Over the last few weeks we’ve been living in the parable of the Prodigal Son that’s found in Luke 15.  We’re in our last message of this series that we’ve been doing.  Remember, a parable literally means ‘to throw alongside of.’  In this parable, it’s Jesus taking the story of a father and his two sons and he throws it alongside of the reality of the world we live in and the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate.  We said earlier that a parable presents a picture for us to climb up inside of and explore.  For us to ask questions about ourselves and about God.  It’s a way for us to ask the question are we living in the way that Jesus created us to live and designed us live? Are there maybe some things that God would press on us to say, “You’ve pictured me in one way, but I’m different than you’ve ever imagined?”

Over the last four weeks, we’ve been exploring this through the angle of the younger son.  The son who says to his father, “Give me all of my share of the inheritance, my share of your property.”  He takes it and goes away.  He blows it all in reckless living.  A few weeks ago, we talked about the younger son coming to his senses, having this ah-ha moment, realizing what he’s done, and he decides to go home.  He’s got this whole speech prepared:  Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.  I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.  If I could just be a day-laborer in your household, take me back, please. You’ll remember, if you were here last week, that the father doesn’t just forgive, and doesn’t just welcome him home, he does so with exuberance, open arms, and with grace abundant.

Then there’s the older brother.  I don’t know about you, but the older brother reminds me a little bit of……me!  A few weeks ago, I had the chance to teach at a church in California.  I flew in Saturday to teach that evening and decided I’d fly home Monday, because I figured I could write a sermon as easily in a coffee shop on the beach as I can in my office.  Monday, I got up early and had breakfast with a friend.  Then I drove down to the coast.  I found this cool little coffee shop and for the first few hours of the morning, I was just working away, but I could almost hear the ocean calling me.  It knows my name!  I decided to walk on the beach and eat lunch down there.  Then I thought, “Well, I’ve got my running stuff in the car and it’s a beautiful day.”  So I changed and went for a long run on the beach.  I got back to where I parked and thought, “I’m already all sweaty.  I should probably go for a swim.”  So…..I did!!!  Here’s the thing about me—I am what some people refer to as a ‘Type A’ personality.  I just call it responsible.  When I have a plan, I execute my plan.  My plan was to study in the morning, eat lunch, and study in the afternoon.  But the ocean was calling me!  I was already sweaty!  I decided to throw my plan out the window.  {Is that hard for anybody else?}   Monday night, I was getting ready to fly home, and I was sitting in the airport in San Diego, and I had sand in between my toes, and I thought, “Yeah, this feels good!”  Then I thought, “But I almost missed it!”  I almost did the “responsible” thing and went back and said ‘no’ to the invitation of the warm, crashing waves, and just got all my work done.

An older brother would just execute.  Just get it done!  I don’t know if that’s in you at all, but I know it’s in me.  When I read this part of the story of the prodigal, I just sense Jesus saying, “Hey, Paulson, this one’s for you.” Luke 15:24-32.  {The father says…} For this my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate.  Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.”  But he was angry and refused to go in.  His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of your came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!  And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”  

A festival or party is a significant theme in Luke 14 and 15.  There’s a wedding celebration that ends with a  party.  There’s a great celebration that ends with a party.  There’s a shepherd who goes to look for his sheep.  He finds it and throws a party.  There’s a woman who loses a coin, finds it, and throws a party.  This is an image that we have of what God is like.  God is a party-throwing, festival-going, kind of guy!

The story of the prodigal son comes to a peak, culminates, at the very end.  It’s like Jesus isn’t following the normal story arc.  He ends with a question.  He ends with a proposition.  Remember, he’s teaching to two groups of people at the same time.  He’s teaching to tax collectors and sinners.  He’s teaching to the ‘younger brothers,’ if you will.  Also in the crowd, the people he wants to respond to and press on, are the ‘older brothers.’ It’s the Pharisees.  The people who look at him and say, “Jesus, these are the people you should be demonstrating your holiness by NOT being around them.  What in the world are you doing?”  In this story, the story ends with dancing.  The story ends with a festival and with a party.  The story ends with the older brother outside.

