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Do You Desire the Father's Family?

April 10, 2022

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Pastor Peder Kling

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Sermon Passage: Luke 15:11-32

The sermon begins at minute 37:30. Unmute to listen.

Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)

“The Prodigal Son” on a Baptismal Sunday?

As we approach this day to remember the blessing of covenant children, and the blessing of our own baptisms, the parable of the Prodigal Son might seem an odd passage to go to. If you haven’t put much thought into this parable, you might be thinking, “Gee Peder, your preaching on prodigal children on the Sunday of your daughter’s baptism? There’s a buzz kill, for you.” This is a day to celebrate God’s children being brought into the covenant, not them leaving the covenant family! 

 

The truth is, I don’t think “prodigal children” is what this parable is about. If you’re focusing on the prodigal son, here, you’re missing the point of the parable. 

 

So what we’re going to do first, is figure out exactly what this parable is setting us up to understand this morning. I’ll just tell you up front, so we get started on the same footing, this morning—this isn’t a story about prodigal children. It’s a story about the father’s lavish grace and joy, and the sort of covenant family he offers to us. So, we need to really see that first. Then, once we see that emphasis in the passage, we’ll do better to consider four different ways this parable describes our Father’s covenant family. 

 

So again—(1) First, we’ll see exactly how this passage leads us to focus on the Father, and on his family. Then (2) second, we’ll consider four different ways the Father’s leadership and family are described. And in case we miss it, the question before us this morning is do you desire the Father’s family? His family, his leadership—his grace and joy is all before us this morning. Do you desire it—and perhaps, are we marked by his leadership in our own families and our own churches? As we press into all of this, I trust we’ll find some immensely practical matters to consider. 

 

“The Welcoming Father”, Not “The Prodigal Son”

So, how does this passage lead us to focus on the Father, rather than the prodigal son? In some ways, I trust it’s obvious. The Father’s lavish grace and forgiveness is both surprising and compelling. He’s the unexpected turning point in the story. His jarring decision to welcome his son and throw a party for him is where the hinge swings, here. Plus, we’d do well to remember the firstborn son who fussed about the Father’s decisions. It all hinges on the Father, here. One son is welcomed by the Father, and the other son is offended by the father. 

 

So in many ways, we do this parable great injustice when we call it “the parable of the prodigal son”. One minister commented that we could more aptly call this the parable of “the welcoming father” rather than “the prodigal son”. That’s right. This is about the Father who welcomes his people—and, it’s about the way he does it. 

 

Although, there’s more to this point than to simply say “the parable itself focuses more on the welcoming father than it does on the prodigal son”. Consider who Jesus is talking to in this passage. This parable is the last of three parables that Jesus fires off, one after the next, when he’s addressing a particular group in Israel. Look back to the first verse in this chapter (15:1)—

 

Luke 15:1   Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: [i.e., these parables]

 

So, that’s who he’s talking to—the Pharisees. That, of course, means Jesus is probably dealing with trouble. He’s addressing a problem. Whenever the Pharisees show up in the gospels, you can bet Jesus is rebuking or correcting, or something of the sort. Here, Jesus is not solving the problem of prodigal children in Israel. He’s addressing the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus. Jesus joyful receives tax collectors and sinners (those prodigal children of Israel), whereas the Pharisees don’t. Like the older brother, they grumble in contempt of Jesus’s welcoming benevolence. 

 

Their grumbling makes sense, if you understand what the Pharisees believed. In their theology and traditions, they sought to earn Israel’s salvation through Israel’s law keeping (not just their own, but Israel’s salvation). They didn’t believe the Messiah would come unless Israel was first purified! It was all up to them! Can you imagine what that does to a man’s leadership in a community? It makes you anxious, passionate for purity. It turns you into a busybody, seeking the purity of Israel with an awful influence upon the people of Israel. It’s going to create an anxious, unwelcoming community. It’s not fun being in those churches when the focus is on “the other guy”, and whether “the other guy” is following the law or not. That is not a good situation, seeking to earn salvation. In our churches today, it’s often not “trying to earn our salvation”, but trying to “keep a good appearance”. We don’t want our churches to look a little bit yucky, like there might be sinners amongst us. It creates the same problem—leaders who are anxious busy-bodies, and people who are burdened with the law. We often do the same thing in our families, too. We want a beautiful appearance, so parents keep their eye on “the other guy” (especially the children), and their children are burdened with a heavy yoke of slavery. It’s fake, because it’s focused on externals rather than the heart.

