Sermon October 5, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

October 5, 2014
World Communion Sunday

“Sola Gratia”

Luke 15:11-24

This is the third in our series of sermons on the five essential beliefs of Christianity that have come down to us from the Protestant Reformation. They were written in Latin so they came to be called the Five Solas. Sola means only or alone. These five foundational statements about Christianity are: Sola Scriptura – scripture alone; Solus Christus – Christ alone; Sola Gratia – grace alone; Sola Fide – faith alone; and Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be the glory.

If we think about what is really unique about Christianity, I think a good answer would be – grace. The word grace embodies the message of the Bible. This word appears over 115 times in the New Testament. And even where it doesn’t appear, the idea of grace seems to be on every page.

Grace is really what sets Christianity apart from other religions. Buddhists follow the eight-fold path to righteousness. Hindus believe in the doctrine of Karma. Jews, in order to receive God’s blessings, must obey God’s covenant. Islam has a strict code of law that all Muslims must follow. In one way or another, ever religion requires people to earn God’s approval – every religion except Christianity. The one belief that is completely unique to the Christian faith is grace – God’s unconditional love and acceptance.

Paul wrote in Ephesians – “By grace you have been saved.” The great theologian Karl Barth points out that it is the Bible alone that contains that sentence. We won’t read it in history books or philosophy books or science books. It is not a claim coined by a novelist. It is not in any other religion’s sacred writings. In the Bible alone we read – “By grace you have been saved.” This is the word of God to you and me.

Grace is the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The word “grace” in the New Testament is the Greek term “charis”, and it is one of the most meaningful words of our faith. Grace is a good surprise gift. This is God’s love, which cannot be earned or deserved, but is a gift which comes to us as a good surprise. Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. Tullian Tchividjian defines grace as “an unconditional acceptance granted to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver.”

When Jesus tried to explain the grace of God, he used a story, the parable of the prodigal son. Now there is a specific context for this parable. It’s found in the first two verses of chapter 15, which says – “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

And so this story emerged from those circumstances. Jesus is trying to explain why there is rejoicing in heaven when a lost, wayward person, like the tax collectors and sinners, turns to God. And Jesus’ first century Jewish audience would have recognized in this parable the elements of their own story – the story of exile and restoration. Jesus was making the point that this return from exile was happening in his ministry through his welcome of outcasts and eating with sinners.

This story is called the parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the lost son. Even so, the main character is really the father. Even when he is offstage, he dominates every scene in this story. The parable is really about the father. It follows the pattern of the two parables that precede it. The lost sheep is really about the shepherd who risks everything to find the sheep. The lost coin is about the woman who doesn’t stop searching until she finds the coin. The lost son is about the father who never gives up until he finds his son and restores him. This is the heart of the gospel message.

Jesus starts off – “There was a man who had two sons.” And then in the second sentence comes a shocking surprise. The younger son demands to receive his inheritance. In effect, he’s saying – “Dad, I wish you would drop dead so I can have your money.” At that time and in that culture, it would have been an unimaginable request. We would expect the father to kick the son out of the house and disinherit him. But surprisingly, the father grants the son’s request. He loves his son enough to give him the freedom to reject his love. Although he knows the terrible consequences, he allows his son to make his own choices.

The younger son sets about converting his inherited property into cash. As he went from one prospective buyer to another, the disgust and hatred of the community would intensify. This is not just a family scandal. The insult to the father is a slap in the face to the whole village. The boy has made himself an outcast.

So begins the son’s journey into the far country. Once there, as long as he has money he has friends and he’s the life of the party. However, eventually he runs out of money. A famine comes to the land and the son is in dire straits. As a foreigner, he has no one to turn to for help. The only work he can find is of the most humiliating sort for a Jew – feeding pigs. But even this job is not enough to sustain him. Even though his stomach was empty, the wild carob berries he was feeding the pigs were too bitter for him. And the emptiness of his stomach echoes the emptiness in his heart.

The rest of the story chronicles the son’s return to the father. If we read the parable carefully and intuitively we will also see the story of our own return to God. The parable of the prodigal son has been referred to as the gospel in miniature.

Jesus said that when the son had reached rock bottom, “he came to himself.” His eyes were opened. He saw his own sinfulness. He understood his rebelliousness and failure. He also remembered his father. He didn’t suddenly decide that he didn’t like living in a pig sty. He didn’t finally realize that he was sick of living hand to mouth. He remembered what his father was like. He remembered his father’s love and he came to believe that he could go home again.

The son says to himself – “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”

The biggest obstacle to the son’s return would be the reaction of the village. What the son has done is not just a family affair, he has shown contempt for the whole community. The village was a tight knit society and he was now an outcast. As soon as the prodigal nears the edge of the village the word of his arrival would flash throughout the whole town. Quickly a mob would gather around him. He would be mocked, subjected to taunting songs, and verbally and physically abused. The children would throw rocks at him and the old women would spit on him.

Jesus said – “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” This is the most amazing, most surprising element of the story. The father doesn’t wait to find out if his son has learned his lesson. In love, he feels compelled to take his son’s shame and abuse upon himself. He gathers his robes in his hands and runs through the streets to wrap his arms around his son.

The Greek word for “ran” is a technical term denoting a foot race. We’re accustomed to seeing someone like a president jogging in public. However, in the Middle East, then as today, it is a humiliation for a nobleman to run. Aristotle said: “Great men never run in public.”

The father exposes himself to ridicule and contempt by racing through the village to welcome his wayward son. The son begins the speech he has been rehearsing, but you notice he never finishes it. He says – “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And then he stops. He says nothing about being treated like a hired hand. He has been shattered by the overwhelming love of his father. The father has embraced him in forgiveness and acceptance and he realizes he will always be his father’s son.

The father said to the servants – “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

The 19th century Scottish preacher George MacDonald asked – “What is deepest in God? His power? No, for power could not make him what we mean when we say God… In a word, God is love. Love is the deepest depth, the essence of his nature, at the root of all his being. Love is the heart and hand of his creation. It is his right to create, and his power to create. But it is out of his love that he does create.” God is like the loving father who runs to embrace his prodigal child.

Lewis Smedes writes that “being accepted is the single most compelling need of our lives.” Therefore, it is grace that offers us the one thing that we need most – to be accepted without regard to whether we are acceptable, and to be accepted by the grace of God whose acceptance of us matters most.

At a deeply personal, feeling level we can sense the love of God in this story. We know that we are encountering the grace of God. Behind the creation of the world and our own lives is not an angry, capricious God. We can know that at the heart of the universe there is not only ultimate power, but ultimate love. When Jesus wanted to describe the grace of God for us, he told this parable about a father and a son. And in the image of the father, a divine, forgiving father, we can see most clearly the heart of God.

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