We have a right to shut off our television in the quiet evening hours and read a good book when the news is so terribly disturbing. But remember, when you are anxious to forget the world, that our Lord Jesus loves us so much that he wants to continue to work through us to be a part of our life too.

This is a marvelous text. Read it again. You’ll never go wrong if you take Jesus with you along the way.

He Will Change My Lifestyle. I’m Not Interested

Recently we were sitting in our living room of our home watching the Chicago Cubs as they lost another ballgame. After the game, a couple newsmen were discussing the future of the Cubs, and they concluded that something had to be done to get the team into shape. They have plenty of money, good talent, and many loyal fans. However, something is missing that could make those men into a really good baseball team.

As the newsmen kept talking about the possibilities, I wondered what the church could learn from their conversation. Should we have an ongoing study in the church to find and correct our weaknesses, therefore becoming a dynamic witness for our Lord Jesus Christ?

Last Sunday in my sermon, I quoted the English bishop and theologian, Tom Wright, who said, “Preaching is something dangerously public that emerges from something entirely private.” What that means is that when a person preaches or witnesses in a personal way, he is talking from the inner most part of his soul and making his words very public. Some people, however, just don’t want the private parts of their life to become public and therefore cannot share their faith publically. This is a serious situation, for this person is not doing what Jesus asked him to do Ð give a dynamic witness of what Jesus Christ has done for him at the proper time and in the literal place.

Another weakness of the Christian church is its unwillingness to take the Word of God seriously. The fear is that, if I take the Bible literally, my lifestyle will change. Since I am perfectly comfortable living my life the way it is, I will continue as I have, even though it may not be pleasing to the Lord.

King Herod, like many in his society, had heard about John the Baptist and wondered who he was. He sometimes went out to the wilderness to hear what John had to say. Herod could see that John was a godly man and worth listening to. This old king, crusty as he was, enjoyed hearing John tell the story of Jesus. And although John the Baptist was a citizen of King Herod’s kingdom, he nevertheless was willing to say to him, “King Herod, you are supposedly a holy man, but your lifestyle is not according to the will of God. Get rid of your brother Philip’s wife, Herodias!” John the Baptist made a terrible enemy that day. In fact, Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted him to be killed. However, because he feared John and wanted to protect him, Herod had John arrested.

I’d like to interpret right here that the Holy Spirit was speaking to King Herod through John the Baptist’s words. “Repent of what you are doing. It is wrong. Turn to Jesus Christ Ð the Lamb of God Ð who has come to take away the sins of the world.”

Herodias’ opportunity to have John killed came at Herod’s birthday celebration when he promised her daughter up to half of his kingdom in gratitude for her dance. The girl then asked for John’s head on a platter.

The Holy Spirit had been with Herod, telling him that John the Baptist was a god-fearing man, and Herod believed it. But when Herod made a promise to the girl with all the hierarchy around him, he felt bound to keep his word. So, rather than turning to Jesus Christ whom John the Baptist had proclaimed, he had the messenger killed.

When our Lord Jesus Christ gets hold of us, he changes our lifestyle and sometimes we just don’t like it. When the voice of God begins to speak to us, we become more verbal for Christ Jesus. But that could cost us something as far as our social life, business life, and political life are concerned. And often we like those areas of our lives just as they are. Herod thought he had saved his life, but the result was that he lost it. And many people are losing their life too because they go on living just as they are.

What is the problem with the church? The answer is far more complex than the answer to the problem with the Cubs. If one Christian does not share his inner feelings about Jesus and another does not change his lifestyle, the Church is weakened and cannot be the kind of voice God wants to have in this society.

Take a look at life around us. Suppose I am a politician serving a very important position in our government. If I do not share my faith in Jesus with my fellow politicians feeling it is private and for me and God alone, or do not change my lifestyle for fear I will be voted out of office, the Church is weakened.

And if those of us who are average people are not willing to voice what Jesus Christ has done for us, if we leave that all inside and people never hear us mention Jesus, what good will it do? It weakens our relationship within the Church and outside the Church.

What if I am one of those people who doesn’t want to change my lifestyle? I want to go to church on Sunday, be considered a religious person and all the rest, but I don’t want to risk persecution. Jesus was crucified, John the Baptist was beheaded, and many others in lesser ways along the way have had to pay the price when they identified themselves with Jesus Christ.

Although I never thought I would preach a sermon about King Herod, he would make a powerful witness to us if he could say, once he had seen his call, “O, that I had only listened to what was said to me. O, that I could only have been faithful and turned to Christ, the one John the Baptist was talking about. Then history books would have recorded me as Herod, the king who gave his life to Christ and made a real difference in his society.”

