Luke 15:1-32

The following “Dear God” letters indicate kids have the funniest ideas of who God is and what He is like:

Dear God,
Thanks for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.

Dear God,
My mommy told me what You do. Who does it while you’re on vacation? Jenny

Dear God,
Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t You just keep the ones You got now?

Dear God,
Are You really invisible or is that just a trick?

Dear God,
I bet it is hard for You to love all of everybody in the whole world, there are only four people in our family and I can never do it.

I have a hunch that there are some big kids here who believe just about the same thing as that last one; those who wonder how God can love everyone, those who wonder how God can love people who with intentionally do wrong, those who wonder how God can love them.

Who is God and what is He like? It may be true that for some of us God is distant and a stern-looking god who prefers to intimidate rather than love. Many others picture God with a white beard and robe to match and if you don’t follow the rules, watch out for thunder and lightning! Maybe God is a teacher handing out grades based upon our performance: Said a word I shouldn’t have: C-. God couldn’t love me. Watched an “R” rated movie D+. God couldn’t love me. Took home paper towels from work: F. Surely God couldn’t love me.

On the other hand, some of us are like the Pharisees Jesus was addressing, thinking I deserve an A. After all, here I am in church, again, so I’m pretty sure God loves me, but for the guy out there right now mowing his lawn; he can forget it. God certainly doesn’t love him.

So who is God, and what is He like?

I believe that the greatest picture of the heart of God can be found in Luke’s gospel the overall theme of which is aptly contained in a charming alliteration coined by an unknown author “God is the God of the least, the last and the lost.” And the epitome of that theme is found right here in the heart of Luke’s gospel where Jesus weaves three short stories together with the intention of which is to reveal who God is and what God is like.

You folks have grown up knowing full well the ways of Jewish shepherds. If one of his sheep wanders off from the others and becomes lost, you know that he is going to leave the flock in the safety of their numbers and begin an all-out search and rescue for that lost one. And you know what a joyous moment that will be when the lost one is found. I want you to understand that is what God is like, and that is what I am like. So grant Me the privilege of rubbing shoulders with these people you consider notorious sinners . . . for everyone is welcome in My Father’s house.

And we all know what it would mean to lose a winning lottery ticket. Why we would diligently search all of our pockets, feel under the car seats; look under the couch and chair cushions, rifle through the junk drawers. We’d take as long as it took to find it! And when we did, oh what a celebration would take place as we jumped up and down and hugged one another. I want to tell you guys that’s what God is like!

Then imagine what it must be like to be a proud father who has two precious boys. And you raise them both up in the fear and admonition of the Lord God. But when your younger son reaches the age of wanting to do his own thing, his own thing doesn’t include you. Oh what pain fills your heart as you realize that your son is rejecting you to live a life that you know is only going to hurt him in the long run. And you can’t understand it; nor can you do anything about it. But you don’t stop loving him because he’s your son. So you take up a posture of hoping and praying and waiting for the day when perhaps he will see the error of his way and maybe even return home. And every day, before you start your routine in the morning and after you end it in the evening, you spend some time outside scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that a familiar figure might break the skyline. Until finally, about the time you have given him up as lost forever, you recognize that gait in his walk from a long way off and you run to him and hug him and you joyfully welcome him home. This is the greatest day of your life and it calls for a joyous celebration! And Jesus says, that is what My Father in heaven is like.

Jesus is saying, in effect, “Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? He is the shepherd, the woman and especially the heartsick Father anxiously waiting and hoping and longing to celebrate when that which was lost is found!

Philip Yancey in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? writes:

Not long ago I heard from a pastor friend who was battling with his 15-year-old daughter. He knew she was using birth control, and for several nights she had not bothered to come home at all. The parents had tried various forms of punishment, to no avail. The daughter lied to them, deceived them, and found a way to turn the tables on them, “It’s your fault for being so strict!” My friend told me, “I remember standing before the window in my living room, staring out into the darkness, waiting for her to come home I felt such rage. I wanted to be like the father of the prodigal son, yet I was furious with my daughter for the way she would manipulate us and twist the knife to hurt us. Any yet I must tell you that when my daughter came home that night, or rather the next morning I wanted nothing in the world so much as to take her in my arms, to love her, to tell her I wanted the best for her. I was a lovesick father.

