Monday, March 15, 2010

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32; for the 4th Sunday in Lent, "Embrace for the Lost"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The story of the prodigal or lost son is probably one of the most familiar parables Jesus taught. A son rejects his living father as dead, wants to cash out his inheritance now, and run off with the money to party and live life to the fullest. The parable is about that ever-so-difficult homecoming when the lost son returned broken and empty-handed to beg for food and a place to stay from the father he’d disowned. Today we’ll consider how the father and the older brother each reacted. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The lost son was lost when he squandered all his father’s inheritance in wild living. Then he returned to his home and to his father, but when he arrives, in another way he’s still lost. He doesn’t know his own father. So he comes on the grounds of his own merits. But he realizes that he’s shot any merits he’s had to oblivion. He’s a lost cause if ever there was one. He has no grounds or basis for readmission to the house. He’d every right to expect that he’d be regarded as an outcast and one who’s disowned by the family. He’d decided to count his father as dead to himself, so that he could claim his share of the inheritance. He’d every right to expect that he’d be regarded as dead to the family. So he comes to enter the household on the grounds of being a servant. The lowest position in the house, to plead for simple necessities of food, shelter and water. He thought he could work for his father to earn his keep, and be treated as a servant.

Now there was something right about his approach to his father. He came in humility and sorrow over what he’d done. It was a real offense against heaven and against his father that he couldn’t repair or undo. We don’t have any ground or basis for admission to our Father’s house on our own merits. He knew that the sacrifice that God accepts is a broken spirit—a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise (Ps. 51). It’s right that we approach God in true brokenness over our sin, acknowledging an utter dependence and need for His mercy. We shouldn’t be indifferent to our sin, as if God shouldn’t mind anyway, and come back “on airs” thinking that God owed us anything. So in this way, the prodigal’s approach to his father was correct. True repentance of heart was necessary.

But there was a second aspect about the approach of the prodigal that was mistaken. He was mistaken in underestimating the capacity of love and the forgiveness of his father. He knew his father wasn’t a stingy man or a slave-driver. He knew that even the lowest members of the household had more than enough food. No one was starving—no one was shorted their necessities. But he couldn’t imagine his father’s capacity for love being so great. He only thought he could earn his way into a basement-level position where he could exist forgotten and unnoticed, but at least alive and well-fed. How many people have the same longing for God and His goodness, but feel themselves so unworthy that they think God could never love such a sinner as them? We underestimate God’s capacity for love and forgiveness.

And oh! How sweetly mistaken he was about his father’s love! He couldn’t have imagined that the one who owed him not one shred—the one whom the son had insulted, betrayed, and considered as dead—that this father would cast aside all sense of dignity and the bearing of a man of wealth and respect…and come running to his son for a full-on tackle of love. What tears of surprise and joy must have flowed from father and son as they hugged and kissed that day. And to think that you and I are that prodigal! We’re lost and wandering children whom our Father has welcomed home in a loving embrace…shattering any doubts about God’s love and forgiveness for us—even had we gravely dishonored him and wandered away. He speaks tenderly to us, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Is. 43:1b). We are caught in the embrace of our Father—the embrace for the lost.
God doesn’t make us cling to the “edges of mercy”—even if we think we can beg for nothing more. We don’t live on the margins of His love, looking in to the warmth and glow of the household. You know how Ebenezer Scrooge looked longingly through the window of Tiny Tim’s home in the movie the Christmas Carol? Longing to participate in the love of the family inside? God pulls us to the center of His love and mercy for us, and fully embraces us with His love. The Father prepares the best celebration for us. Did you know that heaven throws a party when a single sinner turns to God?! The angels rejoice over every lost sinner that repents.

But what about that older son? He was coming in from the field when he heard the music and dancing. He’d labored long in the field for his father with loyalty. He wasn’t so insolent and disrespectful as to demand his share of the inheritance to cash out and spend on wild living. He was moderate and respectful and carried out his duties. But he lacked his father’s love and concern for his brother. When he heard the servant’s report that his brother had returned safe and sound, he should’ve cried with joy, “Where is he?!” He should’ve run to his brother with the same warm embrace of his father, to welcome the lost back home. He could’ve said, “I was worried about you, but I’m so glad that you’re alive. You can’t imagine how much father prayed for your safety and return. He was heartbroken when you left—you should’ve seen how he wept. We wish you’d never left. But welcome home brother—you’re back where you belong.”

