I was reading Reader's Digest the other day at the dentist's (the alternative being Good Housekeeping.) And one mother had sent this story in:
"Our son, Robin, was notorious for keeping his bedroom in a dreadful state. Having nagged him for weeks, I finally wrote a note for him and left it on the floor of his room. It read: 'Dear Robin, I wish I could be clean and tidy like all the other rooms in the house. Lots of love, Bedroom.' The following day, I looked into his room and to my astonishment it was tidy, dusted and hoovered. On the floor was a note. It read: 'Dear bedroom, I hope you feel better now. Lots of love Robin. P.S. You're beginning to sound just like my mother.'"
Well, it may be that this week, for you, is where the nagging ends and the independence of leaving home begins. But independence does have its downsides. There's the downside of doing your washing. If you've just arrived at Newcastle Uni, you may have seen The Courier's'10 tips to being a student'. Number 6 is: 'Go out and buy a load of new socks and pants every time you need to do some washing.' And thinking back to my student days, I can identify with that. On more than one occasion I was reduced to slipping into Marks & Spencers to snap up one of their boxer-short multi-packs. By the end of my university career I had enough underwear to last 4 weeks. All I needed for the whole term was two mega washes and an airtight laundry bin.
There's also the downside of cooking, should you actually attempt it. A friend of mine called Ed threw a dinner party early on in our time at uni. He wanted to impress, so not content with the humble spaghetti bolognese or tuna pasta, he rang his mother for some recipes. The plan was to begin with this exotic savoury mousse. But the phone line was a bit dodgy, so while at one end Ed's Mum was saying 'a clove of garlic', at the other end Ed was scribbling down '8 cloves of garlic'. It was the kind of starter that brings tears to the eyes, and next day you could tell who'd been at the party from about 50 yards.
Well, the most famous parable Jesus ever told is about someone leaving home. And like all his parables, it's a story from life that illustrates things about our spiritual lives. Verse 11 of Luke 15:
There was a man who had two sons…
The father stands for God. The sons stand for us. And looking at this parable is a bit like looking in the mirror. Somewhere - in one of the two sons - you'll see yourself, and where you stand with God. So, verse 11:
There was a man [who stands for God] who had two sons [who stand for us]. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' (vv11-12)
As a student, one expertise you're likely to develop is the art of asking parents for money. The story's told of a couple whose son was away in his first year at university. And one day the wife was a bit worried and said, 'When did we last hear from Ben?' To which the husband replied, 'I can't remember. I'll just go and look it up in the cheque book.' But the younger son in Jesus' story is doing more than asking for money. He's asking for the money he's due to inherit. He's effectively saying, 'Dad, I want your money now so I can go and do what I like;' ie, 'Dad, I wish you were dead.'
The father stands for God. The sons stand for us. And by nature, we all treat God like the younger son treats his father. We want life and everything God's created for us - we want the money, if you like. But we don't want God. We don't want a heavenly parent telling us how to live. Because deep down we don't trust him. We think we can do a better job of running our lives than the Creator of life can. Verse 12:
The younger [son] said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate ...'
... ie, 'I wish you were dead so I could have my own life.' The most offensive thing you could say to a parent. And what does the father do?
So he divided his property between them. (v12)
And that's the scary thing about being human. We're created by God to be in relationship with him. But he didn't want robots. He wanted people who could genuinely love him. Which meant giving us the freedom to do otherwise - to turn our backs on him. Verse 13:
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country [that endless drive up the A1] and there squandered his wealth in wild living. [The next bit's not that easy for students to identify with, but just try to imagine it…] 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. (vv13-16)
So, he turns his back on his Father thinking life'll be better. But he ends up in the pigsty where even the pigs are better off. The father stands for God. The sons stand for us. And there are plenty of people telling us that life would be better without God.
For example, The Courier's '10 steps to being a student' also says this: 'Number 3, 'Get caught having sex by the cleaner.' And if you want clarification on university policy there, just turn to page 7. Under the headline, 'Are you allowed to sleep with people in your room in hall?', The Courier's answer is: 'Whether you're supposed to or not, it's blatantly going to happen for most of you.' Implication: you're abnormal if it doesn't. Well, there's part of The Courier's recipe for life at its best.
