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Sermon for Lent 4

March 10, 2013 Leave a comment

merciful fatherLuke 15:11-32

Augustana, 2013

Note:  This sermon is less an exposition on the parable of the prodigal son and more of a proclamation of the central theme of the text.  See if you can pick it out.

Click here for mp3 audio 23 Sermon for Lent 4.mp3

 

 

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

God our heavenly Father joyfully receives repentant sinners.  That’s the central message of our Gospel reading today.  God is not like us.  We are like the older brother.  If someone sins against us, and they repent, we make them jump through all kinds of hoops to get back in our good graces and even then we may still hold a grudge.  Not so with God.  God is not like us.  God our heavenly father joyfully and gladly receives sinners who are repentant.

It is this joy, this heavenly joy that is most apparent in the readings today on this fourth Sunday in Lent.  Joy like the Israelites had when they had experienced the marvelous rescue through the Red Sea and watched Pharaoh and his chariots drowned.  “The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”  Isaiah the prophet is quoting the song sung by the people on the shore of the Red Sea after their rescue from Pharaoh.  It is dripping with joy.  It is a joyous victory shout.  For Old Testament believers, this shout became as much a part of their culture as our Easter greeting, “The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.”  Perhaps even more so.  And yet Isaiah the prophet knows this shout does not just look backward to a day in history but looks forward to that day, to the Last Day, when all the people of God will collectively give thanks to God and call upon his name and make his mighty deeds known among all people.  Isaiah is not just looking backward but forward to the day of the Lord’s final victory, the day of the Lord’s great joy completed into eternity.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians picks up on the same joy, albeit in different terms.  For Paul, those who believe are, in fact, already now, new; they are a new creation.  We need not wait until some future day for the newness that God brings in reconciling us to himself.  If you are in Christ, you are a new creation.  Why?  Because the old life, a life as viewed from the perspective of the sinful world, is gone.  It’s hard for us to see that.  We are so beset by the world and what the world says about us.  We see nothing but our imperfections, our weaknesses, our sins that it is hard to see what God sees in us.  Even fellow Christians don’t see us the way that Paul says he sees us, the way God says he sees us, that is according to Christ.  There are some people out there, maybe, who are living lives of Christian perfection, but it’s not us.  And yet, what Paul says here is true.  “God has redeemed and restored the believer into a new sphere of existence, re-created as a person of faith in Jesus Christ who desires to live in and for Him alone.” [1]  Consider what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [2]  We are already now God’s workmanship.  We are already now remade in Christ for good works.  We are already now a new creation.  Oh what joy is this that we are already now a new creation in Christ Jesus and we have been made new again because of the reconciliation we have with God our heavenly Father.  What kind of reconciliation do we have with God?  Well, Jesus tells a little story.

It’s very familiar to you, I’m sure, even in the details.  The younger son wants his inheritance before his father dies to do with what he wants.  We know that essentially means he wishes his father was dead.  This is not just a tale of immorality, but yes, the prodigal goes off to live a fast life.  This is a story about rejecting God and all things of God in total.  Even the prodigal’s repentance is only a half measure; he wants to come home not because he thinks he only now rates a place as a hired hand in his father’s house, but because as a hired hand, he will still have his say and not be beholden to his father.  As I said, God is not like us.  When people sin against us, we’re so worried about how the world sees us, we’re so worried the world will think we’re chumps, that we don’t actually forgive.  We let the offender do time in a jail we construct for them and we might consider time off for good behavior.  But not God.  God our heavenly Father joyfully receives repentant sinners.  Look how the father shamelessly goes running for his lost son.  Look how the father even loves the older brother who had shamed the father by his behavior toward his brother.  God our heavenly Father joyfully receives repentant sinners; He joyfully has received you.

Dear Christian friends.  Do you see yourself in the prodigal son?  Most Christian people are for the most part, outwardly, morally upright.  It’s hard to see ourselves as redeemed from the slavery to sin that others may have experienced more recently.  Lent is a time to dig a little deeper and see underneath our own public face, to find the rot of sin.  It’s often less hard to see ourselves as the elder brother, holding others who have wronged us to some standard we have created for ourselves apart from the Word of God.  That could be our first way in to see ourselves as loved by God.  The father loves the elder son too.  And what is the nature of this love?