It’s interesting, if you look at Luke 15:28, you start to see the heart of God.  His son is angry, he refused to go in, but the father came out.  It’s this humiliating action of a father, because as a patriarch in this society, your kids should just DO what you ask them to do.  You’re in charge.  He came out, and it says….entreated him.  In the Greek, it’s this word that means not condemnation and not punishment, but he’s pulling on his heart strings.  He’s saying, “Well, come on!  The waves are crashing!  The sun is shining!  The water’s warm!”  Like, jump in!  It’s this affection-driven pleading.  I love you!  Why are you content to be outside of the party?

It’s interesting that all throughout the pages of Scripture, the authors that recount for us the oracles of God have this anthem, this drum that they beat, this…..don’t miss it!!  Don’t miss His love.  Don’t just go right by it.  The Apostle Paul, in writing to the church at Ephesus, says:  {I bend my knee and bow before God, our Father, and ask Him this.  My prayer is..} that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19)   As if to say, that when you’re filled with the fullness of his love, you’re free to live in his world, you’re free to operate as his children.  You’re free to be the people that Jesus intends and designed you to be.  Here’s what we find out from the younger brother and from the older:  When we’re found in love, we’re free to live.

I had somebody say to me the other day, “Oh, I get it!  FREEway!  That’s why the series is called Freeway.  It’s the WAY to be FREE!”  Yeah!  And we’ve been talking the last few weeks about what it means to be free and the culmination, the fulcrum of freedom, is life with the Father.  You can’t have it any other way.  When you have it, there’s no other way to live other than free.  Here’s the way I’d say it this morning—Love is the context of freedom.  When we know we’re loved, the freedom that God brings into our life goes beyond our circumstances.  It goes beyond our limitations and our fears.  It grounds us in something more beautiful, something more transcendent than our own accomplishments.  Love is the context of freedom.  The invitation this morning is to step into that.  We know that this is true—-When we’re found in love, we’re free to live.  We know this is true if we had parents that really showed the love of God to us.  They freed us to live.  They freed us to be able to live without the feeling that we would be cast out if we made a mistake.  They freed us to live by knowing that if—maybe better, WHEN—we fell, there would be somebody there to catch us.  We know this is true in relationships, in a marriage.  When a marriage is grounded in love, it frees both people to say, “Yeah, this is who God has designed me to be.”  Love is the thing that causes the human heart, the human soul, to open up, to flourish, and to be what God intended for it to be.

We also know the opposite side of that, don’t we?  That when we doubt that we’re loved, we know we have to perform.  When we doubt that we’re loved, we get a little bit anxious, don’t we?  Self-conscious.  We get a little bit crazy!   It’s in us, from a real early age.  We were designed for love.   I saw a video this summer that just stuck with me.  It was this study done by a number of professors.  They called it the Still-Faced Mom study.  It was a mom playing with her child and then all of a sudden going still-faced, no emotions at all.  {Video played.  The child reacted confused, scared, threatened, and cried when the mother did not respond to the child’s attempts to interact.}   {Just lean in for a second.}  My conviction is that a lot of us think God is like the still-faced mom.  And we act out of that feeling, like, alright, if I don’t perform well, then I’m not loved.  If I don’t produce well, then I’m not loved.  What Jesus does in telling this parable, this story, is completely reframes what God is like.  God is not the stoic God in the sky, unmoved mover (as Plato suggested).  No, he is the compassionate, affectionate Father.  He runs to us when he sees us coming on the road.

The older son does not get it.  He doesn’t get that freedom is found in love.  He thinks freedom is found in some other ways, and we’re going to talk about those in just a second.  He views God like that still-faced mom, that he SHOULD respond to the younger brother—-Oh, you blew it.   ‘This son of yours’ blew all your money.  He forfeits the ability to believe that he’s loved.  The story ends.  The party goes.  He’s on the outside, listening to the music.  I love the way that Robert Farrar Capon puts it:  “Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world.  It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”   That’s awesome!!  Here’s the invitation this morning—Take your fingers out of your ears.  The water’s warm.  The waves are crashing.  Jump in.

