Fourth Sunday in Lent
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
It is hard to move. I know because I have dealt with moving many times. We were constantly adapting to a new way of life and new circumstances. Every move meant a new church, new friends, new places to pursue hobbies and interests. Every new house meant finding a place to fit old furniture and window coverings or purchasing something new.
Each move meant entering into a ritual of things we had to do to prepare. We went through everything, pulling out the things we no longer needed for a yard sale. We gave the leftovers away. We canceled utilities and made arrangements at the new home. We usually organized the house so that everything would be easy to find at the new house. We cleaned and made the place ready for whoever will move in after we leave.
Each time we lived between here and there. We spent time in hotels or visiting with family. We traveled by car or airplane from one home to the next. When we left England, our household goods had to leave long before we did, so we used borrowed furniture and kitchen equipment for nearly a month. We visited family on our way to our new home and then had to spend time in a hotel before we could move into a house and have our household goods delivered to us once again. We lived out of suitcases for a couple of months. The first thing we did when arriving at our new house was to put together the bed. It was such a joy to finally have a place where we could lay our heads and call home again. I was always excited to cook a normal meal for the family, to sit around a table and use our own dishes.
If it was that way for us, imagine how it must have been for the Hebrews. They had finally settled into the land promised to them through Abraham after wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Some of the people who entered into the Promised Land did not even know what it was like to live in a house. They were home. A whole new generation was entering into a new way of life. The Hebrews renewed their commitment to the God who saved them from Egypt by circumcising all those whoíd been born in the desert. 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 Godís extravagant generosity in the fulfillment of His promise. From that moment they were no longer transients; they were blessed with a place to call their own.
Our scriptures this week are about restoring relationships. In Joshua, the relationship was between God and His people. Paul also writes about restoration. We build walls and break bonds when we focus on the failures of our neighbors. The harmony in our world is broken because we see the world through our own perspective, through our own selfishness. Jesus calls us to look at the world through His point of view, what I like to call Jesus-colored glasses. Though it might seem naÔve to the world for us to focus on the good things about a person who has sinned against us, we are not to think as the world. The reconciliation that comes with forgiveness is brought to us through Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is the way that God restores relationships, first between Himself and His people and then between all of creation.
We have all had some moment in our lives when we have had to restore a relationship. I remember fighting with my best friend as a child, swearing that I would never talk to her again. Within a day we were playing together and we are 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 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.
There are two questions I ask myself when I read todayís Gospel lesson. First, why do we jump over the two other stories of lost things? Second, how does this story end? I suppose that when it comes to preaching on this text, the three parables would make for a very long sermon, each filled with wonderful images and lessons to be learned. The big difference is that the first two stories both end with a celebration because lost things have been found. The parable of the lost son, however, leaves us hanging. 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 the days, weeks and months following the reunion?
I think we naturally identify most with the older brother, if not directly, then as a compassionate observer. We feel sorry for the older brother who has worked hard to keep the family and the estate together after the younger took off for parts unknown. No matter how great the wealth of the landowner, taking that much of its value away from the estate would make it difficult to run the business. We see the younger brotherís greed and are offended by his boldness. Asking for his inheritance was insulting because it was akin to calling his father dead. His 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.
Unfortunately, the money ran out and so did the rain. A severe famine struck the land where he was living. He managed to get a job, but it did not pay well and he began to starve because there was no food to eat. He was so hungry that he was willing to eat the pods the pigs were eating, but he knew that stealing from his employer would be the end of his job. He was hungry and alone; he missed the comforts of home. He did not expect to be welcome as a son but he realized that even the slaves at his fatherís house were living much better than he. He decided to go home, to admit his sin before God and his father. He broke the relationship with his family, but he knew his father to be merciful. He might be treated as a slave but at least he could have a job that would provide food and a place to sleep.
The younger son offends us because he seems to have no concern for others, for his father or for his family. We have no sympathy for him because he took his fatherís hard earned wealth and wasted it. He threw it away. That is surely how his older brother saw it. The older brother stayed, used his future wealth to the benefit of the whole family, continuing to build up the farm and estate. And, thatís why heís so offended by the outcome. After wasting his share, the younger brother is given more. Worst of all, the younger brother received the fruit of his brotherís work.
There are two other points of view in this story: the younger brother and the father. We often hear about the fatherís point of view as a comparison to the point of view of the older brother and we have a hard time identifying with it. The father is gracious, but we can understand how the older son must have felt to see his father have so much mercy on the one who took advantage of him. But can we identify with the younger brother, the one who offends us? During Lent we should see ourselves as the younger son; he is the one who has turned away from the Father and the one who has turned back in repentance. As we are called to repentance, we can walk humbly before the throne like that prodigal son, unworthy of grace but willing to serve.
The fatherís reaction was not what anyone might expect. As a matter of fact, it was unseemly. Rather than accusation and rejection, the father showered the son in love and mercy. Even when the son was a long way down the path, perhaps so far as to be beyond recognition, the father knew it was his son. He must have been a sight. When he left he was wealthy, most likely wearing fine clothes and standing tall in pride. The return, however, was much different. I am certain the son must have been thin, filthy, slumped and weary; he was a much different man than the one who left.
