The Prodigal Who Came HomeErwin W. Lutzer | April 15, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
Even a loved and nurtured child can grow up to be a prodigal. Acknowledging that his son had to make his own decisions, the father of the prodigal in Luke 15 watches his son wander away into the “far country” - a life of sin. Thankfully, the prodigal comes to his senses and returns poor and humbled.
When we are in sin, we have an illusion of control, but we are actually in bondage. Like the prodigal, let us return to our Father who is waiting for us. Restoration, acceptance, and forgiveness have been provided through His Son. How long will we hold out from His blessings?
In my last message I spoke about Absalom who was a prodigal who did not come home. He died in his rebellion. But today we are going to talk about the prodigal who actually came home. This series of only two messages grew out of the fact that we have been praying for prodigals in our prayer meeting. Over the period of the last weeks I have interviewed perhaps 20 or 30 POPS – parents of prodigals. And we got the names of their prodigals and I am always interested in the context in which the children rebelled and left home and left God.
And so we have these names on lists and we are fasting and praying to see God bring prodigals back home. But one of the things that we learned about prodigals (and you know that word means wasteful – the person who turns his back on God) is that there are really two kinds of prodigals in the sense as to why they leave home.
There are those who leave home because of their home life.
I was amazed, though I should not have been, that as I interviewed the parents I discovered that there was divorce, sometimes there was abuse, sometimes there was the abuse of alcohol and so forth, and so the child decides to leave home and he hates his mother and his father and he says, “I also hate your God,” and he leaves it all behind.
I am amazed at the number of prodigals who are angry prodigals, angry with their parents, with their circumstances and with God.
But then there are prodigals that come from fine homes where there was no abuse, where there was nothing but love and caring and good teaching and good churches, and they became prodigals anyway because there was something within them that said that what we need to do is to find our own way. And they look at the world and they say to themselves, “We have been gypped, and what we want to do is to make sure that we go and we get it all.” The lure of the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life!
That’s the way it was in the story of the prodigal son, which is found in Luke 15. He was from a fine home with a wonderful father, but it was the lure of the far country. If you have your Bible, turn to Luke 15. Jesus, who was a master storyteller, tells this very familiar story, which I’m sure you’ve heard many messages on.
Starting in verse 11 it says, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.”
What a rebellious, thankless son this was. First of all, he should wait until his father dies before he receives his inheritance but he comes to his dad and says, “I can’t even wait until you die. Give me my inheritance now.” Those two little words “give me” are a kind of entitlement. “Give me what’s coming to me. I have it coming to me. I deserve this.” So the father, according to the laws of the Old Testament, gave him one-third, and the elder brother would receive two-thirds.
Wordless, the father watches him go down the road because the father knows what the far country is like. The father understands that the far country makes promises that it cannot keep. The father knows that in the far country all of the wells are dry. But interestingly he doesn’t try to talk the son out of it because there comes a time in the life of a child when he has to make his own decisions. And so, heartbroken and grieved because the son is turning his back on the father, the father watches the kid leave.
Let’s look at the text and find out all of the steps that this boy took in the wrong direction. First of all, he goes as far away as possible. It says he went to a distant country. “I want to go where nobody knows me, where I don’t have any relatives or friends and an elder brother looking over my shoulder and telling me, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this.’ I want to go to New York. I want to go to Chicago. I want to go to Los Angeles – as far away as I can from home so I can do my thing and nobody knows me.” So he chooses the distant country.
Also notice in the text that it says he misuses the blessings of the father. He spends his property, his wealth that his father gave him, on riotous, reckless living. Now just imagine that. Imagine the extent of the man’s sin, this young boy. I mean his father’s money is to be used for things that would honor the father, and he takes the very blessing that the father gave him and he sins against his dad by doing the kinds of things that would hurt and grieve his father.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? God gives us blessings. He gives us health. He gives us strength. He gives us money. And we say to ourselves, “It is mine. I’m going to do my own thing,” and we use God’s blessings and God’s gifts to sin against Him and to do what hurts Him.
Notice also he despised his religion. Certainly on the basis of the Old Testament in Jewish times pigs were unclean animals, not just physically unclean (and pigs are physically unclean) but they are also ceremonially unclean. He’s not supposed to get near them but he doesn’t care about what his religion teaches because for him now it’s a matter of survival. He’s hungry and there he is in the pigsty, willing to eat the pods that were given to him.
