A few years back, in a state prison in Hominy, Oklahoma, they had an area in the kitchen they called the “pig slop” pit, into which they would throw all kinds of animal renderings and other food wastes, which they would put into big barrels there. Every so often, at regular intervals, a vendor would come by and pick up those barrels and haul them off, and use the waste to feed his hogs. One of the inmates of the prison, being creative, saw an opportunity there, and one day he slipped into the area unnoticed, and climbed into one of those barrels. The truck came and took him off, and he was for a very short time successful, but when he climbed out of the barrel at a service station, someone reported him, and he was arrested and sent back to prison.
This morning we are looking at the story of another man who found himself in trouble in pig slop – the story of the Prodigal Son. It is probably one of the best-known “stories” of all time. One of the reasons this story is so famous is that it is very much “the story of us all”. We have all experienced the things the son in this story went through, in one form or another — and the truth is, we must experience some of them if we ever want to have a relationship with God and see heaven. See if you can recognize yourself in this young man’s story, and if you can say: “This Is My Story …”
I. We have all left the Father
:13 “the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.”
The story begins with the son deciding to leave his father. He had undoubtedly envisioned how great it was going to be when he took his inheritance and went away to that far country — and it WAS great — for a while! But he was deceived, and it eventually led to his downfall. He ended up totally broke, and in the pig slop, longing to be fed with the food the swine were eating.
That story is not uncommon. This is just what happened with mankind from the very beginning. God had given Adam & Eve His command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but Satan tempted Eve with how delightful it was to look at, that it was good for food, and told her how good it would be if she ate it – that she would be like God – and she disobeyed God, and she and her husband Adam ate of the fruit. As a result, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. In their choice to sin, they left the Father.
And this is what every one of us has done ever since that time. Because of their sin, Adam & Eve passed down to each of us as their descendants a nature that has inclined us towards sin. And as a result, when we came to the time of actual choosing in our lives, we all did in fact choose to sin. We have ALL left the Father. The Bible says “For ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have caused a separation between you and your God. We have ALL left the Father in the same way that Adam & Eve did; every single one of us.
That includes me. I can still recall some of my very first sins:
— I remember when I was about 6 years old, my family had gone out to Southern California, just outside Los Angeles, to visit my grandmother for Christmas. We were having a great time on Christmas Eve, and my grandparents had given me and my sister Erin two huge balloons that we were playing with in the living room. I don’t remember what mine was, but I remember hers vividly: it was a big red balloon in the shape of a bear, and I remember that I wanted Erin’s balloon instead of the one I got. I was so jealous, that at one point while we were playing, I took a fork, and I popped Erin’s balloon. She started crying, of course, and I remember getting in trouble — on Christmas Eve! But why did I do that? I knew that wasn’t right to do, but I was jealous, and I did it anyway. That is probably the first specific memory I have of purposefully choosing to sin.
Now, someone might say: “Well, Bro. Shawn, that is not some great sin!” – but the truth is, it is not the MAGNITUDE of the sin that matters; it the FACT of the sin itself. I knew what God wanted me to do, and I did what I wanted to do instead. It doesn’t matter how “big” or “small” we consider our sin to be — our sin is sin, and it separates us from God.
And we have ALL done that. If you are past the age of knowing right from wrong this morning (and I do believe the Bible teaches that there IS such an age; we’ll talk about that some more another time) then you have come to a time in your life when you turned your back on what you knew God wanted you to do, and did what YOU wanted to do instead – THAT is sin. That story about Adam & Eve has been repeated in every single one of us since; we have ALL taken the forbidden fruit. Like the Prodigal Son, we have all “left the Father’s house.” Some of us have gone into a “far country” in a sense, like the Prodigal Son did – and maybe some of us just went “down the road” a little bit, comparatively speaking. But the distance doesn’t matter as much as the fact: whether it was near or far away, at some point or another, for some distance or another, we have all have left the Father’s house
All of us have sinned. All of us have a “forbidden fruit story” – a story that is just like Adam & Eve’s and the Prodigal Son’s. You have come to a time in your life where you knew what God had said to do, but you did what you wanted to do anyway. It may be that you stole a piece of candy, or disobeyed your parents, or took a drink or drugs — or popped your sister’s balloon! But whatever it may be, we ALL have that story. We have been talking about writing our “stories” down to put in the notebook – listen, we ALL have this part of the story, don’t we? We ALL can write about our sins! If you can’t, you are either being very dishonest, very ignorant, or very self-righteous — because we have ALL sinned! The only question is, do you have a story of how you were forgiven for your sins? But this part of the story we all have: we have all left the Father’s house. We have all sinned against God.