But is life without God really better? No. It's the pigsty. I remember hearing another student interviewed about how she came back to God. She'd arrived at university from a Christian home, not really sure what she believed. She got involved with a bloke and slept with him for her first two years. This is what she said: 'All that time, I felt dirty and used. But I was too frightened to say anything. Because of course the official line was: we're all having fun.' A lot of people feel how she felt, but carry on. She came to her senses. Verse 17:
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. 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. (vv17-20)
And some people criticise this younger son for that. It's like the student coming home with the bulging case of dirty laundry and saying 'Mum, I've really missed you.' Or 'Dad, can I wash the car for you?' It's got ulterior motive written all over it, they say. Well, I want to come to his defence. In one sense he was coming back out of self-interest. Because he'd learnt the hard way that life without his Father wasn't better. And that is one reason for becoming a Christian. You'll have a better life. Let alone a better eternity. But that's not the main reason. It's true that coming back to God is best for us. But the bottom line is: coming back to God is right. Quite simply, it's wrong to treat God as if he wasn't there -to take your life then pay him no attention. And quite simply it's doing the right thing to come back. Verse 18. He says:
'I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.'
ie, I've treated you wrongly. I now want to treat you rightly. And so deeply does he feel the wrong he's done that he doesn't even entertain the possibility that he could come back as before:
'I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.'
ie, 'I know the past can't be forgiven and forgotten. I know there's no way back to how things were before.' And when people come to their senses and realise how wrongly they've treated God, that's what they often think. And you know the best news in this parable? They're wrong. Verse 20:
He got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him…
Which means he'd been out on the verandah every day since the son walked out, watching for him. It means the first handwriting he looked for every day in the post was his son's. It means the answering machine had a message saying that if it was him, they just wanted to see him again. And that's what God's like.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him…
If anyone was asking for a lecture on his stupidity, a parental rubbing of the nose in it, it was this son. But it's not criticism that fills his father's heart, but love. And that's what God's like.
…he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Parents can be very embarrassing, can't they? When they drop you off or visit you or come to your graduation at university they have this gift of wearing or doing or saying the embarrassing thing. And you see awkward students in halls of residence car parks trying to dummy their way out of hugs and kisses. But the son's embarrassment here in the story is nothing compared to the father's loss of face. Older men never ran in those days. It was considered beneath you, shameful. But that's what God's like. It wasn't beneath his dignity to send his Son to die on a shameful cross, so we could be forgiven. And you can imagine the son trying to get his lines out. Verse 21:
The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' [ie 'Dad, you shouldn't be treating me like this after all I've done.'] 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. (vv21-24)
He treats the son as if it had never happened. As if he'd never sinned. It's only the son who brings up the past. The father doesn't even mention it. And that's what God's like to those who come back to him. And that's the hardest bit of the Christian message to believe. It's not hard to believe that this universe was brought into being by a Creator. It's not hard to believe in human sin as you look in the papers or your own heart. It's not hard to believe that since God made human beings, he could actually become one and live among us 2000 years ago. It's not even that hard to believe that he's so morally pure that there will be a day of judgement, and a hell as well as a heaven. What's hard to believe is that God should have sinful people like us back, as if we'd never sinned. But that's what God's like. And both sons in Jesus' story find it unbelievable. The younger can hardly believe it because it's too good to be true. It had never occurred to him that things could be put back fully as they were before. Sins forgiven and forgotten for good. The older son can hardly believe it either. But for a very different reason. Verse 25:
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
ie, where's the fairness in that? That's not justice, is it? Well, no it's not. That's the whole point. And the older son's missed it completely. The point is: it's not justice. Justice is God giving us what we deserve. And if God did that, there'd be no hope for any of us. And the human population of heaven would be zero. The point is we've all treated God how the younger son treats the father. All lived in God's world as if God wasn't there. As the Bible puts it,
There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3.22-23)
And what we need is not justice, but mercy.
The story's told of a photographer's studio where a rather crusty old lady went along to have a portrait taken. And she fussed endlessly about her hair and the lighting and the angle and the focus and the background and the powdering and the make-up. And the photographer's patience was at breaking point throughout. Finally he was just about to take the photo. And she leaned forward and said 'Young man, I hope you'll do me justice.' And something inside him snapped. 'Madam,' he said, 'It's not justice you need. But mercy.'
