Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, The 4th Sunday in Lent

"Scandalous Love"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text for this 4th Sunday in Lent is the Gospel, the story of the Prodigal Son. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It would seem that scandal followed Him around. He scandalized Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath, He scandalized the multitudes by telling them that He was the Bread of Life, and they must eat His flesh and drink His blood if they were to have life in them. And today the Pharisees and teachers of the law are scandalized that this man eats with sinners. Do you…eat with sinners? Would people be scandalized if they knew? This man Jesus, who was followed by scandal, presents a story to the crowd to show them their lack of love, but even moreso, to show the scandalous love of our Heavenly Father.

Probably one of the best known and best-loved parables of Jesus, is the Prodigal Son. It begins with the outrageous request of a son, for his father to give him his share of the inheritance, before his father died! Life within the mundane confines of home must not have seemed all it was cracked up to be. We must recognize how truly insulting this request was to the father. It’s as if the son had said, “I don’t need this family, and I wish you were dead!” So that he could have his father’s money of course. He wanted more out of life. He was chasing after “His Best Life Now!” Give me instant gratification, and who are you to tell me what I should do!
It is really just as much a scandal that the father gives in to the request. It must have seemed to verge on insanity, giving his son the property and inheritance. But even here, after being slapped in the face, the father begins to show his incredible, scandalous love for the son, even giving him what he so rudely asks for.

For some of us, it’s easy to see ourselves in this wayward son. We can see the reflection in the mirror, showing how we wandered far from God, and despised His love. For others though, we need a little help to see ourselves as the prodigal. To see how we too have often thought little of the eternal inheritance God has promised us. We treat it as nothing, but instead demand to have our “Best Life Now!” We want to live free and wild, not in love and service to our family, our church, our country. Sometimes we cannot be content with what we have been given, but instead chase after things that quickly vanish.

But when we, like the young son, pursue those desires to their conclusion, we find the emptiness of that phantom called “the better life.” We find that the best the world has to offer is but an empty dream. Worse yet, by turning away from our Father we find ourselves spiritually dead. So easily and willingly we turned from God, thinking how life with God is such a bore. But when all the dreams of wealth, pleasure, and fame have faded away—how much do we long for that life with God? The security of the family, the love of the Father. To belong.

The prodigal son hit rock-bottom like nobody’s business. From a Jewish family, few things could have compared to the disgrace of feeding pigs. Swine were unclean, detested by Jews. And yet so low did he fall, that he was desperate to eat pig’s food. No doubt life had really been rockin’ and rollin’ for him for awhile, before the money ran out. No doubt that the fun was great while the party lasted. But eating pig’s food hadn’t been part of the dream. Somehow the part about skid-row never made it into his travel brochures about his Middle-Eastern “Las Vegas.”
Have we ever hit rock-bottom? Hopefully it won’t have to come to that for most. Whether we’ve reached that point of desperation or not, the Law’s mirror shows us our sin in painful reality. It’s this, that brings us to our senses. That’s really what happens when God works repentance in us. His law shows us the madness of pursuing our own way. It shows us how turning away from God, pursuing our own desires, was senseless. Repentance is God planting the desire in us to turn back, away from our sin.

But look at the speech the son prepares. He’s ready to come back in humility, but he’s got to find a way to “work off” his guilt. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” It was an apology, but he wanted to punish himself, beat himself down for it, made to suffer for his wrong. Maybe then he can cling to some shred of dignity, as though he were making right the wrong. And so he heads home, plan in hand. We know this way of thinking. We’ve done it ourselves. When we really feel guilty about something we’ve done, we try to punish ourselves, beat ourselves down even more, make ourselves suffer for the wrong.

But Here’s where our story gets really scandalous. We don’t often realize how unthinkable it would have been for an older man in the ancient world to run. It would have been unthinkable for a rich landowner, an elderly man to run like this. But run he did! Out to the wayward son! The Bible says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Even before the son can express his repentance, the father has already shown His compassion! Casting aside all dignity and respectability, the father dashes out to his son as soon as he sees him. You can just imagine how painfully awkward the walk home would have been, if the father hadn’t run out. He could have sat there, arms stiffly crossed in disapproval, sternly staring at his son slowly walking home in the distance…the awkward silence that might follow. But none of that! The father can’t contain his love for the son, and races to reach him so that he can hug and kiss his Lost Son, who now was found! What a scandal to show such love to a son who had disgraced his father!

