Open up to Luke 15, that’s where we’ll be camping out this morning. We’re on message four on a series that we’re doing on Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son and the Prodigal Father. Prodigal simply means ‘recklessly lavish.’ There are sons that are acting that way in the story, and then there’s a father who, in many ways, epitomizes a recklessly lavish approach to life.

If you haven’t been with us, the story begins with a younger son saying to his father, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance.” He goes away and squanders it. {It was depicted in the song that was just sung—The Prodigal.} He comes to his senses and eventually starts to make his way home, and that’s where we’re picking up the story today in Luke 15:17-24. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will 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 as one of your hired servants.”’ 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. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But 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’s fascinating about this story is that if you were to hear it for the first time, as Jesus was telling it, you would never have expected the ending that Jesus puts on this story. We’ve been around it enough and have heard it enough that now we EXPECT the father to run, we EXPECT the father’s embrace. But every original listener to this story would have expected a different ending and they would have been uniform in the ending they anticipated. There was a ceremony, there was a tradition, that they would have enacted if somebody like this younger son said to his dad, “Dad, I want my share of this stuff. I wish you were dead. You’re better off to me dead than you are alive,” and taken it and squandered it. There was a way they handled things like that. It was a ceremony called ‘Kezazah.’ It literally means, in the Hebrews, ‘a cutting off.’ Here’s what they would do. If, hypothetically, this situation would have taken place in a first century Jewish household, and the younger son started to come back, somebody from the village would take a clay pot and they would go and meet this returner on the road. They would take the pot and they would break it at the feet of the person coming back. It was a picture of you don’t mess with the patriarch of our village in that way. You don’t disgrace the father and then think you can come home. It was a picture—as the fractured pot would lie on the ground—of the covenant, of the relationship, that had been irreparably broken and irreparably damaged and was beyond repair. It was their way of saying, “What’s done is done. You’ve made your bed, you’ve got to lie in it. You are not welcome here anymore.”

The brilliant scholar, Kenneth Bailey, who’s taught and studied in Lebanon for forty years, says this about the Kezazah ceremony: “Any Jew who loses his money among foreigners and then tries to return was ceremonially banished, where a clay pot filled with burnt beans was broken at the feet of the offender as a visual symbol that the community rejects him forever.” This is done. THIS. IS. FINISHED. Village societies were notorious for being ruthless about people who shamed the name of their village. In an honor-shamed society, what the younger son does in throwing the father’s money in his face and in saying I love your stuff more than I love you and I’m going to go live outside of your provision, outside of your care……for a son to do that in a patriarchal culture was one of the worst offenses that could have been perpetrated against the father. So that was how it was handled.

So, could it be that this father, in Jesus’s story, sits and anticipates and watches that road not just to go and shower his son with love and affection, but to cut off anybody who might be running towards him with a clay pot? To prevent somebody from his village—-somebody well-intentioned, somebody who wanted to defend the honor of the patriarch of the village, as if to say, “If you do this in our town, you get treated this way.” I mean, people, certainly, would have been waiting to do that. It’s what they did. Is it possible the father runs, pulls up his coat and runs toward his son, not with a clay pot in hand, but with open arms, because he doesn’t want anyone to get there before him? He doesn’t want anybody to break the pot at his son’s feet, and to say this is irreparably damaged and irreparably broken.

This story turns the preconceived or general notions of the way that we think about God on its head. Our typical view of God is that he’s the vindictive father, the vindictive God, that if you wrong him, you’ve got to pay. If you sin, you’ve gotta pay for your sins. So people wrestled….what do we do with this story? What do we do with a story that welcomes the son back and there’s no penance to be paid, there’s no penalty, there’s just welcome. Where is the “atonement” in the story? That’s a great question. The nation of Islam would say that this is a story that cannot talk about how to come into relationship with God because there’s no sins to be paid for. Here’s where they’re wrong. There ARE sins that are paid for. They’re paid for when the father divides, literally, his life or his property and give them to his son, but more than that, when the father lifts up his robe, humiliating himself, runs towards his son, what he’s doing is carrying the weight of the son’s sin. He’s accepting the shards of the fractured relationship and the rejected love….he’s taking it fully and completely on himself and saying, “I’ll pay for that.” He runs to his son, not with a clay pot in hand to break at his feet, but with open arms as if to say, “You are welcomed home.”

