I’m now a few weeks removed from having preached the series at Liberty’s revival on the Prodigals & Prophets. One of the details of the parable continues to stick out in my mind and blow me away. With all the love and forgiveness that the father lavishes on his lost son who has returned, the one that stands out to me as the most puzzling, at least at such an early stage is the command given by the father to the servants that they put “sandals on his feet.” I find myself asking, “Really, Jesus? A father who puts sandals back on the son’s feet? Don’t you realize that opens up the door for being hurt again, perhaps even worse than the first time? After all, he’s been in a few rough parts of the world that we wouldn’t dare dream of here in the safety of this farm. Sure, let’s put a robe on him, give him a ring, and have a nice barbecue, but you really want to trust him enough to give him a way back out again?”

In preparation for the sermon on the centrality of the father in the parable, my mind raced back to the class I took in college on the 8th century prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, & Micah were the prophets whose ministries were during the 8th century BC). With all the things that I forgot from that 8:00 am class, two things I remember: 1. the time the professor started to ramble in his prayer one day and began praying for aliens; and 2. the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking analysis of Hosea 11. Now, Hosea’s story certainly has some interesting twists and turns, many of which are not analogous to a parent-child relationship but to a spousal relationship. Nonetheless, chapter 11 portrays the compassion of a heartbroken parent whose children have lost their way, were “bent on turning away from” God, and yet though showing tremendous disappointment, admits an unwillingness to give up on these children. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” What moves a parent to have such compassion?

Hosea 11 showcases the “covenant faithfulness” of God: that God remembers his faithfulness. This isn’t meant to imply that God had “forgotten” it, but that the ultimate character of God is remaining true in faithful love to God’s people. God remembers, among other things that, “Yet it was I who taught them to walk.” Examine what happens in the message of Hosea, the parable of the returning son, and a modern rendition…

God’s children had used their pedagogy to walk away. The younger son received the inheritance and walked away with it. A rebellious teenage daughter is taught how to drive and is given the keys to her parents’ car and decides to leave town with it.

God’s children had lost their way and were scattered without a home and without hope. The younger son wasted half the family fortune and found himself desiring to eat pig slop. The daughter runs out of gas, finds some ways to remedy that and get by for a while,  but eventually runs out of options and gives up the car to keep the collateral from being herself.

God doesn’t give up…

They return. He comes home. She hitches a ride back.

View of the feet from Rembrandt’s painting of ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. (Photo credit: snailskin.blogspot.com)

“They will walk after the LORD…” (Hosea 11:10); “put sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22); “Here’s a key to our new car”

Really, God? You’re willing to trust them? him? her?

“We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love…I imagined God as a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune.” – Philip Yancey

“Behold with wonder and pleasure the gracious reception they find from Divine, injured goodness!” – John Wesley

“Yep. Sandals. They’re my children. My children, like me, are free.”

One of the facts I found out soon after beginning at Post Oak & Liberty UMCs is that there is a tradition at both churches that if they have a new pastor, then the new pastor typically preaches at the revival services at each church in his or her first year. Well, I suppose it’s best not to duplicate the sermons for the revival messages, so I have been spending a lot of time in prayer on what theme or sets of messages to prepare for Liberty after sharing at Post Oak’s revival in August. The messages I preached at Post Oak were centered on the last statements Jesus uttered from the cross, which you can read a little bit about here.

As I’ve been praying with God and conversing with others on what sorts of things ought to be brought to those who will gather at Liberty during the week of revival, I’ve been continually brought back to the parable of the father with his two prodigal sons, found in Luke 15:11-32, as well as some passages from the prophets. Without revealing too much of what is in store, I did want to share with you a resource in which one man describes his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son.

Rembrandt’s rendition of the return of the younger prodigal son, which is on the cover of Henri Nouwen’s book on the parable & painting. (Photo credit: wikipedia)

A Catholic priest by the name of Henri Nouwen used personal anecdotes in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, to tell of how in his life he has found resonance with the various characters found in the story and painting. In particular he told of his progression from playing the part of the bystander(s) to the younger son to that of the elder, but it took the wisdom and input of someone else to point out that his identity was to be found in playing the role and fulfilling the mission of the loving father who pursues both sons in hopes of making the family whole once again. The main character, as it were, is neither the younger nor the older brother, but the compassionate father.

Why am I including “prophets” in the theme? I believe the various characters and elements of this most wonderful parable are demonstrated beautifully in a few passages from the Old Testament prophets: from Micah 6, Ezekiel 36, Jonah 4, and Hosea 11.

>>So if you’re anywhere near Camden, Tennessee during the week of October 7-10, come join us at Liberty UMC at 7pm.<<

May God prepare our hearts in opening wide our hearts for repentance, renewal, restoration, and reconciliation.