The Call of Grace

This was the second of three talks presented during the 2016 Spiritual Enrichment Conference.

In the previous talk we considered how God intended for mankind to remain in fellowship with Him, as well as to work with each other in a unity to fulfill His purpose for creating us.  We also considered that the ability to enjoy His presence and pursue His purpose was lost at the Fall, which was why we needed consolation and hope. Only through grace can we be restored to communion with God and with each other. We ended the session with a brief look at God’s gracious call to Adam and Eve, first to remind them of the commandment they had broken and the judgment that they deserved, but then to offer them reconciliation. In this session I want us to consider some examples of the call of grace that demonstrate our acceptance into the family of God, where we are loved beyond all measure.

The first example we will consider is the parable of the prodigal son.  I’ve also heard this story called the parable of the extravagant father or the story of the two ungrateful sons. For our purposes, the story is a window into the consolation and good hope through grace that we have in our Father whose love is everlasting and whose mercies endure forever. The full story is found in Luke 15:11-32, but we will focus on verses 11 through 24:

And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.  And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

In this story, Jesus tells of a young man who comes of age and demands his inheritance. His father complies with his wishes, and the young man hurries away to conquer the world… because that’s what young people do, isn’t it? They conquer the world, at least until they begin to realize that the world is conquering them. The first thing that we should notice in this story is that the younger son completely misunderstands the nature of his blessings. He has the same dis-ease of soul that Eve demonstrated when she reached into the tree and picked the forbidden fruit. The son thought his real blessings consisted of the dollar value of his inheritance, when instead he should have seen the inestimable value of his place of honor within a loving family. He was the precious child of a noble father, but instead of enjoying the companionship of his family—in particular the blessing of his father’s love—and instead of embracing his responsibility to extend the good influence of his family, he chose to take the money and run. Just as Eve thought God was withholding His best from her, the prodigal son felt that being at home under his father’s authority was keeping him from being truly fulfilled. He would not be able to find himself unless he left home.

The second thing we should notice is that this wayward son’s chosen lifestyle of disorderly conduct could never bring him peace. Although he was the life of the party, he had chosen death, just as Adam and Eve had done. He surrounded himself with friends who lived only for the next big thrill, friends whose selfishness was demonstrated when he ran out of money and they abandoned him. This young man had forfeited a position of safety, honor, and security and had sunk into a barren lifestyle that was without consolation and without hope because it was without love.

I’m certainly not suggesting that this young man should have stayed as a child in his father’s house for the rest of his life. It is normal for young people to grow up, prepare themselves for a career, possibly get married, and behave as responsible adults. But that is not what this young man was doing. He had no occupation or goals, and he dishonored the very father who had made his escape possible. The older brother says in verse 30 that his brother had “devoured [their father’s] living with harlots,” which means that he was doing just the opposite of what he should have done. He had despised God’s design in creation of choosing a suitable helper and building a new family as an extension of God’s Kingdom for God’s glory. He took no thought at all of the future.

No thought, that is, until his money ran out.

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. (Luke 15:14)

And at that moment, even though he did not physically hear his father’s voice, he heard the sweet, clear call of His father’s love. No longer did he see his father as an oppressor. Quite the contrary, he realized that his father had never been anything but gracious and merciful to everyone around him, to the extent that his servants had a better and more secure life than most people. He finally understood that his father had always and only wanted what was good for his children, the kind of good that is not measured in the size of a bank account but in strength of character.

So in an act of humility and contrition, this young man who had denied his sonship began his long journey home to apply for a job as a employee in his father’s house. Serving his father would be infinitely better than continuing in his current life under a harsh employer who wouldn’t toss him a crust of food and who wouldn’t even let him eat a small amount of the food he was feeding the pigs. If he stayed in that condition much longer, he would die.

Sin is always a cruel master. Sin always leads to death.

But the father had not changed; he was still a loving and generous man, and he never stopped watching and hoping for a glimpse of his son returning. And while the son was still just the size of an ant on the horizon, his father saw him and took off running like a man half his age. He grabbed his child and hugged him and kissed him, to the point that the son almost didn’t get a chance to make his practiced speech. But his father completely ignored his offer. He made sure that his son was dressed like a member of the household:

Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. (Luke 15:23)

And then the party began. The father ordered a “welcome home” feast to be prepared his son who had been as good as dead, and now was alive again; for a son who was lost, and now had been found. I can think of no better reason for a parent to celebrate.

This passage is the Gospel lesson for the ninth Sunday after Trinity, and every year when it is read, I shed tears of joy because I see my older brother in that young man. At some point when he was in college, he decided that he wanted nothing more to do with the church. He spent many years of his life in exile from God. But one day God got his attention, and he was reconciled. He is now a faithful Christian, a loving husband and father, and a supportive brother, thanks be to God. But I also shed tears of sorrow for all of my family members and friends who have not yet listened to God’s gracious call to reclaim their place in His family. I pray that the Holy Spirit will break through their pride and bring them to repentance.