II. We are all loved by the Father
:20 “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
When the Prodigal Son came to his senses in that pig slop, he decided to return to his father. He didn’t know how he was going to be received when he went back. But the Bible makes it clear here that the Father always loved that wayward son. He never stopped looking for him to return. This verse touches my heart as much as any in all of the word of God: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him …” This is such a great picture of the love of God for us. That father had not written his son off; he had not given up. He had not gone into the house, to sit and stew in his indignation and wait for his son to knock on the door, and then maybe “think” about opening it if he was sorry enough. No, that Father was watching … he was waiting … he was longing. “And while he was still a long way off … his father saw him …”.
That’s what you do when you are really longing for someone to come to you: you are always watching for them. I remember when my daughter Libby was just a little girl, she had been invited by a friend (“Rachel L.”) to come over to her house one Friday afternoon. Libby had known all week that she was going over to Rachel’s house that day, and she just couldn’t wait to go. Finally, that Friday afternoon came, and as I walked through the house – there was Libby, 2 hours before Rachel’s mom was coming to pick her up; her bags were packed; she was standing with her nose to the glass door, just watching to see if Rachel’s mom’s car might be coming around the corner yet!
That’s what you do when you are anxiously waiting for someone – that’s how the father was with his son – he was watching for him a long way off! And what you need to realize is that that is how God the Father is with YOU! He LOVES you; and although you have chosen to leave Him in your sin, He loves you, and He is watching, and longing for you to come back to Him.
And as the scene continues, after the father sees the son coming, a long way off, he RUNS to meet him. Someone has pointed out that this is the only place in all the scriptures where God is pictured as running – He RUNS to meet the child who would return to Him. And then in :22, when the son has come back, the Father calls for “the best robe”, and a ring and sandals, and he has the fattened calf killed for him so they can celebrate. He loved that son. He left no doubt that he wanted him back.
And listen: the father in this story is a picture of your Heavenly Father, and His love for YOU. You have chosen to leave Him, by your sin. But don’t ever wonder if you can come back; or if God wants you back. He does. This story shows that in such a powerful and touching way.
But God has showed His love for you in an even greater way than the father in this story: He showed it in an ultimate way in the cross:
–Romans 5:8 says: “God demonstrated His own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
–John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
THE great expression of the love of God for you was the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross, God demonstrated His love for you once for all – by sending His own Son to die, to pay for your sins, so that you might be forgiven, and come back to Him, to have the relationship that He created you to have with Him. He loved you so much that He sent His own Son to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to die for you! Romans 8 says “He who did not spare His own Son” to die for you — what can separate you from His love? You should never wonder if God loves you, or if He wants you back.
The other day Jim told me that Tony Orlando is coming to the CoMMA in Morganton later this year. He asked if I knew who Tony Orlando was, and I said, “Oh yeah: ‘Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree’… !” Many of you know that song tells the story of a man who went to prison, and was separated from his love, and now he had served his time, and was coming back, and in the song he’s saying, I understand if you don’t want me back; but if you do, show me a sign: “tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree”. Show me by that sign that you still want me back.
If you have realized today that you sinned, and left your Heavenly Father, maybe you are wondering if God really wants you back. Maybe even as a Christian you look at your life, and you wonder: could God really want me back in fellowship with Him? After all you have done, after all the commandments you have broken, after all the things you have done; could He still want you back? Is there some way to know; is there some sign? Is there some “yellow ribbon” by which you could know for sure that God still wants you back? Listen: God has done more than give you a “yellow ribbon”; He has given you the sign of the CROSS of Jesus Christ! If you ever wonder if God wants you back, all you have to do is to look at the cross. At the cross God made the greatest sacrifice in all history. He paid for your sins that they could be forgiven – whatever they are – and so that you could be restored to a relationship with Him. At the cross of Jesus God said wonderfully and powerfully and finally: “I love you; and I want you back!” Just like that son in this story, you are loved by the Father!
III. We must all return to the Father
But a key statement is found in :17, where the Bible says: “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘I will get up and go to my father’ …”.
The first two parts of this story are the story of every one of us: all of us have left the Father, and all of us are loved by the Father. The only question is: do you have the last part of this story? Have you ever come to your senses, and returned to the Father?
