Some failures are funny, aren’t they? I don’t know about you, but I love a good You’ve Been Framed collection of mishaps. Maybe you have your own funny story of failure to tell. Mine are normally stories of a failure of social etiquette, like the time I greeted a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. I thought we were heading for a kiss on the cheek, she thought we were going for a hug and yours truly ended up kissing her neck. It was a years ago but it makes me cringe to this day.
Yes, some failures are funny. Other failures, maybe not so much. In fact, some failures leave big scars, like when we fail at work, and are disciplined, or lose our job or when we fail exams or tests and realise our dreams became unattainable (I remember being crushed as a teenager when I failed my aptitude tests to become an RAF pilot). Failing in relationships can leave big scars too, like the loss of a friend or the sadness of a broken marriage.
Sometimes our failures seem so big, that we don’t know what to do next. We don’t where to turn, what to say, who to trust. Well, if you’re not that familiar with God’s word, the Bible, I have good news for you tonight. Because God’s word was written for failures and it is full of failures from start to finish, which is a pretty encouraging thing, because it’s relevant for each and every one of us. None of us are immune to failure – as the proverb goes “to err is human”. And I want to share a bit of God’s word tonight. It’s a bit where Jesus is telling a story about a Dad who has two sons who fail. It’s a story that Jesus tells in order to teach an important spiritual truth. And in this story the Father represents God, and the sons represent us. So, before we go any further, I’m going to ask God to help us understand what his word says:
Lord God we thank you that you word is written for failures! As we look at just a small part of it tonight, help us to understand what you are saying about yourself to each of one of us. Soften our hearts Lord, to hear your truth. In Jesus’ name Amen.
So, if you have a Bible to hand and you’re the kind of person who likes to follow through, then do turn back to Luke 15. If you don’t have one to hand, don’t worry about that because all the key passages will come up on the screen as we go. So, this story is one of the most well-known in the Bible. It’s often called the parable of the prodigal son, but that’s actually a bit misleading. According to Jesus, right from the off, this story is primarily about a Father. The gospel writer Luke records Jesus as saying this (Luke 15.11):
There was a man who had two sons.
So this is the parable of the father who had two sons, not just the prodigal, but an older son too! And the two sons represent:
1. TWO TYPES OF FAILURES
You’ve got those who fail obviously and those who fail not so obviously. Let’s look at the obvious failure first.
i. The son who fails obviously
So the younger son, this is the one normally known as the prodigal, says to his Dad (Luke 15.12-13):
Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And [the Dad] divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. [We know just how reckless because prostitutes are mentioned later!]
So, it’s clear that the younger son has just one thing on his mind – himself! He wants to please himself; to be free from work, free from his obligations. It is in this sense that he fails in his responsibility to his family and indulges in reckless, or wild, living. It’s a deliberately shocking request. Imagine I were to go to my Dad now, he’s still alive, and I were to say to him: “Dad, I’ve no idea what you’ve got in the bank but when you and Mum die, half of its coming to me and half to my sister. So, let’s just cut to that point. I want my share now.” What am I saying? I’m effectively saying “Dad, I don’t want you. I don’t care about you. In fact, all I care about is what you’re worth to me in financial terms. And what I can do with the money now is way more important than what you might need it for between now and your death. Yep, in fact you are as good as dead to me now – give me the money and I’m out of your life!” Now if you’d heard I done that, I hope you’d pull me to one side and say – “Jon, what are you doing? It’s wrong to treat your Dad like that, you’re failing in your responsibilities as a son.” And you’d be right. And if you were wise – you might also ask “What’s your long-term plan? What are you going to do when the money runs out anyway?” Which is where Jesus goes next as he continues his story (Luke 15.14-16):
And when he [that’s the son] had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
What a failure! He’s blown it. There were good times – the buzz, the pleasure, the highs, the thrills. But they didn’t last and now his foolish selfishness and ill-discipline mean the money’s gone. He has no means and no friends to help and he finds himself alone, at rock-bottom. He is doing one of the most dishonourable jobs it is possible for a Jew to do – feed pigs.There is nowhere lower that this man could sink. Maybe, right now, you can identify with that. You’re at rock bottom. Your failure is obvious – if not for all to see, certainly to you. Maybe life has not turned out the way you planned. Perhaps you’re living with the consequences of decisions you wish you’d made differently People have been hurt badly along the way. Maybe the hopes and dreams you once had have crumbled around you and come to nothing. Those who you thought were friends are now nowhere to be seen and you are in pain and feel so alone.
Friends I don’t want to make light of your situation in any way, shape or form, but is it possible that God is using this time to call you to your real senses? To make you more aware of his presence in your life and your need for him? This was certainly the case for the younger son. His failures brought him to his senses. He got his things together and went home to the most unbelievable reception possible. But we’ll come back to that in a moment because it’ll be helpful first to see another kind of failure in this story. As well as the son who fails obviously there is also:
ii. The son who fails subtly
For the older son is probably didn’t fluff his exams at school. The older son didn’t fail in his responsibilities to his family – he always obeyed his father. He didn’t indulge in immoral, reckless living. And he certainly didn’t fail at work. He was, outwardly at least, a success! Yet inwardly, subtly, something was failing quite dramatically. When he heard of his younger brother’s return and the party that accompanied that return he was angry and refused to go in. That anger then expresses itself in bitterness and envy. He says to his dad in Luke 15.29-30:
‘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!’
