Over the many years since I became a Christian, I have heard hundreds of sermons. Some were given by impeccably-credentialed theologians, others by intellectual philosophers, others by experienced scientists, and others by regular people who were honestly sharing what God had laid on their hearts. Most of them, of course, were given by pastors who have dedicated themselves to studying and explaining the Word of God. While I have learned from many of those sermons, only a precious few made such a lasting impact that I can remember them to this day. The sermon I heard yesterday, however, is one I will never forget. It was given by a student from Anderson University who has been leading the children’s ministry at our church. This young lady, who is still in the midst of finishing her undergraduate degree, shared a powerful message that brought me (and many others in the congregation) to tears.
The main text of her message was the parable of The Prodigal Son, which is given in Luke 15:11-32. I have heard many, many, many sermons that used this parable as its main text. This one, however, was different. It gave a personal, real-life example of a father, his prodigal son, and the rest of his family. More importantly, this young lady was the prodigal son’s sister, and her father’s actions taught her (and the congregation at our church) what it really means to show the love of Jesus.
When this young lady was 13, her brother had a sexual relationship with a foster daughter who was living with her family. The foster daughter became pregnant, but no one knew. Her brother and the foster daughter conspired to accuse her father of molesting the foster daughter. It was all done so convincingly that this young lady believed her brother’s accusation, despite her father’s protestations of innocence. She was taken away from her family because of the allegations, and a restraining order was put in place so that her father could not see her.
Because of many things that happened over the next few months, it became clear to her that her father was, in fact, innocent, and that her brother had done the unthinkable: he had betrayed their entire family for his own selfish reasons. She eventually got to live with her mother again, and her father fought to get the restraining order lifted. That was eventually successful, so she at least got to see her father, but in the end, her father went to jail (where he is to this day) for a crime that he did not commit.
This young lady was, of course, furious at her brother for what he had done. She didn’t want anything to do with him, and I completely understand. Not surprisingly, her brother eventually went to prison for something else that he did, and then something incredible happened: Her father was transferred to the same prison where her brother was incarcerated. Taking this as a sign, her father arranged to have a meeting there with his son.
She told us that her father confessed to her that he didn’t know what he would do when he saw his son. Would he hit him, hug him, or both? But when they met, he simply held his arms open wide and said, “I love you.” If you’ve ever wondered what unconditional, Christlike love is, you don’t have to wonder anymore. This man’s actions personified it. It didn’t matter to him that his son falsely accused him of a horrible crime and, as a result, took him away from his family. In the end, what mattered is that he loves his son, and regardless of what happened, he needed his son to know that.
Her father’s actions changed this young lady’s attitude towards her brother. She said that she had been asking God to change him, but the fact is, her father showed her that she had to change. She had to put away the anger and replace it with love for her brother. She had to forgive him, just as her father had. She honestly told the congregation that there was no way she could do such a thing. However, Christ in her could, and now her family is in the process of healing.
Of course, the damage caused by her brother’s actions isn’t gone. Her father is still in prison, despite their attempts to work through the judicial system to have him released. She is getting married soon and is facing the real possibility that her father won’t even be able to attend her wedding. In other words, this story doesn’t have a “Disney” ending to it. However, it does have a Christian ending to it. Through the power of forgiveness, her family is being restored, despite the circumstances.
The next time I find it hard to forgive someone, I will remember this young lady’s amazing sermon. If she, her father, and her mother can all forgive her brother, I have absolutely no excuse.