First of all, you need to understand that you can never return to the Father unless God works in your heart first. Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” It is when God touches your heart with His Holy Spirit that you realize your sin, how you have left the Father; and you understand how much God loves you, and sent Jesus to die for you. It is when He draws you with His Holy Spirit that like the Prodigal Son, you “come to your senses” and decide to return to the Father.
Secondly, what the Prodigal Son did in story gives us a great picture of what “repentance” is. It means that you were going one way – away from God – and that you think better of it, and come back to God. The Bible word for “repentance” literally means to have a change of mind; a change of direction.
We’ve seen that we all have left the Father. We have all headed away from Him into sin. If you are going to come back to God, there has to be a time when you turn around, like the Prodigal Son did, and “repent” and return to Him. You must repent in order to be saved. You must turn away from your sin and turn back to God through Jesus Christ. You can’t stay living like you are, going in the same direction that you are, and be saved. Most of us have heard that old expression, “God loves you where you are” — and that is true. God loves you where you are — just like the father in this story loved his son. But that father and his son could not be reconciled until the son repented and took a different direction and came back to his father! And the same thing is true for you today. God loves you where you are — but you can’t be reconciled to Him until you stop going in the direction you are going right now, and repent, and turn back to Him. Repentance is absolutely required for salvation.
A couple of years ago, Cheryl & Michael & I took one of our “Field Trip Fridays” out to visit some small towns in Western Oklahoma. I remember we pulled into this one town, off on the right side of the highway, that was situated by a little mountain. We took the main street, which had a nice little downtown area — but all of the sudden, the main street just ENDED, right at the foot of that mountain! And so we just had to turn around. If we were going to go anywhere else, a U-turn was absolutely required!
What we need to understand today is that this is the way it is with salvation, too. There is a “u-turn” that is “absolutely required” if you are going to be reconciled with God. You have been going in the wrong direction, away from God; so if you are going to be saved, there must come a time when you decide to turn around and come back to Him by repenting of your sins and accepting Jesus as your Lord & Savior. You must personally respond, and return to God.
When we lived in Tulsa, one Sunday I preached a message there on the Prodigal Son. It was a different message than this one, but I did mention in it how God wants us back, and that He showed us how much He wanted us back by dying for us the cross. At the end of that message I shared how a few years before, there was woman who was dying, who had written a letter to God, asking Him to save her in Jesus’ name. And I said that in the same way, each person must make their own personal response to God. In the church that day was a little boy, named Jason Sikes (I am still his Facebook friend to this day) and he was sitting with him mom & dad, listening to the sermon. Jason was a typical little boy; he had sinned and done some things he shouldn’t have done. But as he heard the message that day, he responded to God. And he did it by writing his own letter to the Lord, and his mother Dana showed it to me later. His letter was a prayer, with a drawing, and it went like this:
Dere Lorde I know I hav send. Ples Pogev me. I love you, God. Ples come in to my horet that is all I wonte. God you are the greatest God. And in your name amene. Love, Jason.
And significantly, Jason had decorated his letter with a cross: the cross I had preached about on that day, where Jesus showed His love for him by dying on the cross for his sins. Jason knew that he had sinned, and asked God to forgive him, and come into his life, and he responded to God, in the form of that letter.
Jason’s story it is a precious reminder that we must ALL respond to God. It is not good enough to just sit there and listen to this story; it is not good enough just to know about it. You must respond to it. You must repent and return to the Father. But you don’t respond to God by literally going back to His house like the Prodigal Son did; you respond in your heart – by acknowledging that you have indeed left Him, and that Jesus died for your sins, and by repenting, or turning back to Him in your heart, as the Savior of your sins, and as the Lord of your life, whom you will follow from that day forward.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever responded to the Father? You can do it with a letter, or without a letter; you can write out your story, or not write your story – the important question is: have you ever returned to God in your heart? You’ve got to respond to make this YOUR story. The fact is; the first two parts of this are everyone’s story. You’ve left the Father; we all have. You are loved by the Father; we all are. The only question is: have you ever made the last part of this your story? Have you ever returned to the Father? Have you ever repented of your sins, and put your trust in Jesus as your Lord & Savior? Listen: I don’t care so much whether you ever write your story out and put it in the book we have down here; I wish you would; I think it would be encouraging to other people — but that is not the most important thing. The important thing is: do you HAVE a story? Have you ever in your heart responded to God? And if you haven’t, why don’t you do it right now, and then, like Prodigal Son, you will be able to say: “This Is My Story!”