We’re told the father had “compassion” on the prodigal.  Students of the Bible know that this word is a special word, a word used in the NT, really only of God and characters in parables that act like God, like here.  This compassion then is not merely the sympathy that we might have for another experiencing bad luck but rather this is a special feature of the love of God.  It “represents gracious love beyond the human norm, understanding and reaching into the life of another.” [3]  Here we see something of the very tenderness of the heart of God toward us.  God risks being seen a fool.  He sends His own Son into human flesh, to suffer as human, to suffer human weakness and hunger, to suffer human sorrow and pain, to suffer human disgrace and shame, to suffer the common end to us all, death.  If I was writing a religion, it would not involve the shaming of the god I was supposed to honor.  It is not wonder so many today smugly insist that the God of Christianity, the One, True God, cannot be real; he’s not much of a god at all.  A god who endures the shame of his creation and dies?  They  don’t want a god who endures shame and dies.  They want a god who humiliates their enemies and kills them.  And to some extent they’re right.  God is indeed foolish and he is willing to be seen as foolish in order to show those whom he loves just how he loves them and restores them to their honored place in his household.  God our heavenly Father joyfully receives repentant sinners; he joyfully receives you.

God is not like us.  He does not restore us in half measure.  He does not restore to second-class status.  It is ours then to live in this new creation, this salvation given to us already, in joy and to share with those around us the mighty deeds of our compassionate God.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.


[1] Edward A. Engelbrecht, The Lutheran Study Bible (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 1987.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Eph 2:10.

[3] Edward A. Engelbrecht, The Lutheran Study Bible (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 1748.

Sermon for Lent 4 – Luke 15

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for Lent 4 – Luke 15

Augustana, 2010

16 Sermon for Lent 4 MP3 Audio

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

Jesus tells three parables within the earshot of the tax collectors and sinners and the scribes and Pharisees.  We’re concerned with the last one, commonly referred to as the parable of prodigal son.  This parable is not primarily about a spendthrift, good-for-nothing younger brother but rather about the relations between God and the sinner and the self-righteous.  Try to stay with me as we get a few things out of the way as quickly as possible.  The request of the son is a tremendous insult to the father that to him the father is better off dead than alive.  This boy was lost long before he ever left home.  Maybe this will be understood a little better here in Catawba County than in other places I’ve served.  What is happening here is that the younger son wants his portion of the estate.  In the ancient near east what was the estate?  Flocks, herds, land and perhaps orchards.  This ingrate child is selling off the family estate, portions of the family farm, the family identity.  He is cutting himself off not just from his father and family and intimate community, but from the wider community as well.  What he is doing is unheard of and unrecorded in ancient literature except here in the mouth of our Lord.  He wants his father dead.  As an unbelievable act of love, the Father grants his request.

All the rest of this stuff you’ve heard.  He goes to a far off country.  He better, he is not welcome in his own community.  He spends his wealth on wild living.  He looses everything, has to work for a gentile feeding pigs.  Even the gentile wants nothing to do with this kid so he doesn’t pay him except pig slops.  Suddenly it dawns on him his father’s servants have bread enough and so he hatches a plan to try to go home and be a servant.  This is not repentance, per se.  He doesn’t want to be a son; he still wants to call his own shots.  He returns home and before he can get his pitch out to his father, his father has run (first century Palestinian heads of household don’t run anywhere, by the way, they don’t in the 21st century century either—you won’t see sheiks running anywhere, it’s not becoming, but this one runs) to meet him on the road and hears nothing of his little pitch for servanthood but instead restores him to full sonship, robe, ring, fatted calf, etc. etc.  You know the story as well as any in Scripture.  Before we move on I want to just highlight again, the unbelievable love of the father.  As Jesus tells this parable this father is an obvious symbol for God our heavenly Father.  This father calls it like it is: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”  This father had every reason to wring this boy’s neck, not throw his arms around him.  He chose to forgive and restore.  Remember now who is listening to this parable, tax collectors and sinners and scribes and Pharisees.  Who are the tax collectors and sinners in this parable?  Right.  The prodigal.  Who has not been mentioned in the parable yet?  Right, the older brother.  Of all the people listening to Jesus who is the older brother?  Right, the Pharisees.

