Theme: Works Will Always Catch Up to You…Mercy Will Never Let You Go
The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Our portion of that powerful word comes from Luke 15:11-32, which was read as our Gospel selection this morning.
In the name of our Savior, who has reconciled us with the Father, dear fellow redeemed.
Those of you who are parents or have been around young children know how exciting it is when they take their first steps. A child’s first steps are one of those joyful milestones of life, usually captured on camera or written down in the diary for remembrance. The first steps are monumental because once they get started, they never stop. With most kids, once they are able to walk, it doesn’t take long for them to go and to go quickly. It seems that as soon as they hit the ground, they are gone.
I remember this happening with my kids. Both of them, as soon as they could walk, couldn’t wait to get on their way. If I would be holding them or helping them out of the crib, they’d start pumping their little legs even before they hit the ground. It’s like the driver a sports car holding down the break while red lining the engine; as soon as they shift into gear, they are gone.
No parent is sad when their child takes his or her first steps. But what we often don’t realize is that first moment is only one highlight in a long line of events. Parents get to see their children take their first steps in many more ways than just the literal. Every achievement of life is little like learning how to walk. And just like those first steps, children usually can’t wait to keep going. Soon the first day of school arrives, then graduation from grade school, high school, and college. New steps are taken when they start their own career and build their own family. All along the way, they keep moving, faster and farther from those first steps they took.
It’s at this point that our heart strings are tugged a bit and feelings of sadness are mixed with those of joy. We relate with the emotions in the story of our text for today, in large part because many of us have experienced the same feelings. This parable is really all about a child who just kept going once he learned to walk. But it’s also about a father’s persistent love along the way. As we think of our own families God would also have us think of Him, as our heavenly Father. He gives us such an important message to remember as our legs begin to race and we can’t wait to get out into the world and live life. He wants us to remember: Works Will Always Catch Up to You…Mercy Will Never Let You Go.
We know the parable well and are familiar with the many truths that God teaches us through it. But perhaps there are also some things we don’t often consider. Before we get to the main purpose, we should first ask why the son wanted to leave? Why did he request his inheritance? Why didn’t he stay in his father’s house or even his country? Surely, he had good things there. He would never lack for anything. He would always have work and a family to love him. Why leave all that?
To understand God’s message through this man’s example, it’s good for us to analyze why he did what he did. In a word, I suppose we could say it was freedom that led the young man to leave. He wanted to see the world. He wanted to try new things. He wanted to live in independence. I don’t think we can say that the young man intended to squander his inheritance. I don’t think he had bad intentions from the start. He just wanted to live to the fullest extent under freedom that he had.
Surely, we can relate to this as well. I’m not talking about the freedom we have through finances or means, nor am I looking at the freedom have as citizens of America. When we consider the spiritual implications of this lesson it makes us think of the freedom we have in the gospel. The amazing message of salvation is the most liberating thing in the entire world. It frees us from the constraints of sin and the bondage of death. It loosens us from the suffocation of God’s righteous law. It opens to us a new realm of possibilities for us in life, especially in the ability to serve and glorify God’s name.
But perhaps just as amazing as the freedom of the gospel is the fact that God would choose to save us through such a means. It seems to run contrary that to be a follower of God would loosen restrictions, rather than add them. To human intuition it would seem impossible for anyone to be saved by free grace, without work or effort. And it feels counterintuitive that God would send His own Son to the cross and the grave to win a victory that is so easily abused by mankind.
Yes, to have freedom means to have the ability to abuse that freedom too, and sadly that happens all too often with the gospel. Our sinful hearts are inclined to run in our freedom. We are tempted to test the limits of this new found liberty that we have in Christ. At times, we take it for granted. We misuse it by relying on it as an excuse for sin. Like little children, we’re always looking to go, go, go. We’re running before we even hit the ground and sadly we often put as much space between ourselves and God as we can.
Part of basking in one’s freedom is living without care or concern. We sense that in the disposition of the son as he receives his inheritance and sets out from his father’s house. Everything is ahead of him; he feels as if he can do anything. But it doesn’t take long for the first lesson of the parable to ring true. Through foolish choices the young man squandered his livelihood. Everything that his father earned for him had now been wasted. His title is etched in history for all to remember, the prodigal, literally wreckless, son. As hopeful and optimistic as he was at the beginning of his freedom, he was now distressed and helpless. By his own fault, he found himself on the wrong end of freedom – the results of making careless decisions.
God reminds us through this to be wise in our pursuits and in how we use our possessions, because eventually our works will catch up to us. We are free to do what we please, but part of that means accepting responsibility for our choices too. It’s easy to see ourselves in the place of this first son, even if we don’t always like to admit it. There’s no shortage of ways that we have wasted the precious gifts, both physical and spiritual, which God has given us.