 

Now, let me ask you this—is that the sort of community you want to stew in, with your family? Or perhaps, more importantly—is that the sort of fellowship God wants for his covenant community, and his covenant households? When Jesus said “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28), he was offering a different leadership that danced to a totally different tune. He offered rest and joy, not despair.

 

So Jesus was addressing Pharisees and their intolerance of sinners in this parable of the prodigal son—(or again, this parable of “the welcoming father”). But as I had just mentioned, the prodigal son is actually the last of three parables that Jesus fires off in order to make his point.

 

Three Parables to Expose the Unwelcoming Pharisees

Three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. I love how these parables build off one another. Look at this with me. Verse 3—“what man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing?” Which one of you Pharisees wouldn’t seek the lost lamb, and rejoice when you find it? They all would, no doubt. Jesus is drawing in the Pharisees.

 

Then the next parable—“or what woman , having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house… until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me!’” The answer, again—every woman would do that. The Pharisees agree—and, by the way, do you see the rejoicing at work in these two examples?

 

Then Jesus brings it home to a discussion about the covenant community, the community of God’s covenant people in the church. We aren’t talking about sheep. We aren’t talking about coins. We’re talking about people—sinful, disobedient people like a foolish son. When Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son, he says in effect—“you’ll receive the lamb who was lost, and rejoice when you find the coin—but, will you receive this sinful, prodigal son? Will you receive him as the father did with joy and grace? Or will you be the older brother who gripes in contempt over the situation?” Jesus doesn’t even toss that up in the form of a question. He just tells the story. The Jews are the brother who reject their Father’s leadership, and who do not desire to participate in their own Father’s family of grace and benevolence.

 

It’s a common story, isn’t it? “You’re not my father, you disqualified yourself from that privilege long ago!”. Father-son relationships can be tricky, especially when pride and selfishness get in the way. When the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, he regarded her as his son, his family (Exodus 4:22). Israel simply didn’t like what that meant—this Father who promised an inheritance of land flowing with milk and honey, and who gave a law for instruction on right living, who would want him when you can have Baal and golden calves?

 

So again, the question before us this morning is simple. Do you desire the Father’s Family? Do you desire to be received into his family—dare I say, his church? Do you regard it to be a privilege to be baptized into his covenant family? In many ways, that’s what this story is leading us to. The father’s family is the church. This is an organic, covenant family. With any family, there will be sin, pride, hurt feelings, and “the wayward children”. I have heard a lot of people say “I love Jesus, but I’m done with the church. I don’t need that in my life”. By “that” they meant the sinners in the church—the hypocrites, the difficult people, the imperfect pastors. They don’t want the Father’s family. They’re too focused on the law of purity, and they’re missing the Father’s grace.

Four Descriptions of the Father and His Household

So, I said that the first thing we’d do this morning is consider exactly how this passage leads us to focus on the Father, and on his family. We’ve done that. The story itself lends us to look at the Father’s unexpected grace, and Jesus is using the parable to show the Pharisees who they are in the story. They are the brother rejecting their benevolent Father. They’re rejecting the Father’s family. 

Now, for our second task this morning—let’s consider four different ways the Father’s leadership and family are described in this passage. So, let’s look more directly at the parable we read this morning.

 

The Father is in Charge

First, we should notice in this passage is the most fundamental principle that makes this story tick. It’s not overtly obvious in any one verse, here, but you see it first peak its head in verse 12. There, the Son asks his Father for the Father’s inheritance, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” The Father could have said no. In fact, the father ordinarily would have said no. That’s how an inheritance works, right? When does a son receive his inheritance—before, or after the father dies? Ordinarily afterwards—and, that was true then as much as it is true today. 

 

In this case, this Father chose a different approach. He chose to give this foolish son his inheritance early. He also chose to throw the same son a party—another peculiar decision. I hardly believe an ordinary Father would throw a party for such a foolish child, as this Father did. 

