After spending his inheritance on the pleasures of sin, the prodigal son learned that the broad road really does lead to destruction. Having found that sin provides no ultimate satisfaction, he saw tragedy become opportunity as he realized that his father was his only refuge. Reflecting on this parable, Alistair Begg points out that like the prodigal son, each of us has also gone astray. With no basis on which to plead our defense, our only hope is found in God’s grace.
Father, as we prepare to study the Bible together, we need to hear your voice, far beyond the voice of a mere man. We thank you that the Bible is a living book; it searches us out. So search us out, we pray. “Speak, Lord, in the stillness while we wait on thee; hushed our hearts, to listen in expectancy”—not because of what we expect to hear from a man about the Bible, but because of what we want to hear from the Bible through a man. And in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
I invite you to turn to Luke chapter 15. We are going consecutively and systematically through the Gospel of Luke in these studies, and we left off last time having begun the story of the father’s love expressed in his compassion towards his two wandering sons—one who was wandering in a distance, and one who was wandering close up. And we’ll read from Luke 15:11:
“Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.
“‘Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“‘When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. [And] I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” So he got up and went to his father.
“‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
“‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.’”
If we were to ask one another this morning to recall places in our lives that have been marked by significance, I’m sure it would be a quite fascinating exercise. Certain individuals may recall, for example, the garden in which they had labored so long to make so beautiful and had to leave behind; others, the church in which they were married all those long years ago; for some, a cemetery where they had laid to rest a loved one or a military colleague; for some, the bus stop at which they stood routinely, waiting for the arrival of their conveyance; a fish and chip shop in Scotland outside of which you stood, eating the money that was supposed to be used for your bus fare, and then having to walk a mile and a half with exceptionally greasy fingers to arrive late for your piano lesson (if you can pick up any autobiographical note in that, you’re a very discerning group); for some of us, “where we spent our tenth anniversary,” “where he gave me that ring,” “where he proposed to me”—there would be a whole host of things.
But I’d be very, very surprised if any of us said, “The one place that I remember is the pigsty—a pigsty.” Of course, it’s an interesting congregation, and I wouldn’t hold out against the possibility that a number of you do have supreme recollections that are directly related to a pigsty somewhere. Because
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed,
Some for good and some for better,
Some have gone and some remain.
All those places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are buried;
In my life, I remember them all.
And I think this young man would have been quite happy to play that Lennon and McCartney song. He certainly would have been able to identify with its sentiment. When he had set off taking all that he had, all that had fallen to him, he knew that he had a great and glorious future in front of him—at least, he believed so. If anyone had said on the day of his departure, “Within a relatively short time you will be broke, you’ll lose your money, you’ll lose your friends, you’ll lose your sense of self-esteem,” he would have said, “You’re absolutely crazy.” And yet look at him now. Verse 15: hired out to a citizen of the country to which he went and sent into the fields to feed pigs. But note carefully, if we had asked him in years to come about that place in his life, he would have said, “You know, that pigsty, my place of deepest distress, actually proved to be the location of my most delightful life-changing discovery.”
But try and picture him in your mind as Jesus describes him here: standing in the midst of all of these pigs, having “spent everything.” It wasn’t a very good time to be broke, because his own personal circumstances combined with the location and the famine around him only underscored his predicament. We might have thought that the friends that he had made in the fairly riotous time that he’d been spending would have stood up for him in the extremity in which he finds himself, but the staggering phrase at the end of verse 16 is very clear: “long[ing] to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”
Now, we saw that when he left his father’s home, as Jesus tells this story, it was a planned departure. He apparently had been looking forward to getting out from underneath the framework of his father—no more interference, no more resistance, no more intrusion upon the great horizon of his life which he expected; just “Give me, give me, and let me go.” Apparently, it was a permanent departure, as we noted in verse 13, because he “got together all he had.” He didn’t leave anything in his bedroom—none of his stuff, none of his medals, none of his athletic achievements, none of his photographs, none of his clothes, nothing. He got together everything that he had, and he left: “I’m gone, and I’m not coming back.”