He echoes what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, what many have said is the great exchange: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, {He accepted the weight of the fractured relationship. He accepted the weight of all the wrong.} …so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. He’s just saying in theological terms what Jesus told the story about. That you and I are welcomed home. That God himself takes upon him the sin of fractured relationship in order to invite us back. {Friends, will you look up at me a second.} This is the ground that we fundamentally stand on as followers of the way of Jesus. That we are welcomed back because of the grace of God. We’ll say it like this this morning: Our approach to God—the way that we run home, the way that we interact with him, the way that we walk with him on a daily basis—is grounded in his already acceptance of us because he carried the weight of the fractured relationship. There is absolutely nothing that stands between you and God this morning. God does not look at you with a clay pot in hand and think about all the things you’ve done wrong and is ready to go it’s DONE, it’s gone too far. It’s over! Away!

As I’ve thought about my life and I’ve thought about this idea of being accepted by God, I have two tapes that sometimes play in the back of my head. Tape #1—God’s going to accept me when I’m acceptable. When I clean up my act enough then I can go home. This is the narrative that plays in the back of our mind that says we’ve got to earn it. We’ve got to do enough so that we don’t hear the sound of that clay pot hitting the ground that declares we are not enough. Tape #2—If I try to be back in relationship with God, or as a follower of Jesus, after I wandered, if I try to come back, I know I’m going to be rejected. So one tape says if God’s going to accept me I’ve got to be acceptable. The other tape says I’ll never be acceptable. The narrative is one of guilt and shame and condemnation that we heap down on ourselves. So we go, accepted by God? Maybe someday. And then there’s a lot of people I get the chance to interact with and they’re going, uh, I don’t need to be accepted by God, I’ll make my own way, I’ll do my own thing. Acceptance? I don’t need it. Acceptance? I’ll earn it. Acceptance? Never me.

These are the three narratives that play in our mind. Jesus dispels all of them when the father runs, picks up his robe, disgracing himself. That’s exactly what he did in the first century culture when he lifts up his robe to run. Men did not run back in the day. It was a humiliation. Here’s what we see—the father humiliates himself, disgraces himself to offer his son grace, to offer his son mercy. Here’s the ground that you stand on: By grace, you are accepted by the King of kings and the Lord of lords. You are welcomed home. It’s the fundamentally, most true thing about us as followers of Jesus.

I want to give you four pictures today that I think might help tease out what that means to be accepted by God. I want to paint a picture of a coat, a ring, a shoe, and a cow. My hope is that as we talk about these things they will make this picture all the more clear. There the things that Jesus uses to invite us more and more into this welcome—the open arms rather than the shattered clay pot—that the King of kings and Lord of Lords extends to us. There are found pictures of the acceptance that this younger son gets that are ours as well.

Here’s the way it reads (Luke 15:22): But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe…’ In a patriarchal society, who owned the best robe? The father. Absolutely. The father was second to no one in this culture, so the best robe in the village would have only been owned by the upper echelon, the top, the peak of the village and that was the father. So, when he says go get the best robe, he’s saying, “Go get MY robe.” Go get it out of my closet. You know the one. The one that I wear when we have the BIG festivals, the BIG parties…..go get THAT one….and put it on him. I’m constantly fascinated by the fact that God is completely unlike me. The younger son was spending time in pigpens. The younger son was caring for pigs. Here’s the thing, if you start caring for pigs, if you work in a pigpen, what do you smell like? Pigs! For a Jewish father, there would have been no smell as repulsive as the smell of a pig. Here’s what the father does not do….he doesn’t do what I would do, which is “Hey, if you could go grab a quick shower….” If you could clean up a little bit. My kids (especially my older son) loves to snuggle with me while he’s eating a bag of Cheetos or chips. Eventually, everything that I’m wearing turns into his napkin! I’m like, “We’ve got to have a bubble here….I don’t want you to get your junk all over me. I don’t want to get dirty.”