And when it comes to God, the same is true of us. It's not justice we need, but mercy. And the younger son knows that. His problem is: he thinks he's too bad to be shown mercy. Whereas the older son's problem is: he thinks he's too good to need it. Verse 29: 'all these years, I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed...' He thinks the father's love can be earned. And he thinks he's done enough. But he's self-deceived. And he needs to come to his senses as much as the younger son did. We've all sinned. We all need God to do for us what the father did for the younger son. We need him to come out and meet us, just as we are, and to forgive us. And that's just what did happen 2000 years ago, when he sent his Son into the world. To live a perfect life that deserved no judgement. And then to die on the cross under the judgement we deserve so that we might never face it. Martin Luther called it 'the great exchange' - Jesus taking my place and being treated as if he'd sinned my sins. And me given his place and being treated as if I'd never sinned at all. Well, I said at the start that it's like looking in a mirror.
For everyone in this building, where you stand with God tonight is reflected somewhere in this parable. You may see yourself in verse 12, where we first met the younger son. You yourself may be just a hair's breadth away from turning your back on God. You may have moved from a Christian background, and all the scaffolding of other peoples' faith around you has been taken away. And you could leave God behind, like the posters and pot plants that never made it to Newcastle. At last you could really be free of it all. Well, have it on the authority of Jesus Christ that life without God is not better. But if you won't trust him on that, he'll let you find out the hard way. The thing is, you may never come back. Not everyone in the pigsty comes to their senses. Some people bluff right through to the end of their lives.
Or, you may see yourself in verse 13 - in the distant country, having a wild time. One first year a few years ago came back to God and he said to me 'Before then, I was completely out of control.' Maybe that's you tonight. And you're wondering what brought you here tonight. Well I'd say God did. In order to ask you this question. Hand on heart: are you really having a better time without him? I'm not asking what you'd say to your friends. I'm asking what you'd say to yourself lying awake at night on your own.
Or, you may see yourself in verse 25. You may be the older son. Outwardly, the very opposite of the wild life. The life of the Christian home or the Christian circle of friends or youth group. But inside, it's all wrong. Because you think God's love can be earned. And you're proud enough to think you've earned it. And you're wrong on both. You're actually as resentful of God and far from God as the younger son was. But looking at the outside, no-one would ever guess.
But you may see yourself in verse 17, where the younger son comes to his sense. Even as you've listened tonight, that may have happened. You've realised that far worse than hurting others or hurting yourself, you've offended God as badly as you could. And your question is: could he possibly have me back? And the answer is: he sent his Son to die to get you back. That's a 'Yes'. So how do you come back to God? Well, three things: You need to admit what this younger son admitted. That you've sinned against God and you're not worthy, not deserving of anything from him. And admitting sin includes being willing to turn from it, with God's help. Then you need to believe that Jesus died on the cross for all your sins. Past sins up to this moment. And all the future ways in which you'll fail God after you've come back to him. Then you need to come and say that to him in prayer. A, B, C. Admit. Believe. Come.
I'm going to close with a prayer that would be appropriate for someone who wants to come back to God tonight. It may be that you need time to hear more and think more - in which case, please do come again. Or it may be that you've come back to God already - you just need to stay turned to him and living his way and trusting him where you fail. But there may be others. And you know you haven't come back to God, but you want to. If that's you, I'm going to end with a prayer which you could echo in your mind to God. I'll tell you what I'll pray so you can judge whether now is the time for you to pray it. I'll say:
Father, I admit I have sinned against you. I've walked away from you and lived as if my life was my own. I deserve nothing but your judgement.
Thank you for this amazing truth that your Son died in my place so that I could be forgiven. I believe you are able and willing to forgive my past and to forgive my future failures as well.
I now come to you. Please have me back, and please come into my life by your Spirit to give me the will to turn from sin and live for you.
Jesus said that you can't be secret about coming back to him. So I'd only encourage you to pray that if you're prepared to be known as a Christian from now on. But if you are ready, I'd urge you to take the opportunity that God is giving you tonight.
If you've just prayed that prayer, rest assured that if you meant it, God has heard and answered it. Jesus once said, 'Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.' That means he accepts whoever comes to him and he then never gives up on them. And if you've just prayed, you can now put your name to that promise. Last thing: if you have just prayed that prayer, I want to encourage you to come and tell me. Partly just so I can meet you and I'd like to drop you a line about getting going in the Christian life. But partly because it'll help you underline what you've done. When I prayed a similar prayer, the speaker said exactly the same, so being the bold soul I am I waited for nearly everyone else to leave and then I plucked up courage to tell him. But I'm glad I did, because it assured me that I really had begun. And it was good practice right from the start in letting people know I'm a Christian. I'll be just down here. Please do come and have a word if you've prayed that tonight.