Now, remember in all of our study of this that Jesus is telling a story here in order to describe the way in which men and women, in their rebellion and in their indifference, turn their back on God-Father and walk away, out down the road of their lives, to please themselves. Jesus in his teaching has been very, very careful, as we’ve noted through Luke’s Gospel, to make application to different groups in relationship to their needs. So, recorded for us at the end of chapter 14 are the words of warning which Jesus extends to those who are just heedless in their enthusiasm. “Large crowds”—verse 25—“were traveling with Jesus.” If we’d gone amongst the crowds, we would have said, “Why are you doing this?” They say, “Well, we like to come. It’s quite dramatic. You never know when Jesus is going to do a miracle. You never know when he’s going to give just a zinger of a sermon. And quite frankly, we’d been drifting in any case, and so we decided we’ll just drift here rather than drift there.”
Jesus, of course, is not interested in having people just drift behind him. And so he turns to these heedless enthusiasts and he issues them a striking word of warning. They must have pinned their ears back remarkably when he said to them, “By the way, just to let you know, those of you who’ve been following me now in this crowd: if you plan on coming to me and do not hate your father and your mother and your wife and your children and your brothers and your sisters and even your own life, you can’t actually be one of my disciples.” Now, what was he saying there? He was saying that to follow Christ is the singular priority. It demands our supreme attention. It demands our ultimate devotion. And our devotion to Christ is to be so strong that our love even for those nearest and dearest to us, in Hebraic terms, would be regarded as frankly hateful in comparison to the extent of our love for Jesus.
And some of you are here this morning, and you just are wandering in the footsteps of Christ. ’Course, I don’t know who you are; you know who you are, and Jesus knows who you are. You’ve begun to wander in, and we’re delighted that you’re here. But we want you to hear what Jesus is saying to the large crowd that is beginning to follow him: “Don’t think that just because you’ve wandered into the company of my disciples that that makes you a disciple. Listen very carefully,” says Jesus, “to what I’m saying, so that you might become my disciple.”
Now, when you get to the fifteenth chapter, it flips to the other side, and he gives, then—having given a word of warning to those who are heedless in their enthusiasm—he gives a word of hope to those who are honest in their penitence. Now this, of course, really frustrated the Pharisees. Because the Pharisees believed essentially in salvation by isolation, or salvation by segregation. “There are all these bad people around in the world,” they said, “and we must take the higher ground and get above them and away from them. Don’t play with their kids, don’t welcome them into your homes, don’t deal with them in business, and certainly don’t respond to any of their invitations.”
And so, this Jesus of Nazareth, this rabbi from Nazareth, this teacher of the people of Israel, “If he were anything in relationship to the truths of the Messiah we’ve considered from of old,” these Pharisees reasoned, “he certainly wouldn’t be with these people.” Of course, they fail to understand the wonder of what God is doing in the Lord Jesus. And it’s not a commendation they utter when they say, “This man welcomes sinners and [he] eats with them.” And as we saw last time, of course he does. And so, Jesus was eating with the sinners; the young man was not eating with the pigs.
Now, what I want you to notice is a phrase in verse 14; it essentially is the place of our departure for this morning: “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in [the] whole country, and he began to be in need.” “He began to be in need.” Doubtless, this was a new experience for this young man. Certainly, the circumstances that were his home life would appear to be able to provide for him everything that he wanted. Not everybody could say to their father, “Give me the portion of goods that falls to me,” and have their inheritance granted them, and go very far at all. Not everybody is waiting on a windfall when their father passes on. Certainly, my children are not getting one from me; I’ve already determined. It’s costing me enough looking after them right now. Once I get finished with that, I might give it all away or spend in on myself for a few years and die penniless, you know. You say, “You need some help on that.” I probably do, but I’m just being honest at this point. So, in other words, when they got what was coming to them, they say, “We can hardly make it to Cleveland Heights.”
