Monday, March 11, 2013

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, for the 4th Sunday in Lent, "World's Best Dad!"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The parable Jesus tells in today’s reading is a profound picture of God the Father’s love for us. The story takes place in a time and culture where the community was shaped by honor and shame. Everyone in that community would have seen that the runaway son did a shocking dishonor to his father. It wasn’t like he’d just asked dad for a loan, and then spent it wastefully. Rather, it was as though he’d said to his father, “I wish you were dead! and all I care about is your money, so I can go have a good time.” Even though it was unthinkable, the Father granted this outrageous request. The son’s request was shameful to the family, and he would’ve been despised by the community. Probably few of us have grown up in a culture where honor and shame played such a powerful role in shaping expectations and behavior. The community wouldn’t have expected to hear back anything good about this son. Neither did the older brother. The Father alone watched for the runaway son to come home.
When the son’s resources ran out, no one cared to give him anything. He was so desperate that he craved pigs’ food—the ultimate rock bottom for a Jewish boy. Life didn’t seem so glamorous living in the pig pen. Back when he demanded his share of the inheritance, he certainly never imagined he’d end up like this. He’d severed all ties with home and family. He was, in the Father’s own words, “dead and lost.” He himself had treated his Father as dead to him. We might expect that there was nothing for him to go back to. He was a long way from home in more ways than one. But he came to his senses and realized that not even his Father’s lowliest servants were as bad off as he. In fact they all were well cared for, and had more than enough. So he determined to make a sincere and humble apology to his Father, and beg to be treated like a hired servant. At least that way he could have his basic necessities. He was a long way from home, but he remembered the goodness of his Father—but what he didn’t realize was his father’s love.
I wonder how we think about God our Father. If we’ve scorned Him or run away, or chosen to live only for ourselves and not for Him. If we’ve gone far from home, from God, I mean—do we forget not only His love, but also His goodness? Isn’t it common today to question whether God is even good, let alone loving? I doubt we often grasp the seriousness of how far sin takes us from God, and how great an obstacle our pride is to overcome and turn back to God. Are we ready to take those words on our lips, and say to Him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son (or daughter)”? Or is our plan to hold on to our sin and live outside His family?
Often our own sin is hidden from us beneath “what I want.” We don’t want to see how doing things my own way got me into trouble. But to confess our sins, to say that “I’ve sinned against heaven and before you”—admits that God makes the laws, not me. He sets what’s right and wrong, and not me. What’s best for me is not always what I want, but God’s will is best. And furthermore, I, I have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. This is to swallow our sinful pride, and to remember God’s goodness, and to look to Him for rescue. When we sin, it’s we who’ve forsaken our relationship to God—not Him changing His love toward us. Rather, we’ve walked out on His love and left our part in the family behind. We’ve devalued or forgotten His love for us, or worse, we’ve treated Him as dead to us.
But the lost son was ready to give up his sin, and his pride had been humbled. But he definitely wasn’t prepared for what came next. He was prepared to beg his way into the household as a hired servant. To be treated not as son, but as a worker or employee. He may have been prepared for a “walk of shame” and maybe the stern lecture or the disapproving stare of the household. That would have all been expected or deserved—and the son really knew it. But at least he’d have a warm place to sleep and be well fed. It was too much to expect, that he could return as part of the family again.
But here comes the next surprising turn! At the first glimpse of his son coming home, the Father is overcome with compassion. The Father didn’t leave the son hanging in the painful uncertainty. He ran to him, while still a long way off. A wealthy, respectable landowner would never run. Running was for children. But the Father threw off any sense of dignity and propriety, and ran to His son, threw His arms around him and kissed Him. Just so, God runs to us with a heart overflowing with love and compassion when we turn homeward to Him.
What follows is even more extravagant and unexpected. Not only does He make His love for the son crystal clear by His actions, and His loving embrace, but He further gives this son a rich and astonishing welcome home. He clothes the runaway’s sin and shame with His best robe. He adorns his finger with a ring, showing that he’s been restored to the family, and He puts sandals on his feet. In a few moments, the dirty, scraggly runaway was cleaned up, transformed, and re-clothed as a son. The Father, in His reconciling love, had instantly elevated him from beggar and outcast to beloved son, and the feasting and the celebration began, because this son was dead, but is alive again, was lost, but now is found. A more complete and unexpected reconciliation could hardly be imagined, and all at the Father’s initiative. Who could better deserve the title “World’s Best Dad”? What better picture for us parents of “untiring forgiveness” and love for children? Who could ask for a better Father than we have in God? Certainly there is no better “dad” to come home to. What could hold us back?
