A White Flag

Luke 15:11-24

If I say to you:

    A certain man had two sons. (Luke 15:11)

I bet almost all of you would know that I am talking about the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’. We have heard it from the time we were little children, often, to illustrate that we should do the ‘right thing’. If we don’t we will end up living with the pigs and eating their slop.

Pretty good threat to get us to toe the line.

And a good example of what happens when we confess our sins and are welcomed back into God’s arms.

The youngest son was a rebel; he knew he needed to get away and party, and explore the world – there was much more things to experience and enjoy than working the farm.

But, he wasn’t so smart after all, and before too long he had spent all his inheritance. The only job he could find was slopping pigs. And if you remember Jewish law, pigs were considered unclean and not to be touched or eaten. Yet he was living in a pig pen and eating the slop he was feeding them. He could not get much lower; as someone once said, he would have to get a ladder to even reach the bottom of the hole he had dug himself into. So he went home on hands and knees, begging forgiveness from his father for being such an idiot.

And his father accepted him back, as if he had never been gone – there was celebrating and feasting to mark his return.

Jesus told this parable to remind us, that no matter what we do, we are still God’s children and He will never desert us.

I would like to tell you a story; it’s about an itinerant preacher many years ago named G.W. Ravensbury. Ravensbury made his living preaching off of trains. He’d ride a train to a town, preach, get back on the train, and head to another town.

    Ravensbury told the story of one unforgettable train ride. He was sitting at the back of a railcar and noticed a young man who was sitting a few rows ahead of him. The young man had a cardboard suitcase stuffed underneath his seat. He appeared very anxious. He would get up, pace the car for a bit, and then sit back down. He did this every 10 minutes or so.

    Finally, Ravensbury decided that he would go have a chat with the young man. So he got up, asked the young man if he could have a seat next to him, and introduced himself. “Son, my name’s Ravensbury, and I’m a preacher. You seem like you’ve got a lot on your mind. Would you like to talk?”

    Ravensbury said it was like opening up a spigot. The young man’s life story just came pouring out. “Me and my pa didn’t get along well at all when I was coming up,” he said. “We’d fuss and fight. Shoot, we’d get into it over nuthin’.

    “One day we were getting after each other real hard–I can’t even remember what about–when I said something like, ‘Well why don’t I just leave!’ And my Daddy said, ‘Son, there’s the door, don’t let it hit you on the backside on the way out.’ I didn’t really want to go, but I was so angry that I went to my room and packed everything I could fit into my suitcase. As I went to leave, my Daddy yelled back at me and said, ‘Son . . . if you walk out that door . . . don’t you ever come back.’ I was so mad I just left.

    “Things didn’t go too well for me after that. I kept wandering from one po’dunk town to another working one piddlin’ job after another, and I wasn’t doing too good. One night I was out drinking with some buddies, and we got this idea to try to rob this liquor store. When we got caught, I got sentenced to prison.

    “But before I got out, I decided to write home to Mom and Dad. I told them I was in prison, and about to get out. I said I was sorry for how I left and for what I did. That I’d understand if they never wanted to see me again, but I’d be passing through town. You see, my house is just off the tracks here about 10 miles ahead. I told them that if they wanted to see me to tie something white out in the tree. That if there wasn’t anything white, I’d just go on through to the next town and they’d never have to hear from me again.

    “Mr. Ravensbury, if there’s nothing white hanging out in that tree,” the young man said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m at the end of my rope. I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
    Ravensbury said that as they grew closer to his home, the young man became even more nervous. Finally, the young man nudged Ravensbury and said, “My house is right up around this bend. Do you think you could see if there’s anything white tied there for me? I just can’t look.”

    Ravensbury said he pressed his forehead up against the window hoping to see something–anything–that was white tied up in a tree. And he said as they turned that corner, it was the most majestic sight he’d ever seen. Apparently that family had emptied their house of every towel, every wash cloth, every bed spread, every pillow case, even every piece of underwear–everything in that house was out there flapping in that tree. It was just a tree of white out there in that yard.

    Ravensbury called to the boy, “Young man . . . look!”

    As soon as the young man caught a glimpse of the tree, he grabbed his suitcase, rushed out the door, and leaped off the train car as quick as he could. Ravensbury said that the last image he saw was of that young man dragging his cardboard suitcase up the hill, and an older couple bursting out of the house to come greet him.

    And Ravensbury said that is a picture of what God’s grace is like. The cross was God’s way of emptying Heaven’s linen closet of everything white so that it would be known for all-time that God wants us home. No matter what we’ve done, or where we’ve been–for us please just to come home.[1]

Just remember God will be waiting with open arms. This is God’s watchfulness, God’s unblinking love for you. We are always in God’s line of sight. We are never alone.

We are all of us prodigals.

Rev. Dr. Leonard Sweet once preached on the prodigal son. At the end of the service a little old lady came up to him and said:

    “You’re all wrong about what that means, Dr. Sweet.”
    “Really?” I said. “What do you think it means?”
    “It’s not that God’s eye is on you, waiting for you to slip up,” she corrected me.
    “God’s eye is on you because God loves you so much God just can’t take his eyes off you!”[2]

[1] As told by Philip Cunningham III, who attributes it to Rev. Ronnie White from Midland, TX, http://feetwasher.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html
[2] Leonard Sweet, “Someone to Watch over Me”, Collected Sermons
6 March 2016

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