Rejoice with Me! Sermon for the Funeral of Jim Hellwinckel

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So He told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:1-7).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

As we met to plan for this service, you shared a few stories about Jim. Bob recalls the day that his mom and dad brought baby Jim home. You talked about Jim’s goofy sense of humor. How he knew all the words to classic rock songs and his favorite movies. You also talked about how he played hard and had fun. He’d stop to enjoy a 6 pack of Keystone with whomever would join him. How he’d admit that he hadn’t always made the best decisions in life. And how Jim’s dad said Jim always liked to run with the big dogs, but when the authorities arrived, they would scatter and Jim would just stand there like a lost pup and be the only one to get caught. That’s who Jim was. Jim had a colorful history.

We’re not going to glorify those stories, but we won’t ignore them, either. One of the most remarkable features of the biblical narrative—and one of the most instructive—is how it makes no attempt to clean up embarrassing—even scandalous—episodes from the lives of God’s people. Righteousness Noah gets drunk, passes out, and shows the world his birthday suit. King David, the “man after God’s own heart” seduces another man’s wife and has him killed to cover up the affair. When push comes to shove, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. Paul persecutes the Church. Yet God chose to use each of these sinners to fulfill His promise of a Savior and for the furthering of His Kingdom.  

In our Gospel reading for today, we see that Jesus’ willingness to associate with the “wrong people” shocked many of His fellow Jews. In the eyes of His pharisaical critics, it was bad enough that Jesus had any dealing with sinners and tax collectors. More provocative still was the fact that Jesus repeatedly shared table with such people. Within Judaism, eating with someone had religious implications. Jesus’ opponents made this aspect of His ministry a special target of their attacks.

In response, Jesus offers three parables. All three have to do with joy over finding what was lost. First, a shepherd calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” A woman calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin.” A father gives a joyous banquet to celebrate the return of his son who had been lost. Why did Jesus reach out to sinners and tax collectors? Because there is great rejoicing in heaven over even a single sinner who repents.

And that is good news for Jim and you and me, and anyone who has ever left the straight and narrow way and took a dangerous detour, no matter how close or far off the beaten path, whether for most of a lifetime or a momentary lapse.

The younger son in our Gospel, amasses an impressive list of skeletons in his closet. When he demands his father give him his share of his inheritance now, he’s saying, in essence, “Old Man, I wish you were dead. But since you’re not, let’s pretend you are so I can pocket my inheritance, move out of the house, and go live it up in the world.” Astonishingly, the father heeds his request. The son packs his suitcase, heads off to a distant land, and soon gets down to the business of squandering “his property in reckless living.”

You’re familiar with the story. He has an impressive rap sheet. He’s insulted his father; shamed his family and no doubt made them the laughingstock in the community; wasted his wealth on selfish pleasure. And he’s made himself the center and god of his own pathetic little universe.

When his pockets are empty and a famine plagues the country, he settles for the only job he can find—a feeder of pigs. So raw is his hunger that he longs to drops to his knees and belly up to the slop trough with the swine. With the bottom fallen out of his world, he comes to his senses. What’s he doing, starving so far from home? His father’s servants have it much better than this.[i]

Now, to be clear the son still isn’t repentant at this point when he “comes to himself.” All he realizes is that he’s reached the end of his rope. He devises a plan for re-acceptance: He will earn his way back into the family’s good graces. He will say to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” In other words, he returns on his own terms. He plans to atone for what he did by relinquishing his place in the family.

But the father will have none of this. The moment he spots his son off in the distance, his heart overflows with compassion. He sprints out to meet him, takes him in his arms, and kisses him. Before his son can finish his rehearsed plea for re-acceptance, his father proclaims, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:22-24).

This moment of complete acceptance was the moment of his repentance. The father’s embrace was this son’s day of resurrection. The father’s love repented and restored him. This parable enacts in narrative form what Paul meant when he wrote to the Romans, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” Repentance was the father’s work, the father’s gift, to his wayward son.[ii]

Here’s the hard yet simple lesson. Repentance is not a work that we perform, but a gift that Christ gives. It’s not an emotion that we stir up within ourselves, but a motion that Christ enacts within us. This motion is always away from us—away from guilt, away from self-devised methods of atonement—and towards Jesus.

Like the shepherd looking for the lost sheep in the parable of Luke 15, Christ trails after us when we go astray. He finds us, put us atop His shoulders, and rejoices to restore us to the fold. Notice that He is the active one: He seeks, He finds, He brings us back. It is not so much that we repent as that He repents us.

Do we contribute anything to this? No, not a thing. From beginning to end, repentance in the divine work of compassionate restoration. Lost sheep don’t find their way back; they’re the object of a search-and-rescue mission. This is repentance: a gift we receive, not a work we do.[iii] This is amazing grace.!

I have one last story about Jim I’d like to share with you:

Four weeks ago, I finally got the chance to meet Jim. He was in the rehab unit at Good Samaritan. Because of COVID it was first time I was able to see anyone there in a year. When they asked who I wanted to see, I added Jim to my list because Bob had asked me to visit with him if I had a chance.

I introduced myself as the pastor of St. John’s at Trosky. Jim told me it had been a long time since he had gone to church. He would probably go back to Trosky because that is where he and his family had gone when he was growing up, but now it was tough for him to get there. I invited him to come home. I told him if he wanted to rejoin, that I would bring the church to him. Even if he wasn’t able to make it there himself, I would keep visiting him and serving as his pastor.

That day I welcomed Jim back as a member of St. John’s. That day Jim joined in worship with his fellow Christians for the first time in a long time. He confessed his sins with fellow redeemed sinners. Jim heard Christ’s absolution, the good news that he was forgiven for all his sins in the triune name into which he’d been baptized back in 1956. Jim confessed with fellow believers his Christian faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Jim received Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of his sins and the strengthening of his faith. That day the angels in heaven rejoiced!

And so can we rejoice today. Rejoice with me! For Jim, death is not the end of the story, but the next chapter of everlasting life, as he awaits the Day of Resurrection, a never-ending story of love and peace and wholeness in the presence of the Lord.

And always remember: There’s room for many more in the household of the Lord. No matter how lost you’ve become, no matter how far you’ve strayed, no matter how poorly your life has turned out, you can always come home. You can always come back and the loving, gracious Father will receive you with open arms, freely forgiving, no strings attached. I’d love to have a chance to talk with you about it more. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Chad Bird, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 52-53.

[ii] Chad Bird, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 108-09.

[iii] Chad Bird, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 107.

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