Over the last few weeks at Melbourne Heights, we have been exploring what the Apostle Paul refers to as “the name above all names” in Philippians 2:9. We’ve been exploring the names of God. And we’re exploring the names of God because, when God reveals his name, God is revealing who he is.
When God reveals his name, God is revealing who he is.
So a couple of weeks ago, we spent our time together exploring the most common name that we find for God in the Bible — a name that is used more than 6,500 times — and that’s the name YHWH. And we saw that the name YHWH, which is commonly translated as “I am,” shows us that you cannot know God until you experience God in your own life.
And two weeks ago, we spent our time together exploring the very first name that is used to introduce God in the Bible. That’s the name Elohim, and we saw that the name Elohim shows us that God has no competition…God is the God above all gods.
And last week, we spent our time together exploring the name that God uses when God introduces himself to Abraham. And God called himself El Shaddai, and El Shaddai shows us that God can make a way when there is no way…which is exactly what God does when he allows Abraham to have a child even though Abraham was 100 years old.
Well, today we’re going to be finishing up this sermon series by talking about one more name for God. But instead of focusing on how God introduces himself, today I want us to look at the most common way that Jesus refers to God.
So tell me, what do you think that name is? What is the most common way that Jesus refers to God?
Well, I’ll give you a hint. Jesus refers to God this way more than 150 times in the Bible. The first time Jesus refers to God using this word is in Matthew 5:16. The final time Jesus refers to God this way is in Revelation 3:22. And Jesus’ best-known usage of this word probably takes place when Jesus is teaching his disciples how to pray.
Do you remember how that prayer goes? It starts with…“Our Father.” So the most common name that Jesus uses for God is the name, Father.
Now I told you a minute ago, that when God reveals his name, God reveals who he is. So what does the name Father reveal to us about who God is? Well, that question might not be as easy to answer as it seems.
And that question may not be as easy to answer as it seems because the Bible has a whole lot to say about fathers. Now some of these passages are pretty well known—like when we’re told in the Ten Commandments to, “Honor your father and mother.” And a lot of these passages are parts of genealogies, where we’re told who begat who.
But in all, the word “father” is used more than 1,000 times in the Bible, and it shows up in 54 of the 66 books that make up the Bible. So when we’re trying to figure out what it means for God to be our Father, we’ve got a lot of material to pick from.
But, as I read through some of these passages about fathers, there was one particular story that stood out to me…and it’s a pretty familiar story. It comes from the Gospel of Luke, so go ahead and grab your Bible and turn to Luke 15.
And while you’re turning there, let me tell you a little more about the Gospel of Luke. Luke is one of the first four books of the New Testament. We call these four books the Gospels. And we call them the Gospels because the word “gospel” means “good news,” and these four books tell us the good news of Jesus Christ. So essentially these four books are biographies of Jesus.
So inside the Gospel of Luke, you can read about Jesus’ birth, you can read one story of Jesus’ early life, you can read about the beginning of his ministry, you can read about the miracles he performed, and you can read the message that Jesus taught while he walked this earth.
The passage that we’re going to read today is part of the message that Jesus taught. And when Jesus taught, he preferred teaching through stories. And he often told short little stories that revealed a powerful truth — we call these types of stories “parables.” And in the passage, we’re going to read this morning, Jesus tells one of his most well-known parables.
So let’s take a look at Luke 15, and we’ll start reading in verse 11. It says:
11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate…”
Luke 15:11-24 (Common English Bible)
Now if you’ve spent much time around the church, you know that this story is usually referred to as the parable of the Prodigal Son. And we call this story the parable of the prodigal son because the word “prodigal” means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant” — and that’s clearly how the son behaves in this story. I mean this son receives his share of his father’s estate and he wastes no time squandering it all away.
But there is a problem with calling this story the parable of the prodigal son, and that problem surfaces at the very beginning of this story. Let’s go back and look at verse 11, and we’ll see if you catch it. Verse 11 says:
Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons.”
This story starts with the line, “A certain man had two sons.” And this line, the very first line in this story, tells us who is really the focus of this story. The focus of this story isn’t the prodigal son, the focus of this story is the father.
