What do we learn from the elder brother? That very good, moral, religious people can be as lost as the most immoral sinner. We learn that Jesus extends forgiveness to the older brother because the father goes out and he says, “You’ve got to come in!”
The Pharisees are plotting to kill Jesus and Jesus knows it. And He is saying, “It’s still not too late!” The Father is gracious with irreligious people and He is gracious with moral people who, out of your goodness and your morality, you keep God at bay.
And then there are some lessons about fatherhood that we learn from the entire story. For some of you, the idea that, Oh, God is Father. You’re sitting here going, Yeah, it’s just like my dad and he was always around and he was caring and he was gentle and I remember he read me stories. But that’s not many of you.
My dad was a good dad. He was a World War II vet: Guam, Iwo Jima, Purple Heart, killed thousands of people, saw his buddies die. He was one of the few who made it out. He got deeply, deeply damaged.
They didn’t do counseling then or any of that kind of stuff so he came back and the way you dealt with your pain then is that when you had those images come to your mind, he had nightmares until the last years of his life at eighty-seven. You had a couple of beers and you felt better. It was sort of like that was good medication.
And then five years later, you had four beers and you’d feel better. Eight or nine years later, you have eight or ten beers and you’d feel better. And by the time I was in junior high, he had about fifteen beers before he got home from school, he was a teacher. And then by the time I got to high school, he missed supper.
I remember Saturday mornings, he and another guy would have two cases and they would each drink a case of beer and sit there all day. And he loved me and he was for me and cared about me; he was very functional and somehow he could get up and go to work and handle it and was a good provider.
But he was just absent. I didn’t hear him say, “I love you.” And the way he loved me was, If you get really good and you’re successful, you’ll be happy. And so he really pushed me in sports and pushed me in school and so I got good in sports and I got good in school. But no matter what I did, I never measured up.
And then, this is a long story, but I married this very wonderful, beautiful woman who had been through some great pain before she came to Christ. And part of that great pain involved two little boys. And so when I got married, I had this wonderful experience. I had two and a half days of honeymoon and I came back as a dad.
And I had twin four year olds. And God told us to go get prepared for ministry. And I was sure I was going to be a basketball coach. And I had already been to grad school and, nope! You’re going to do this!
And so now within a couple of years, we had a third little one. And I’m thinking, Man alive, I don’t have a clue about how to be a dad. And whether you like it or not, you parent the way you were parented.
Or you realize, I never want to parent the way I was parented, and you do the exact opposite.
And so I had written a thesis once and it was really hard and they are really long. Some of you have been through grad school. And so my next thesis that I had to write I thought, I am going to write it on something I desperately need – how to be a father.
And if you have ever been to grad school, what you know is: make the title of your thesis as long as possible, right? Because you want to eliminate all the stuff you’re not going to talk about so you get it down to just a few little things. So my thesis was: The Role and Responsibility of the Father of Teaching Values in the Family.
So what is a father to be? What is a father to do? And the long story of it was, I went through every passage in the Bible about a father or parenting and I looked at the first five books and the wisdom literature and the gospels and the prophets. And then I just asked two questions: What’s his role - what is he to be? And what is his responsibility - what is he to do?
And I got all that really clear. And the Bible was really clear. A father is to lead. He is to model the kind of life for his kids.
A father is to provide. You take care of people emotionally, spiritually, financially. And a father is to protect. And, boy, you protect your family. And then a father helps give purpose and alignment and you’re the biggest cheerleader of helping them become what they are designed to be. That’s what a dad does.
And because of my background in the social sciences, I thought, Well, I wonder, that’s what the Bible says. But I thought, That other thesis was all about values. And so I looked at all the social science literature and I wanted to find out, Is there a unique role of the father in a kid’s self-esteem or self-identity, his sexual development, and his moral development?
And there are certain things, as you study, this has been my whole world of educational psychology and how people grow and think and all that. And so there are certain things a woman does in the life of a child that a man doesn’t do that is very unique.
A man and a woman have equal impact in terms of a child’s self-esteem, how they feel about themselves, self-identity. But the father has a very much stronger influence on the sexual identity and the moral development of a child.
