In 1943, Li Airui found himself imprisoned by the Japanese in the Weihsien internment camp in Shandong, Northern China. Li quickly emerged as a leader among the 1800 internees. Life in the camp was hard, under a brutal regime. Some oil company executives, managed to bribe the guards into receiving extra rations and luxuries. Li shamed them into sharing these with the other prisoners. Without the benefit of equipment or supplies, Li taught science to the children in a makeshift school. He led Bible studies, taught Sunday school and cared for the sick and elderly. Li organized games to promote fitness and boost morale. That is perhaps not surprising because Li was the first Chinese ever to win a gold medal in the Olympics.
We know him better as the “Flying Scotsman”. But Eric Liddell was actually born in Tientsin, in northern China, in 1902. Li Airui was his Chinese name. Appropriate since he spent most of his life serving the people of China. As an undergraduate at Edinburgh University he won seven caps in rugby for Scotland in the 1922 and 1923 Five Nations championships. He gave up rugby to concentrate on becoming a 100-meter sprinter. When he was criticized for spending so much time training instead of becoming a missionary, he replied “God made me for running. He made me fast. And when I run I feel pleasure. To give it up would be to hold God in contempt.”
He was chosen to run for Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Controversially he declined to run in that race because it was to be held on a Sunday. A devout Christian, he believed that running on Sunday violated the keeping of the Sabbath, something he would not do for king, for country, or Olympic glory. For the stand he took, Liddell was called a traitor. Immense pressure was put on him to run but he refused. He was instead given the opportunity to run in the 200 and 400 meter races. Winning a bronze in the 200 meters, he won the gold in the 400 meters, setting a world record as well. Returning to Scotland, he quietly finished his degree in science and theology, and then in 1925, returned to his native China to serve for the next twenty years as a mission partner.
In 1936, as China prepared for war, Communist and Nationalist tensions increased. In 1937, Liddell was asked by the London Missionary Society to become a village evangelist in Siao Chang a more remote and hazardous region. By 1941, life in China was becoming so dangerous the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Liddell sent his wife, Florence and their children to safety in Canada but stayed behind Japanese lines to continue his work. In 1943, he was arrested and sent to Weihsien Internment Camp. He preferred captivity to freedom in order to reach the lost. Liddell was convinced that lost people matter to God. Are you?
The parable before us today is actually the third in a series about ‘lostness’ recorded by Luke; the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. There is a rising level of intensity and emotion from the lost sheep (1 in a 100) to the lost coin (1 in 10) to the lost son (1 in 2). The story we are considering today is known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” or “the Lost Son”. This description is unfortunate because it is an inaccurate interpretation. It draws our attention to the younger son. It would be more accurate to call this the “Parable of the Lost Sons”, plural, because both were estranged from their father.
Both were lost. Both disrespectful toward their father. Both needed to repent and respond their Father’s love. And yet, even this misses the point. What is common to all three parables? Who is the central character of all three parables? Timothy Keller helpfully names this the parable of the Prodigal God. The word ‘prodigal’ is an old English word meaning ‘recklessly extravagant’ and ‘having spent everything’.
Do you see? This is not primarily a story about a recklessly extravagant son who spent everything. It is about a recklessly extravagant God who gave everything in Jesus.
It is also a story about the heartbeat of God and our mission imperative. It has been described as ‘the pearl and crown of all the parables’ or the gospel within the gospel. It portrays both the desolation felt by the lost sinner and the matchless love of God as he welcomes the repentant sinner.[i]
And herein lies the challenge to us today. Do we understand the extravagance of the Father’s love for us? Have we experienced that reckless love? Have we been so affected, so transformed by God’s extravagant love that we now share his passion for those who are still lost? For our family and friends? For our community? For the thousands who will invade our community this Summer from all over the world in order to participate or watch the Olympics? Or are we more like one or other son? We can just as easily lose sight of our purpose living at home as by running away. You can be compliant or defiant, it doesn’t matter. You know what? We can be just as lost attending a Church as attending a mosque, a synagogue or Temple to mammon.
We have a 2020 Vision that drives our agenda as a church. And we hold to ten distinctive values which shape our 2020 Vision. They are on the back of our 2020 Vision. The first rightly insists that biblical teaching anointed by the Holy Spirit is the catalyst for personal and collective transformation. The dominant message of the Bible forms our second distinctive value – lost people matter to God and therefore matter to the Church. This profound truth is nowhere more obvious than in the parable of the prodigal God. In this powerful story, Jesus answers three essential questions:
Do lost people really matter to God?
If lost people really matter to God why do they not seem to matter to the Church?
If lost people matter to God, how can we ensure they matter to us also?
1. Do lost people really matter to God?
The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were asking the very same question.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable” (Luke 15:3)
The religious leaders found it incomprehensible that Jesus would want to spend time with ‘sinners’. That is because they did not know God or his compassion for the lost. Jesus makes this explicit at the end of each of these three parables.
Each one ends with an act of joyful celebration.
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)
“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
“But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” (Luke 15:32)
Tim Keller asks, “How close is a great feast to your idea of heaven?” In clear and unequivocal terms Jesus associates his mission with this endeavour of seeking and saving and celebrating: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10). The Apostle John writes of the extravagant love of God in similar terms,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Not just loved but “so loved”. And the Apostle Peter insists,
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
The Bible leaves us in no doubt. Lost people matter to God. He created them. They belong to him. He loves them. The Lord Jesus Christ came to seek, to find, to save and to celebrate with them. So, first question: Do lost people really matter to God? Yes! Unequivocally. Unreservedly.
