Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Easter is about reconciliation and Lent is the time when we discover our brokenness. As we seek God in prayer and worship, we see ourselves as we really are – sinners in need of a Savior. Then, as Holy Week approaches, we realize that the work of the cross is meant for us, that He was given for our sake. We gather around Christ to hear His Word, to receive His grace, just as the tax collectors and sinners were doing in His day.

The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling to themselves, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” Jesus knew the very thoughts of their hearts and He answered with several parables. We hear only one in today’s passage, the Prodigal Son. He also told them the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. This third story is also known as the parable of the lost son – for that is what happened to the prodigal son. In his greed and wasteful expenditure of his resources he became lost and – to his family – dead.

We’ve often heard this story used as an example of the extravagant generosity of God. In the image of the father running down the road to welcome his lost son and the excessive party given in his honor we see how God receives us and how He showers us with blessings. If we see ourselves as the prodigal son – the one who walked away – this is a message of great hope and of the grace of God.

We want to identify with the prodigal son because that’s where God’s grace seems to fall, yet we have a hard time seeing ourselves as someone like that young son. We have no sympathy for him because he took the wealth his father worked hard to earn and he wasted it. He did not even try to use it wisely. He threw it away. We can understand the point of view of the older brother. At least he stayed, used his wealth to the benefit of the whole family, continuing to build up the farm and estate. And, that’s why he’s so offended by the outcome – after wasting his share the younger brother is given more. He who stayed behind never received such a great gift.

Relationships between siblings can be tricky business. Parents try to treat their children with equality, but different personalities need different kind of care. It would have been even more difficult in those ancient times. According to the culture of the day, the oldest son received a double portion of the estate. He was raised to be the landowner, to be the master. The younger son would receive a share of the property, but he would either have to go out to make it on his own with less or he would stay and be like a servant to his brother. Now, we would feel much better about the younger son if he took his share of the wealth and went to earn his fortune. As a matter of fact, we would cheer him on and lift up with boldness as an example for our children.

In this story, however, the younger son decided to take his wealth to foreign lands and then he wasted it. He spent every cent on parties and fine clothes. He impressed people and they flocked around him. They helped him squander his wealth and when it was gone they left him alone. It is easy to fall into this trap of trying to buy friendships and future security. Take a look at many lottery winners and see what has happened to their lives. There are always stories when the lottery jackpots reach record levels. There are occasionally stories about a success – someone who has found a way to invest the money and live well. Most winners, however, use up their winnings in just eighteen months. A million dollars sounds like more money than we could ever use, but it disappears quickly, especially if no action is taken to build on the gift.

Of course the older brother was offended by these events. He stayed. It was his hard work that was keeping the estate. When the younger brother asked for his share – a share that would not have been given until the death of the father – he took away valuable resources from the farm. Any farmer knows that every dollar matters. Some years it takes the last dime to purchase seed for the next year. The younger son would not have received half of the inheritance; he would have received one third the value of the estate. That is still too much to take away from a working business, necessary capital for tomorrow’s crops. It does not seem very sensible for the father to give in to such a demand. The younger son’s self-centeredness leaves the family not only with one less body to help, but also without the resources necessary, especially if they run into hard times.

As I think about this family unit, however, I can’t help but wonder what sort of sibling problems existed even before the younger brother asked for his share. Maybe the older brother was unkind. Maybe he was demanding. Maybe he ignored his little brother. Maybe there was already some rivalry going on between the brothers. The younger brother may have been pampered and spoiled while the older brother took care of the business. Perhaps that is why the father agreed so quickly to the deal. It certainly seems as though the younger son was a favorite by the actions of the father. We can only guess at what happened in that household before this story.

We can only guess what happened after this story, also. We don’t see how it ends. The party is going on, but the elder son is outside. Does he join in the celebration? What happens the next morning? How will the relationships play out in the days, weeks and months following the reunion? The son came home willing to be a servant in his father’s house. Would he do the same for his brother? Would the older brother become even more demanding, or would he receive his brother as a partner in the business their father built? The first moments of reunion are filled with joy and expectation, but the days, weeks and months that follow can be difficult as everyone finds their place. This often means sacrifice, selfless actions of loving kindness toward one another. It is even harder when the first moments are filled with bitterness, like that of the eldest.

The father in this story is a peacemaker and he sought to restore the relationships. Not only did he run out to the road to greet his son, he went out to bring the older son into the party. Forgiveness was going to be necessary for the family to become whole again. We see in the father an example of God’s mercy, but for wholeness it was necessary for the older son to also forgive.