Now basically this is where this sermon starts, with the older brother.  Where was the older brother as all of this was going on?  In the field, doing the work of the father.  In most sermons I’ve heard on this passage, the older brother pretty much gets a pass.  Sometimes a preacher will note that we are often stuck up like the older brother and they really should be more forgiving toward those who return to the church but I’m convinced it’s deeper than that.  The older brother insults the father in every way possible here and in fact, I think, to a greater extent than the younger son.  Kenneth Bailey, a Biblical scholar for many years at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, counts seven direct insults of the father: 1) the older son addresses his father with no title, 2) he demonstrates an attitude and spirit of a slave not a son, 3) he insulted his father publicly and still says, “I have never disobeyed your commandment,” 4) he accuses his father of favoritism, 5) he declares he is not part of the family by calling his brother, “your son,” 6) his concept of joy is celebrating with his friends not his family, not the recovery of his brother from the dead, 7) he attacks his brother by accusing him of living a life of sin and thereby insulting his father for forgiving it.  The older son is every bit a prodigal as his younger brother, if not more so.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I am the older brother.  I confess it.

Years ago, as a youth, I was on a youth trip.  We had a girl on our trip who was a smoker.  The rule for the trip was that if anyone were caught smoking in the van or in the facilities in which we stayed, they would eat a cigarette in front of the group.  Well, you guessed it, she smoked.  And she was hauled up in front of the group.  And she was forgiven.  I cried out for justice.  And then in some kind of surreal moment where everything goes wrong, my pastor, somebody I liked, somebody I thought was on my side, recounted my sins of the trip back to me.  If I wanted justice, I would have to suffer the consequences of my sins.  Which did I want justice or mercy?  Her sins were worse than mine, I remember thinking, and I mean to tell you that lasted for years for me.  But they weren’t.  Chief of sinners though she be, Andy Smith was worse than she.  Trust me.

But today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, the most joyous of the 5.  If we did such things we would have not purple on the altar but rather pink, not the color of penitence but rejoicing.  So what is there to rejoice about you might wonder?  Your brothers and your sisters who were dead are now alive.  Come in and join the feast.  The older brother in trying to set himself up as more loyal and faithful than his brother actually committed a greater sin; he failed to rejoice in what he had been given by his Father.  He chose to live like a slave instead of a son and he chose to look at his gracious and loving father as a slave master rather than as a loving father who had given him everything.

Lent offers us a tremendous opportunity to reflect on who we are and how far we’ve come in life.  It is a chance to explore humility.  Dennis Ockham, in a recent book I read, offers two thoughts I think are applicable here.  [Humility] is grounded in a realistic acceptance of who we are—our unchangeable past, our inherited DNA, our innate gifts and aptitudes, our failures and successes, our weaknesses and strengths, and our relationships with others and with God.” (70)  And, “If a person possesses a realistic assessment of who she is, whence she’s come, and where her place is in the scheme of things, she has a good change of accepting others for who they are, whence they’ve come, and what their place is in the scheme of things—without necessarily approving of all that is included in the assessment. (71)  I think this is excellent advice on how not to be a Pharisee or in our case, an older brother.  “What humility does then is it puts us in the right posture to receive God’s grace.  Humility opens us up to receive God’s grace.”  (74)  And I would add and recognize when God is working by his grace in the lives of others just as he has done for us.

Ockham continues with this story:  “I live near the southern California beaches, and occasionally we see or hear about rescues of those who have been swept out by a riptide.  Lifeguards promptly assess the situation and rush out to save the person who is struggling futilely against the stubborn current.  In order to be saved, the swimmer must stop fighting the current and the lifeguard and give in.  The problem is that by the time the two get back to the curious crowd on the beach, the lifeguard—the one who can save himself and another—is lauded and the rescued is written off as a fool for ignoring the warning signs of a rip current or being a weakling.  It’s humiliating to be saved because it requires that I acknowledge my enslavement to narcissism and the riptide pull of tendencies that I prefer not to admit—even to myself.  But if I persist in believing the inflated percentage of my self-approval rating, then I will never admit that I really need God.  (74-75)

That is the profile of the older brother.  That is the profile of the Pharisee.  That is my profile.  And while I think there may be some of us here who are just glad to be restored to our position in God’s household, most of us, I would bet, are more like the older brother.  We labor in the father’s vineyard not in the joy of father’s love, not in humility, but out of a sense of obligation, or perverse pride, boasting of our own self-righteousness compared to that of others.

God’s way for us is recognizing that we are nothing but those having been given to.  Life in God’s house then is rejoicing with our father that our brothers and sisters who were dead are now alive and joining them at the feast.  And so, just as the parable is left unresolved by Jesus, I leave it with you.  But I leave it with the final words of our loving father.  “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Amen.