This sermon is for the sister who hangs up with her brother in tears because he's rejected her, her love, and her message of hope in Christ.
This sermon is for the husband who has given up trying to drag his wife to church, and the grandmother who has brought her grandkids to Sunday school faithfully and watched them fall away, and the father who has seen his sons reject Gospel truth and become disciples of Bill Maher.
This sermon is for all of us who love someone who will not or cannot share our faith.
This sermon is for the prodigal fathers.
When I read Luke 15 this week, I didn't identify with the younger son,
The way I did when I felt for the first time my sin, guilt, and estrangement from God.
I didn't identify with the older son,
The way I have when I feel self-righteous and whiny, telling God about how much I've given up to serve him.
This time when I read Luke 15 I felt the pain of the prodigal father.
While this parable is usually called "the prodigal son,"
As the word "prodigal" means "uncontrolled," "reckless," or "extravagant,"
This has been called the parable of the prodigal father,
Who is uncontrolled, reckless, extravagant, prodigal, in his love for his son.
He lavishes the undeserving child with honor, his ring, his robe, killing the fatted calf;
He calls him his "teknon," in Greek, "little child."
You could translate his words, "my baby has come back to me."
The father's love is boundless. He loses all dignity as he weeps over his beloved child, once thought dead, now come home.
We get to see the beauty of this love.
Jesus shows us the end of the story.
But what if we were to see that father in the middle of the story?
What if we were to observe him on an ordinary day, one of the hundreds, thousands of days of waiting for a son who would probably never return?
The son, in asking for his father's estate, had effectively said "you're dead to me," and left home.
No rational person would ever expect that boy to come home.
He had rejected the love of his father.
If we read the parable as a story of God's love for his children, he's rejected the love of God.
He is the person who has said, "God is dead to me."
Natalie Bolz Weber, who blogs as "The Sarcastic Lutheran," notes the vulnerability of God in this parable.
God allows the child to waste the estate.
God allows his children to waste our lives, to pollute our bodies, to abuse his creation, to reject his love and burn through our inheritance.
God allows his children to spit in his face and wish him dead.
Because that's love.
Love that is forced, obligatory, not freely given is not love at all.
Love has to allow the beloved the possibility of rejection.
I believe that hell, in some form, exists because if God truly loves us, he will allow us the possibility to hate him and abandon him completely.
And if that is true, then God also experiences that separation and abandonment.
Does God feel the pain of his separation from us?
I believe God does.
If you feel the pain of having a child, a sibling, a spouse, who cannot believe,
If for you, that is one of the great tragedies of your life,
Then how could God possibly fail to feel that pain?
We hear the pain of the Father in Hosea 11,
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them….
7 My people are determined to turn from me."
God feels the pain of rejection.
When you worry, when you hurt, because people you love do not realize how deeply God loves them,
When your heart breaks because someone you love chooses a different path,
Know that God is with you in that pain.
Like the father who watched his son walk away.
Before the father showed his extravagant love with extravagant joy,
I believe that father felt an extravagant pain.
For each day of rejoicing at a son come home, there were hundreds and thousands of days when the father feared his son was dead.
Thousands of days with no communication, no contact,
Thousands of days for the father to hear those words of hate echo in his memory,
Thousands of days for the father to work the fields with his older son, with an invisible wound left where his younger son had left him broken.
Jesus skips those days.
The only hint is when Jesus says that the father saw his son from afar off.
And I only see that hint because of my father.
You see, I have a prodigal father, an extravagant dad,
A father who embarrassed me in the cheering section at Math Olympics when I was eight,
And embarrassed me on the sidelines of my track meets in high school,
And embarrasses me on Sunday mornings now with his prodigal love.
And it was he who said to me, do you know why that father saw his son from afar off?
Because every single day, that father was watching down the road.
Watching, and waiting.
Though he had no reason to watch.
Though he had no cause to wait.
Though his hope was entirely irrational, he watched.
And he waited.
And my father said, do you know why that father came running from afar off?
He said, "any one of you kids, I can see it's you, from the way you walk, from the back of your head, from the shape of your shadow I would know you."
The Father watches.
The Father waits.
What is the very first description of love in 1 Corinthians 13?
Love is patient.
God is patient.
We are called to patience.
One thing I recognized this time reading Luke 15 is that the father does not go searching for his son.
Even though the shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for the one that is lost,
In this parable the father stays home.
And there's a message there.
Sometimes, God doesn't run after us.
Sometimes God waits.
And sometimes we are called to wait for God's children to see the light.
You can tell your child, your wife, your sister all your reasons for believing.
You can preach, you can give them books, you can invite them to church.
But then you have to wait.
Maybe one day he'll fall in love with a godly woman and she'll lead him to the truth.
Maybe when she holds her newborn child she'll see that he's truly a miracle.
Maybe on his deathbed he'll finally see the God who has loved him all along.
Like the waiting father, we can only hold on to an irrational hope that the child will come home.
Waiting is faith.
Waiting is trust that God will act in God's timing, not in ours.
In the black church they say, "He may not come when you want him, but he'll be there right on time."
2 Peter puts it this way: "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
In other words, have patience with God, because he's patient with us.
Jesus has not yet returned because there are people God is waiting on to repent.
God can't give us our full inheritance yet because he's still waiting on that younger son.
But if you love your brother, your husband, your wife,
If you love your sister, your grandson, your child,
If you would do anything for them to know God,
Don't you think God will do anything to for them to know him too?
Do you think anything could stand in God's way?
Could anything stop this extravagant, uncontrolled, prodigal love,
The extravagant love that exploded in creation
And set the planets spinning,
The extravagant love that carved the Grand Canyon
And poured Niagra falls,
Wove the wings of the butterfly
And taught the whale to sing?
That extravagant love that somehow used ordinary people like me and my husband,
And our ordinary, imperfect, selfish, impure, mixed-motive love,
To create a miracle like my son,
With his eyelashes, thin as paper, his tiny, blue veined hands, his smile, that when it breaks forth, is like the sun when it rises?
That extravagant love that created the universe,
It will never stop waiting.
It will never give up.
So you don't give up either.
When you pray for that sibling, that spouse, that child, that friend,
Maybe even that prodigal parent,
Keep hoping with an irrational hope.
Keep working in your father's field.
Keep watching down the road.
And trust the prodigal Christ when he tells you one day, that child will come home.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.