2. If lost people really matter to God why do they not seem to matter to the Church?
God’s passion is about providing a home for the lost. The passion of some churches today it seems is restricting access only to the found. Why this chasm? Why this disconnect? Why are some Christians it seems really not that interested in lost people?
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:28-30)
The critical attitude of the older son resonates with some church goers I meet today. They have never left home. They have never wandered away. They give the impression that the church belongs to them. Here are some reasons:
Lost people are hard work
They ask awkward questions. They challenge us to reflect on what we believe and why. Church used to be so uncomplicated before ‘they’ started to attend.
Lost people force unwelcome changes
Like having to change the church layout to fit them in. Like having to hold two Sunday morning services. The church was fine until ‘they’ started to turn up.
Lost people don’t know how to behave in church
They take photographs at baptisms. Their children are noisy. They don’t sing. They fidget and talk. Church services used to be so dignified until ‘they’ started to attend. And temptation is to retreat into a church ghetto, circle the wagons, and say, ‘become like us, don’t cause any trouble or expect us to change and then we will accept you.’ The assumption is that seekers need to behave when they come to church, believe and then they can belong. Behave – believe – belong. The pattern we see in this parable and throughout the gospels is the opposite. For Jesus it was: Belong, believe and behave. People need to feel welcomed and accepted before they will believe. When they believe in Jesus, he will take care of their behaviour. God’s passion, is to bring his children home.
- Do lost people really matter to God? Yes of course.
- If lost people really matter to God why do they not seem to matter to the Church? Perhaps because some Christians have not experienced God’s passion.
3. If lost people matter to God, how can we ensure they matter to us also?
Our mission statement is ‘To know Jesus and make Jesus known”. To assist irreligious people become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.’ But how far do our activities reflect God’s passion? Is evangelism just one of our activities or is making Christ known central to all we do? How many of our special events are designed to bring people back to the Father?
Do our services have the seeker in mind? Are we addressing the questions seekers are asking? What barriers have we erected which unintentionally make it harder for seekers to come home? We must be intentional about this.
“So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.” (Luke 15:24-25).
The celebration could be heard from the fields. Do our activities appear so enticing to those outside? What words do you associate with church? Would celebration be on your list? Music? Dancing? The Christian life is one long celebration. One long shout for joy at the richness of God’s grace. In verses 17-19, it says the son came to his senses. He realized that he was better off as a servant in his father’s house than someone enslaved to his own desires. Memories of his father’s love and his former home life were highly potent.
Put simply, thoughts of his father’s house beat the competition.
Do you realise we are in competition with all the secular alternatives today. Sunday shopping, entertainment, recreation, sport. We have a message that beats the competition hands down. That is why we are committed to excellence in all we do. If you read our distinctive values you will notice the words ‘excellence’ ‘purity’ ‘authenticity’ ‘full devotion’ appear more than once. There is no agency on earth to match these values but a group of fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
Feedback shows that 4 out of every 5 people become Christians as a result of a relative or friend. Why? Why are you here today? Because very likely someone got into close to you and was contagious. They expressed the love of God for you in tangible ways and God used it to soften your heart.
“Bring the fattened 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 is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:23-24)
Is that how you see new believers? Does Christ’s love compel you? Transform you and the way you view others? Never forget the magnitude of God’s love for you, turning you from being a stranger and an enemy into his family as an adopted child. Live with profound thankfulness for God’s love for you and look for ways to share it with others. When we do it takes very little effort or motivation to reach out to lost people and say, “You need to come and see how wonderful my God is.” This kind of evangelism is exceedingly effective. When a believer looks an unbeliever in the eye and says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” – these words have a way of striking a responsive chord in the lives of unbelievers. Contemplate the love of Christ for you and let his love for you overflow and become a contagious love for others. When you think about the people you are going to invite this Easter, who do you see? People who are a pain to live with? Or people for whom Christ died? Remember – If lost people matter to God so much ,that he sent Jesus to search for them, die for them and bring them home, then perhaps they should matter to us also. There is no greater thrill than having a person look you in the eye and say, “Thanks for answering my questions. Thanks for being patient with me. Thanks for loving me when I wasn’t particularly loveable. Jesus saved me but you led me to the cross where I found grace.” For nearly twenty years, Eric Liddell shared the love and grace of the Lord Jesus with Chinese people.
Winston Churchill negotiated an exchange of prisoners but, typically, Liddell refused to go, giving up his place to a pregnant woman. If Liddell was in great pain in early 1945, he never really let on. Despite his illness, he simply continued to love and teach and train the children. But on 21st February, 1945, just months before the end of the war, he succumbed to an undetected brain tumour. He was laid to rest in a little cemetery outside the walls of the camp. Then, after the war, Liddell’s remains were interred in the Mausoleum of Martyrs at Shih-Chia-Chuang, 150 miles south-west of Beijing.
Its there that China honours the memory of 700 people who made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of China from the Japanese. The record books may remember Eric Liddell the runner, but the people whose lives he touched remember him as a servant of Christ. A fellow internee, Stephen Metcalfe, later wrote of Liddell: “He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave me was his baton of forgiveness. He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them.” Lets pray.
Yes Lord I will follow you, help me to feel as you feel, to see as you see and the love as you love, help me to become contagious in my love for you that others may want to know and love you also. In Jesus name.
[i] Gordon Keddie, He Spoke in Parables