But none of this! The older brother was indignant instead. Angry that the father and family would celebrate the return of this rebel, this scoundrel, this disrespectful young man who’d shamed his family and their name. With self-righteous anger he lashes out: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

As if to say: “This is the thanks I get for all the hard work I’ve done and the loyalty I’ve given? And you go and reward that miserable son of yours.” The contrast between the father and the older brother is so stark. When the prodigal son came home, it was really the response of the older brother that he expected to receive. That older brother, so far from loving his brother and showing concern for him, really did disown him and count him as dead. The older brother didn’t even acknowledge his family ties to the prodigal—calling him, “that son of yours.” Perhaps if the older brother would’ve received his younger brother back at all, he would only be satisfied if he were treated as a servant. Make that miserable son work off his guilt. Let him labor in the purgatory of his own making and see if he can work off the guilt and shame he’s accumulated. Maybe after he’s suffered long enough, we can begin to think about whether he’s worthy of being called son and brother again. But he better not think he’s going to get off scot-free.

The older brother apparently wants to call the father “back to his senses.” The father shows that he still loves the older son, and hasn’t forgotten him, saying: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The father gently reminded his older son that he’d lost nothing as a result of the father’s mercy and forgiveness to the younger son. Everything the son had was still his, and he was just as much loved by the father. But it was necessary to celebrate the lost brother, because he was dead to the family, dead to God—but now he was alive and restored. He was lost—lost in rebellion, selfish pursuit of his own desires; lost pursuing the false and fleeting dreams of wealth and wild living—but now he was found. He was home in the fold, back in the family where he belonged—redeemed from the fatal influences of the worldly life he’d left behind. He was truly found.

When have we been like that older brother? Indignant and jealous of the mercy and kindness shown to such a sinner. Would we be ashamed or too offended to call as our brother, one who had fallen so far and come back? One who had insulted and dishonored our father? Who wasted the family inheritance on prostitutes and reckless living? Would we expect them to crawl back on hands and knees and continue to suffer the shame and regret of their sin, until we counted them worthy to stand and be counted as a brother—as part of the family? Or would we continue to deny them welcome into the family?

Sometimes there’s a sense of entitlement and privilege that can creep out of our sinful nature, even as Christians. Hopefully not in such blatant ways. But there’s nothing Christian at all about having such a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness. Our sinful nature will express itself one way or another, whether or not we’re involved in open sins. In the case of the younger brother, the sinful nature expressed itself through open and brash acts of sin and immorality. In the case of the older brother, he wasn’t openly sinning, but his sinful nature manifested itself in his jealousy, lovelessness, and lack of concern for his brother. This is often how that sinfulness manifests itself in us as Christians. We might act like we’ve earned our place (we haven’t), we might act like our record is cleaner than the rest (it isn’t), and we might act like the church would be a better place if there weren’t so many sinners here (hello!!! We are all sinners!).

Now the church is not told to associate with openly unrepentant sinners—those who still cling to their sin and won’t repent—in fact the church is to avoid such association. But that’s completely different from welcoming in the repentant, the sorrowful, and the lost who seek the mercy of God. For we’re the same. We call on the same mercy for our sin, so we ought to welcome such people with the same open embrace that our heavenly Father does. We should celebrate whenever lost sinners come to our Father’s embrace. We should celebrate and be glad for the lost sister or brother who is now found and is alive in Christ Jesus.

So welcome back to the Father’s house, lost sons and daughters of God! Receive the full privilege of being a son or daughter of God—a privilege we’re totally unworthy and undeserving of. Welcome to the place of celebrating God’s love and mercy, as we praise His name and receive His banqueting gifts—gifts of His Word and promises heard through the scriptures; gifts of His saving promises in Baptism; gifts spread on the table of His Holy Supper to celebrate and participate in the forgiveness won on the cross. Thanks to God, our older brother is Jesus, who gives us the same welcoming embrace as our heavenly Father. Our brother Jesus who came like the good shepherd to seek and find us lost souls and bring us home. It’s to Jesus, our older brother that we owe thanks for the clean slate of forgiveness that we have, that gives us our entrance into our home of heaven. So welcome back—you are where you belong! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Why was the lost son still “lost” when he came back to his home? How did he think he would enter his father’s house again? When we approach God on our own merits, do we have any basis to enter His house? How instead do we make our approach? Hebrews 4:14-16; 10:19-22

2. In what way was the prodigal mistaken about his father’s nature? How do people sometimes think of God and His capacity for love and forgiveness? Have you ever doubted that you could be forgiven for a certain sin? How does the richness of God’s love radically change our perspective?

3. What was right about the lost son’s approach? cf. Luke 18:9-14

4. What was the older brother’s response to the lost son’s return? When have we “played this part”? In what ways has our sinful nature shown itself in a sense of self-righteousness or entitlement?

5. What have we ever lost because of the grace and mercy of Christ to another sinner? How can we better welcome a lost sinner who is struggling to find forgiveness, and even ashamed of their sin? 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 How can we adopt the attitude of our heavenly Father, rather than the older brother?

6. Consider again all that God has done for you in His mercy and love. How wonderful to go from being lost to being found!

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