Well-rehearsed, the son begins his speech…“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son;”…but notice what gets left out! The phrase, “make me like one of your hired men” never passes his lips! The overwhelming love of his father explodes any idea of “working off” his guilt, or trying to earn his way back into the father’s good graces. The father’s love is unconditional! There can be no thought of him trying to repay the debt he left, to replace the loss of his father. The father’s concern is for the life of his son, and now he is safe! Home with his family. The father’s love is such a joy and surprise that it turns the son’s plea into true and sincere repentance. He realizes the full truth of the words, “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He really had done more than just “screw up.” He didn’t deserve a place in the family any more. But the father’s unconditional acceptance of the prodigal son shows that their cannot be any thought of continued misery as he labors away as the father’s newest hired worker. Rather, a place is prepared for him at the banqueting table!

Compassion overflows to generosity and celebration as the son is given a royal welcome home. And aren’t we so equally blessed by our heavenly Father? Before we can even turn in repentance from our sins, the Father pursues us with a reckless, scandalous love. A love for even us, who have so often turned away from Him. But He pours out His compassion, awakening true repentance in our hearts and shows us the full acceptance of a Father, who rejoices at every lost sinner who has returned home. In our baptism the Father clothes us with the new robe, the best robe of Christ’s righteousness—the purity of being fully forgiven. Our heavenly Father leaves no room nor gives any thought to us working off our debt, or guilt. We cannot earn love that is given freely.

But there is yet another way we play a part in this parable. You see the older brother was not too pleased with the father’s welcome of the lost younger brother. You might say he was scandalized by his father’s behavior, not the least of which was the lavish feast he prepared for this lost son of his. We get a taste of his scorn and contempt for his brother when he refuses to join the celebration and gripes about how he’s been “slaving” away for his father faithfully, but never gets any recognition for it. He won’t even acknowledge his younger brother as brother, but refers to him coldly as “this son of yours.” The parable doesn’t make it clear whether he was exaggerating or telling the truth when he said “this son of yours” had squandered the property with prostitutes.

But whatever the sins were, it is now immaterial! The father had already forgiven and received back his repentant son—the son was alive! It was no overstatement that “this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Whether with prostitutes, or whatever manner of wild living, through his rejection of the father, this prodigal son was truly dead. Dead to his family (remember he wanted it that way?) and spiritually dead in sin. He had that ever so fleeting “Best Life Now” that quickly decayed to dust and emptiness.

Do we see ourselves as the older brother? Are there times when we are scandalized by the love of God, that receives back even the most unclean sinner? Have we labored in God’s house so long that we now feel a sense of entitlement to be there, and would not welcome back even a brother? Or have we forgotten our sinfulness and need for repentance? Let us instead rejoice like the angels in heaven at every lost sinner who repents! Recognize that the same sin lives in us, and how easily we could have gone down that path to emptiness from God. It is necessary, God the Father even bids us to rejoice over the lost brother! We too have been made alive, we too were lost but now are found.

Jesus’ parable beautifully illustrates the love of our Father, who shows His true heart by the full acceptance of sinners. Our heavenly Father gives us full acceptance through His Son Jesus, who came to seek and save the lost. Though Christ, God’s Son died, He is alive again, restoring us to our Father, and He calls us brother and He calls us friend. Never does He despise us for our sins; for He Himself was despised by them. Always He rejoices to receive yet another sinner into the family. Christ, who was a scandal to many, seats us at the Father’s table for He welcomes sinners and eats with them. So also He welcomes us sinners to eat with Him at the Lord’s Table today. A feast that is fit for celebrating! So let us celebrate the scandalous love of our Father, who through the scandal of Christ’s death and resurrection brings the dead back to life! Amen.
Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.