The shame of a really great story or sermon illustration is that you only really get to use them once. This is maybe the best story I've ever run across. I can't take credit for it. I heard it presented by a preacher named Ronnie White from Midland, TX. It made an impression on me, as well as others when I've shared it in the past.
G.W. Ravensbury was an itinerant preacher back many years ago. That's how he made his living: preaching off of trains. He'd ride a train to one town, preach, get back on the train, and head to another town.
Ravensbury tells the story of a train ride he took that was more strange than many of the others. Ravensbury was sitting at the back of his train car, and he noticed that there was this young gentleman who was sitting a few rows ahead of him. He had this cardboard suitcase stuffed real tight up underneath his seat. And he appeared very anxious. This man 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 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. We'd fuss & 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 & packed everything I could fit into my cardboard suitcase. As I went to leave, my Daddy yelled back at me & 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 & they'd never have to hear from me again.
"Mr. Ravensbury, if there's nothing white hanging out in that tree, 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, 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, & 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 THAT is a picture of what God's grace is like. That 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.
"If you'd like to respond to the invitation..." ;)
Good stuff, huh?