Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4
Last week as I was driving down 5 Mile Road, heading from Acme to the Holiday Hills area, I thought I saw a friend of mine running. The TART Trail runs along 5 Mile for that stretch, and it’s very common to see bicyclists and runners on the trail along there.
A few days later, I was at that friends house in that area and so I asked him, “Steve, did I see you running this week?” I found his answer kind of funny: “No, you in fact did NOT see me running this week. Or any week. Ever.” I guess Steve’s not a runner. Do we have any runners here this morning? I used to be a runner, but between knee injuries and just getting bored running, I don’t run much anymore. Still, it’s a popular form of exercise for many. When the Bayshore Marathon opens registration, the Marathon, half-marathon, and 10K races all fill up in minutes, and there’s a waiting list. A waiting list of people wanting to run 26.2 miles. And no one is chasing them. They just want to run that far. For no reason. I used to be like that. I guess I’ve gotten wiser with age!
Today, millions run to stay fit. In the ancient world, that wasn’t the case. Sure, athletes worked out and warriors had to make sure their skills were honed and their bodies ready for a fight, but Bethlehem didn’t have a running club. There was no Jerusalem marathon or Nazareth fun run. In fact, running was viewed as undignified. It wasn’t a respected activity. It was humiliating to have to run, or to be seen running. And at that time, humility wasn’t seen as a virtue. Until Jesus came along, humility was a vice, not a virtue, in the Greek and Roman world. Respected, wise old elders certainly didn’t run, not because they couldn’t, but because they shouldn’t. It was unseemly, undignified, to run.
So when Jesus told a story about a running father, people were aghast. Especially when he equated the running father with God. We call the story the parable of the prodigal son, but the focus of the story isn’t on the son. The focus of the story is on the running father. Jesus isn’t illustrating our sin problem. He’s illustrating our good, good heavenly Father’s desire to forgive. Luke records Jesus’ telling of the story in Luke 15:11-32.
Basically, we have a son who put a curse on his father and brought disgrace on the whole family. We think of cursing as a type of word that you say that you probably shouldn’t. But that isn’t what the Bible means by cursing. To curse someone is to wish something bad to happen to them. In a sense, it is to place a curse on someone. And, as is usually the case today, inheritances were given to the children when the parents died. In that day, it happened when the father died, and the inheritance went to the sons as the father had specified, and the sons were charged with caring for their widowed mother and any unmarried sisters from the inheritance.
To ask for the inheritance BEFORE the father died was equivalent to saying “I hate you. I wish you were dead.” Or, “I hope you die soon.” In that sense, the son cursed, or placed a curse on, his father. And that action, and the son’s wasting of his share of the inheritance, brought shame not just on the father, but on the entire family.
So the son takes his inheritance, a rather large sum, given what is left for the family later in the story … the father is still wealthy), and blows through it quickly partying, living the high life. And he winds up in the gutter, feeding pigs (something no self-respecting Jew would do) and eating their food because he had nothing left. He’s gone from as high as it gets to as low as it gets quickly. He finally wises up and, with extreme humility, decides he’ll limp home, his hat in his hands and his tail between his legs, and ask to become a servant of his father. He knows very well he doesn’t deserve to be a son anymore. He’s burned that bridge. He’s cursed his father, wished him to be dead, said, “You’re dead to me.”
And Luke tells is in V. 20, “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and RAN and embraced him and kissed him.”
God is the good Father, “Our Father in heaven,” who runs to embrace his wayward children when they come home to him. God does not begrudgingly forgive us. God is not only willing to forgive, God desires to forgive. But do we desire forgiveness? Not usually. Not anymore. We live in a world that tries its best to deny the existence of sin. Sure, we all have our own standards of what is right and what is wrong. What we’ve lost is any sense of an OBJECTIVE standard. And, as long as we aren’t hurting anyone else, who cares what we’re doing in the privacy of our own lives and our own homes? “Live and let live, “You do you,” and “Speak your truth” are the mottos of our times.
And to be sure, WE are not to judge others. That’s God’s job. But we ARE to carefully consider the state of our own hearts and minds and lives. We ARE to examine ourselves. I can’t make someone else live according to God’s law, according to the Word of God, but I AM to make sure that I am doing so, and that I am seeking God’s forgiveness when I inevitably fall short.
The Bible uses lots of analogies to describe sin. Breaking the law of God. Shortcomings. Rebellion against God. A polluted and dirty heart, mind, and life. Missing the target. And all of this in relation, first and foremost, to God. Sin is, first and foremost, and affront to God, even when my sin hurts someone else, or mars God’s creation in some way. But my sin, even when others are hurt and have a legitimate beef against me, is first and foremost an affront to God, because those I hurt are deeply loved by God.
We tend to view sin as something we do that is wrong. We call this sin of commission. I commit sin. But sin is also NOT doing those things that I SHOULD be doing. We call this the sin of OMISSION, and both are important to think about. What have I done that flies in the face of what God wants for me and from me, and what have I NOT done that as a child of God I should be doing?
