"So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” " (Luke 15:20-32, NIV) 
Have you ever heard of “emotional word pictures”? Gary Smalley advocates their use as a means of gripping communication. It is communication, sometimes story telling that carries a powerful message deep to the heart of the hearer.
He talks about a man who began to dread to come home to his wife at the end of the work day. It seemed to him that he was barely in the door when he was confronted with her frustrations. It made him want to leave again.
To try to communicate his feelings, he talked about the new little puppy that they had just purchased. Often the puppy would be in the fenced backyard, exploring and discovering new things. He asked his wife to imagine that she was that puppy, absolutely caught up in the adventure in the backyard. He asked her to imagine that she was so distracted by the world around her that she failed to hear her name being called to come in the house. And when she finally heard, she ran to the door, oblivious to the fact that she had done anything wrong, still caught up in the euphoria of her romp. She was greeted at the door in anger and swatted with a newspaper or some other weapon, driven behind some piece of furniture as a place of shelter. Her husband asked her to imagine what it would be like the next day when she heard her name called. Perhaps in good faith she would run in delight to the master’s voice. Again she would be punished as she came in the door. He asked her to try to imagine the cumulative effect that this would have over a period of days. Perhaps it might have a negative impact to the point where, she – the puppy would run away and hide when she was called rather than responding. And then he said, “That’s what I feel like every day that I come through this door and the greeting that I get is punitive for something that I failed to do.” His wife got it.
So did David when he was confronted with an emotional word picture by Nathan the prophet.
" The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul." (2 Samuel 12:1-7, NIV) 
David was immediately gripped by the picture that painted the man that he had become. It brought light and perspective to his heart and best of all, - repentance.
Rather than read the scripture through from the top today, I want to share Max Lucado’s word painting of the prodigal’s return in Luke 15.
Stand before it a thousand times and each gaze is as fresh as the first. Let a million look at the canvas and each one will see himself. And each will be right.
Captured in the portrait is a tender scene of a father and a son. Behind them is a great house on a hill. Beneath their feet is a narrow path. Down from the house the father has run. Up the trail the son has trudged. The two have met, here, at the gate.
We can’t see the face of the son; it’s buried in the chest of his father. No, we can’t see his face, but we can see his tattered robe and stringy hair. We can see the mud on the back of his legs, the filth on his shoulders and the empty purse on the ground. At one time the purse was full of money. At one time the boy was full of pride. But that was a dozen taverns ago. Now both the purse and the pride are depleted. The prodigal offers no gift or explanation. All he offers is the smell of pigs and a rehearsed apology: “Father, I have sinned against God and done wrong to you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21).
He feels unworthy of his birthright. “Demote me. Punish me. Take my name off the mailbox and my initials off the family tree. I am willing to give up my place at your table.” The boy is content to be a hired hand. There is only one problem. Though the boy is willing to stop being a son, the father is not willing to stop being a father.
Though we can’t see the boy’s face in the painting, we can’t miss the father’s. Look at the tears glistening on the leathered cheeks, the smile shining through the silver beard. One arm holds the boy up so he won’t fall, the other holds the boy close so he won’t doubt.
“Hurry!” he shouts. “Bring the best clothes and put them on him. Also, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get our fat calf and kill it so we can have a feast and celebrate. My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost but now he is found!” (Luke 15:22–24).
The word pictures from our scripture today are sketchy in some places. They require some imagination on your part. Perhaps they won’t impact you to the same degree that they impact me. I suspect that most of us can make the attempt as we allow God to drive his truth deep into our hearts today. Let’s look at these three pictures:
1. The Long Walk Home
"So he got up and went to his father.”
It is a bit sketchy isn’t it? But you know this story from your own reading or from our services over the last few weeks.
I call this picture, “The Long Walk Home”.
The road home can be a long road. The long dark lane from the lighted road was shrouded in midnight black darkness fortified by the heavy under and over-growth. The light at the end of the black tunnel was the front porch light.
There were nights when the walk home seemed like an eternity for me. At times in my childhood it meant facing the music. I had done something that I shouldn’t have done and feared that the word of my disobedience had preceded me – often through my younger brother. I never knew for sure what waited for me. How accurate or tainted was the report that my Dad received. On those nights I walked as slowly as I could.
Other nights it was nothing more than weariness. I was played out. Blisters. An assortment of other injuries and there was nothing in me to make me hurry. I just wanted to go home and go to bed.
Sometimes I had just gone farther from home than I thought. In the freshness of the day, you can’t fully appreciate the distance. The darkness and the shadows make it a long walk.
