Even When

Even When
Luke 15:11-24
Week 1 of 3: The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Not long ago, I was listening to a preacher on TV. He was explaining how to have a right relationship with God. Now, the guy was pretty good, as TV preachers go, and it was obvious he had fine-tuned his sermon to be a work of homiletic art.

Now I didn’t stop to count, but I imagine his sermon had about 8 to 10 points with three or four sub-points under each point, and his points were obviously “spiritual” because each point rhymed.

Let’s see if I can remember his points. To have a right relationship with God you must:
Recognize the obvious.
Then you must Ostracize the odious.
After that you need to Chastize the erroneous
So you can Victimize the dubious.
Then you’ll Paralyze the perilous
When you Centralize the laborious
And finally you will, Homogenize the indigenous
When you Capitalize the victorious. Amen, Amen and Amen!

At that, the congregation broke into ecstatic applause and I have to admit, all those “izes” and “ez-es” did kind of stir something up in me, too. But there’s one thing the sermon didn’t do. It didn’t tell me how to have a right relationship with God. In fact, if anything, the sermon kind of confused me. If I had to do all those “izes” and “ez-es,” just to get God to accept me, I don’t think I’d have a chance.

Many people act like there’s some magic formula in getting to God. For them, finding God is like solving some theological Rubik's cube. You’ve got to get all the pieces of your life lined up just right before God will accept you.

Yes, lots of folks give the impression that God is an “only if” God, that God will accept us “only if” we do all the right things. “Only if” we pray the right prayers . . . “only if” we embrace the right doctrines . . . “only if” we give up certain sins.

But when I read the Bible, I get an entirely different picture of God. The God embodied in Jesus Christ is anything but an “only if” God. The God I find in Jesus Christ is an “even when” God, a God who welcomes me with open arms “even when” I don’t measure up to his standards.

That’s the picture of God we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s the picture of a Loving Father who accepts his son “even when” the son does nothing to merit that acceptance.

Listen to this beautiful story as I read it today from Luke 15:11-24. I’ll be reading from Eugene’s Petersen’s paraphrase called “The Message.”

Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’

“So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

“That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.

Today, I am beginning a 3 week sermon series on the parable of the Prodigal Son. This story, told by Jesus, holds so much practical truth I dare not attempt to cover it all in one week.

Today, I want us to look at the “Even When” God of this story. The God who accepts us “even when” we don’t meet his demands.

First I want us to notice that the loving God accepts us “even when” we rebel against him.

That’s the story of the Prodigal Son isn’t it? It’s the story of a rebel, who took his father’s love and shoved it in his face.

In the story, the father provides the very best for his son. Not only does he give him the finest upbringing, he gives him his inheritance long before it’s due.

And how does the son repay his father’s love? He pays back his father with the currency of rebellion. He takes his inheritance and uses it to buy a lifestyle which is totally repugnant to the moral standards of his father.

Now if God was the God some people paint him to be, this story would be much different. If God was an “only if” God, he would have met the son at the road and said, “Stop right there, you rebellious son. You think I’m going to let you come home after all you’ve done? Why, I gave you the best of my love and what did you do? You threw it in my face. Listen boy, you can’t come back home until you get your life in order. So don’t show up here until you’ve cut your hair, shaved off that beard, and gotten rid of those stupid-looking piercings. You want to come back home? You can come back home “only if” you get your act together.

Yes, that’s the picture some paint of God, but that’s not the God we see in this passage, is it? The God of in passage is an “Even When” God. A God who is anxious to accept his erring child, “Even When” that child has rebelled against him.

I remember when our son Jeff was 13 years old. In those days, he feasted on rebellion for breakfast. One day, he’d been talking on the phone for a long time so Pat told him to hang up and get to his homework. About five minutes later he was still going strong, and again, Pat told him to hang up. When he didn’t, she finally took the receiver and hung it up herself.

You can imagine his response. In the most rebellious voice he could muster, he turned to Pat and said, “I hate you, mom!”

Well, guess what Pat did. She immediately went up to his room, jammed his clothes into a suitcase and told his to leave home and never come back again. And to this day, the two of them have not spoken a word to each other.

Now if you think that really happened, you don’t know my wife. Pat would never have kicked Jeff out of her life because he rebelled. Instead, she told him that regardless of the way he felt, she loved him anyway, and before long, the rebellious son apologized and feasted on the supper his mother had cooked especially for him.

That’s the way God is with us. He loves us “even when” we rebel against him. He loves us “even when” our rebellious lifestyle is totally repugnant to his moral standards. Yes, the loving God accepts us “even when” we rebel against him.

But there’s a second truth about God we find in this “even when” story, and it’s this. The loving God accepts us “even when” we come to him as a last resort.

In the story of the prodigal son, the son comes home, after trying everything else he could to find contentment. While the parable gives us few details, we can easily imagine the undisciplined and immoral lifestyle of the rebellious son. But nothing he did seemed to bring him the contentment he desired. And then, after blowing all his inheritance, he struggles merely to survive. And when he can’t make enough money to keep from starving he finally comes back home, but he comes back home as a last resort.

You see, it wasn’t love for his father that brought the prodigal home. He came back home out of pure desperation. He was starving and the only hope he had left was that his father might have pity on him and hire him on as a servant. No, it wasn’t love that brought him back home. He came back home because home was his last resort.

Now if God was an “only if” God the story would have been much different. The father would have met the son at the end of the road and said, “Okay. Stop right there you ungrateful fool. I know why you’ve come back. You’ve not come back home because you love me, or the farm, or your brother. You’ve come back home because you and squandered away everything I gave you and now I’m your last resort. Forget it, boy! You’re not coming back home and mooching off me.”

But that’s not the story, is it? The story of the prodigal son is the story of a loving father who joyously accepts his son “even when” he knows that the son has come back home as a last resort.

When I pastored a church in Macon, Georgia, I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a woman who had just lost her husband. The woman was a member of my congregation but had not attended in years. When her husband died, I went to the home to offer my condolences. As I started to leave, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help her. This was her reply.

“We’ll, preacher. I might be able to use you if things don’t work out. You see, I always liked Brother Terry and now he’s up in Tennessee. I’ve called up there to see if he can preach the funeral, but he ain’t called back yet. If he can’t do it, I’m gonna’ ask Brother Jimmy over at Pine Forest Baptist Church. I always liked Brother Jimmy. Although somebody told me they thought Brother Jimmy was out of town. So preacher, what I’m sayin’ is this. If I can’t find nobody else to do my husband’s funeral, I might see if you’d do it.”

Well, you can imagine how honored I was. “If I can’t find nobody else, I might want you!” Humph. Believe it or not, though, I ended up conducting her husband’s funeral.

Many of us are like this woman when it comes to our relationship with God. We look all over the world for something that will satisfy us, something we like. And when our job doesn’t bring us the happiness we desire, and when our social life doesn’t fit the bill, and when our income doesn’t bring us contentment; we finally go to God. So many times we don’t go to God because we just love him so much. More often than not, we end up on God’s doorstep because we’ve exhausted all other options. We go to God as a last resort. But in his infinite, divine, grace God still loves us and accepts us “even when” we use him as the choice of last resort.

So what does it take to come to God? Do you have to jump through all the hoops of a 10 point sermon that rhymes? I don’t think so. All you’ve got to do is come home to God, even if you’ve rebelled against him, even if you’ve wasted your life, even if you come home to him as a desperate last resort. For God stands on the porch of heaven, anxiously waiting and watching, watching for you to come home.

I think the words of Will Thompson’s hymn may say it best.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!