The father in this story does the exact opposite. He sees him in his mess and he runs towards him in embrace. The coat teaches us that as the son comes home he gets to carry the respect of his father. Can you think of him walking into the festival that is about to commence in his honor wearing his dad’s coat? It would have been a very clear message to everybody in the village—This is my son, this is my coat; he is carrying the weight of what it means to be my son once again. He’s got this respect and he’s restored. He’s brought back. It’s what the picture teaches us. I think Jesus is pulling an image from the prophet Isaiah (61:10) — I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. It’s a phenomenal picture that if you are in Christ, by faith, you are dressed in the King’s robe. Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before his throne.

There are two approaches we can have to gaining acceptance from God. One is that we earn it. Here’s the way we think about that: Once I get clean enough, I’ll be accepted. Once I clean my act up, once I stop doing THAT (whatever THAT is, fill in the blank), then God will say to me, “Alright, Paulson, I’ll be waiting for you. Finally, you’ve come around. You’ve gotten up one more level on the ladder. Congratulations!” This just in: That is NOT the gospel. That is not, as followers of Jesus, what we believe. As followers of Jesus, what we believe is that we receive the robe from the King of kings and the Lord of lords and that as we walk in that, we become more and more clean. It doesn’t work the other way around. It’s not clean up to GET the robe. It’s live in light of the reality that you wear it. And that it’s yours. And that it’s yours by grace alone. It turns out that it’s this grace that when it gets inside of us, it actually starts to change us, it starts to transform us. The way that theologians would say it is that we are sanctified. We become more and more like Jesus on a daily basis, in the exact same way that we’re justified. By grace. Here’s the way the Apostle Paul says it: For sin will have no dominion over you, {It won’t have power over you in a way that controls your life.} since you are not under law but under grace. (Rom. 6:14) Your life is going to start to reflect the freedom of Jesus because you wear the robe of the King. You don’t get the robe as you become more clean. It’s the thing that changes you. In the story, God’s acceptance does not excuse the son’s sin. It eradicates it! It fundamentally changes his approach to life.

That’s a coat. Second picture is of a ring. But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand…. In our culture, rings have a metaphorical power or weight. They paint a picture. They communicate a covenant. If you take a ring off, you’re still married, right? They’re just a picture of something that’s true. In the first century, rings carried both the metaphorical weight—it was a picture of something—but it also carried a literal weight. Most likely this was a signet ring, it was a ring that had the family emblem or crest on it. It was the way that people entered into covenants. It was the way marriages were solemnized. It was the way that wills were enacted. It was the family seal. The son comes home and the father immediately says get my robe and get the ring, as if to say, he’s a part of this family again. He’s fully reinstated and he represents us.

Somebody should have pulled this dad aside. We talked about the father not understanding the principles of “Dare to Discipline” to well, right? He just let his son wander away with all of his wealth and property, and he didn’t create any sort of hedges around how he’d spend it and he just blew it. We have this picture of the son who crashes the family car, comes home, and the dad gives him the keys again. We’re going, “Shouldn’t there be a time period of proving yourself?” Shouldn’t there be some testing that would go on to see if it’s genuine—this repentance, this coming home, this speech? Shouldn’t we at least make sure that he’s telling us the truth? What’s fascinating is that from day one, there’s no penance, there’s no time of proving himself, there’s no time of testing, there’s only welcome, and there’s only arms wide open, without the clay pot in hand. So it is with us, friends. We think that when we approach God we’re going to have to work off all of these things that have gone on in our life. All of those past regrets; those things that we wish we could undo, the things we wish we could redo. That somehow God’s going to lay those out in front of us and go, “Alright, Paulson, let’s get to work.” It’s just not the case. From day one, he’s reinstated into the family, and from day two, he carries the name of the family. Here’s the way the book of Acts says it about the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:15). This is after Paul’s confronted with a light on the road to Damascus and he’s called to Jesus. This is Jesus speaking to Ananias. But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” No time of testing. Paul, you are invited back into the family. You’ve got the ring on your finger. And so do you. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. That is what Jesus is telling us. Regardless of how far gone you’ve been, regardless of how much pain is in your life, there are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. The irony of that is that when we hand over our weakness, when we hand over our brokenness, Jesus uses that to shine through to the world around us.