Sometimes it just depends on the story that you bring home. On a long walk home you have plenty of chance to rehearse.
The prodigal had most all of these. Had word of his wild living beaten him home? What reaction would he receive? He was weary, bone-tired. If the door was closed then there were no options for him. His home had become his last resort.
He had gone farther from home than he ever realized until he headed back.
And the scars, . . . he had the scars.
For people like these, coming home can be frightening beyond our understanding. Many people start and stop on the way home.
Phil Yancey re-tells a true story, heard from a friend in his book, “The Jesus I Never Knew”.
“A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter – two years old! – to men interested in having kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable – I am required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure naïve shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
“What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute, fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”
What an important question for the church to ask itself in this broken age in which we live. What has happened? Where are the prodigals today? Why aren’t they coming home?
The church needs to be a place of “certainty” for those coming home to faith. They need to know that forgiveness and acceptance is the rule.
We have a couple of our dear parents today who are carrying incredible burdens for their lost children. I am not free to tell you their names but they want your prayers this morning. Perhaps someday we will celebrate with them as they welcome their loved ones home.
You see the mission of the church is nothing more complicated than to love where others stop or refuse to love. And if we can commit ourselves to stop church hopping, preference shopping long enough to engage in this mission, then we will truly find what we are looking for and what God is looking for. There is no sweeter music than the music of the prodigal footfalls as they make their way back to the loving father.
2. The Vigil
I’d call the second picture, “The Vigil”. It’s the picture of a man whose eyes are locked on the horizon. He’s not really at home. He is looking beyond the place that other men stop looking. Beyond the place where others just give up. They call off the search party and order the body bags. But this man not only looks farther, he sees farther. He’s not your run-of-the-mill father. He is obsessed with the absence of the younger of his two sons.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. . . .”
You know, God can help us to see farther than others when we look for those we love to come home. He saw his son before his son ever saw him. Before he could raise his own eyes beyond his next steps, the father saw the lost son. Can you see the one who is still a long way from home. Look at his response. It is a description of God’s response to our need, to our circumstance to the messes that we have created in our own lives.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
Perhaps you are making your way home today and only God knows. Others can’t see what is taking place in your heart. He can. Maybe you’re wondering what waits for you at home. Maybe you’re tempted to spin a better yarn – to make yourself look even a bit better. You don’t have to – he’s coming toward you.
Benny Hester wrote the song, “When God Ran”. It’s the story now of the father rushing toward you wherever you are, whatever you have done.
“He threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
I kissed my Dad every time I went home to see him. I kissed him when I went in and I kissed him good-bye. I always knew that I was loved. We were worlds apart I thought, but he knew that he was supposed to love me. He got that part right. A lot of other parts he seemed to stumble over. But that unconditional love is redemptive.
Look at what happens next. He is almost oblivious to the rehearsed, well-prepared speech.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
And before he can finish the script, . . . before he can ask his father to accept him in some diminished capacity, some lesser relationship, grace is running on ahead and never hears his meager request. – “Make me like one of your hired men.”
That just doesn’t compute with God. People come to the church sometimes having second class status as their highest hope and often they are accommodated.
I remember a couple that came to see me in my former church. They wanted to be married. They were nervous, skittish, waiting for me to say “No”. Or worse to come up with some less than gracious answer. They had been to other churches and there was always a reason, that no one would marry them. I was criticized for saying yes and perhaps I should have been but I was compelled to perform their wedding. They had just come from another evangelical church. Because of past circumstance the minister had determined that they couldn’t be married in the sanctuary where the “fit” people were married. He offered to marry them in the gymnasium. They left.
If you are making your way home today, it won’t be to second-hand sainthood. It will be for God’s perfect and total redemptive work in your life that erases the past and predicates the future on what he has done – not on what you have done.
You see, the script isn’t really all that important anyway. God knows what’s in your heart the moment you move toward Him.
Chuck Colson in “The Body”, writes,
Many, particularly in evangelical ranks believe that a person must have an experience that fits a certain pattern: The individual must know the precise moment he or she prayed “the sinners prayer” and be able to recount that dramatic experience of “accepting Christ” – words that are almost liturgical to some. . . . For some the salvation formula has almost become a procedure whereby one makes a simple choice, as simple as walking through the right door. A few years ago I attended a service where a young evangelist displayed this attitude.
When it was time for the altar call, he strode across the platform to the congregation’s left and drew an imaginary circle with a great sweep of his arms.
“In here” he explained “is self on a chair. Go ahead. Draw it out in your own mind. Heads were nodding all around me. Then he moved to the center of the platform and, with a grand dramatic gesture, created a second circle.