But I don’t want to take that close of a look at my own heart, my own mind, my own life. I’m happy to point out the flaws of others, to judge the actions of others, but I don’t want any light shed on my own life, on my own sins of omission and commission. Most of us would agree that there are times when we need to forgive others, but to seek our own forgiveness before God? I’m not THAT bad, am I?
God through the prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). When sin entered this world at the fall, every part of every human being, every human mind, every human will, and every human body became tainted by sin. Sin affects ALL areas of our lives. It penetrates to the very core of our beings. And we are born that way. David, Israel’s shepherd king, says, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). You don’t have to be a parent for very long to figure out that as sweet and innocent as some little ones are, there’s a selfish, self-centered bent to every human heart. The first three words most children learn first are “no,” “mine,” and “mama.” “No,” likely because they hear it so often when they’re little, and “mine” because they don’t want to have to give up something that is bringing them pleasure. Self-centeredness. Self-focus.
Now, this isn’t to say that as sinful human beings, we aren’t capable of doing some really good things in this life, even if we aren’t following Jesus. Most people are capable of incredible and unselfish good in certain moments of life, and we’d all agree that some are better able to do this than others. But we aren’t capable of loving and following God with our whole hearts and minds and lives all the time, and therein lies the problem. The prophet Isaiah says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64:6). St. Paul says the same thing in the New Testament: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Truth is, I am capable of incredibly good and unselfish acts. And I am capable of just as incredibly evil and selfish acts. I am just as glad that you can’t read my mind as you are glad that I can’t read yours. We all are in need of forgiveness. Forgiveness from others, yes. But first and foremost, forgiveness from God. And God is our good heavenly father who delights to forgive. So why do we run from God?
Jonathan Edwards was born in America in 1703, and he lived his entire life in the British colonies here in the Americas before the time of the American Revolution. He was a puritan preacher and theologian, and his ministry was one of the primary sparks for the revival known as the “Great Awakening” here in America. In one of his sermons, titled “Men Naturally Are God’s Enemies,” he explored reasons why we as human beings are hostile toward God. For starters, God is holy, and we aren’t, and we don’t like feeling like we are dirty and unclean. We don’t like to be around anyone whose presence makes us feel that way, lest of all a completely righteous and holy God. And God is omniscient, all-knowing, and omnipresent, fully present everywhere. That means we can’t hide from this perfectly holy and righteous God. In Psalm 139 David laments, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Vv. 7-8). I cannot escape the searing gaze of a holy and righteous God, and my sinful self doesn’t like that.
Not only does God know all that there is to know about me, God also has the strength to do something about it. I cannot stand against God and win. Psalm 2 says “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” And God’s perspective on my sin will not change, because God in his character and nature is unchanging. I cannot hope that God’s view of my sin will change over time. It will not. All this to say, the only way the battle between my heart and God’s holiness CAN end is with my wholehearted and unconditional surrender. And that is the thing I fear most. Surrender. The giving of myself to another. Admitting my dependence upon another. I must come humbly before him, admitting that I need forgiveness. That yes, I can accomplish some great good in my life apart from Christ, but I cannot erase the sinfulness that distorts my mind, taints my flesh, and directs my will. The good I do cannot and will not erase the bad.
The good news is that in Christ, God, the holy and righteous judge has already atoned for my sin. When I place my faith in Christ and become a follower of Christ, his righteousness is counted against my sin, and the debt before God is marked “paid in full.” Every righteous thing I have left undone and every unrighteous thing I have done forgiven. Past, present, and future.
So if that’s the case, if that’s what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross, and it is, why do I need to confess when I fall short. If the sin is already forgiven, why confess? Because God is both my righteous and holy judge AND my loving and perfect heavenly Father.
The relationship between a judge and the one on the docket is one-way. The judge pronounces the verdict, and that is that. One way or another, the debt, the sin, the crime is taken care of and the case is closed.
But the relationship between a father and a child is two-way. It flows both directions, from father to child AND from child to father. So while legally, justice has been done. My sin has been punished. Christ took my punishment upon himself when he died for me on the cross, and he did the same for you. But my two-way relationship with God, in which he is my loving father and I his wayward child – that relationship must be maintained. And so to my good, good heavenly Father I come and say, “I’m sorry” when I stray, and believe me, that is often. The good news is that our heavenly Father is standing on the front porch, eyes trained on the horizon, waiting for us to come home, not so that he can punish us. That has been done. He’s waiting so that he can run to us, and embrace us as his children, returning home to his loving embrace once again.
Friends, that really IS Gospel. Good news. Because no matter what following Jesus might cost you in this life – no matter what ridicule and embarrassment you might suffer, no matter what opportunities you might lose, no matter what cost you must pay, even your very life – even with all of that, we get the better end of the deal. Jesus took our punishment, our separation from God, upon himself, so that we might experience forgiveness and God’s loving embrace.
Jesus wasn’t afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections we do. He’s angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue – that music, dancing, and a fattened calf are, in effect, just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: “Cut that out! We’re not playing good boys and bad boys any more. Your brother was dead and he’s alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” As pastor and author Erwin Lutzer has said, “There is more grace in God’s heart than there is sin in your past.” Our Father in heaven … forgive us our debts.” Amen.