Yet, the father recognized his son and ran to him. It was improper for a father to run, and to run after a son that had left was unbelievable. Everyone associated with the fatherís estate most certainly knew what had happened. The son should be bending his knees, bowing to honor his father and eating some humble pie. But the father saw things differently. His son was dead, but now he lived!
As the wife of a military man who has gone off to war, I understand what the father was feeling. When a soldier goes off into a dangerous situation, the family does not know if they will ever see them again. The family holds their breath whenever there is a story about something happening in the area where they are deployed. They do not know if he is alive or dead until that day when the soldier is restored into their arms.
The reaction of the father is incredible joy. His son is alive, but he knows that there is much to overcome. Reunion is never easy. During a separation everyone changes. In the case of a military family, a soldier has seen and done things that will affect the way they see the world forever. The family left behind has learned to be self-sufficient. The relationships have changed and everyone wonders where they fit. The soldier wonders if he or she is needed. The spouse wonders if they are loved. The children, who have been the sole focus of the stay-at-home parent, must find a way to accept the other parentís presence in the family. While the first moments of reunion are filled with joy, 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 the other members of the family. Each must work hard to rebuild the relationship through mercy and grace.
The father knew that there were relationships that needed to be mended. The elder son had been the sole beneficiary of the fatherís love and attention for some time. He had been, in essence, an only child. This is true of the financial aspects of the estate, but also emotional. The elder son would have to learn how to allow another into the dynamics of the family relationship. It would be difficult.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law went to Jesus to complain about the company he kept. ďThis man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.Ē They were like the elder son who stayed home. He was the one who worked the land like a slave. The son who returned intended to be a slave but was accepted as a son. The one who lived as a son all those years thought he was nothing but 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 fatherís house. The fear of the elder son was not only that the father would give another portion to the younger son, not only out of his rightful share but also out of what he had earned when his brother was gone. The father says, ďAll that is mine is yours.Ē When the father gave the young son his portion, he also gave the older son his. The elder brother forgot that his father had given him everything.
The father was concerned not concerned about money but about the relationships. He wanted to break down the walls that might have always existed between the two boys. The decision of what would happen to the younger brother rested upon the elderís shoulders. Was there room in the home for him? Was there a place in the business for him? With God there is room for all of His children, and there is plenty for all to be satisfied. The father in this story reminds the older son that his place has not been taken away, but the restoration of the younger son to the family is reason to celebrate. He was dead and now he lives. Are we willing to welcome the lost into the Kingdom? Or are we afraid that we would lose something if we share Godís grace?
Youíve heard it said, ďShe looks at the world through rose colored glasses.Ē Some people see the glass as half full. Thereís a silver lining in every cloud. We can make lemonade out of the lemons. Unfortunately, most of us see at least some people through negative eyes, never seeing anything good about them. We find it even worse when someone else can see the positive. We think they are Pollyannaish, seeing in life only goodness. To us, seeing people through rose colored glasses is naive and perhaps even dangerous. We insist on sharing our truth, trying to convince others of the negative. We get so caught up in our opinion of others that we would rather not allow others to see them as good.
The problem is that as Christians we are meant to be forgiving and merciful. Unfortunately, if we cannot see any good in another, then we have an excuse for not sharing the Gospel. If we think they are beyond redemption, then we will not speak Godís Word into their lives. Even worse, if we canít offer them forgiveness, then we are keeping them from the salvation God has promised to those who repent. We keep them in the dark because we do not want them to have the light. We are like that older brother, afraid that forgiveness for the younger will mean that we will lose.
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, weíll never bother to share the Redeemer. We might even make up excuses for doing so: they wonít listen, we donít want to force our religion, we canít change the spots on a leopard.
But Christ calls us to see others through His eyes, those Jesus-colored glasses, to have hope for them even when they seem to be beyond hope. When we do, weíll willingly share Godís grace, to love them as they have been created to be loved. It might seem naive 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 weíll discover that they arenít so bad after all.
ďBlessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered.Ē These could have been the words spoken by Israelites when they were finally able to settle in the Promised Land. The psalmist knew the kind of physical, emotional and spiritual trauma that came from being separated from God by transgressions that led one away from Godís grace. But he or she also knew that the person of God who cries out to Him is heard and that God is faithful to respond. We are encouraged to call out. He is there. We may have to wander in our own wilderness for a season, but He is there to lead us into the Promised Land. Happy are they who know Godís forgiveness, and happy are they who trust in the Lord.
Paul writes, ďTherefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation.Ē
Reconciliation comes from God through Jesus Christ. As we get closer to the cross we realize our own sinfulness and we humbly return home with the hope that our Father will receive us. If we donít 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 given a place in the kingdom. There are many people in this world who are like both sons; they have broken relationships with God. Paul calls us to be ambassadors for Christ, to take the words of forgiveness and restoration to the world. We are called to restore relationships between people, but most importantly between the lost and their God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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