Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent 2019
Joshua 5:9-12 Psalm 32 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The family homestead was a significant source of identity in the ancient Near East. Inheritance policies were setup and structured so that hard work of the older generation was passed to the younger generation. In this passage, the older son was entitled to more of the family’s inheritance than his younger brother. In that culture, it was disrespectful and dishonorable to ask for an inheritance early. The shock of the younger son so blatantly asking for it is only outdone by the shock of the father granting his wish. It is clear that Jesus is making a point in this parable, particularly about our place and behavior in the Kingdom of God and what our inheritance will be.
Even with a surface reading of today’s lessons, we see a common theme of reconciliation. We see it presented as a covenant in Joshua, as a theological statement in Paul, and as a parable in Luke. The parable of the loving father, otherwise known as The Prodigal Son is found only in Luke.
It is a familiar story.
In thinking of the message of the Prodigal Son, it is interesting to look at the words of hymns and how they speak to us. As our processional out hymn today, we will sing, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. It is one of my favorites and definitely on the list to sing at my funeral. Frederick Faber wrote the lyrics. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.”
The hymn continues, “There’s welcome for the sinner and more graces for the good.” It speaks of “plentiful redemption” and “the sweetness of the Lord”. This is the vision of the vastness, and depth of the love, grace, compassion and justice of God that lies behind Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable points to God’s deepest desire, greatest yearning and passionate dream for all of God’s children and the whole of God’s creation.
Prodigal is not a word often heard. Prodigal is defined as “wastefully or recklessly extravagant.” It is not a word used in modern times. But is appropriately describes this young man.
We were made by God to be in loving relationship, harmony and communion with God, each other and God’s creation. This is the bottom line message from the story of Adam and Eve. As long as Adam and Eve are in loving relationship with God, each other and creation, they are in paradise. When the primal relationship with God is broken, fragmented, and distorted, their relationship with each other and the rest of creation is also broken, fragmented and distorted. When all of this happens, they find themselves cast out of paradise.
It is God’s dream to renew, reconcile, repair and restore the creation; that is the magnetic power in the parable of the Prodigal Son pulling the prodigal back home. The story is so familiar to us. A man has two sons. He divides his inheritance and gives each a share. The younger son squanders his fortune.
We know that in the story, things go from bad to worse and the prodigal finds himself broke, jobless, friendless, hungry, and a long way from home. Jesus gives some indication of how far this brother was from home by telling of his work with pigs. He could only find work with a pig farmer. Moses was clear that swine are not kosher. No good Palestinian Jew would be caught dead near pigs. That is how far he was from home.
Then Jesus says that as the man realized what he needed to do – he came to himself. He realizes the profound difference in who he has become and who his truly is, who he is created by God to be. He begins to see his “true self” – who God made him to be. He doesn’t have it all figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. He is living a nightmare when he is meant to live his father’s dream. Something inside of him says, “You were not meant for this.” His experience is not God’s dream for him. So he decides to go home.
The prodigal rehearses what he will say to his father. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands…” He practices this speech with each step as he travels so the words will come easily to him. But, something strange and unexpected happens. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and ran to him. The father ignores the usual restraint of Palestinian males and breaks the long-held social customs defining the roles of fathers and sons. As the prodigal approaches, the father runs to him and is “filled with compassion.” This father is so moved that he does what few men in his culture dared to do. He runs to his son and welcomes him home.
“When he was far off” offers us a wonderful opportunity to look at the Father. Do you think he spends his days since the younger son left, looking down the road? Was he always anticipating his return? Was he consumed with the welfare and return of his son? Yes, yes, yes, just as God is forever courting and wooing us to be in closer relationship with him.
When he reaches his father, he then begins his well- rehearsed speech. He knows the Palestinian male culture and its rules. So he starts, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Whew, so far so good. He is sure that this is the language his father will understand and accept. He is making an appeal within the social structure of the time, but before he can finish with the words, “now make me one of your hired servants,” his father interrupts him. Whatever the prodigal has done, he is still his father’s son; he can never become his hired servant. “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!”
As the story unfolds, it is clear that the parable is more about the determined, compassionate, infinite providence of God than it is about the ways of God’s prodigal children. In the end, this parable points to the great embrace, the deep encompassing love, compassion, and justice of God, which is so much bigger than our imagination and understanding can grasp.
We are all the prodigal son or daughter at times in our lives, taking our treasure and giving it away until we have nothing left. We are all the prodigal son or daughter when we choose to turn away from God. The good news here is that if we are the prodigal son or daughter – our parent is God and God is always waiting expectantly and hopefully for our return.
There is an underlying theme here. In the great family of God (of which we are all a part), it is okay to let others receive praise and celebration. Sometime, we are the prodigal son, but sometimes we are the older brother and sometimes, we are the father waiting to welcome someone home. In each of those moments, we can remember that God’s love and grace is enough for all, there is no shortage, and we can celebrate the return of a brother or sister without fear of loss.
Lent is the perfect time to consider those times in our lives when we may have played similar parts. Lent is a perfect time to consider the nature of our obedience in light of the images of Jesus’ obedience. During his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus rejected Satan’s temptations to be another kind of a Messiah. After the feeding of the multitude, he rejected the peoples’ efforts to “make him king.” In the Garden, he turned back his own desire to have it another way. Even on the cross, he rejected the temptation to “save himself.” Jesus “became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” If believing is more than giving verbal agreement to certain statements – then during Lent, as we remember the obedience of Jesus, we must ask: “Do we really believe?”
How do we live out our lives? How can people in our lives know that we believe in the one true God? Do our words and actions reflect our belief? Is our response obvious? Do people see the light of Christ is us, or the frustrations of a busy day? Do people hear the goodness of God from us, or the mutterings of human nature? What are our distractions? What is it you need to let go of to better grab hold of God?
It was divine love that carried Israel during the time of exile, and the love of God that was celebrated with the psalms of adoration in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. It was God’s love that sent Jesus to be incarnate in the world, where he taught that love is not merely for those who look and think and believe like us, but even for our enemies and those who challenge us. It was love that stirred the first century church to open the doors of communion not only to Jews but also to Gentiles, not only to those deemed worthy but also those whose existence was troubling – the poor, the lame, the blind, the widow, the orphans.
What if our response to God was one of love, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation and kindness seen in the forgiving Father in the parable. What if we were to join in the creation of a community in which God’s love was not in short supply, but rather poured out into all the world. What if we showed what God’s love, God’s forgiveness and reconciliation for the world could do here in Waycross and Blackshear and Manor and Brantley County? What if God showed us what we could do? Answers will come, because there’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Amen.