So this man had never known need. Right? But now he knows need. He was the party guy. He was the one who apparently was able to come into town and make it all happen. He was like the tragic story of the young man in the New York Times this week, from the business college in New York state—the twenty-four-year-old who killed the other young student, carried him around in the trunk of his Range Rover for seven days, deposited him in a storage unit for five days, took him back out of the storage unit, and buried him underneath the barbecue in his backyard of his Long Island home. And as the story has unfolded this week, it is clear that this young man—a twenty-four-year-old son of a prominent Atlanta businessman—has never known need. He was able to take an apartment in Times Square for New Year and invite all of his friends to come. He could provide it all. But his tragic circumstances this morning in some penitentiary or in some custodial setup say he’s now in need. He’s not driving his Range Rover, and he is not drinking with his friends, and he’s in need. It’s a moment of great opportunity for him. It’s a moment of great tragedy for his family—the kind of tragedy and opportunity that is described in this little phrase: look at this young man, so full of himself in his arrival, so empty now as he finds himself—verse 17—“starving to death.”
Now, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that although “he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating … [nobody] gave anything,” and apparently he didn’t eat the stuff? What if he had ate the stuff? What if he had begun to eat pig food? What if the people had come along with just enough bags of chips and a couple of sandwiches to keep him comfortable in the pigsty? For not everyone who finds themselves in a predicament such as this discovers it to be a springboard to freedom. For some individuals, it becomes quicksand, sucking them into ever deeper degradation. Therefore, it is not a foregone conclusion that because an individual comes to an end of themselves that they will inevitably say, “Aha! I need God. I need to get to my Father.”
And you may have come to an end in yourself. Oh, it may be disguised by your income. It may be disguised by your home. “Pigsty” for you equals a very lovely home, a significant job, and the ability to travel—but it’s still a pigsty. But there’s just enough to handle it for the moment that there’s no reason to go out and to cry about things. The young man lost his money, lost his freedom, lost his self-respect, but he refuses to dehumanize himself, and he decides to stay hungry; the hunger gnaws at his soul, and it keeps him thinking, and it keeps him searching.
Is that you this morning, thinking and searching? Let me tell you, for those of you who are thinking and searching, that the Bible makes it very clear that sin provides no ultimate satisfaction. Sin provides no ultimate satisfaction. And this young man’s circumstances portray it clearly. That is not to say that sin provides no satisfaction or provides no pleasure, for clearly it does. The Bible actually teaches that it does. It doesn’t hold it out on offer; it just explains that it does.
If we knew it from nowhere else, we would know it from the story of Moses, when the writer of the Hebrews says of the decision that Moses makes in his adult life that he chose to suffer affliction “with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.” There is immediate gratification in sin—bringing with it its own pain, bringing with it the fact of our having disobeyed God, but nevertheless. You know, if you want to have a candy bar that isn’t yours, you can steal it and immediately enjoy the sugar fix that it gives you. You will live with the implications of what you did, but it is a pleasurable sensation. If you’re a self-righteous snob that likes to look down on everyone, there is immediate gratification in being a self-righteous snob, because you have that moment where you can just look down on everyone. If you’re a junkie, there is satisfaction in the immediacy of the fix. If you’re an adulterer, there is satisfaction in the illicit relationship, in the immediacy of what it conveys to you. But in the long run, there is no ultimate satisfaction.
And this is, of course, what we long to say to men and women. This broad road really does lead to destruction. You don’t have to be a heinous sinner; you can just be a nice sinner, with your fingernails cut and clean, with your cuffs starched and white, with your initials monogrammed on the cuff, with your office tidy—and yet, in the very core of your being, this little upper-middle-class sinner finds no ultimate satisfaction. It’s like drinking salt water. It cannot eventually satisfy. Sin’s ability both to interest a person and to satisfy a person very quickly runs out.
And, of course, there’s every illustration of it, isn’t there? I talk to my friends, some of them who went deep into drugs. When they started smoking pot, they said, “Pot is nothing, it takes you nowhere.” But it wasn’t enough for them, for they wanted to get high. And that actually made them kind of low. And somebody said, “This is high,” and somebody said, “This is higher,” and somebody said, “This is higher still,” and they’re in the grip now of total enslavement. And there is no ultimate satisfaction.