Little boys, for reasons I don’t understand, understand what it means to be a man, to be masculine, from their dad. And little girls understand what it means to be feminine by the way they are treated by their father and nurtured in a non-sexual way and esteemed.
And the moral development of what is right and what is wrong that goes from ideas to something within that they buy into, the father has this unique power in his life and nurture, to develop it. And it’s God’s plan.
Every single person in this room has been deeply, deeply impacted positively and probably negatively by your father or lack of father. In fact, if you look at another set of research, the top ten most problematic issues in all of the world are related to a father-absent family. Direct correlation: drug addiction, imprisonment, juvenile delinquency, future divorce.
See, when people don’t have a dad, when they don’t have a clear picture of a dad, difficult things happen. And so Jesus wants you to understand and what He gave to me was, I’ll be your Father. I’ll love you. And it’s not based on your performance. I will protect you, I will provide for you, I’ll help you discover your purpose, I’ve got a plan for you.
What He wanted people to know is He is not a higher power, He’s not some set of principles, He’s not some rotating sense of what happens life after life, He is not an angry God. He is your heavenly Father. When He wanted people to learn how to pray, what did He teach them? When you pray, say, “Our Father,” and He used an intimate word. It wasn’t like Father, it was Abba. It’s the word of little children climbing into the lap of their father. That’s who God is.
And I can tell you, you can know the “what” of Easter: God became a man, perfect life, died upon a cross, rose from the dead, paid for our sins; and never get the “why.” He wants to be your Father. He wants to guide your life. He wants to love you.
There are four or five implications and notice the first one in terms of what Jesus tells us about God is that you are exceedingly precious to God, our Father. He brought you into this room to just remind you of that. You! Not someone else.
And by the way, it’s not you are precious to Him when you’re doing good. Or you are precious to Him if you come to Him. You are precious to Him. That’s the story!
The wayward younger son mattered to God. The religious, goody-two-shoes who were actually jerks, mattered to God. To both of them the Father said, “Come in! Come in!”
Second, our willful rebellion keeps us from experiencing the Father’s love and provision. And just a quick word, here. I don’t come from a Christian background. And there are some of you, that people have been talking to you about Jesus and down deep in your heart you just feel like, God just couldn’t, I would never want to come clean with where I have been. And there is stuff in your past and stuff in your history and you just feel like you don’t measure up. And God wants you to know you don’t have to measure up. It’s grace. It’s a gift. He wants to, it’s not: Do this, this, this, and this. Start coming to church, start reading the Bible, clean up your life, stop cussing, quit drinking quite so much. Get off your prescription drugs, quit logging on to the Internet, quit cheating on your taxes. The list goes on and on and on, right? And then God will love you.
That’s a picture, but that’s not the God of the Bible. His is, I love you. Just come home. And you know what? I am going to do something inside of you.
And, see, part of why we do really stupid stuff that, down deep, that violates our own conscience is that we are looking for significance and security and there’s a hole of not being deeply loved just for who we are.
And God says, “When I start filling that, your morality changes.” But it doesn’t change as some list of rules. It changes out of a relationship because you love someone.
The third observation is that the Father is daily waiting for you to come home. Would you just jot down these five words? God is not down on me. And if you’re counting, that’s six words. God is not down on me.
You don’t, maybe, verbalize that but unconsciously, you know why a lot of Christians don’t pray very much? Who wants to pray to someone who is down on you? You don’t measure up. You’re not doing what you should. You’re lusting privately. You’ve got a problem over here. You made some bad decisions here. You feel like a failure over here. Your family has rejected you over here.
And you just feel like, I don’t measure up. So who wants to go before a holy God and be reminded you don’t measure up? What did Jesus do and what was the response of the father to a young son who absolutely did not measure up? A robe, a ring, sandals, a celebration.
See, you know what Christianity has become? It has become so warped it’s nothing more than moralism. Be nice, be a good person, follow some rules, do good unto others. You can do all that and completely miss the point of why Jesus came and what He offers.
He came to give you eternal life, not eternal rules! He came that you would be connected to the Father and He would fill the deepest needs of your heart and life! And that you would be loved and He would transform you and He would live inside of you and He would begin to live His life out through you and actually cause you to be an agent or a conduit of grace and love so you would care about other people!
