INTRODUCTION Scripture: 1 John 4:7-12; Luke 15:11-32
His name was Kurt. He was the stocker at the local supermarket. He was hard at work back in the stockroom, when he heard the sound of a new voice on the supermarket P.A. system. The delicate voice was calling for a carryout at register number four. Kurt was almost finished in the stockroom and was ready for some fresh air, so he responded to the call. As he approached the checkout stand, a gorgeous smile caught his eye. The new employee behind the register was a stunningly beautiful young woman. Their eyes met, and Kurt fell head over heels in love!
At the end of the day, Kurt waited by the punch clock to get another look at her. After she punched out, he looked at her card and discovered that her name was Brenda. As Kurt left the store, he saw her walking up the road. Now, he knew three things about her: her name was Brenda, she didn't have a car, and he desperately wanted to take her out.
The next day, he waited outside as Brenda left the supermarket and offered her a ride home. He looked harmless enough, so she accepted. When he dropped her off, he asked if he might take her out to dinner and a movie sometime. She said that that would not be possible. He pressed, and she explained that she would like to go out with him, but she couldn't because she had two children and couldn't afford a babysitter.
Kurt offered to pay for the babysitter, and finally she agreed to go out with him the following Saturday night. But when he arrived at her front door on Saturday night, she had a sad expression on her face. She said she wouldn't be able to go because the babysitter had just called and canceled. To which Kurt replied, "Well, let's just take the kids with us. I'll help you with them. I'm pretty good with kids!"
She tried to explain that taking the children was not an option, but again, not taking no for an answer, Kurt asked if he could meet the children. Finally, Brenda brought him inside. She had a little girl, just as cute as she could be. Then Brenda brought out her son in a wheelchair. He had been born a paraplegic with Down syndrome. Kurt said, "Your children are great! Let's take them with us."
Brenda was absolutely amazed. Most men in Kurt's position would have run away from a woman with two children, especially if one of them had disabilities. That evening, Kurt and Brenda loaded up the children and went to dinner and a movie. Kurt was great with the children. When her son needed anything, Kurt would take care of him. Both of the children loved Kurt, and at the end of the evening, Brenda knew that she wanted to marry this man and spend the rest of her life with him. A year later they were married, and Kurt adopted both of her children. Since then, they have added two more children of their own.
Now, you may be wondering what happened to Kurt and Brenda. I mean, how in the world could they support themselves and four children on a supermarket stocker's salary? Well, fortunately, Kurt got another job offer. The family had to move to St. Louis in order for him to take this job, but it was worth the move, because he did get a better salary. You see, Kurt's full name is Kurt Warner; he became a professional quarterback for the St. Louis Rams!
Now, the question that explodes out of this story is this: Where did Kurt Warner learn to love sacrificially and graciously like that? You know the answer, don't you? He learned it from the church. He learned it from the Scriptures. He learned it from God.
Recently, I was speaking at a church campground. A young man there was wearing a T-shirt. The T-shirt was bright yellow, and on the front of it were printed these words: If God Has a Refrigerator, Your Picture Is on It! I went over to the young man and said, "I like your T-shirt! "
His face lit up with a big smile, and he said, "Do you know what it means?"
"Well," I said, "my hunch would be that it means that God loves us the way parents love their children; that God is not some angry, vengeful deity, demanding his pound of flesh; that God is not some impersonal computer who rewards us when we do good and punishes us when we do bad; but rather, that God is like that father in the prodigal son parable (Luke 15:11-32), who excitedly runs down the road to meet us, to love us, to forgive us, to redeem us, to celebrate us, to hug us, and to welcome us into the circle of his gracious love."
And the young man in front of me looked down at his T-shirt, smiled, and said, "Cool!"
Our refrigerator at home is covered with pictures of our children and grandchildren. Every time we go to the refrigerator (and I go there a lot!), there they are-those beautiful, magnetized, visible reminders of how much we love our children and grandchildren, and how incredibly precious they are to us. The Scriptures tell us that God loves us like that-and then some!
It is crucial to note that when Jesus decided to give us the best picture he could think of to describe God, he said that God is like a loving parent-a devoted, caring, compassionate parent who loves us unconditionally, who forgives us unreservedly, who celebrates us unashamedly. Now, I know that, sadly, some parents aren't like that. Sadly, some parents don't do those things. But, Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son to show us what God is like, to show us dramatically and graphically that God is like a devoted, caring parent who loves us unconditionally, who forgives us unreservedly, and who celebrates us unashamedly.
Let's look together at these three wonderful qualities of our gracious God, who, if he has a refrigerator, has on it your picture and mine.
FIRST OF ALL, GOD LOVES US UNCONDITIONALLY The key to finding the truth of a parable is to look for the surprise in it. The surprise for the listeners who first heard Jesus tell the story in Luke 15: 11-32 was the unconditional love of the father. As Jesus would come to the part of the story that describes the prodigal's homecoming, the first-century audience would fully expect the father either to reject the prodigal son altogether or, at best, to put strong conditions on the son's return to the family. Listeners expected the father to say, "I don't know you! You are dead to me! You are not a part of this family anymore! /I or at least to say, "Well, you can come back on probation, /I or "You can be one of my hired hands, but not my son, until you have met certain conditions." Even the prodigal son himself expected to hear that! Remember his confession: "Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
You can just picture in your mind the image of those first-century listeners, rubbing their hands together and saying, "Boy, oh boy, is that prodigal son going to get it now! His father is going to rip into him and set him straight!" Imagine their surprise, their disbelief, their shock, when told by Jesus that the father instead ran down the road to meet the prodigal. With his robes flapping in the wind, the father couldn't wait to get to him. He ran to welcome his son home and to love him back into the family. Some of those people in that first century audience may have fainted on the spot! Some of them probably grumbled about this newfangled idea. They were not expecting unconditional love.