If you talk to those who’ve been caught in the realm of pornography, they will tell you the same thing: there’s not a picture this man can look at now that means a thing to him, because it has taken him further and further and further and further into a sordid quest that cannot satisfy. The liar can never get to an end of his lies. The proud can never get to the end of their pride. The bitter can never get to the end of their bitterness. There is no ultimate satisfaction in sin. It’s a stupid idea. And that’s why we labor to say to our young people, pragmatically, “This is a dumb way to go. This is a silly way to go. Don’t go this way.”
“Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me. I don’t want to hear this anymore. I don’t want to hear about the law, I don’t want to hear about the framework of life, I don’t want to hear about the principles, I don’t want to hear about ‘God first,’ I don’t want to hear about Jesus. Just give me some cash and let me get out of here.”
“Well, son, it’s a broad road, and it’ll lead you to destruction.”
“I frankly don’t care. And I frankly don’t believe you. Let me go.”
And in the pigsty, he discovers that his problem is not that he’s run out of food, but that he has run out on his father. Not that he’s run out on food, but that he’s run out on his father. He’s now discovered what Augustine, that other great prodigal, made so perfectly clear. And if you’ve never read the Confessions of Augustine, it would be a good summertime read. The Penguin Classic is useful; you’ll find it in any decent bookstore. And Augustine, in the midst of it all, says, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” For this reason, all of our attempts to live without God ultimately creates for us an existence that is poor and is a shoddy substitute for all that God intends. If you and I try and live without God, no matter how good we may try and get it, it will not deal with that central angst within our souls—what Pascal refers to as that God-shaped void within the core of man.
Earlier this year, having the privilege to sit with some of those professional golfers in leading them in a Bible study before the Masters, and sitting in a room with this little semicircle of multimillionaires, it struck me so forcibly: these men know there is nothing at the end of this road. You turn and look at Bernhard Langer there, the young German professional: Masters winner twice, and he takes the green jacket for the second time, and he puts it on, and he walks out of the door and he says, “It’s nothing.” And he goes back to his wife and he says, “Why do I feel the way I feel? I’m the Masters champion. I’m at the very apex of everything.” And she who, along with her friends, has been involved in a Bible study and praying for this man, turns to him and says, “Listen, your heart is restless until it finds its rest in God,” and suddenly the penny drops and he said, “That’s it!” Now he plays golf to the glory of God! It doesn’t make his golf game any better—it may have got a little worse—but he understands what the dickens he’s doing: he is trying to get the ball in the hole to the glory of God.
The same way that you may be a very successful medical person here this morning—you give injections, there’s immediate benefit to that—but you don’t know why you’re doing it. And your heart is restless. Your teaching that you began in, with this great flush of enthusiasm—you were going to change the world through these kids, and these kids are killing you. Your lessons that you thought were brilliant are average, and your abilities are less than you really imagined. And worse than that, you’re saying, “What’s the point of all of this?” See, your heart is restless until you find your rest in God.
You could put the CD in, or the MP3, and you play your music, and you lie on your bed, and you look up at the ceiling, and you say, “I’m restless.” Of course you are! God made you for himself, and you’ve turned your back on him. “There’s none that seeketh after God, no, not one. All of us have gone astray.” By our very nature we are prodigal sons and daughters. The only question is the extent to which we have drifted from the Father’s house.
No matter how far he tried to run from his father’s home, he couldn’t shake his father from his mind. And no matter how far we try to live from God, we still live with a residual awareness of his existence, and also of his interest in us. And even the most atheistic in our world have been prepared to acknowledge that. Sartre, the French philosopher, who was himself an avowed atheist, declared on one occasion, “That God does not exist, I cannot doubt, but that my whole being cries out for God, I cannot deny.” So, the ultimate dilemma: “My soul cries out for a God that I believe does not exist.”