Who knows how to help people who have been through a couple abortions except a woman who has been there? Who have been through a couple of marriages? Someone who has been there! Or someone who has a been a drug addict or a sex addict can say, “Look, I was lost but I am found. You know what? This is the Father!”
It’s the love of God that causes people to turn and change. And we have got a world, we’ve got all these religious people thinking that all the bad people are out there. That’s not the God of the Bible.
Fourth, our arrogant self-reliance keeps us from experiencing the Father’s love and provision. And this is the older son. And, by the way, here’s the danger, you have to be careful. The younger son knows he is lost. The older son has no clue.
The most dangerous place to be in the world is to be a religious Christian or just a religious person who you have come up with your own idea of what God is like and you have made your own little system and basically, you always find people who are doing a little bit less than you and you say, “I’m good. I don’t need God’s help. I will be my own savior.”
And for Christians, the characteristics of older sons are: Life is duty and obligation. You think God owes you a good life. You, down deep, feel guilty because you don’t measure up and you know, I ought to be doing this and I should be doing that. You feel pressured. Right living, you think God is going to make things right if you do right.
There is this quid pro quo: I do this, I do this, I do this, You have to give me a good family, a good marriage, and then you get really angry at God when life doesn’t go your way.
In relationship to others, older brothers feel superior, they are critical, they are prejudiced, they are judgmental, they are legalistic, they champion justice not mercy, and they repel irreligious people.
And, by the way, you can be religious in your own little religion. And most people, religiously, I ask them, I hang out with lots of different people. “Oh, yeah, I came from Iran or I came here, Saudi Arabia, here’s where I came from, here’s where I came from. Oh, I’m not…”
People, the great majority of all the Muslims are not radical at all. And they are no more Muslim than most Christians are Christian. Or Jews! Or Buddhists or Hindus. It’s cultural. Cultural Jew, cultural Baptist, cultural Catholic. And, basically, here’s the mix.
No one really practices any of those things but it’s your culture and you come to the Silicon Valley and you go, Hey, look, you probably ought to be a nice person. You’ll probably be nice to people. Don’t lie too much, don’t cheat too much, you are smarter than other people. You are much more upwardly mobile. And so your god is your work, your goal is to make your kids upwardly mobile, you want to be successful, and you look down on other people. And you think you kind of have it together.
And when anyone would question, What is God like? Well, who are you to tell me? And so you eclectically say, “I kind of like this part of that group and this part of that religion and this part of that religion and this part of that religion.
And I was on the plane with a guy just the other day, a really neat guy. We had a great conversation. And he pulled out his iPad and it was all in Jewish and I still can remember a little Hebrew. And so he kind of did the prayers.
And I said, “So are you Jewish?” He goes, “Yeah!” I said, “Are you Orthodox?” He goes, “No.” I said, “What are you doing?” He goes, “Man, this prayer says God will bless you if you do this prayer.” So we talked for an hour on the plane.
I said, “So, what do you do?” He goes, “Well, I keep the Sabbath but all the other stuff I’m not into.” And you know what? I just appreciated his honesty. I meet Muslims all the time, “Do you pray five times a day?” “Are you kidding me?” But what happens? “Well, you know, when we go home to visit I put the scarf on.”
And if you have ever traveled in the Middle East, all the ladies come with a scarf on, then they get on the plane, right? Scarfs come off, designer jeans, Coach bag, Gucci.
Here’s what you need to understand. You can be as lost as a religious, moral, good person and as far from God as people in the ditch in Vegas. Because you have created your own god. You have decided.
What gives you the right? Where were you in all eternity? When did you create the galaxies? When did you say, “Oh, I like this, the meditation part of Buddhism is great and the golden rule from Christianity is good and I like the disciple of part of a little Islam here and Jewish Sabbath. Man, I think that fits! And, hey, I think I’ll be Baha’i because you can be anything!”
And you talk to people and here’s what you get: I don’t have any need. I’m self-sufficient. You know what self-sufficiency is? Arrogance.
And so the elder brothers didn’t realize they are lost. So they can hear the Christmas story, they can hear the Easter story, they can hear about Jesus and here’s the, That’s good for you. Be a nice person, be a little bit more moral, hope things go well. I have my set of rules, I have decided what I believe and why, I am existential, I am intellectually elite, I’m more sophisticated than that.