Let me tell you about another little boy who got into trouble one day, some years ago. His name was David Leroy. He grew up in a small town near the Sabine River in Louisiana. His father owned the grocery store in that little town and had saved money for years so that he could purchase for the family a brand-new 1928 Buick. It was their prize possession. Even though David Leroy was only eleven years old at the time, he loved to drive the car around in the yard. Of course, since he was only eleven, he never took it out on the road, but he looked for every excuse to drive that 1928 Buick. He would move it from one shady spot to the next in the yard of the old home place.
One morning, David Leroy's mother announced that she needed to take the clothes to the cleaners. "I'll move the car around for you, Mom!" said David Leroy, and before Mom could protest, he was out the door. The car was in the garage. David Leroy was so excited as he rushed to bring the car around to the front for his mother that he forgot to close the driver's side door. And as he backed out, the open door smacked against the garage's entryway. The car door ripped completely off, and with a sickening thud, it fell to the ground! Can you imagine? David Leroy had knocked the door off of the family's brand-new 1928 Buick! His mother was--how shall I put this? - not happy! "Look what you've done, young man! You just wait 'til your father gets home. He is so proud of that car, and you've ruined it. I'll intercede for you the best I can, but I don't know what in the world your father is going to say or do about this! "
David Leroy's father arrived home just in time for supper. David Leroy chose not to eat that night. Somehow, he wasn't hungry at all! Rather, he stood sheepishly out of sight, just outside the door of the kitchen, and listened to his mother as she told his father what had happened. David Leroy was braced and ready, expecting the worst. But he was surprised by his father's response.
"Well, you're right, Ruby," said Dad. "The car is precious to me, but not as precious as David Leroy. Just as you said, he didn't mean to do it. He was trying to help. We can get the car fixed. The main thing is that no one got hurt. He's our son, and he must feel awful right about now. We just need to love him through this."
You know why David Leroy's father responded like that, don't you? Because he loved his son unconditionally. Where did he learn to love like that? He learned it from Jesus. By the way, David Leroy survived that mishap and grew up to become one of the great preachers of America, D. L. Dykes! When Dr. Dykes later reminisced about the day he knocked the door off the family's 1928 Buick, he said, "Mom interceded for me, and Dad forgave me; and I learned a lot from them that day about what God is like. I learned from them that day the meaning of grace, and it is indeed amazing. I learned from them the meaning of unconditional love."
That's number one: God loves us unconditionally.
SECOND, GOD FORGIVES US UNRESERVEDLY That's what we see here in the parable of the prodigal son. The father forgives the son freely, graciously, generously, with no reservation. Some time ago, a young woman came to see me. She had done something wrong. She had been living a sordid lifestyle, and she knew it. She admitted it. She described it to me in lurid detail. She was penitent, but haunted. "I've asked God to forgive me, but how can I know I'm forgiven?" she said. "How could God ever forgive me for what I've done?"
I said, "Because Jesus told us that God is like a loving father." She didn't seem convinced, so I said to her, "Imagine that I am your father, and you have just told me all of the things you have done, with all of the shady details. I would have two choices. I could say, 'Get out of my sight. I disown you. I don't ever want to see you again.' Or I could say, 'I'm so sorry this has happened, but I love you with all my heart. Let me help you make a new start with your life.' "
I let that idea sink in, and then I asked, "Which one of those things do you think I would say if you were my daughter?" The young woman replied, "The second one." "Why?" I asked. She said, "Because you are a father, and you love your children." And I said, "Listen! If I'm capable of that kind of forgiveness, how much more is our Father God?"
This is what Jesus taught us-that God is like a devoted, caring parent who loves us unconditionally and who forgives us unreservedly.
THIRD AND FINALLY, GOD CELEBRATES US UNASHAMEDLY Can't you just see that father in the parable, running down the road with this incredible look of joy and relief on his face? He doesn't care what the neighbors will say. All he cares about is that his son was lost and now is found. Reports had come back to the farm that the young man might be dead, and now here he is, home, alive and well.
Some years ago in a small town in West Tennessee, a baby boy was born out of wedlock. As he grew up, life was tough for him. Some children were not allowed to play with him. He was shunned on the playgrounds. People whispered behind his back and called him ugly names. He felt rejected and worthless and lonely. However, on his own, when he got to high school, he started going to church. People were nice to him, but he felt self-conscious, so he stayed in the background.
But then one Sunday morning, as he was leaving the sanctuary, he heard the pastor call his name. He stopped and turned to hear the pastor say those words he had come to dread: "Whose boy are you, anyway?" The young man froze in place, felt his whole body tense up, and wished that he could disappear. But then the pastor said, "Hey, I know who you are! I know who you belong to! I can see it now. I see the family resemblance. You are a child of God. I can tell by the way you act that you are close kin to God."
The boy was speechless. The pastor put his big hands on the boy's shoulders and said to him, "Son, you have a great heritage. Now you go out there into the world and claim it." Do you know what that pastor was saying to that boy? He was saying, in effect, "If God has a refrigerator, your picture is on it!"
By the way, that brief incident changed the boy's life. It gave him a new identity, a new sense of worth and purpose. It turned his life around. Because he felt so loved by God, he stopped waiting around for others to love him. He started reaching out to others. Later, he became a great governor of the state of Tennessee, because that day he realized that God loves us unconditionally, forgives us unreservedly, and celebrates us unashamedly (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001], pp. 156-57). And he realized that "since God love[s] us so much, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11).