A coat. A ring. And shoes. But 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.’ One of the most poignant parts of Rembrandt’s portrait, The Return of the Prodigal, the younger son’s shoes are tattered and torn. He probably didn’t have a second pair. The distinguishing mark of the shoe is a slave, in this culture, a servant, a day laborer….which is what the younger son wanted to be upon returning to his father’s household. That was what his hope was….just put me to work and pay me by the day. It’s the lowest level. Day laborers did not get shoes. Sons get shoes. Day laborers have bare feet. It’s a picture of….I’m not going to make that kind of investment in you.

When I first heard Dr. Jeff Brodsky’s story about why he goes barefoot…. He goes barefoot because of the girls that he met on the trash heap outside of a city of Cambodia. They were girls who were captured and put to work as slaves. Their owners took their shoes so they couldn’t run away. It’s fascinating that when the father gives the son back his shoes, he’s saying, “I don’t keep you here by restraint. I keep you hear by relationship.” If you want to run away again, that’s on you, but you run from my ferocious, reckless love. It’s intended to be the defining characteristic of your life. Here’s what we see in the shoe. He’s a son and it’s a marker of his identity.

Upon returning, the son mostly like thought he’d just be a paid craftsman or, like I said, a day laborer. He’d been working for the father. I think a lot of us have this same view of God. We become a follower of Jesus and he puts us to work. Or he calls us to himself because he needs some things done. On my Friday off, my youngest son is off with me. There was a toilet in our house that we needed to replace. I told Reid, “Let’s go. We’re going to replace this toilet together.” We walk into Home Depot and pick it out together. We start to install it and I give him some “jobs.” “Can you hand me those bolts?” He’s like, “Absolutely, yes!” When we’re done, he’s like, “Look what WE did!” I had this moment of I think that’s the way my Father feels about me. He doesn’t need me! He invites me along with Him. He invites me to be part of what He’s doing. You do not work FOR God, you work WITH God, as He is in the process of restoring and redeeming. He is not the slavedriver putting you to work. He’s the loving Father saying, “Join me in the work that I am doing.” It’s the picture of the shoes on his feet.

We are not slaves. We’re sons. Listen to the way Paul says it in the book of Romans (8:15-17) — For you did not receive the spirit of slavery {That’s not from Jesus.} to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, {Brothers and sisters with the Messiah, the King of kings and the Lord of Lords. That’s remarkable, is it not? It’s amazing!} provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. We walk with him in the valleys, in the shadows, on the mountaintops, and the celebration, and He’s with us in it all. Why? {Look up at me!} Because you are not a slave. You’re a son or daughter of the King.

A coat. A ring. Shoes. A cow. And bring the fattened calf…. {Most villages would only have had one. It was the prize, the culinary prize of the entire village.} ..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. Here’s the thing—a goat would have been completely sufficient for a family. But the father does not want to throw a party for his family. He’s throwing the party for his village. He’s throwing a party for anybody who would want to come. In the very first parable in Luke 15, a shepherd loses a sheep, goes and finds it, and then calls together his friends and neighbors saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. In the second parable, a woman loses a coin and when she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” And when the father loses his son and his son comes home, he kills the fattened calf and says, “Rejoice with me! My son was dead and now he alive. He was lost and now he is found.” It’s a picture of celebration. It’s a picture of gift. I don’t know about you, but the celebratory father is one of my favorite images of God in all of Scripture. Of a father who looks at his kids and says, “I long for them to be home. I long for them to be found. And when they’re found, I celebrate.” Because he loves us.