Then Yancey continues:

Now when I think about God, I hold up that image of the lovesick father which is miles away from the stern monarch I used to envision. I think of my friend standing in front of the picture window, gazing achingly into the darkness. I think of Jesus’ depiction of the waiting father, heartsick, abused, yet wanting above all else to forgive and begin anew, to announce with joy, “This my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost and is found.” 1

Jesus wants us to understand above all else that this is the most accurate picture of God. The lovesick father waiting for His children to acknowledge Him; to respond to Him by taking that first step in His direction so that He can shower us with grace and forgiveness, mercy and love.

Today you may be the lost sheep. At one time you could say that you were in the fold. You were brought up in the church, parents made sure you went to Sunday School, you may have taken a confirmation class, probably were baptized. But something happened as you got older; it often does. You decided to explore the world apart from God and you drifted away a little at a time. You gave up attending worship, perhaps you stopped praying and eventually, the warm faith you once had has cooled considerably. And perhaps you have come to the conclusion that even if you wanted to get close to God again, God wouldn’t be so inclined. And here you are today because someone invited you and you didn’t know how to say no or because you were kind of curious. Please, please know that a heartsick shepherd is here to pick you up and carry you home.

Or maybe you are the lost coin. As such, you bear no responsibility for becoming lost. Someone else lost you. For whatever reason, no one told you about the amazing grace offered by Jesus. Your parents, like mine, never took you to a church service. Sure somewhere along the way you heard the name Jesus and you have an idea that there was a historical figure by that name, but you never really investigated His life and claims.

But even though you bear no responsibility, you are without God in your life and Jesus wants you to know that He, like the woman in His story, will continue to search until He finds you.

Then there are some of us, perhaps many, who at one time had a close relationship with the Father but then for whatever reason, and they are many, you deliberately made a decision to run away, to live your life apart from God. For some, far apart from God, and like the lost son you have done things that you are ashamed of and you might have come today wondering whether or not God would ever have anything to do with you again. Rest assured that Jesus drew us this wonderful picture of a heartsick Father who always is scanning the horizon watching with bated breath for your figure to break the skyline so that He can run to you, embrace you and shower you with mercy and grace.

One of my favorite stories to illustrate what Jesus is talking about in Luke 15 concerns a young girl grows up on a cherry orchard near Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, who tend to be just a bit old-fashioned, overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report on the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her.

Her second day there, she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers a ride, buys her lunch, arranges for her a place to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car, she calls him ‘Boss’, teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s still underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a Penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally, she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial she can hardly believe she grew up there.

She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline “Have You Seen This Child?” But by now she has blond hair and with all the make-up and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year, the first signs of illness appear, and the boss turns mean and before she knows it she is out on the street without a penny to her name. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping in cardboard boxes with other homeless people.

One night as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. Her pockets are empty and she is hungry and she needs a fix.

Suddenly something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball. God, why did I leave, she says to herself and pain stabs at her heart. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first 2 times, but the 3rd time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It takes seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she rehearses the speech she is preparing for her father: “Dad, I’m sorry; I know I was wrong, Can you forgive me?” She hasn’t apologized to anyone in a long time.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. She catches a glimpse of a sign ‘145 miles to Traverse City.’ Oh, God.

When the bus finally rolls into the station, the driver announces, “Fifteen minutes, folks; that’s all we have here.” She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the scenes she has played out in her mind prepares her. There stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts, and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers and taped across the entire wall is a banner that reads “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her father. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know . . .”

He interrupts her: “Hush, little girl; we’ve got no time for that. You’ll be late for the party waiting for you at home.”

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 fingers and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted 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 now is found.” So the party began! (Luke 15:21-24).

1 Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing about Grace. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
© 1997]. Page 56.

2 Yancey, page.