And we deny all of time and history and don’t realize that Jesus came to say, “I’m not saying ‘car’ and you have thirty-five or fifty or a hundred different pictures come to your mind. I’m saying ‘God,’ and when I say, ‘God the Father’ I am offering eternal life and eternal life is to know – personally, relationally – the one true God and Jesus Christ, whom He sent.”
And who doesn’t need a Father? Would you let Me love you? You’re not signing up for a worldview, you’re not signing up for a set of principles, you’re not signing up for a formula. You’re coming home!
In fact, the very last observation from this passage is Jesus made a way for all who would come to Him to have God as their Father. But you have to come. He made a way. He died upon the cross and whether it’s blatant sins or arrogant sins or subtle sins, you have a heavenly Father who invites you and loves you.
When you think of this and think of what Jesus was talking about and the Pharisees are here and the young son is here and all the shepherds are going, Oh, I get it! And the women with the coin, they get it.
What could keep people, when they really understand that they are deeply loved, from embracing that love? For some of us in this room, for me, I still remember. What is it that could keep us from, I mean, this is like completely different than any worldview, any religion. This is grace, this is a gift, this is life. And it’s demonstrated and there is a resurrection and there is historical proof.
And what could keep us from coming home? And I read a story that reminded me of why.
A true story, it happened a number of years ago. A true story of two people. One is David Thomas and the other is Rachel. It’s in Wales. And David Thomas had a neighbor named Rachel and they were both thirty-two years old and at thirty-two, they were engaged and about to be married, and they had a lover’s quarrel. It must have been a very big lover’s quarrel.
And so they both went home that night and were alienated. And late into the night, David felt like, I really blew it. I’m going to own my part of it. And he went and he wrote a love letter to Rachel and said, “I’m really sorry. I want to ask you to forgive me for my part of the quarrel.”
He wrote it, put it in an envelope, and he went the next morning, and he stuck it under the door. For the next forty-two years, every single day, he wrote a different love note, put it, and stuck it under the door. Forty-two years.
I don’t know if he just got old thinking, I’m not sure this is working. It took him forty-two years to figure it out. Whether he got up the courage.
So two people are living side-by-side, they have loved each other deeply. They deeply, behind it, really want to be together. But for forty-two years, living side-by-side – note, note, note, note. After forty-two years, [knock, knock, knock, knock] he gets the courage, knocks on the door, Rachel opens the door.
Their eyes meet, he says, “Will you marry me?” And Rachel says, “Yes.” And it was in the paper. They were inviting people, at seventy-four years old, they are both being married for the first time.
And you know what that is a picture of? That is a picture of a lot of people where God is here and you are here and He has been slipping notes, slipping notes, slipping notes, slipping notes saying, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” And you’re saying, “Wait,” or me, “I don’t know.” And it’s pride.
What kept Rachel? It was, “Well, you know what? He owned his part but until he does this, until he does that.” And inside she knew.
You know what Jesus is doing today? “Behold!” [knocks] “I knock at the door of your heart. If any man or any woman would open the door, I will come in and live with you and you with Me. I will lead you. I will protect you. I will forgive you. I will be your God and you will be My son, you will be My daughter.”
And it’s not just a spiritual decision or a moment. In fact, look at your notes. This is what Jesus said when He was walking on the earth, “Come to Me all of you who are burdened or heavy laden,” stressed out, pressured, “and I will give you rest.”
Has anyone come to the conclusion that how you are doing life really isn’t working? And then He goes on to say, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me.”
In other words, it’s a picture of two oxen and Jesus is here and He goes, “This isn’t about some little religious experience. Hook up with Me and let’s do life together. Learn from Me. I’ll teach you how to do relationships, I’ll teach you how to forgive, I’ll teach you how to handle your money, I’ll teach you how to have joy, I’ll teach you everything because I am all-knowing and I’m all-powerful and I’ll not just be with you, I’ll live in you. And I’ll give rest to your souls. And, by the way, you don’t have to get uptight. I am gentle, I am lowly, I am not an oppressive taskmaster. I am going to put my arm around you and we are going to go through this together.”
That’s the offer and the “why” of Easter.