Every time it’s one of our kids’ birthdays, my wife and I sneak in their room, after they’ve gone to bed the night before their birthday, and we decorate it with streamers and with balloons and…. I can remember the first time we did this with Avery. After we went to bed that night, we were both woken up by her going, “Ooohhh! Oh my goodness!” Kelly and I were lying in bed listening to her say, “Oh my goodness!” Over and over and over. I’m like, “That was worth all that work the night before.”

When our God looks at us, He says, “I have blessed you with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Eph.1:3) There is nothing that I’ve held back from you. I’m not withholding anything, not one ounce, I’m giving it to you. His hope is that we would look back at him and go, “Oh my gosh!” I should have been greeted on the road with the clay pot, but you welcomed me with open arms. Not only did you welcome me, but you reinstated me. Not only did you reinstate me, but now I get to represent you. Not only do I get to represent you, but you call me a son or daughter. Not only do you call me a son or daughter, but you celebrate me! Are you kidding me?! This is so good you could even call it Gospel!! You could call it Good News! It’s unbelievable. Friends, your name is engraved in the palms of his hands. He sings over you. He rejoices over you. He is a good Father who loves to hear you say, “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! I can’t believe you’ve been that good to me!” This is the gospel. God does not wait to bless us until we prove ourselves faithful. He blesses us in order to prove himself faithful. And he is. And you are blessed.

If you’re going, “Ryan, what do I do with a coat, a ring, a shoe, a cow, and a pot? What am I suppose to do with that?” Let me give you a few ways that this is working itself in me. The first step into acceptance is to trust that by faith we’ve been accepted and embraced by the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Regardless of where you’ve been, and regardless of what you’ve done, and regardless of what tape plays in your mind about who God is and what God is like, can I tell you who God is and what God is like? He is the father who pulls up his robe and runs, not with a clay pot in hand to throw at your feet and to say that you’re a sinner and he’s done, but with open arms to say, “My grace covers you.” You gotta trust that, you guys. We’ve got to build our foundation on the foundation of grace.

Here’s the second thing. If that’s true, you’ve got to know that guilt and shame have absolutely no place in the life of one who is in Christ. Because as the Scriptures clearly say: There is therefore now no condemnation {I love the word NOW—right NOW, TOday and NO—zero, zip, zilch…are in there.} Here’s the thing: If Jesus isn’t holding any condemnation against you, YOU shouldn’t hold any against yourself either! This is the pathway to freedom. You’re accepted. You’re loved. Guilt and shame have no place.

Three — Will you understand that the way God grows us is through understanding His grace. The gospel is both the anchor that holds us and the engine that moves us. We don’t grow outside of it. We don’t grow farther than it. Just more and more and more. We grow as we realize we’re accepted, that we’re loved, that our names are engraved in the palms of His hands, that He sings over us. That is the method of growth in the Christian life.

Fourth — I think the story asks us a question. What are we going to do with our pot? What are we going to do with the clay pot we hold? Do we throw it at the feet of people who’ve wronged us? You’ve gone too far! {Crash!} I’ve got to defend my honor! {Crash!} Or, is it….grace is sufficient and grace is enough. As a Church corporate, capital C Church, it breaks my heart that I think the way people picture the Church is hey, give me another one of those clay pots! {Crash!} You’re outside! You can’t come in! {Crash!} Unclean! You’ve done too much! That is NOT the disposition of our Father, so let’s let it not be the disposition of our church, too. Instead of looking for clay pots, let’s say, “Our arms are open, because the King of kings and the Lord of lords has welcomed me, so who the heck am I to think I can throw a pot at somebody’s feet?”

Finally, let’s be people who rest and enjoy the embrace of our Father. Friends, when we believe we’re accepted—a coat, a ring, a shoe, a cow—we can finally stop earning and we can start enjoying. This is the picture of the gospel. The father leaves his home to meet his estranged son on the road—-Incarnation. He humiliates himself and absorbs the wrong of his son’s betrayal—-Atonement. So that he can bring us home and once again make us part of his family—-Salvation. That we would be raised from death to life—-Resurrection. Friends, this is our story. Let’s receive it and let it be the story we give.

Jesus, I thank you for the welcome that you extend to us. May it fill our souls, may we rest in it, and may it shape us. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.