I was brought up on a farm and I’m kind of glad I left the farm behind personally. And we had pigs. And I remember we had a pail that we used to call the slop pail. I don’t know if we use that word nowadays, but now that it’s out of my mouth, you know what I mean. All of the things from the table that wouldn’t be eaten were put into the slop pail and then it was given to the pigs.
And this young man is there and the Bible says something very interesting. The key to the turn of his life is in verse 17 when it says that he came to himself. Oh what a wonderful phrase. Underline it in your mind and in the Word of God. He came to himself.
There are all kinds of reasons why he could have stayed in the far country. He could have said, like some prodigals, “I’m going to die in the far country and I’m not coming back home. I don’t care if I die out here. I don’t care if I starve. I don’t care if I get a disease from these pigs. I’m staying here.” He could have had a hard and rebellious heart and he could have justified it in his own mind.
He could have said first of all, “I can’t stand the shame of going back to my father. If I go back to my father I go empty-handed. He will know that I squandered everything that he gave me. He knew what the far country is like and now I have nothing to present to him and it’s embarrassing to go back home and to say, ‘Father, I bring nothing in my hands and I cleave to your grace and mercy.’” That takes a lot of humility and he could have said, “I’m not going to do that.”
He could have also said to himself, “There’s no use in me going back because I can’t keep up with the rules of the farm. My dad has certain standards and if I go back there I am sure that I just can’t measure up to what he wants so I am going to stay in the far country.”
There’s another reason that he could have stayed in the far country, and I’m convinced it’s the reason why many prodigals stay in the far country. He could have said to himself, “I’m not going back to that Goody Two-Shoes brother of mine. You know the brother who has never done anything wrong, who has worked hard on the farm and the people in town say, ‘Here’s a man who had two sons and one of them is this rebellious kid who should be whipped, and the other guy? Oh we wish we had a son like him. He works from sun-up to sundown. He’s very, very reputable.” Like one man told me, “I’ve never sinned. The worst thing I’ve ever done is to take a pair of golf clubs and wrap then around a tree.”
Oh, do you impress me with your sinlessness and self-righteousness! Literally “God can’t use you” some self-righteous person might say. “You know, you’ve been divorced and you’ve been to the far country and all the people who are nitpicking and you know, when you go back to the father you’ll have to put up with his other kids.” And that’s why he has to stay in the far country. They think to themselves, “I’m not going back to the people of that church because if I come back to God and back to Mom and Dad, I have to go back to God’s people and I don’t like them.” This boy could have said that but thank God he didn’t. He came to his senses.
Now you have to catch the picture in prayer meeting. Here I am. I’m interviewing POPS, parents of prodigals, and we’re learning about the prodigals and we’re putting them on name lists, and we even received calls from outside the church from people who couldn’t be here and said, “Please put my son or daughter on your list.” And by the way we have a list of maybe 30 and we are praying and fasting and seeking God until the prodigals come home. We’re taking this seriously because these prodigals need to come home.
I interviewed people at prayer meeting who had been prodigals because I wanted to know what this business of coming to your senses is. What does it take for a prodigal to finally say, “Okay, I give up? I surrender the weapons of a rebel no matter what it is. I am submitting to God and I’m coming back to God.” What is it that God has to put people through?
Let me give you one testimony of a man whose name is Bob. If he were here I’d interview him. Unfortunately he couldn’t be here today so he sent me his testimony, which I’ve summarized. He was brought up in a Christian home. That’s the background. He said, “I threw myself into a life of sin. I soon embarked on an adulterous relationship with a woman I met at work and several months later I moved to California hoping to put my past behind me once and for all.” He goes to the far country, and California is the far country, is it not? Alright.
“Although I never fell prey to the conventional addictions such as alcohol and drugs, for me the ultimate addiction was independence. I reveled in having absolute control over my life with no one to answer to for the choices I made. Master of my fate; captain of my soul! For the next 22 years that was the pattern of my life.
“During my years apart from God he brought health crises to wake me up, but it didn’t work. I refused to surrender. My life of sin was becoming less and less fulfilling every day. I can recall numerous times when I literally sobbed at how empty my life had become. Although I was never tempted to commit suicide, for the first time I could understand how someone could hurt enough to take that way out. There are some people who say, ‘Rather than come to God, I’d rather kill myself.’ I knew that the choices that I had made were responsible for the situation I was in but I saw no solution. I felt totally bound by my sin.”
I had lunch with someone this past week who said regarding his boss, “He has no idea of the chains of sin that bind him.” Wow!