Let’s unpack what it looks like.  Verse 25.   There’s three movements that happen in this section of the parable. We’re going to look at each movement and it’s opposite, which actually leads us to freedom and love.  Now his older son was in the field,  {Notice where he’s at.  All of this has happened with his brother—-that he’s come home, the servants have gone to get the coat and the ring.  They’ve killed the fattened calf already.  It’s on the grill.  The music has started…..where is he?  He’s in the field.  He’s working.  You can’t come in because there’s stuff to get done.}  ….and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  It’s an interesting indictment on the older son’s relationship with his father that he calls, not the father, but one of the servants.  He doesn’t have the kind of relationship with his dad where he can say, “Dad, what in the world is going on?  What’s the music?”  He calls someone who is working for him and his dad.  Hey, what’s the deal?  We start to see that there’s a lack of freedom and love because the older son is close to his dad….only in geography.  He’s only close spatially.  He’s not close in his heart.  He’s not close in a relationship.  We all know it is possible to be sitting across from somebody that you’re having dinner with, that you’re having a cup of coffee with, that you’re having a conversation with……to be close in proximity, but to have miles between you relationally.  We see that he’s close to his father, he lives on his property, but he doesn’t actually enjoy the relationship that he has with him.  He’s working.  He’s a hired hand and he’s got to get it done before he ever sets foot in the celebration.

Here’s the truth of the matter, friends, you and I were designed for intimacy with God, not just proximity to him.  {Slide: Proximity is replaced with intimacy.}  Here’s the way Jesus says it in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17: 22— The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me…   That’s Jesus’s prayer for us as his followers.  Not that we would be within shouting distance of God, but that we would be in an intimate close relationship with Him.   {Would you look up at me a second?}  If you’ve been around church for a long time like I have, I think one of the greatest dangers for us is that we can be in close proximity to God, but be distant from Him relationally.  We can be around the story ALL the time.  We can be around the conversations ALL the time.  But we don’t know his heart and we don’t hear his voice.

Here’s two distinctives of people who are intimate with God, who are close to God, not just spatially, but relationally.  David writes in Psalm 73:28 — But for me it is good to be near God;  {He’s talking about relationally.  It’s good to be in relationship with God.}  I have made the Lord God my refuge.    Here’s the first test — If we’re intimate with God (not just close), when it feels like the bottom is falling out of life, He’s the first place we turn.  He’s my refuge, David says.  When it feels like the sky is falling, that’s where I go, and that’s where I call on to, and that’s where I climb up.  Here’s the second thing we see, and it’s the words of Jesus from John 10:27 — My sheep hear my voice…  Not just hear people talking about what I say, but they hear me say it.  A distinctive of someone who’s intimate with God (not just close in proximity) is that they hear the overtures of love that flow from his heart.  The invitation to come and to dance, to come and to swim, to come and to hear the music and get involved.  They hear his voice.  They hear his tender rebuke.  They hear his lovingkindness.  They hear his invitation….come in deeper, come for more.  There’s more to be had here.  The key question we’ve got to wrestle with is, just like the older brother, are there things that we feel like we have to go to a mediator for in order to get to God, or can we tell him anything?  Can we ask him anything?  Maybe this morning it’s just a step in this direction — Okay, God, I’m living in proximity, but you designed me for intimacy.  There is no freedom from God where there is no intimacy with God.  There’s no freedom from God……you don’t get freedom from God second-hand.  There’s no freedom from God where there is no intimacy with God.

Look at the way this continues.  That’s the first movement — from proximity to intimacy.  Second, verse 28 — But he was angry and refused to go in.  If you have children, you’ve seen this happen only every single day.  I am NOT doing that!  I am NOT going there!  This is a full-on, pouty melt-down.  Uh-uh!  He isn’t playing by the rules, there’s no way I’m going to his party.  If I went to his party, I’d be going along with what you’re saying we do as a family, and that’s not the way we operate.  That’s not the way we do things.

One of my favorite stories of all-time is Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in 1862.  It’s the story of grace and mercy.  It’s the story of a man named Jean Valjean who is imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven kids.  When he’s finally released, he goes and steals again.  He steals from a bishop who meets him in his lowest spot and showers grace down on him.  It’s this grace that completely changes his life.  It’s the epitome of being found in love and free to live.  But the police inspector, Javert, is unable to accept it.  He can’t take that grace has been offered, because justice must be executed.  The entire story revolves around this cat-and-mouse game.  Will grace win out or will law win out?  Will it be mercy or will it be justice?  Eventually, Valjean has the chance to take Javert’s life and he lets him go.  Javert is haunted to the very core of his being that he has been showered with grace.  He can’t accept it and he ends up taking his own life.