“And in this,” he intoned, “is a chair, and above it is a cross. Man, you see is reaching up to God, but He isn’t there. Man is still on the throne himself.” Now scattered “amens” erupted from the pews. With deliberation he then walked to the right and drew yet another circle. By this time his words were flowing rhapsodically.
“And in here,” he said, his voice breaking momentarily, “is the entrance to the kingdom of God.”
Then with great emotion he called people to come forward to walk through the third circle to enter the very presence of God himself.
And come forward they did, as if in cadence with his words. . . . Dozens were at the altar by the time he finished a lengthy invitation that left even the choir exhausted. . . . Probably many who came forward that day were saved and the angels rejoiced. But no doubt many also left the service believing that becoming a Christian is as simple as walking through an imaginary circle and uttering a prayer – or that walking through that circle is the way , perhaps the only way, into the kingdom of God.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve been in countless crusades and have seen thousands of people raise their hands, signifying decisions for Christ. I’ve seen them come forward and heard them utter the correct words. I’ve called them to do so myself and have seen the numbers tallied. Unfortunately, often what we are witnessing is nothing more than a “human” conversion.
Days later only a handful of those “converts” show up for Bible Studies. Or they behave as Christians for a time, but eventually fall back to their old ways. And we encourage this whenever we establish our method, any method, as the way into the kingdom, or lead people to believe that simply uttering certain words will assure their salvation. It is a dangerous delusion. For there is a great difference between a decision and a true conversion. Conversion is a process that begins with God’s regenerating work—an instant when the Spirit gives life – and continues as we grow in faith through the process of sanctification. . . . .
But God works as He wills to overcome our rebellion. Like the wind that blows through the trees, He can neither be seen nor directed. He touches the heart. He breathes through the snowflakes. The point is He does it. He calls people to himself, conceiving the new life in the Spirit in the secret place of the soul. He does so through one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ.
The belief that there is but one method or formula by which we enter the kingdom of God is what we call the sin of presumption: presuming to know the mind of God and to program by human means who is or is not secure in the faith and hence in the church.
-- from “The Body” by Chuck Colson – pages 84-86
So he really didn’t care about the words. Grace has a new robe. That is a “family thing”. And a new ring – no time to even wash his hands and he has the symbol of family authority on his hands. Permission to conduct his father’s business. Sandals to cover the tired feet and a feast – a party, celebration.
3. The Better-Bitter Brother
And the third picture. I call it “The Better-Bitter Brother”. It’s the brief snapshot that we have of the son who stayed at home. It is perhaps the darkest of the three.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” " (Luke 15:20-32, NIV)
He wasn’t there when his brother came home. That’s probably a good thing. There are people who drive others away from God. They think they have a right to do so in some strange way because they see themselves as having it right and others as undeserving and insincere. Where they ever get the idea that it is within their scope to make such judgments I’ll never know. They are the ones who live their entire lives in the father’s house and never know the father’s heart. They don’t celebrate a lot. That is far too frivolous a thing when there is work to be done. So they miss a lot of parties. They just never get it and it makes them miserable. They are loved by the father as well. The scripture tells us that the father “went out and pleaded with him” to come in – to join the celebration.
But there was nothing in his heart that could rejoice. The party just made him mad. It made him think that somehow he was unappreciated, overlooked, insufficiently appreciated.
Look at the father’s words: “My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.”
It is so tragic that so many live below their privilege as sons and daughters of God. While they are not hired hands they live as though they are. They spend all their time in the field at some labor designed to get God’s attention. The father merely wants their presence.
The purpose of this series is to prompt you to consider whether or not you are “Lost”.
V If you think that God is impressed with your goodness, . . you could be “Lost”.
V If you’ve never been broken by the depth of your sin, . . . you could be “Lost”.
V If you measure yourself by other people and often find a judgmental spirit in your heart, . . . you could be “Lost”.
V If you are harboring hatred and ill will in your heart toward another person, . . . you are “Lost”.
V If you know that God wants something more for your life then you are willing to give and you are doing life your way, . . . you could be “Lost”.
V If you are not following His Will, . . . you are “Lost”.
V If you don’t personally receive Him as Savior, . . . you will be “Lost”.
Perhaps life has taken you somewhere that you never wanted to go. It could be that your perception was flawed. Like Bugs Bunny, you took a wrong turn in Albuquerque?
I don’t have any circles for you to walk through – no magic words to repeat – just an ever-loving Father who can help you find your way. How about it?
 The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
 The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Lucado, M. (1997). The great house of God : A home for your heart (12). Dallas: Word Pub.