And then he said he talked to a missionary and this awakened within him a desire to live differently. And then he says things were like this until October 19th last year. And the man is in his sixties. And whenever I interviewed him, those of you who were in prayer meeting will remember, he wept. He could hardly talk about the grace of God in his life. He had an allergy attack. He called for assistance. He passed out. He thought that this was the end. He was absolutely certain he was dying, and even though he lived, he said later to himself, “I just dodged another bullet. I can continue to ignore God.” Don’t you marvel at the stubbornness of the human heart? I mean I read this and I say, “Wow!”
All right! They discharged him and he began to realize that he was gambling with his soul and now he was scared. He said, “And still the bonds of sin were so strong that I was not willing to relent.” You know particularly those of you who are living in immorality, you know you are sleeping with your girlfriend because after all, you are going to get married anyway, and those of you who are in those kinds of sinful relationships it is tough for you to come to the Father because you know right well that when you come to God, God is going to not only forgive you but He’s going to try to clean you up. And quite frankly, the bonds of sin are such…. Listen to what he says.
“I was not willing to relent. For three days I wrestled with many questions. How could I give up the sin that provided the only enjoyment and fulfillment in my life? How do I do that? How could I expect God to forgive me and have me back? My only motivation at that point was to avoid hell. How could I hope to live a successful life when all of my previous attempts were a failure? During that long weekend (Here it is now. It finally gets good here.), God opened my eyes to the reality of my life. I saw clearly that my best efforts to achieve happiness on my own terms were dismal, a failure. I could only look forward to emptiness, death and eternal separation from God, and I realized - catch this – that the tremendous sacrifices I made were for the illusion of independence and control.” The illusion of independence!
It’s like that kid I told you about over at Water Tower Place that I saw! He was maybe two years old and he was in one of these little pushcarts that had a little steering wheel. And he’s steering this thing to the right and crying because he wants to go to the right. But his mother is just leading him gently to the left, and his steering wheel is not tied to anything that has significance. You know what I mean? (laughter) Listen, if you are living for sin you are not in control. Jesus said that you are the servant of sin. Sin tells you to do this and you do it. The illusion of control!
“Well, four days later,” he says, “on October 23rd, clinging to God’s promise and forgiveness and belief in Jesus, I cried up to God and He answered me with an overpowering sense of His presence and love. I now understood how He had refused to give up on me, how He had pursued me through many years despite my repeated rejection of His love and grace, and I surrendered the control of my life to Him.”
“And now,” he says, “my spiritual growth is stuck on fast forward,” and he thanks Moody Church and others who have helped him in the transformation of his life.
I just need to pause here today. How are you all doing out there? Are you tracking with me?
What will it take for some of you stubborn people to give yourself to God? What will it take? How many sermons are you going to have to listen to? How many songs are you going to have to sing before you say, “You know what? This is the illusion of my own control. I give myself to God.” What is it going to take? I’m only asking you the question. And you prodigals, hurry to the Father.
Well, you know the rest of the story. This kid says to himself, “I’m going back to my father because you know even his servants are better off than I am.” I wish he had had better motivation. I wish he had said, “You know I’m going to my father because I broke his heart.” No, the kid goes because he’s hungry. But the father is so gracious that he receives him anyway. And so he gives his speech and says, “I’ve sinned against heaven and against thee, and I am no more worthy to be called your son.” He can’t get out the last words, “Make me as a hired servant,” because his father is smothering him with kisses because the father is waiting. You see, the father lost all interest in the farm. He was constantly looking down the road. That’s why the Bible says that when the son was yet a great way off his father saw him and ran to him and kissed him.
The kid is saying, “I’m just a servant now,” and the father says, “Bring hither the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet. (Servants didn’t wear shoes.) And bring forth the fatted calf and kill it, for this my son was dead and is alive, and was lost and is found. Let’s have a party. Oh sure, there are some things we’re going to have to talk about tomorrow, but for tonight, let’s party.”
And you find that the elder brother, of course, was not amused. And the elder brother actually is the heart of the story. Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, “You know you are criticizing me for welcoming sinners and eating with the drunkards and the prostitutes and connecting with those kinds of people, and you are not rejoicing about the fact that these people are coming to the Father, and all that you can think of is why do they deserve such love and grace? You say, ‘Look at us; we’ve been in this church for 30 years. Look at what we’ve done and we don’t even have those kinds of blessings.’”