The oldest was like the Pharisees in the beginning of this story. They had been grumbling about the company that Jesus kept. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He sought to restore relationships between those who were lost and the God of mercy and grace. The Pharisees did not think that sinners deserved such grace. The blessings of the kingdom were meant for those who earned it – the righteous, or more accurately, the self -righteous. The older brother was self-righteous. He stayed. He worked. He took care of everything. Why should the younger son receive such a banquet?

The point of these stories is how God comes into our relationships to bring restoration and peace. He comes to break down walls and to give the strength for forgiveness. The father knew that there were relationships that needed to be rebuilt. The elder son had been the sole beneficiary of the father’s love and attention fro some time. He was, in essence, an only child. This is not only true of the financial aspects of the estate, but also the emotional.

It is strange that in this story the son who returned willing to be a slave was received as a son, but the one who had been loved as a son for all that time thought of himself as a slave. The young son sought out the father, asking for mercy and getting far more. The elder son expected everything and missed out on the joy of being in his father’s house. That’s what happens to too many of us living in the church. We work very hard to keep our churches running. We volunteer for everything because we are sure that there will be no one else to do it. We take on every responsibility, because we think that if we do not do so it will not happen. And then we are bitter when someone comes to enjoy the benefits of our hard work without lending a hand. The problem with this point of view is that we miss out on the joy of Christ while we are grumbling about those outsiders or lazy sinners.

Our scriptures this week are about restoring relationships. In Joshua, the relationship to be restored was between God and His people. Though they were reunited through the escape from Egypt, the miracles and the wandering, there was still something separating them. They Hebrews had lost touch with the God of their forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. During those forty years in the wilderness, the generation that had left Egypt died and the generation that had been born in the desert had never been circumcised. They had broken the covenant made between God and His people in the days of Abraham. So, before they ate the Passover meal, God ensured their consecration as His people once again. All the men were circumcised by Joshua, to restore the covenant and their relationship with God.

That is the most important relationship we have, and during Lent we discover that our bond with God is broken by our own selfishness. Our self-centeredness might be like that of the younger son – wishing to take the blessings of the father’s love and run off to some foreign land to enjoy it. Or our self-centeredness might be like that of the older son. He wanted to keep everyone for himself, receiving the credit for all the hard work and for the success. He wanted the party to celebrate his goodness. How do we react to the news that God’s grace is given to all those who repent? Do we receive it like the older son, by refusing to join the party because we do not think that the others deserve it?

That’s what the Pharisees were thinking. They refused to be a part of Jesus’ ministry because He welcomed those they deemed unfit. Instead of celebrating that the lost were found, they grumbled about their own loss – their place in the kingdom.

We have all had some moment in our life when we have had to restore a relationship. I remember as a child often fighting with my best friend – swearing that I would never talk to her again. Within a day we were playing together and we are even now still friends. The walls built during our fights were not big walls; they were walls that fell easily under the weight of our love for one another. Unfortunately, sometimes the relationships are not restored so easily. Sometimes we leave, move far away. Sometimes we are afraid to try. Sometimes we get caught up in the busy-ness of our lives and we lose our chance. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we refuse to forgive.

But Christ calls us to see others through His eyes – Jesus-colored glasses – to have hope for them even when they seem to be beyond hope. When we do, we’ll willingly share God’s grace, to love them as they have been created to be. It might seem naïve to the world, but a kind word might just help someone begin to change. At the very least, we will look at them from a new point of view and maybe we’ll discover that they aren’t so bad after all. In Christ, however, we are called to look at people through a different point of view. Instead of seeing them in the flesh – in their failures and in their sin – we are called to see them through the eyes of Christ. We are called to see them through the power of the cross; with hope and grace.

If we think someone is beyond redemption, we’ll never bother to share the Redeemer. We might even make up excuses for doing so – they won’t listen, we don’t want to force our religion, we can’t change the spots on a leopard. But we are called to be like the father in the story of the prodigal son. We are called by Christ to reconcile people to God. As Paul writes, “We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

For the Hebrews, reconciliation came with the restoration of the covenant – at the circumcision of all those who’d been born in the desert. In the passage from Joshua, the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for forty years after a four hundred year sojourn in Egypt. They had finally crossed into the land promised to them through Abraham. They were home. A whole new generation was entering into a new way of life. After the circumcision, the people gathered together to celebrate the Passover meal and for the first time in many years they ate the fruit of the land. Even more importantly, they ate the fruit of their land. They enjoyed God’s extravagant generosity in the land which had been promised.

Paul writes, “Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation comes from God through Jesus Christ. As we get closer to the cross we come to realize our own sinfulness, we humbly return home with the hope that our Father will receive us. If we don’t see our sin, we will be like the older son and the Pharisees, thinking that we are better than the others and bitter that they have been let into the kingdom. Instead, we are called by Christ to be ambassadors, to be like that father, showering God’s grace on the lost who are found, on the dead who are made alive again by God’s grace.

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