When I was in my teens, I hated going to church. I thought Christianity was very unsophisticated – and I preferred exploring the rather more exotic religions of the East. They seemed infinitely more cool than church!
But on one of the occasions when my poor parents managed to get me to go to our local parish church, I heard something read which stopped me in my tracks. It was today’s gospel: the story of the Prodigal Son. It was the father in the story who caught my attention.
Here was a man who was wealthy and dignified. Yet whose heart was aching because he’d lost his son. I imagine he would spend hours thinking about him, missing him, longing for him – as you would for a lost child – looking into the distance, scanning the horizon, hoping one day he would come home. That day came in the story. His son decides to come home – but while he was still far off, his father – with “quick-eyed love,” sees him. My son! The dignified man runs – he runs and runs to meet his son, and he throws his arms around him and kisses him.
And that, says Jesus, is what God is like. And it’s that picture of God which ultimately brought me to faith. I had thought that God was some distant, heavenly deity, whom we, through various prayers and exotic techniques could coax down to earth. But the God whom Jesus describes, is one who comes looking for us. God comes looking for us, seeking us, to bring us home.
And this is the principal theme of the whole Bible: lost and found. The story of how God comes to look for us, and how in Jesus, he finds us and brings us home.
How we got lost in the first place is the theme of the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis. The most poignant moment comes in chapter three. The Lord God is portrayed as “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” He is looking for his beloved children, but he can’t find them. They are already lost. For their act of disobedience has ruptured the relationship of trust between them and God. And so they hide in shame. And then that haunting question that God calls out to them, “Where are you?” That question resonates throughout Scripture. It is a question which speaks to the aching dislocation and alienation at the heart of the human condition. Our deepest need is to be found by God.
Lost and found. Nowhere in the Gospels is this profound truth so beautifully described than in the 15th chapter of St. Luke. It is described in three wonderful stories about the distress of being lost, and the joy of being found.
The first story is about a shepherd who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. In his distress and love for the lost sheep he goes in search of the lost sheep until he finds it, lays it on his shoulder and brings him home. The second story is about woman who has 10 silver coins but loses one of them. She so longs to find it, she turns the house upside down until she finds the lost coin. The third story is our Gospel today: the man who has two sons but loses one of them. Each of the stories has the same pattern. A loss, followed by a sense of terrible longing and yearning and seeking. And then, when the sheep and coin and son are found, there is great rejoicing.
What’s really important is that these three stories are told specifically to hard-hearted and grumbling tax collectors and sinners who precisely take offense at Jesus coming to find the lost – “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And there’s something outrageous in these stories. They’re just not sensible. What about this stupid shepherd: He goes off looking for one sheep, and leaves all the others. What if a wolf came?
And that woman with the coin. She finds the coin and then invites all her neighbors for a party – and so probably spent more than the coin to feed them.
And then the father of the Prodigal Son. How right the elder son is to complain! He stayed at home; he was righteous. Surely, the father shouldn’t have welcomed the prodigal home so warmly and lovingly.
And that’s the point of the three stories. By the standards of the Pharisees – our standards – they’re not very sensible. But God’s love for us is so overwhelming, so lavish, so overflowing that we simply cannot measure it by our sensible, carefully calculated generosity. It’s crazy how much God loves us. Like the woman who pours costly oil on Jesus’ feet. She doesn’t just drop a few drops on – she smashes the whole neck of the bottle and pours the whole lot over Jesus. What a waste! But that’s what God’s love for us is like – lavish, overflowing with generosity – beyond what is rational, beyond what we can comprehend: so much does he love us that he allows his son to die on the cross for us. Love without measure.
As I read the Scriptures, I am struck again and again by how God seems to love coming to look for us when we are lost – to seek us out and find us, and bring us home. But how we try to get away! Poor Jonah got on that boat and fled to Tarshish to get away from God – but the Lord followed him, and would not let him go.
“Where can I go then from your Spirit?” asks the Psalmist. “Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven you are there: if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.” (Psalm 139)
I’ve known that in my own life. When in my 20s I first began to experience a vocation to be a priest, I tried not to think about it. It’s not what I’d planned for my life. But when I was alone, especially lying in bed at night, I would hear God’s voice patiently calling to me. And I came across a poem by Francis Thompson that helped me realize I was not alone in this experience. In the poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” God is described as a great hound padding after us. It starts:
“I fled him down the nights and down the days.
I fled him down the arches of the years.
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind.
In the midst of tears I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped
From those strong feet that followed, followed after.”
I knew what it was like – and I know now what it is like to be so loved by God. The God whose love will never let us go.
We’re half way through Lent today – and this Sunday is sometimes called Refreshment Sunday: an opportunity perhaps to pause and take stock. What has been your own experience of being lost? Times in your life when you made a choice that took you into a far country, far from God? Times when you went astray – when you took a path which did not lead to life. Perhaps you feel lost right now? I believe it’s precisely at these times that God draws especially close to us, longing to rescue us, throw his arms around us and bring us home.
It’s OK to be lost, to acknowledge our sins, our wrong choices. Because, unless you’ve been lost you can’t really be found.
When did God find you? You may have experienced one particular moment in your life: a conversion experience, or a moment of revelation: a sense of being rescued, of being loved, of being forgiven. Perhaps you have many experiences of being found by God. Perhaps you’re always straying off the path. Instead of being angry, I think God delights in seeking us out and finding us, and bringing us safely home.
When God finds us, there is always a celebration. Today, in this Eucharist, we’ve gathered to celebrate God finding us in Jesus Christ. If you’re feeling lost right now, when you come to receive Jesus in bread and wine, ask to be found. If you know what it is to have been found by God, when you come to receive Jesus in bread and wine, give thanks – thanks to the one who came looking for you, and found you.
One thing I do know, is that when our life is over, and God finally calls us home, there will be a great celebration. “For this child of mine was dead and has come to life – was lost, and has been found.”
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