Now, look at the progression in this young man’s life. Up there in verse 13, he “got together all he had.” And then he “spent everything”—verse 14. And then, at the end of 14, he “began to be in need.” And then, in verse 15, he got a job. And then, in verse 16, he “longed” to eat pig food. And then, in verse 17, “He came to his senses.” I love that little phrase: “[And] when he came to his senses…”
Actually, I like it better in the King James Version, where it says, “And when he came to himself…” Because it fits the twenty-first-century quest, you know. You talk to people in cafés, and you say, “What are you doing?” They say, “I’m trying to find myself.” I say, “Well, let me introduce you to yourself. I’m talking to yourself.” “No, no,” they say, “I’m trying to find my self self.” Do you understand what they’re saying? I do. They never met themselves! Or the selves they met they didn’t like. So they’re looking for another self. They’ve got no identity. So they try to create an identity as a result of being the party girl, or they try to create an identity as a result of being the athletic hero, or they try to create an identity as a result of being the good-time Charlie. But when they’re on their own, they don’t know who they are.
So when people say, “I’m looking for myself,” I say, “Well, this is a good journey. Let me tell you the story about a kid who was looking for himself.”
“Well, there was a guy that lived in a really big house, his father had tons of dough, and he went out, and he thought he could find himself here, here, here, and here, and actually he got himself in a real mess, he was completely in a pigsty of a situation, and he came to his senses, and he came to himself.”
“Well, how did that happen? Who was he? Where was he? Where was this? Dallas?”
You see, in coming to himself, he was gripped by the real state of affairs. His absence of food was only an indication of the fact—his starving to death was only an emblem—of what happens to a man or a woman when they turn their back on God the Father. So, having not made any attempt to try and fix himself up in the pigsty, he determines, “I’m going to set out, and I’m going to go back to my father, and I’m just going to flat out say to him, ‘Look, I sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m not worthy to be back in here as a son. Maybe you could make me as one of your hired servants.”
That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? “I will … go back to my father and [I will] say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Now, let me ask you a question here: Has there been a day, time, moment in your life where you made such a journey—where you went before God in the silence of your own home, in the privacy of your own car, in the driveway of a friend’s house, in your dorm room late at night, out in a field by yourself, as you wrestled with your own restlessness, and suddenly you came to yourself? All of that alienation from God, all of that alienation from others, that sense of angst and alienation from yourself, suddenly coalesced, and you said, “You know, this makes perfect sense to me now. I am completely disengaged from the God who made me. And the reason that I’m here is because I determined that I would be here. I decided that I would not listen to the promptings of others.” And God has come and sought you out. And you reached the point where you said, “I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight.” You reached the point where, in chapter 18 when we get to it, the man stands and beats his breast, and will not even look to heaven, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Now, before every one of you answers yes to that, let me make a distinction for you in your minds: What this young man is doing here is not expressing a sense of his awareness that he lives in a community of lostness. This is not a young man who is saying, “You know, everybody is messed up, and I’m messed up too.” This is not a young man who’s saying, “You know, there are a lot of people that’ve made a hash of their lives, and I’ve made a hash of my life as well, and frankly, I’m prepared now just to admit it. My name is George, and I’m a drunk.” Okay, fine. But that’s not the same as saying, “My name is George, and I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I don’t deserve to live in your house.” “My name is Mary, and I used to be irreligious.” Uh huh. That’s not the same as saying, “My name is Mary, and I never told you this before, Father—except in the church, when everybody was saying it, and I just said it with them, but never just one-on-one, you and me—I never, ever told you I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I actually don’t deserve to be one of your children.”
This young man is not expressing a generic sense of sin; he is expressing the fact that he in his individuality is lost and is guilty. Have you ever done that? And if you haven’t, would you not? Because you do not become a member of the family of God en masse. You are not made one with Christ in some sort of generic sweep through the community. God has no grandchildren. You do not come to Christ through the genetic input of your parents. It is a personal encounter, it is a personal awareness, and it is a personal appointment with God. Have you done that?
The Heidelberg Catechism, which I’m sure none of you were reading this week—but some of you come from a background where you did read it, and you should be thankful that you did, because it is a wonderful piece of work—the Heidelburg Catechism asks the question, “How many things is it necessary to know, that you may live and die happily?” It’s a good question, isn’t it? Because we’re all going die. Are you going to die happily? What do I need to know so that I can die happily? Number one, “the greatness of my sin and misery.” Number two, “how I am redeemed from all my sin and misery.” Number three, “how I am to be thankful to God for such a redemption.”