If we as parents have ever been called “world’s best dad” or “world’s best mom”—we’ve probably also known the painful honesty when we knew we weren’t the best parents to our child or children. Every parent who loves their child has had times when we’ve felt a failure, or fallen short of our own standards or expectations—let alone God’s standards or expectations. If our selfishness or impatience got the better of us, or whether we ignored our child to their distress or harm, or even when our best efforts seem to have gone awry, a parent can feel far short of “world’s best.” But as parents we were all children once, and we still are—parent or child, youth or adult, we’re God’s creation. God is truly the “World’s best Dad.” He’s endured the loss and heartbreak of countless younger sons or daughters who’ve run away, forgotten or forsaken His love. He’s sought after countless older sons and daughters who never left home, but have gotten lost in their own way, drifting away from their Father’s heart, to the point where they don’t love their younger siblings with the love of their Father.
Which brings us to the second part of the parable, aimed right at both us and the people who grumbled about Jesus “receiving sinners and eating with them.” People who may not have been runaways. People who, like the older brother would resent the Father receiving back such a disrespectful, disloyal, wasteful son. When the older brother reacts to the homecoming celebration, he doesn’t respond with the Father’s warm and reconciling love. Rather he reacts with anger and can we say, pouting? He complains first about how the Father had treated him, and second, about how the Father had treated the younger son. All of his words and behavior revolve around himself and his sense of injustice, as he recounts all the years he served the Father and never disobeyed, but was never rewarded for it. “I never got any special treatment!”
Then his tone turns plain ugly as he made it clear where he now stood in the family—disowning the brother with the words, “this son of yours.” Not “my brother,” but “this son of yours.” As if to say, “If this is the way the family is going to work, count me out!” He follows this up with accusations against his brother, maybe even going beyond what he had actually done. With these words, the older brother was quickly moving toward his own estrangement not only from his brother, but the Father as well. He was offended by the Father’s show of grace and forgiveness to the repentant younger son. The older brother saw himself as deserving of special treatment, and the younger brother as undeserving of forgiveness. But that’s just the point! None of us deserve forgiveness. We can’t earn it. It comes by God’s love and His own work to reconcile us to Him.
This is why so many people have pointed out that the parable is mistitled when it’s called the “Prodigal Son” or the “Lost Son.” First those titles neglect the fact that the older brother was lost in his own way, and second because they turn the attention to the son, and not to the Father, who is the real central character of the story.
So the case of the older brother speaks to us who may have never outwardly run away from God, but have nevertheless grown apart from our Father’s heart. The second son had become just as much a stranger to his Father’s love. He thought his place in the family, and in the Father’s love, was earned by his obedience. Both sons had a lesson to be learned about what it meant to be sons, and to be loved by their Father—and furthermore, how to love each other. Both had a lesson to learn about unconditional love—how the Father could love both of these self-absorbed sons, not because they deserved it, but because they were His sons. And that He would approach both of them, in the same tenderness and concern that would invite them both into the banquet, the celebration of a family reconciled, a community reconciled and at one again. See how the Father pleads with the older brother to be reconciled, to celebrate and be glad? The expectation of the Father is that His older son would be a true extension of His own reconciling love, that he would put aside any resentment, bitterness, and old hurts, and embrace his younger brother with joy; in harmony with the Father.
We can all identify with the brothers in the story, sometimes we’re more like the older brother, sometimes more like the younger. We have seen families torn apart, long periods of not speaking to one another, or an unwillingness to forgive. This parable is not just a lesson in forgiveness, although it is that—even more it is the picture of God’s reconciling love, and how God desires to draw us into that forgiveness and love through Jesus Christ His Son. In the words of our reading from 2 Corinthians 5, “God…through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God has come to us in Jesus Christ, to reconcile us to Himself by taking on our sins at the cross. At great cost to Himself, He took our sin on Himself, and did not count our wrongs or offenses against us. He has done everything to restore our relationship with Him. We could not ask for a more loving and forgiving Father. And He now desires to draw us to have His heart and become His agents or ambassadors of reconciliation to one another and to the world. So that we too can bring forgiveness and healing to one another. So come home and come celebrate! God’s love, His forgiveness, and celebration are waiting for us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What was the great offense that the younger son brought on the Father and family by his request? Follow the astonishing actions of the Father throughout the parable. What is astonishing about His granting the request?
  2. How did the son’s glamorous dreams fall apart? Why is life empty apart from God our Father’s love? What is our spiritual condition apart from God? Luke 15:32; Ephesians 2:1-6. When have circumstances in your life pointed you back toward God? When have you ignored that call?
  3. Why did the son think it was a possibility to come home? What sort of reception did he expect? What sort of reception did he actually receive? What did he learn from this about the love of the Father? How does this invite us to return to the love of our God?
  4. How does God our Father shower extravagant and unexpected love on us? What are the gifts He gives to His children He has forgiven? Acts 2:38-41; Titus 3:5-8; John 3:16; Matthew 26:26-29.
  5. Why is God most deserving of the title “World’s Best Dad”? In what way was the older brother “lost” from the Father? How had he become distanced from the heart of his Father? When does this description fit us?
  6. How are both sons invited by the Father into an understanding of unconditional love? How would this kind of love change our families and relationships?
  7. How is 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 a description of God the Father and Jesus His Son’s joint work in reconciling us to God? What are we to do with that message of reconciliation entrusted to us as well? 

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