But the same warning of works applies equally to the second son. He’s the one that’s often overlooked in this parable. The first son may have been bolder; more apt to wear his emotions and desires on his sleeve, for all to see. The second son was really only different in appearances. He, too, had works that caught up to him, even though he kept them hidden. He didn’t leave his father’s house. He didn’t waste his inheritance. He was responsible and mature. But he still had a problem in his heart, a problem based on his works that eventually came to the surface. He believed that he was better than his brother and that he deserved better because of things he did. His assurance of favor from his father became a matter of what he did in comparison to his brother, rather than the fact that they were both children in the family.
In both sons we see the same problem, an over reliance on themselves. But in both cases we also see the same response from the father. Rather than dwelling on his son’s mistakes as a determinant of his favor for them; the father displayed mercy. His love for his children was not works based, but rather truth based. They were his sons, his blood heirs. That was the undeniable truth. No sorry lifestyle or arrogant attitude could change that. And for that reason he loved his sons no matter what, and a product of that love was patient correction that he showed them.
You see that the father’s mercy toward his son’s went hand in hand with the freedom they had. If at any time, the father relinquished his sons’ freedom, even to make mistakes, he would not have been operating by mercy, but by compulsion. The fact that his son’s both failed in their freedom gave the very backdrop that was needed to emphasize the father’s mercy, and that’s the theme of the entire parable because it is so greatly contrasted against the sins of both sons. With freedom still intact, even in moments of weakness, we can say the second part of our theme with complete certainty. Mercy will never let us go because we always live in freedom.
Dear friends, I hope you can clearly see the meaning of this parable for your lives. Yes, you know it speaks to you of God’s mercy and love but how does it do that? In what ways does it touch your life and affect your thoughts and actions, indeed your very relationship with God?
We see here the confession of a Christian, of someone who knew the truth ahead of time and lost it or severely damaged it. This parable is not about conversion; it’s about those who have the faith and squander it. It’s about us – the believers. We are the reckless and careless sons and daughters who were given our great inheritance from God the Father. We have tasted the beauty and joy of the gospel and therefore we know of the freedom we have. But we are children. We have the innate desire to test the limits of that freedom. We want to run as soon as we learn to walk. We want to see what God allows as soon as we come to know that He loves and forgives us.
Perhaps even more than the first, we see ourselves in the second son. We judge based on works. We compare our merits against others. We whine and complain that our father has not been as good to us as He has to those who don’t deserve it, all the while forgetting everyone is cut from the same cloth, all believers are from the same family. We get so used to living under the shadow of our Father’s mercy that we forget it’s there; we forget that it applies to the beggar, to the proud, to the rich, to the immature, and to the foolish equally.
Our plea should continually be the same as the first son, even though it takes great courage and faith to honesty believe it: Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son. We should believe the same thing each time we confess our sins. We should make that statement with the same honesty. We do not deserve God’s inheritance anymore. We do not deserve to be called His children. Is that what you think of when you confess your sins? Or do you casually fall in line while still hanging on to your pride in your heart?
Friends, it’s okay to be honest with ourselves and with God. Honesty, though, is a lot more than having the right words, or in our case as a church, having a solid confession based on the Bible. True honesty is about the heart. What we really mean, regardless of the words that come out of our mouth. And it’s okay to be brutally honest because we are under our Father’s mercy, and that’s a gift that will never let us go. The question is, have we starved enough to see it? Have we fed on the pods of the world enough to recognize the difference? Do we hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness? Or are we running from the truth? Remember: Your works will always catch up to you. You can’t outrun them. The truth is the truth. You can’t change it. But just as much as that applies to your sin and its consequences, it also applies to God’s love. Your Father’s mercy will never let you go.
That’s right, God has you. You are his. He holds you in His hand. To the skeptic that sounds like the opposite of freedom. It sounds like oppression; like God has grabbed us up and keeps us in the crib of His Word without letting us run on our own. But the miracle of God’s mercy is that He has provided a way to pay for your sins that did not demand giving up your freedom. Because He offered up His own Son in your place, God holds the claim to your life. He owns it because He bought it back from the dead on the cross. But He didn’t do that for you to be a slave. He did it for you to be His child. Even after everything He went through for you, He still gives you freedom. You can never get to a place where His mercy doesn’t have claim to you, but you’re also never forced to trust it and to believe it.
As sons and daughters of our Father, who get lost often in our lives, we remember the hope that we share with King David, from Psalm 51:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart-- these, O God, You will not despise.
Whether you’ve strayed in body or in soul, the time is now to come back home. If you think you can keep on running in life and not worry about sin, don’t be foolish. Works will always catch up to you and your works will never stand before God. But if you’re tired and weary from running don’t despair. There’s no where you can go, in this life, where God’s mercy does not exist. To those who are repentant, God will never turn away. But this life is not forever. The time to believe is now. But be of good cheer. You are free. Keep running, but not away from God, but for God. No matter where you go, His mercy will never let you go.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.