I pray to God that we will have the courage to really look into our lifestyle, as individuals, as a congregation, and as a Church at large and ask what needs to be done. Then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we may see that it is done.

Sharing the Deeply Personal

People have asked me from time to time when in my ministry I was the most nervous speaking to a group of people. That question is not difficult to answer. It was my first sermon at my home church. Although the congregation was small, it was filled with local people who supported me all through my education. They prayed for me, taught me, and had even given to me monetary support from time to time.

As I stood in the pulpit and looked down over the congregation, I saw my parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins Ð people I had known for a long time who were there to hear me preach. Many of my childhood friends were there also Ð school classmates with whom I had gone to school, played sports, played in the band, and even ice skated. Even though we had known each other so well, this day was different, for I was sharing some strong spiritual convictions with them. I told them about Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the only one whereby we could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It was fun to be with these people again, except I was so very, very nervous.

I have wondered for a long time, what was the source of my nervousness. Through the course of time, and with some help from British theologian Tom Wright, I have learned the answer: “Preaching is something dangerously public, emerging from something entirely private.”

Sharing spiritual convictions can make people uncomfortable, inevitably making them nervous. Faith is a very personal subject. For example, even people who are quite vocal about their feelings find it difficult to pray out loud. They’d rather let someone else speak.

As a pastor, when I visited with people who were having marriage problems, one of the first questions I asked would be about their prayer life together. More times than not, they told me that, other than repeat a table prayer, they did not pray together. They did not bear their innermost parts of their souls together in prayer. And although they knew what was causing their marital difficulties, they had never lifted their eyes to God together in prayer concerning the problem.

“Preaching (witness or sharing with a loved one) is something dangerously public, emerging from something entirely private.” I’ve got something inside of me that I cannot voice with my loved one.

In today’s text, Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth teaching in the synagogue. The people listening to him took offense at his words and said, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” His audience was entirely different from those local people in my home congregation who had done so much to encourage me to be a pastor and proclaim God’s Word.

Jesus was the God-man. He was true God, sent as a part of the Trinity to suffer and die as payment for the sins of the world, thus granting the assurance of life everlasting to those who trust in him. However, he was also true man. During the thirty years up to this point, Jesus worked in Joseph’s carpenter shop. And if you could have visited with some townspeople and asked if they knew Jesus, they would most likely have said, “Sure, I know Jesus. He’s a lovely young man, and we think the world of him. He’s a good carpenter, too.”

However, on this particular Sunday, as Jesus went to worship with the rest of the Jewish people, he stood up to speak. The Gospel of Luke tells us that, full of the Holy Spirit, he picked up the scroll and he began to read from the prophet Isaiah.

“ÔThe spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

“Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ÔToday this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'” (He was telling them who he was.)

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ÔIsn’t that Joseph’s son?’ they asked.

“Jesus said to them, ÔSurely you will quote this proverb to me, ÔPhysician, heal yourself!’ Do here in your hometown what you did in Capernaum.’

“ÔI tell you the truth,’ he continued, Ôno prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed Ð only Naaman the Syrian.’

“All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:18-30).

It was most likely that nobody surmised Jesus, at the age of 25, was the Son of God and Savior of the world. They all thought he was a great young man from their town. Jesus had kept his divinity very private within himself. So when he began to say that he was the Christ, they became very uncomfortable and were going to get rid of him. But Jesus’ mission was to proclaim that truth, and his ministry started among his hometown people.

“Preaching is something dangerously public, that emerges from something entirely private.”

One of the most difficult places to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ can be among your best friends. The reaction to the statement that Jesus Christ is the only way to gain entrance to heaven can be one of shock and dismay. “Who are you to say this? Did something happen to you?” Whether it be Jesus saying in the Word of God that he is the Son of God and the Messiah of the world or you sharing your faith in Jesus Christ, the reaction can be the same.

What then shall we do about this problem of communicating our faith? Should we quit? Should we say that it is best to not risk offending our friends than to tell them that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation? Maybe it would be better to let our marriage go to pieces than to lay our problems before God. Perhaps it is best to avoid building a wall between us and our friends simply because we made public something that was so secret.

To make that which is uncomfortable become comfortable is one of the greatest challenges in serving our Lord. But don’t let your terror cause you to be silent, for we share a common faith and we have a common destiny in Jesus Christ. You can overcome your fear by God’s grace and become a shining light and living witness to the Savior who gave his all for you.

A Faith Story

Evangelism instructors often recommend having a faith story to share with others. It should include how you came to know Jesus Christ and what he’s done in your life.

