During the early part of his ministry, Bryan Chapell was speaking at a series of meetings held by a small church. More people than expected began attending and the church had prayer meetings for those who were coming. As Bryan listened to the people pray, he noticed that no-one prayed for one particular young woman who had a notable punk haircut. Bryan suspected that no-one was praying for her because she wasn’t the sort of person that they wanted in their church. So he spoke to the pastor.
‘Oh, that is our Maria,’ the pastor replied. ‘She is a loved part of this church family.’ Then he told Bryan her story.
Maria grew up in a family that was indifferent to her. She attended the church’s Vacation Bible School as a child. She was quite troubled and wild.
On one occasion her class in school took an excursion to a local university. There she met a young man who asked her out. She was flattered, and romance blossomed. They got married in a few weeks. Then Maria discovered how this guy afforded his car and apartment. He was dealing drugs. She told him that she was trying to escape that sort of lifestyle, and that if he didn’t stop she would leave him. He threatened that he would kill himself is she left. He didn’t stop dealing drugs, she left and he did kill himself. She was now fifteen, a widow and pregnant.
Maria decided to turn to the only people who had shown real kindness to her—the church. As they loved her, she fell in love with Jesus. She was a regular part of that church community, was coming to the meetings and bringing one of her friends with her. Maria had discovered the grace and life that this parable is all about!
I know that I have spoken on this parable a number of times before, but I have never dealt with one of its crucial themes. This is a resurrection story. Look at the words of the father to the elder brother, ‘your brother was dead but is now alive.’ This is the story of the prodigal’s resurrection!
The younger son had it all. He belonged to a wealthy family who could afford servants, hired men and a fattened calf. He had a future with an inheritance awaiting him. Most of all, he had the most amazing father. This father does not change in this story. The loving and gracious man that welcomed the son home is the same man that the son left. Many young people crave a father like this. But he did not value his father’s love.
This story is like the human story. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, had it all. Yet they did not value our Heavenly Father’s love, and so they rebelled against him. We have continued in that rebellion. ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one turning to their own way’ (Isaiah 53). By nature we have lived with hostility towards God’s loving rule.
As I thought of this parable, I asked myself, ‘in what way did this young lad die?’ I was surprised about how many ways there is. To start with, he was leaving family, home and community—in that culture it would have not been unusual for there to have been a funeral when such a disobedient child walked out (he was now dead to them). He was morally dead—the law said that such a child deserved to be put to death. His older brother describes him as a ‘waster’—he was living a life with no direction and purpose. He surrounded himself with shallow friends who were nowhere to be seen when his cash ran out. The father said he was lost. He was financial bankrupt. He was alone and despised. He was rejected by people who would not feed him. He was in danger of dying in a famine.
The New Testament says that without our lives being centred on Jesus we are like the leaving dead. We are dead in transgressions and sin (Ephesians 2). Without Jesus our life lacks hope, purpose and meaning. We are morally bankrupt. We are on a road without any hope that is heading to what is called the second death. Ours is a story of death.
When we were in Croatia, we stay in a lovely village called Jelsa. Jelsa is a civilised place. There are many tourists, but they are well behaved. Yet we have gone to the capital of the island, Hvar town, a couple of times. Hvar Town is popular with the younger, eighteen to twenty-five year-old crowd. There is a different feel. It seems that there is a lot more drink and the young people are seeking to pick one another up. It is tempting to condemn. ‘Would you look at the state of your man?’ ‘What does she think she is not wearing?’ However those young people need our compassion. In their search for love they will use and be used by each other. Their culture is empty. Their friendships are shallow. Their search does not offer meaning. We follow a man who looked of the crowds with compassion, who came to seek and save that which is lost, who offered life in its fullness, and who came not to condemn but to save.
There was another son who had it all but went to a distant land. This son did not go in disobedience but love. He had it all but he gave it up for us. He didn’t leave home seeking life but giving life. How different Jesus is to the younger brother!
Yet, like the younger brother, Jesus experienced what it was like to end up in the pits. He was rejected by fickle friends, he was left all alone, and he actually did die. It is because of this man that we can be welcomed home and the heavenly Father can say about us, ‘she was dead but is now alive. He was lost and is now found.’ Now resurrection life is ours. The truth is that there is no longer any condemnation on us.
Do we delight to be home? Do we cling lovingly to the Father as the Father clings lovingly to us? Are we glad that he has saved us from the perils of the distant land?
I want to finish by telling you about one of the most delightful Christians I have ever met. Her name was Emma McCann, but everyone knew her as Auntie Emma. She had been a member in the last church I served.
Auntie Emma was in a nursing home in Belfast when I first met her. She had severe dementia. My initial visit was only done so that I could say that I had called on her. I couldn’t see what good I could do for her. I did not realise all the good that she was going to do for me.
When I visited, I found a woman whose short-term memory only had a two-minute span, but whose mind was in love with Jesus. She smiled as she spoke about him. She declared her love for him. She quoted hymns and verses. I explained to Caroline, ‘that woman ministered to me.’ I have often wondered if such love would flow out of me if I my mind was stripped to its core.
Auntie Emma’s favourite hymn went, ‘I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I’d rather be his than have riches untold.’ She kept on reciting it. You see, Auntie Emma knew how good it was that the she had been brought home to her Heavenly Father, and so nothing in the distant land shone so brightly any more. She had been dead but brought to life. She found what she was looking for and he gave her more satisfaction than she dreamed. Now she is living in eternity with the source of her delight.