It’s ugly, isn’t it? And it’s ugly because there’s more than a hint of self-righteousness about this chap. “I’ve played by the rules. I’ve not failed. Where’s the reward I deserve?” His failure wasn’t obvious, but it was quietly, imperceptibly, growing until this moment and here he is now on the cusp of failing, failing to love, to show mercy, kindness and forgiveness. His father has.But him? His world’s a bit more black-and-white. In his world there are the bad people who are obvious failures; the corrupt politicians, the bent coppers, the child abusers, the drug dealers, pimps, lockdown rule breakers! The bad people – the obvious failures, they need to be punished. But the good people who aren’t obvious failures, who have a veneer of respectability, who pass their exams, who contribute to society, who raise nice kids who never do anything wrong, who pay their taxes, who work hard – they, the good people, should be rewarded.
The truth is such distinctions are utterly false in God’s eyes. We’re all failures. Yes, some failures are more visible than others – but none of us are free from failure. Because our instinct, our default position, our drive is to always do what we want, what we think is best. And in doing so we fail to love the one who created us, who knows what is best for us, and we fail to love and treat others around us in the way that we long to be loved and treated ourselves. That is the true state of things – and it sounds pretty depressing doesn’t it? Is there any hope in Jesus’ story? Is there any hope in this book of failures? You bet there is! Because look at the:
2. THE FATHER’S WELCOME TO ALL FAILURES
Firstly, to the obvious failure:
Who, Jesus tells us, comes to his senses, realises his Dad’s servants have a better life than he does, and hatches a plan to return to his Dad, confessing his obvious failure: Luke 15.20:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
Then Luke 15.22-24:
…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
What a Dad! I’ve got to confess, I’m not this kind of Dad. I want to be, but I don’t think you’ll catch me dividing my inheritance early – (take note my three sons!) I don’t think I’d linger long in the road, looking, hoping for my son to return – I fear I’d give up. I’d be wary of believing that lame little speech he so clearly been practicing all the way home. And I certainly wouldn’t throw a party without first sitting down and talking about what went wrong, consequences and how we could stop it happening again. But this is no ordinary father!
The father that Jesus is describing here is none other than God himself. And his love for us is so great, so strong, so important that nothing can come in the way of a reunion with a truly repentant son. With repentance comes reconciliation. With reconciliation come reunion. And reunions are emotional special things. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an enforced separation from a loved one. I had my fair share of them during my time in the RAF, and I tell you something, that first hug, that first kiss, that reunion after a long period of separation is so special and so emotional. (Maybe you can identify). Well, that’s what God longs for. If you don’t know him yet; or if you have turned your back on him and are realising the spiritual poverty of your current position, then look up. There in the middle of the road stands your heavenly father straining his eyes towards the horizon searching for those failures whose hearts are repentant, and his arms are outstretched ready to embrace you and celebrate your return home no matter what you have done.That’s the incredible reality of how God welcomes the obvious failure.
His welcome to the subtle failure is no less stunning because the father meets his anger and self-righteousness with gentle compassion. He comes and meets him where he is and pleads with him, to see things from his point of view. Luke 15.31:
‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’
In other words, “are you going to come in and join the party too? There’s much to celebrate and you are just as welcome”. But with that Jesus’ story ends. He leaves it hanging. And just like Jesus’ original listeners, you are left to work out which son you are most like. I said at the start that God’s word was full of failures. It is, but with one obvious exception. There is one man in it who never failed. In the beginning it is promised that he will come. In the middle the promised one arrives, lives, dies and the claim is he comes back to life. At the end it is promised that he will come again. He is of course the God man Jesus. The very one who tells this parable. We’d love to tell you more about him so if you’re interested please head to our website whyjesus.org.uk You’ll find videos, free resources and some information about online sessions we run where you can come and ask any question you like about Christianity! So do check that out.
But in closing tonight, let me say this, I don’t know how you’ve failed. I don’t need to know. It might be obvious. It might not be. But I know you have failed because we all do. And God, your Heavenly Father knows you have failed. And the truth of this story, is that whatever your failures have been, there is always a way back to love, to forgiveness, to a glorious welcome from your heavenly father who created you and knows you better than you know yourself. And that way back isn’t easy. It requires humility, repentance -but friends if you turn to the Lord with all your heart your reception is guaranteed. God can’t do anything else; it is his very nature to love and forgive you and welcome you with open arms. He is longing for that, looking for that and will be overjoyed when you do. So come home! Come and join the party. You won’t be alone because guess what, the party is full of other failures too!