It’s this picture of push back that you see. The older brother was angry and he refused to go in.  Do you know why he refuses to go in?  Because there’s only one way you enter.  It’s through death.  That’s the way you get into the party.  Everybody there is dead!  The father dies when he divides his bios, his life, his property.  He dies again when he picks up his robe and he runs in humiliation towards his son to offer grace.  The younger son dies when he comes to end of himself and realizes, “I’ve got to go home.  It’s my only hope.”  The cow dies to be the centerpiece of the party!  Everybody there is dead….and they’re loving it.  But’s it’s the older brother who refuses to die.  He’s saying no, no, no, no, no, I’ll get into the party, but I’ll get in there with my good deeds, and I’ll get in there with my accomplishments, and I’ll get in there because I’m perfect.  The father says no, no, no, no, no, in order to get in, you’ve got to let go.

I can remember taking my youth group water skiing (when I was a youth pastor).  I wanted to show off.  By that, I mean I just wanted to actually get up on a ski!  I can remember trying so hard and telling myself, “Don’t be an idiot! Don’t be a moron!”  I’m holding on, just white-knuckling it.  The boat starts to go and I start to get up and start to do that slow tilt and I thought, “This is not going well.”  I am roughly a foot under the water and I am like, “Oh no!  I am not letting go!”  Soon my legs pop out right behind me and I’m just holding on.  My thought is I refuse to let go.  My second thought is what do I expect to happen?  Right??  Like I’m going to pop up on bare feet and go, “Now you see me!”  It wasn’t happening!  I think it’s the father saying to his older son, “Let go!”  Maybe he’s saying it to you today.  Let go!

He’s going, “I’ve got to control it.”  If it’s going to work out in my favor, I’ve got to control.  The invitation, though, is to surrender.

Here’s the other thing—If we believe that our goodness is the way that we come into relationship/are rewarded by God, criticism from others will devastate us…..because they’re questioning the very ground we believe we stand on.  We’ll feel inconsolable guilt when we do something wrong.  Because that’s the way we step into love and we know we need love in order to live in freedom.  Everybody knows that.  The question is how are we trying to get it?  Control?  God, here’s the hoops I’m jumping through.  Will you turn off the still-face and start engaging with me?  God, here’s all the things I’ve done for you.  Can we have relationship now?  God says no, no, no, no, no, you don’t get it.  You don’t come through your good deeds, you come through my sacrifice, and you only receive my sacrifice when you die.  To quote the Apostle Paul–Your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  (Col. 3:3-4) 

One of the greatest inhibitors to freedom is the need to control.  When we say we’ve got to control, we cannot surrender to God’s grace. {Slide:  Control is traded for surrender.}  I love the way our worship pastor, Aaron Bjorklund, said it in our writing team meeting: “Hitching your wagon to grace is a wild ride.”  It is!  Here’s the thing, you don’t get to control where it goes.  That’s the hardest thing for older brothers.  The anthem of surrender is I am at the beautiful, mysterious, abundant, breath-taking mercy of God.  That’s all I have and I’m alive because of it.

Here’s the way the parable ends.  (Verse 29)  But he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, {The Greek root word is ‘doulos,’ which is a bond-servant or a slave.}  and I never disobeyed your command,  {Notice, he’s just putting forth….I’ve served you, I’ve been good, I’ve done everything right, all of the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted.}  yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours… {Notice, have you disliked somebody so much it was hard to say their name?  Has somebody ever hurt you so bad that it was hard to say their name?  That’s what’s going on here.  This son of yours….  I’m not going to call him by name and I’m not even going to admit that he is my brother.}  ….son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”   It’s interesting that this word ‘serve’ is doulos.  There’s a number of times in the Scriptures that Paul will say, “I am a bond-servant of Christ.”  If this is to be taken negatively, why so?  Here’s what Paul says in Roman 7:6 — But now we are released from the law, having died {This is the ‘how do we enter?’  By death.} to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

What’s he saying?  There’s been a transition in Paul’s life from duty-driven obedience to delight-driven obedience.  {Slide:  Duty is exchanged for delight.}  There are miles between the two.  The more I interact with people, the more I’m convinced that most followers of Jesus fall into the category of duty.  Here’s the word that epitomizes the life of duty — We should do this.   We should do that.  As if to say, we don’t really want to, but we should.   I have a friend who said to me, “Don’t should on me!”  I love that!  That’s the anthem of delight.  It’s not that we SHOULD do these things because we’re held captive by the law and if we don’t we get still-faced God.  No, it’s the invitation to come and to take his yoke upon you because his burden is light.  That’s the invitation of the gospel.