 

So, what’s the undergirding principle at work, here? The Father is calling the shots. He’s in control—and, his decisions concerning his family move this story forward at every page. His decisions define the culture and the standard for his family. None of the children or his servants can overturn his decisions, especially when they are seemingly unwise decisions. When the Father wants to graciously receive a sinful son, nobody can challenge him. When he desires to throw a controversial party for his son, people go to the party and rejoice with the father (lest they look like the foolish older brother). They take his lead, as he’s leading his family into a culture of unrelenting grace and joy.

 

And, by the way—this is good. Who would you rather have calling the shots, and defining the expectation and culture among God’s people—a merciful Father who rejoices over his children, or men like the Pharisees who gripe and groan in contempt toward the children of Israel? 

 

We have a heavenly Father calling the shots, and we’re blessed for it. He literally sent his Son to die on the cross for our sins—to deal with all sin in his household, that we might be free from the burden of his wrath and curse. He’s free to extend grace and forgiveness, to be patient, because he took the burden of sin upon himself. That’s how he leads. That’s how he calls the shots. He calls the shots, and takes the shots—and, we’re doing something wrong if the culture of our churches and our families don’t dance to the same tune of sacrificial joy. 

 

So, the first thing this parable teaches us about the Father and his covenant family is that the father is in charge, and that’s a good thing. 

 

What else do we see, here?

 

The Father Doesn’t “Wait and See”

In the story—just so we’re all on the same page—the prodigal son was a complete fool. He burned through his inheritance in “reckless living” (verse 13), and then he had nothing. He started feeding pigs—and when famine broke out, verse 16 says that “he was longing to be fed with” whatever he was feeding to the pigs. That’s low. Then he remembered how well his father treated his servants, and desired to come back as a servant. He came back, said the right things and hoped for the best. He literally said in verse 18, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” He expressed regret, and his desperate plea to be his Father’s servant.

 

Would you believe him? Would you trust him? What would you do in this situation? Take bitterness out of the equation—perhaps you hold no offense. Would wisdom call for a party and a slaughtered calf, and full restoration into the family? 

 

We often get suspicious of sinners, don’t we? We think, “They might not mean it, you know—they could just be taking advantage of you.” Here, the Father gives it all. The Father leans in, hoping all things, and draws his son in with full blessings and privileges of his family. That’s beautiful, and it does good things for the son, provided that he was truly repentant and humbled.

 

One of the most difficult parts of getting involved with a new church, or a new family, is if they don’t fully accept you. You don’t get a full taste of their blessings, and their love, because they doubt whether your repentance is genuine. One minister calls it the “wait and see” approach. “Let’s just wait and see if he’s genuine before we really love him.” This is particularly true of covenant children growing up in the faith. “Let’s hold off on baptism and communion, and treating you like a Christian, until you’ve really proven yourself”. Whether it’s a covenant child or a truly repentant sinner—is that going to make the person want to join in, being held at arm’s length like that? Is that how the Heavenly Father treats his children, whom he calls to himself? 

 

We must remember that God is the God of new beginnings—he sets new trajectories, because he has the power to soften rebellious and sinful hearts. He doesn’t just clear our guilt through Jesus, he softens our hardened hearts through his Spirit. As their hearts are softened and they receive him through faith, he gives rebellious sinners “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”—Ephesians 1. God doesn’t “wait and see”. He simply does it, and we—as the church—are called to receive those who confess him with a credible faith, along with their children.

 

Since we have little ones in our midst—let me make a quick comment on receiving them. As little ones are born into our midst, we are called to rest in knowing that we serve a God whose mercy extends from one generation to the next. As God takes our little children into his family through baptism, we do well to receive them as God’s children. We do well to regard them as little Christians, and pray that they would never remember a day without their Lord. Let them worship with us in the service. Let them play with us, sing with us, and learn with us as they are able. Through his word and Spirit, the Lord softens all hearts—rebellious thirty-year-old hearts, and little hearts that were born into the covenant alike. We do well to receive them as members of the Father’s family, calling them Christians, discipling them in the home and church and anywhere else—all without hesitation. It’s reassuring to their souls, and it’s good for us. 

 

When we hesitate, they hesitate, or they grow bitter. I fear many covenant children have walked away from the faith because they were treated like second-class Christians in the church, needing to prove themselves. That’s not grace. That’s not the Father’s love in this story.

 

So, (1) the Father is in charge, and (2) the Father doesn’t “wait and see” before giving out the blessings of his family. What else do we see? 