The second example I want us to consider is found in the book of Nehemiah, where we find a real-life version of the story of the prodigal son. The pattern that we see throughout the Old Testament is that God’s chosen people would fall away and suffer the consequences of their sin, and God would send His messenger to call them to repentance. They would return and be faithful for a while, but they would always slip back into disobedience. This order of events continued until the city of Jerusalem fell and most of God’s people were taken away into captivity in Babylon.

When God finally brought His people back to the land after 70 years, they realized that an important part of the process of rebuilding their lives was to return to His law, as we read in Nehemiah 8:1:

And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.

Ezra spent an entire morning reading the law aloud to everyone who was old enough to understand it, and when the people heard the commandments of God they began to weep because they felt the weight of their sin. Now, they had already been brought back to the land, so they weren’t crying simply because they were sorry that they had been punished. They were crying because they were truly, deeply sorry for their sin. But Nehemiah told them to wipe their tears and rejoice in the goodness of their Father, who had welcomed them back:

Then [Nehemiah] said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)

Apparently it took them a while to believe that they were free to rejoice; the Levites had to keep consoling them, saying “Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved” (Nehemiah 8:11).

But finally they accepted the everlasting consolation and good hope that was theirs through grace:

And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them. (Nehemiah 8:12)

They understood the words of the law, but even more important, they understood the words of grace. Like the Prodigal Son, the penitent children of God feasted on the riches of their loving Father. They had been lost in exile, and now they were found again. They had been dead in sin but now they were alive.

St. Paul could write with great conviction about the call of God into everlasting consolation and good hope, since he had once been a prodigal son known as Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He thought his greatest accomplishment was to persecute the followers of Jesus. He knew the law and the prophets, but he completely missed the point of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The whole reason he was on the road to Damascas was to fulfill a commission that he had requested. He had gone to the high priest “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” and asked if he might have the honor of capturing Christians and bringing them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

The call on Saul’s life consisted of the piercing light of God’s glory and the voice of Jesus Christ Himself. At that moment, Saul did the only thing he could do; he fell to the earth:

And he heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? (Acts 9:4)

Here is another “where are you” question, this time from Jesus. The answer was that Saul had placed himself at odds with Christ by persecuting Christians. In this question, Jesus identifies with His obedient people who were suffering for His sake. And in the most dramatic transformation we could imagine, Saul became Paul, and the persecutor became the persecuted. Because he finally understood where true riches could be found, he willingly endured all of the suffering and humiliation he had poured out on others. He joyfully aligned himself with everything that he had previously hated and like the Christians he had persecuted, he would now rather go to his death rather than deny his Savior.

The third example I want us to see is that of William Cowper, an Anglican poet who lived in the 1700s. Cowper’s childhood was unhappy for several reasons, largely because he lost his mother at an early age and his father was unkind to him. At the age of 21, he had a mental breakdown and sank into a paralyzing depression. Reading the poetry of George Herbert brought him out of his first bout with depression, but seven years later, he had another breakdown and tried three times to take his own life. Each time God spared him. His condition was so serious that in December 1763, he was committed to St. Albans Insane Asylum where he met Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, who was a Christian. Dr. Cotton ministered to Cowper not only by offering him medical assistance but also by telling him that there was hope for him in Jesus Christ. One day Cowper found a Bible lying on a bench in the garden. He writes:

Having found a Bible on the bench in the garden, I opened upon the 11th of St. John, where Lazarus is raised from the dead; and saw so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men, in our Saviour’s conduct, that I almost shed tears even after the relation; little thinking that it was an exact type of the mercy which Jesus was on the point of extending towards myself. I sighed, and said, “Oh, that I had not rejected so good a Redeemer, that I had not forfeited all his favours.” (The Works of William Cowper, page 457)

Gradually through the ministry of Dr. Cotton, the reassuring words of his own brother, and through the comfort of Scripture, he came to accept the hope that had been offered to him. His turning point came when he read Romans 3:25: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” He writes:

Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel … Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport; I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder. (The Works of William Cowper, page 457)

Coming to Jesus did not end Cowper’s struggle with depression, but it did give him enough hope that he could remain joyful during the darkest times. He went on to write such beautiful hymns as “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and this one:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

Read more about Cowper.

The final call I want you to consider is that of God’s grace upon your life. Through the ministry of a pastor, a parent or other family member, or a friend, each of you has accepted the free grace that has been offered you in Jesus Christ. But we must understand that this is not a one-time call that leaves us where we are. Like the prodigal, we must arise and to go Jesus. The call of Christ is a call to is a call to fellowship with His people. We hear the call of the Lord every time we are offered Holy Communion. In the liturgy we find the rich, sweet words of a Father calling His family to His table. It is also a daily call to service. We hear Him calling us to our duties as wives, husbands, parents, and neighbors. We hear Him calling us to extend the call to others. In short, we hear Him calling us to die to ourselves so that we might truly live.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)

May we ever be found faithfully responding to the call of grace, where we will find everlasting consolation and good hope.

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