The life that is controlled by duty believes two things.  First, the older brother says to him, “I never disobeyed your command.”  I’ve done this.  Look at my record.  Look at all the things I’ve produced for you, God.  Look at all the things I’ve done, and then {clears throat}, if you’ll step away from my body of work and look at him.  Duty-driven people are under the weight of comparison.  I’ve done this, they’ve done that.  I’ve produced this, they’ve produced that.  It stirs up pride.  It causes us to dehumanize people, like you see in this parable.  This son of yours.  He can’t mention his name because he’s competing with him.  If you’re operating on duty, you cannot find yourself in the place of love.  As Tim Keller poignantly states:  “It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel superior to him or her.”  Then we become judgmental.  If you’re taking notes, write down Matthew 20.  Jesus tells a parable about workers in a vineyard.  He tells a parable about a vineyard owner who hires people to come and work.  He hires some at the beginning of the day and some at the end of the day.  He decides he wants to pay them all the same.  The people who begin working in the morning are so distraught because they got paid the same as somebody who came in at the very last second.  Jesus responds to their push back by saying:  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?  (Matthew 20:15)  Oh, man!  I think we start to understand the goodness of the gospel when we think in the back of our minds, “It can’t be this good.”

Here’s the other thing he believes.  He believes he lives in a world of scarcity.  Duty leads us not only to comparison, but it leads us to scarcity.  Where’s all my stuff?  You’ve never given me ANYTHING!  Not even a goat to celebrate with my friends.   The father’s response is brilliant.  He looks at him and goes, “What in the world are you talking about?”   Just look around!  All of this is yours.  All of it.  If we operate based on duty, we take upon ourselves a posture of bond-servant, of day-laborer, and we are unable to enjoy the reality that everything that’s God’s is ours in Him.

Here’s the beautiful thing about walking with Jesus — it satisfies the deepest places of our soul.  The father says, “Son…”   Which in the Greek is teknon.  It’s not the word for son he’s used in the entire rest of the parable.  It’s new and introduced here.  It means son, not just by blood, but son by affection and son by love.  He’s entreating him again.  He doesn’t want him to miss swimming in the ocean.  He doesn’t want him to miss coming into the party.  He’s going, “Son, you’re always with me and all that is mine is yours.”

So, here’s this pathway to love and freedom.   It’s a movement from proximity to intimacy.  It’s a movement of feeling like we have to control everything, to resting in the grace of God.  It’s a movement from believing that God has things for us to accomplish because he’s sort of the slave master and we’re under his control, as opposed to disciplined delight.  Every command that comes from God is ultimately for your joy.  Every one of them.

When Rembrandt painted this masterful picture {slide of “Return of the Prodigal”}, he pictured the older brother in the back, in the shadows, looking on.  It’s as though Rembrandt echoes the question Jesus ends his parable with — So what are you going to do?  What are you going to do?  Are you going to just walk along the beach and go, “I really should jump in?”   Are you going to hear the music and go, “Yeah, but I don’t deserve to be in there,” or “Yeah, but that’s for other people, that’s not for me,” or “Yeah, but THEY don’t deserve to be in there so I’m not going in?”  Or, will we respond to the embrace of God our Father, respond to his love, and come into his party?  The embrace of love is the ultimate emancipation.

Friends, the story ends.  The story of Scripture ends with another feast.  You can read about it in Revelation 19.  It’s the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  Where He is celebrated and we are loved.  Not only is love our greatest freedom, but it is our eternal destiny.  I pray…..I pray….I pray that you and I would not push back against his grace and his love, but would firmly plant our lives in it and upon it.  Because it’s those arms that do not confine, but they actually free us to live.  If you don’t know King Jesus this morning, my hope and prayer is that your heart would be stirred to surrender to his love.  That you would just lay your life down and say, “God, I’m in.”

So Lord, we come this morning and we worship.  We come this morning believing that when we’re found in your love, we’re free to live in your world.  So we believe that we’re no longer slaves to fear but we’re children of God.  That we’re founded and grounded in the cross, in the blood that you shed, in the love that you displayed, in the welcome that you’ve given and that you’re running in humiliation to meet us along the road, in the forgiveness that you’ve lavished on us, in the acceptance that you’ve given us, and the love that you’ve grounded us in.  May we live in that freedom, we pray.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.