And why is the focus of this story the father? Well, this story is an allegory — it’s a symbolic story — that Jesus uses to explain who God is and who God says we are. And, if we go back to the beginning of Luke 15, we’ll see that that’s the reason why Jesus told this story in the first place. In verses 1 and 2 we’re told:
1 All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The religious leaders of the day couldn’t understand why Jesus was hanging out with people that they wouldn’t associate with. In their minds, there were few people who were lower on the social ladder than tax collectors and sinners. But Jesus tells this story to show them how God sees us…who God says that we are.
So Jesus paints these religious leaders a picture of someone who is just about as despicable as possible. He tells them about a son who goes to his father and demands his share of the inheritance while his father is still living.
Now to our ears today this demand doesn’t exactly paint a flattering picture of this son…but we could also imagine a son dragging his dad onto an episode of Judge Judy – or whatever her new show is called – and demanding the same thing. And because we can actually imagine this scene playing out in the real world today, we miss a powerful moment in this story.
Kenneth Bailey, who was the founder of the Institute for Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, explains just how shocking this scene is when he writes:
For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:
Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?
Could anyone ever make such a request?
If anyone ever did, what would happen?
His father would beat him, of course!
The request means—he wants his father to die.
When this son comes to his father and demands his share of the inheritance, he is looking in his dad’s eye and saying, “I can’t wait for you to die.”
So at this point in the story, the religious leaders gathered around Jesus would have expected the father to lash out because this son wanted the man that raised him, the man that protected him, the man that gave him everything dead.
But instead of telling them what they expected to hear, Jesus gave the religious leaders a glimpse of who God is. Rather than lashing out, the father gives his son what he asked for.
And God does the same for us. The God who gives us our very purpose for living loves us enough to give us the freedom to walk away from it. Why? Because relationships can’t be forced, and love can’t be coerced. Or to put it another way, God wants us to choose to love him.
God wants us to choose to love him.
But just like the son in this story, all of us stray from God’s path for our lives. All of us are separated from our father—in more churchy terms we say, “we’ve all sinned.” And that’s exactly what this son does. He takes everything his father gave him and he squanders it.
And we do the same thing, too. God gives us everything and we squander God’s gifts. We’ve used our God-given gifts to get ahead at work…but we still feel empty inside. We’ve used our God-given gifts to help us acquire all the pleasures in life—we buy the latest gadgets and gizmos, we spend small fortunes on luxury cars, we go on extravagant vacations—thinking they’ll make us happy…but we find that happiness fleeting. We use our God-given gifts to make friends and influence people, thinking we’ll finally feel loved for who we are…but we end up feeling like no one knows the real us in the end.
And eventually, we realize that, in spite of everything we’ve chased after, we’re not where we should be in life. Our lives feel empty and meaningless.
And it’s at this point in the story that the son comes to a revelation. He realizes that his life isn’t what it should or could be, so he decides to return to his father. He knows he’s unworthy to come back, so he decides to come home on his knees — begging to be taken on as a slave since he is no longer fit to be called a son.
But what happens next shows us who our Father — who God — is, and it shows us who we all are to God. Jesus says:
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
Luke 15:20-24 (Common English Bible)
This father who had been betrayed, this father who had been left behind, this father whose own son wished he was dead; was waiting to welcome his son home. It didn’t matter what the boy had done, it didn’t matter where the boy had gone he was still his father’s son.
And the same is true for you and me. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it doesn’t matter where you’ve gone; you are still a child of God.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it doesn’t matter where you’ve gone; you are still a child of God.
This is the way that Henri Nouwen, a renowned scholar, and priest, puts it in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son:
It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God. Yes, God needs me as much as I need God. God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn’t move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their aberrant behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. To the contrary, he leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running toward them, pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to his table richly prepared for them.
And you know what, Henri Nouwen is right. It does sound strange to hear it, but God wants to find you as much, if not more than, you want to find him. God needs you as much as you need him.
Why? Because you are God’s child. And, as any parent could tell you if our child is lost we want to find them as much as they want to be found. And we need our kids in our life every bit as much as they need us in their lives.
So over the last few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about what God’s names reveal to us about who God is. But today, I want you to know what being able to call God your Father reveals about who God says you are. You are a child of God.
You are a child of God.
So, yes, God is the God above all gods. Yes, God is able to make a way where there is no way. Yes, God is greater than we could possibly begin to imagine. But God is also your Father. And that means that God loves you more than you’ll ever know.