 

The Father Rejoices

The Father rejoices over his children. He’s always rejoiced over his children. There are a number of places in the Old Testament where the Lord rejoices over his people, but there may not be a more compelling example than Zephaniah 3:17,

 

The lord your god is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing.

 

That’s downright awesome. God, who is mighty to save, is in your midst—and, he uses his might to rejoice over his people, to quiet his people with his love, and exult over them with loud singing. Sound like the welcoming father in our story? He doesn’t just give a party, he gives all his might into rejoicing. He has his servants rejoicing. He has the best robe, the best calf, the best ring and shoes brought out for his son. The oldest son, we’re told, hears music and singing and dancing. This is mighty. That’s the heavenly Father leading his people into a family of grace and gladness—not a critical family like the Pharisees’. 

 

Now, we have (1) the father who is in charge, (2) the father who doesn’t “wait and see” before giving his blessings, and (3) the father who rejoices with all his might. That’s three. There’s one more, and this is where things get immensely practical for us.

 

The Father Desires to Be Imitated

Take a moment to just think about the role of a father. Is a father a lawyer, who just gives out and interprets rules? Not at all—although, he does handle household law in his home. Does a Father train his children by simply telling them what to do? No. What’s a good Father after? A good father is seeking to be imitated. That’s the classic father-son relationship, isn’t it? “Like father, like son”, they say—for better or for worse. It’s inevitable, and a good father will pursue it as he sets the example, the culture, the tone in the house.

 

Look at the last part of this parable again—verses 28–32—where this older brother’s shortcomings really shone through.

 

[The brother] was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 

 

Let me ask you—is this son concerned about imitating his Father as a son should, or is he concerned about his external obedience to the law? His father is entreating him to join the party—to imitate him in singing a song of grace and joy! The son couldn’t do it. His heart was set on the law of merits. Verse 29—“I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat!”. He sought his own merits because he sought the law—very unlike his father. His Father was dancing to a totally different tune—the tune of grace, rather than the law. Meanwhile, he was griping in contempt because he was dancing to the beat of the law.

 

Look at how the Father responds in verse 31—

 

31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

 

Do you see how the Father is singing a song of generosity, grace and joy—rather than litigating an external law of merit? “Son, all that is mine is yours. We aren’t keeping tabs in this home—especially not right now!”. Do you see how he is inviting the son to imitate him, to join the party—how it’s defining his family with generous grace and joy rather than contempt toward sinners? 

 

It’s a big deal to follow the heavenly Father’s leadership, and imitate him. We ought to parent our children as he parents us. We ought to forgive as he forgives us. We ought to rejoice as he rejoices, and weep as he weeps. He’s our Father. I’m reminded of Ephesians 5:1, “be imitators of God, as obedient children”. Imitate God, as children imitate their father. Don’t dance to a different tune—whether it’s a tune of worldliness, or a tune of the law (as these Pharisees did). The heavenly Father plays a tune of grace, of sacrifice, of joy and patience—and, it’s all marked by the sacrifice he made through his Son. Sin is dealt with, and the song of grace must resound through our homes and our churches. 

 

And I will say, as a final point, a unique privilege falls upon the appointed leaders in the covenant community to set the tone. I often hear people say about children—“I love kids, they bring so much joy into a house and into life”. Yes, there’s truth to that. However, kids aren’t supposed to be the forebearers of joy in a home. Mom and Dad are—and, at great cost to themselves. The “youth group” isn’t supposed to be the forebearers of joy in a church—that privilege falls to the pastor and elders, and other leaders in the church. Joy is costly—especially joy of the lasting, unyielding sort. We can thank God that he purchased joy and forgiveness for us at the cross. That’s where it all starts for us, because the heavenly Father sacrificed what we couldn’t. Dance to that tune—joy through sacrifice, in Christ’s forgiveness.

Conclusion

Do you see how the Father’s leadership is defining the covenant community—our covenant family, our covenant households—in this passage? He’s the welcoming father. He is such, because (1) he is in charge, because (2) he doesn’t “wait and see”, because (3) he rejoices over us at great cost to himself, and (4) because he calls us to imitate him. As we think upon our baptisms, we’d do well to remember that such is the family that we’ve been brought into, and such is the Father’s name we are marked with.

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