No, the young man was in no doubt. “Here,” he said, “I am starving to death. My father is my only source of help. I can’t take refuge in my friends; I certainly can’t take refuge in my circumstances. I’ve really got nothing to say as I go back down the road. I’ve got nothing to plead in my defense, I’ve nothing to offer, I’ve nothing as a basis of self-justification.” Indeed, his posture of heart is a reminder to all that the man or the woman who desires to go to God trusting in their own dignity or making excuses instead of confessing their sins is in no condition to receive the Father’s forgiveness. Not that a conviction of sin is something that we work up as a means of acceptance with God; a conviction of sin is something that God works within us according to his mercy, to find us saying,
Nothing in my hand I bring,
And simply to your cross I cling,
And naked come to thee for dress,
And helpless come to thee for rest,
And foul I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
What a picture of wretchedness you see in this young man. His clothes are all torn, his shoes are off his feet, he stinks from the pigs. What is he going to say? And what are you going to say? Now, don’t let the fact that you live in $600,000 pigsty convince you that you’re not in a pigsty. What are you going to plead in your defense?
“I’m gonna go back, and I’m gonna to say to my father, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. Your moral law is the law of your heart. When I sin against your law, I sin against you. I need your forgiveness, Father. In fact, I think I can count on it.’” The only thing he devalues is the extent of his father’s welcome, but he’s pretty sure that if he goes back, he’ll be okay. As Macleod, the Scottish theologian, puts it masterfully, he says, “The prodigal went back to his father not primarily because he was tormented by a guilty conscience, but because he was driven by the hope of mercy.” You see this? I’m going to say that to you again, ’cause it’s wonderful: “The prodigal went back to his father not primarily because he was tormented by a guilty conscience.” You can be tormented by a guilty conscience. Lady Macbeth was tormented by a guilty conscience. “Out, out, damned spot! Get this out of here!” She was tormented by a guilty conscience. Macbeth goes to the doctor: “Have you no physic that can take care of this?” Basically, the doctor says, “You’re on your own. I mean, I can do stuff, I can patch you up. But I can’t deal with the conscience of a man. I can’t bring about this restitution.”
This guy could have been as guilty as he liked. He could have stayed as guilty as he had felt for the rest of his life, living in a pigsty with his friends coming by and dropping off sandwiches to him. And they would have said in years to come, “You know, that guy had a great future. That guy had tremendous potential. He’s lived in a pigsty for all these years. He’s as guilty as sin. He knows he is. But somehow or another, he’s managed just to shore it up. He’s managed to just—in fact, I think there’s a couple of priests come in and do services for him in the pigsty. I think they take him communion.” But he can’t get up and he can’t get out. Why? Because he wouldn’t have been prepared to say, you see, “I’ve sinned.” And the reason he felt able to say “I’ve sinned” is because he was trusting in his father’s mercy.
See, the problem with many who come to these worship services at Parkside is not that you don’t know that you’re guilty of sin—not even just in a generic way but in a personal way. Because the Word of God has come home to your heart enough, you know, “I broke God’s law. I don’t love him with all my heart. I haven’t served him as I should. I have offended against him, there is bitterness in my soul,” and so many things. “The windscreen of my life is not just got one or two cracks in it; it’s just shattered.” You don’t have a problem with that. But why is it that you haven’t come to God?
’Cause you’re afraid to. Because the context out of which you have come has only been able to tell you how guilty you are. And what it has offered to you as a means of solving your guilt has not done it. And so you’ve gone back to it again and again and again and again: “Maybe if I take more, maybe if I have more, maybe if I tend more, maybe if I do more, then that will deal with this guilty conscience.” It will never deal with your conscience! It can’t! So the story you need to hear is not the story of a father standing at the end of the driveway with a gigantic big stick, waiting for his boy to come back up the road, but the story of a father who’s standing at the end of his driveway with his arms stretched out wide in welcome. He says, “That’s my son. That’s my boy.”