Our text today about a woman who was cured from an illness with her blood makes a good, strong faith story. She had suffered a long time and had spent all the money she had on all kinds of doctors. But she still was not cured. Then she somehow became acquainted with Jesus’ healing power. Feeling that this might be her answer, since nothing else had helped her, she went into the crowd where Jesus was standing and thought, “If I just touch him, I will really be healed.” So she got pushed and shoved her way into the middle of the crowd and touched his garment. Jesus realized that the power had gone out from him, and so he asked the question, “Who touched me?” The disciples answered, “Lord, how could we ever answer that question for you? All these people are pushing in upon you.” But when Jesus saw her, she became very afraid. “Lord, I’ve gone everywhere to get over this hemorrhage and can’t find the answer anywhere. But I believe you can help me.” Jesus then said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” Jesus had made her a new person, and this lady had a powerful faith story to tell others.

Since I don’t have anyone else’s faith story to share, I am going to share mine. It isn’t perfect by a long way, but it is still important to help me relate to other people.

I was very fortunate to be raised in a Christian home. My father and mother brought me to the baptismal font where God’s redeeming work began. After the application of the water, he turned to my father and mother said, “Now take this child home and tell him what God has done in Jesus Christ. Watch the spirit work in his heart.” And that is what they did. We had devotions regularly. I can remember my father and mother reading Bible stories to me. We went to church every Sunday morning at 10:00 and every Sunday evening at 7:30.

We had a good pastor. While he was not an orator, he certainly was a great teacher and expounder of the Word of God. So going to church was not a difficult decision to make.

When I was in high school, I was reading a devotion one day from John 15 where it says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” What that scripture verse said to me was, “Homer Larsen, you can do nothing without me. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, I made a decision at the age of 15 or 16 to belong to Jesus Christ. My desire was that he would walk with me and have the power to change my life. That passage is a marvelous part of my faith story for it gives me the assurance of my salvation.

Later on in my life, God spoke to me through a minister whom I respected very highly. He asked, “Have you ever considered being a pastor?” That was when God was beginning to talk to me. In this particular case, He used a person, not an emotional experience. Perhaps my experiences can serve as a basis for your faith story.

When I began my studies for the ministry, I remember that I was somewhat confused. I believed that God had redeemed me in the person of Jesus Christ. However, my home church, with all of its strengths, had some weaknesses. One of those weaknesses was that it was a bit legalistic. We had to obey not only the Ten Commandments, but also many manmade laws. Then one day, I was listening to Dr. Theodore Gruebner who was a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He was speaking to about 400 ministers, and said, “Remember this, men: You are to share the message that Christ has done it all. Sometimes, when I listen to pastors, I am reminded of Ivory Snow Ð 99 and 44/100% pure. Jesus has done 99 and 44/100%. You did the rest of it by reaching out in grace and receiving it. No, no, no,” said Dr. Gruebner. “Jesus has done it all! And after he had done it all, empowered by the Holy Spirit, you accepted his grace.”

Those words now became a very important part of my faith story, for I could completely put my faith in Christ Jesus. I could daily kneel before the throne of grace and know that I was forgiven. If this were my last day on earth, I knew that I would be with him in heaven. But if it was not my final day, I knew He would walk with me, which he has done.

The Lord also spoke very strongly to me through the Word of God after I became a pastor. He said to remember to whom I am preaching. Some don’t know Christ at all. Some are hostile to him. Some don’t want anything to do with him. Others could take him or leave him; it’s not important. Still others are seeking Him, but have difficulty getting it all straight. Then there are those who live in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And while the sermon may focus on one of these primary situations, all need to be covered so that the unbeliever can be awakened, the believer can be strengthened, and the seeker can be comforted. The message must emphasize a personal Ð not an impersonal Ð relationship with Jesus. I learned that and knew it, but I still didn’t quite have a good hold on it.

Later, I happened to be at the United States Congress on Evangelism in Minneapolis. I listened to Billy Graham, Oswald Hoffman, and many other great speakers of the day. After listening to Dr. Hoffman speak about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I asked if I could buy him lunch so that we could talk more about it, just the two of us. He accepted my invitation. When our meeting was done, Dr. Hoffman asked me what kind of a church I grew up in. I described my pastor, and then he said, “Go home and preach like your pastor preached.”

My wife and I are old people Ð 87 and 88. As I think of all those people I have visited on their death bed, I am reminded of those who trusted in Christ saying, “I leave it all to him. I have no concerns.” That is part of my faith story today. I don’t know how long before I am going home to be with God. However, because of Jesus, you and I know we will be with him in heaven if we trust in him. This gift of salvation is ours, not because of what we have done, but 100% because of what he has done.

This is my faith story. Do you have one? Take time to write one out.