Monday, March 18, 2013

Lent 4 of Series C (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, repentance, repentance, repentance! It seems that is all we’ve been talking about the past few weeks. Repentance isn’t a feeling, repentance isn’t living a perfect life, repentance isn’t going around being gloomy. Repentance is the mighty work of God within you through Law and Gospel, turning you away from sin and toward God in faith. Repentance is the theme of Lent, it is the theme of this day, it is the theme of your life. Repentance is the theme of the parable of the Prodigal Son. But if we call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, then we are in great danger of missing the point. The Prodigal is by no means the main character. He is only one of two rebellious sons, but the star of this show isn’t either of them, it is their father. It is his crazy antics that should draw our attention: Jesus has instead told us the parable of the Foolish Father.

This father truly is foolish. His younger son comes to him one day and says, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” His youngest son comes to him and asks for the inheritance—before he is dead! The Prodigal Son is telling his father to hurry up and die, because he wants the money. There is no love, no care or compassion there; greed fills his heart, rebellion and rejection of his father, who gave him life. The Prodigal Son deserved a beating, some would even say he deserved death, but what does this Foolish Father do? “He divided his property between them.” What a fool! He allows his son to run all over him, to insult him to his face! And then he lets him go! “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” Instead of punishment, instead of death, instead of the penalties that no one would fault him for dealing out, this Foolish Father lets him leave and waste the fortune he had earned for him; his son is dead and lost to him, dead in sin and lost in depravity.

Sounds like another Father, who lovingly formed children from the dust of the ground, who formed you in your mother’s womb. And his children rebelled, they took the gifts that He had given them and squandered them. They exchanged love for lust, they exchanged hard work for greed, they traded in heavenly treasures for the fleeting pleasures of this earth. Every time that you or I sin, we are telling God to drop dead and we are taking the gifts and abilities He has given us to a far off country, far from Him, far from His love. And He is a fool to let us go. Anyone else would’ve sent us punishment, and many would’ve simply put us to death right then and there. But our Father lets us go; with tears He allows Himself to be rejected. He created us to be living beings, alive in body and soul; with sorrow he watches as we put our souls to death with sin.

In the midst of his depravity, seeing the complete emptiness in his life, the Prodigal Son comes to repentance. “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He cannot imagine grace, he cannot conceive of forgiveness, and so his repentance is incomplete, it has a condition, a bargain: “Treat me as one of your hired servants.” The Foolish Father sees his son at a distance, but he doesn’t wait for him, instead he runs to his son to greet him. Does he bear an angry fist, a death sentence? Is he ready to bargain, to negotiate a return into the family? No, all he has is grace. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” What a fool! The Prodigal Son rejected him, squandered his wealth and was as good as dead, and the Foolish Father welcomes him back with love. The gospel overwhelms his attempts to bargain; the Prodigal can now only confess, “Father I have sinner against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He is unworthy to be a son; anyone can see that. But the Foolish Father doesn’t act like any normal person; he shows reckless grace. The Prodigal Son is given the best robe—the father’s robe—a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet; he kills the fattened calf and begins to celebrate. What a fool! He doesn’t require punishment, he doesn’t want him to work his way back—he receives him with joy, no questions asked! The Prodigal is a son again; not by his good life (he has lived the worst of lives), not by his bargaining (he had no chance to bargain), but by the Foolish Father’s lavish grace. As the Foolish Father said himself, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Our Father doesn’t wait for us to return; He runs to us and showers us with compassion. He finds us and lavishes us with grace. Having been confronted by the Law’s grim reality and the Gospel’s free offer of rich and abundant love, we repent: “I, a poor miserable sinner…” He pours out His love upon us: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This grace is reckless, some would even say foolish. The Father sacrifices not a calf, but His own Son to reconcile you with Him. The Father places on you His own robe, the robe of Christ’s righteousness; He puts a ring on your finger and sandals on your feet, giving you the status of sonship once again, making you His beloved child. You were Prodigal; He is gracious. You were dead; He has made you alive. It’s time to celebrate!

But some refuse to rejoice. The older brother stands far off, and when he finds out that his father has welcomed back the Prodigal Son, his anger cannot be contained. “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!” You fool! he says. He despises the Father’s grace, he stands aloof and self-righteously is offended by this unconditional love. He wants a bargain, he wants punishment, he wants his brother to work his way back into the family. The grace of his father is a stench in his nostrils, he rejects it, and so he rejects the celebration. He refuses to have joy.

How quickly the grace of our Father is forgotten! We were the Prodigal Son, we had rebelled, we had squandered what He had given us, but yet He receives us back to Himself. His lavish grace has overwhelmed us, making us a part of His family once again. But how do we look at the other Prodigals? Do we receive them with joy, with the same reckless love as our Father? No, so often we who have spent years or even a lifetime in the Church look down on the Prodigals. The same abundant grace that is given to us is despised when it is given to others. Do we welcome sinners into this fellowship, remembering that we are all Prodigals? Or do we self-righteously look down on them, giving them the cold shoulder? When they return to their Father, so often our reaction isn’t one of joy but instead, “About time!” or “She thinks she can call herself a Christian?” What about the Prodigals that don’t walk through these doors? We encounter Prodigals all the time; they work with us, they go to school with us, they are in our families, we see them on the street. Do we call on them to be reconciled to their Father, or do we think that some of them aren’t worth saving? I know how this works, because I fall into it all the time: you look at a person living a sinful life not as one for whom Christ died, but as a wretch not worth your time. And if we do welcome them, if we do call on them to be reconciled to their Father, it isn’t out of joy, but from a sense of duty; our motivation for evangelism and confessing the faith is of the Law and not of the Gospel. No wonder our confession is so weak and often non-existent!

In his self-righteousness the Stubborn Brother was as dead and lost as the Prodigal Son; he rejected his Foolish Father’s grace and love, and refused to join the celebration. If your child talks back to you like that and refuses to join the feast, then you probably would leave him out in the cold. But not this father. The Foolish Father doesn’t respond with punishment or anger, but with grace: “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.” What a fool! Instead of disinheriting this insolent and stubborn son, the Foolish Father affirms that he has all things. All that the Father has is His. The Father’s reckless love finds the Stubborn Brother; the dead one is made alive and given all things by grace. He offers to the Stubborn Brother the same rich grace that he gave to the Prodigal Son. And then he calls on him to celebrate. 

Jesus doesn’t conclude this parable; the ending is left hanging. What will the Stubborn Brother do? That’s exactly the point; the Pharisees, along with you and me, will finish the parable. The call of repentance from this parable isn’t so much to Prodigal Sons, it is to Stubborn Brothers, to you and me. Repent of your self-righteousness and turn to Christ in faith! The Father doesn’t reject you, His lavish love covers both Prodigal Sons and Stubborn Brothers, it covers you and me! Despite your sin, despite your rebellion, the Father says to you, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Through the death of the obedient Son, our brother Jesus Christ, all that belongs to God is ours. We have a heavenly, eternal inheritance! The Father shows foolish, reckless love to you and to me, calling us back from prodigal living, calling us back from self-righteousness and forgiving all our sin! And God says that we are always with Him; He is ‘God with us,’ who dwells among us in grace, who celebrates when we repent. That is where we receive this inheritance, this is where we dwell with God: at the celebration, the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom. “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” It is fitting, necessary that God would celebrate the finding of the lost, the making alive of the dead, for nothing else gives Him as much joy as making Prodigal Sons and Stubborn brothers His beloved children, to rejoice with Him forever. In the Name of Jesus, who in His reckless love reconciled us to the Father, Amen.

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