A minister once dealt with a young fellow who had run away from home, and in order to help him, he took him to the parable of the prodigal son, and he kind of counseled him, got him stabilized, and said, “Now, why don’t you go back to your father and see if he doesn’t kill the fatted calf to welcome you?” So the boy, obeying the minister, went back. The minister saw him a couple of weeks later on the street. He said, “Did you go back to you dad?”
“Yes I did,” he replied.
“Did you say sorry?”
“Yes I did,” he said.
“Did he kill the fatted calf?”
“No,” said the boy, “he jolly well near killed the prodigal son.”
And we understand that. See, don’t ever ask God to give you what you deserve; he may give you it. We can only ask God to give us what we don’t deserve: his mercy and his forgiveness, his compassion and his love.
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure,
That he should give his only Son
To make a wretch his treasure.
“So”—verse 20—“he got up and went to his father.” “He got up and went to his father.”
Now, just keep that picture in your mind, and we’ll come back to it. You can see his back now, as we shoot this movie. We’ve been looking at him in this pigsty; now he’s up, and he has just begun to move. He’s going back to his father. How about you? Have you come to your senses? Have you come to yourself? Have you gone to your Father and said, “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, I’m not longer worthy to be a member of your family, just take me”?
If you want an old book to read that tells the story of that, get the story of Born Again, the story of Chuck Colson, 1974, post-Watergate. What a fantastic story it is. And read there of how Colson, in all of his superlative academic abilities—captain in the Marines, the hatchet man in the Nixon administration—in all of the chaos of Watergate, goes over to a friend’s house, and the friend gives him a copy of Mere Christianity, and he takes Mere Christianity and he reads the chapter on pride, and it nails him right to the wall. He thanks his friend for the evening, and he gets out into the car, and he sits in the car in his friend’s driveway, and he turns the key in the ignition, and he puts it in drive, and he can’t move. And the reason he can’t move is because the tears are crushing down his cheeks. And right where he was—he told me just the other day—he said, “I didn’t know any evangelical prayers. I didn’t know any prayers at all. Sitting right in the driveway with the tears running down my face, the big, tough hatchet man said, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, I am a mess. Save me.’” That was ’74; this is 2001. What did he do? He came to himself, and he went to his Father.
How about us? That’s the question. All of heaven and all of your future is hinged to that.
Let us pray.
You may want just from your heart to say something like this to God this morning: “Father, I recognize that I am weaker and more sinful than I was ever before prepared to admit, and I’m realizing now that in the Lord Jesus I am more loved and accepted than I had ever dared to hope. I thank you for paying my debt, for bearing my punishment, for offering me forgiveness. I turn from my sin and I receive you as my Savior.”
Father, I pray that you will accomplish the purposes of your Word in each of our lives today. We all see ourselves in this boy. We’re all, actually, at some stage on this journey: we’re either running away, or finding ourselves to be in need, coming to our senses, determining to go back, having gone back, whatever it may be. Lord, take us where we are on the journey and draw us to yourself with the wonder of your outstretched arms.
And may grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Emily May Grimes Crawford, “Speak, Lord, in the Stillness” (1920). Paraphrased.
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “In My Life” (1965). Paraphrased.
 Luke 14:26 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:2 (NIV 1984).
 Al Baker, “Facing Murder Charge in Classmate’s Death, Hofstra Student Is Held on Suicide Watch,” New York Times, May 19, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/19/nyregion/facing-murder-charge-classmate-s-death-hofstra-student-held-suicide-watch.html.
 Hebrews 11:25 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 Saint Augustine, Confessions (New York: Penguin, 1961) 1.1. Paraphrased.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 75. Paraphrased.
 Romans 3:10–12 (paraphrased).
 Source unknown.
 Luke 18:13 (paraphrased).
 The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q. 2. Paraphrased.
 Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (1776). Paraphrased.
 Attributed to Donald Macleod. Source unknown.
 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, 5.1. Paraphrased.
 Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love” (1995).
 Charles W. Colson, Born Again (1976; repr., Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2008).
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. Paraphrased.