And you know what happened with the older brother. Even though he was a son, he lived like a slave. The father said, “Don’t you understand that everything I have is yours? Enjoy it. Throw your own party.” But legalists never do that, do they?
The bottom line, my friends, today is simply that the Father is waiting. The Father is God. And God has said, “I have made provision for you to come back home. I sent My Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for sinners so that if you receive Me and if you seek My forgiveness and My transformation I will accept you. All of the reluctance is on your part.”
How much does God love us? Well, Jesus stretched out His hands like this and said, “So much!” That’s how great the love of God is. The reluctance, the stubbornness is on your part. It’s not on God’s part because He is gracious and merciful and He is waiting for sinners just like you to come home, and He is saying, “How long are you going to hold out from My blessings? Don’t you know that sin is an illusion? Don’t you know that it boomerangs and the consequences come in? So hurry to the Father.”
Here’s one more letter from a prodigal. Now the thing about this prodigal is she was a girl brought up in a fine Christian home where there was love and acceptance, all right? Let me read her story.
She says, “When I was a teenager I made a very grave mistake. I ran away from home not like most rebellious kids run away from home for a night at a friend’s house but with a bag of clothes set on the porch. I really ran away,” she said. And I have to tell you in parenthesis that she had a number of children from various men along the way. The far country is a terrible place.
“For nearly three months no one knew where I was. I did not run away because I was treated badly. In fact, I was spoiled. I was not abused. I was not neglected in any way. I was constantly nurtured and encouraged in all areas of my life, but I guess in my radical teenage mind (listen teenagers) I felt that the few simple rules that I had been given were barring my freedom and keeping me from really seeing the world.” The illusion of independence!
“Well, when things were no longer fun (and now we’re talking about over a period of years) I called home nearly thirty years later.” She says, “I remembered my father’s loving response. I called him collect from a thousand miles away, sobbing on the other end of the line. He did not ask me to tell him the bad things I had done. He did not even ask me where I was at, or even if I was ready to come home. The first thing he said was, ‘What can I do to help you?’”
Now here’s a parenthesis. You parents of prodigals have to prepare your own heart for your prodigal to come home. You may be standing in the way of your prodigal coming back home. You know at prayer meeting, one woman said this. I mean, where could you find such beautiful insight? She stood up and she said, “You know, here’s my son over here. Here’s Jesus over here, but he can’t see Jesus because I am in the way with my critical spirit.” Isn’t that powerful? So why would the son want to come home with a critical, judgmental mother? She has to repent of her own sin and welcome her prodigal back.
Well anyway she says, “Many of us would not have received such a merciful response from our earthly parents. The prodigal’s father loaded him with blessings and yet he ran away.” She’s referring to that. And then she came back. She came back to her parents. Now she was married for part of the time and so forth. You know life is a mess when you get into the far country, and I will simply end by saying that she said, “Even if you have wasted all He has given you, He wants to bless you again.”
The father said to the prodigal that he would have the best robe and that he would put a ring on his hand, and she ended by saying, “It’s not too late, and even if you are far away, as soon as you make up your mind to come home, He will meet you. Angels celebrate your return,” which is true. Jesus said that even the angels celebrate when one soul repents.
Now I need to tell you the rest of the story. This woman came to Moody Church here with her father several months ago and she came because she had terminal cancer. And I was actually asked if I could do her funeral and would have been very glad to except that I was out of town when she died, so she is now in heaven. But at least the last years of her life were spent in fellowship with the father.
And what happens is God begins to take the messes and begins to send some snowfall to cover the ugly ruts and to begin to put your life together. The bottom line is this. God sent Jesus so that the vilest of sinners who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. Your bonds of sin are strong. Yes, but you know Jesus is there to forgive and to help and to restore you. So prodigals, whether you are saved or unsaved, those of you who are saved but backslidden, those of you who never have trusted Christ as Savior, you are a prodigal too. Come to the Father through Jesus Christ.
Now Father, what more can we say? Only You can overcome the blindness and the deceptions of our hearts, all the lies we tell ourselves that we so willingly believe. Who is there, Father, who is able to reach into the heart and deal with the anger that keeps a prodigal away from God? Who is there except You?
Now I want you to pray. No matter where you are listening to this message, whether on the radio, in the church, over the Internet, you talk to God right now.
Father, we throw ourselves hopelessly in Your presence, and simply say, “You do the work that we can’t.” We’ve done what we could do. We’ve rolled the stone away, but You need to say, “Lazarus, come forth.” Would You do that we pray in Jesus’ blessed name? Amen.