Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 12:1-6
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

I once knew a woman who talked about being a Christian. She wasn't active in a church although she encouraged her daughter to attend the youth events at a church down the street. She often came to me with questions and I took the opportunity to talk to her about faith and mercy and grace. As much as I'd hoped that our conversations would lead her to a living faith, I found they often ended up with her making excuses for why she could not, at this time, be part of a church.

We talked about tithing on one occasion. She was concerned because they were financially strapped; she was certain they could not find ten percent to give to the church. While I advocate tithing, I also understand that under the New Covenant, our responsibility is not to give ten percent of our money, but rather a hundred percent of our lives. We should constantly be working toward that financial tithe, but God does not reject us because we only have two cents to put in the offering plate. Faith brings us to the place where we understand that God comes first and that when we put Him first everything else falls into place. Sometimes it takes time for us to have the faith to see.

I told my friend that our church does not require or demand ten percent of our money. It is taught and encouraged but not an obligation. God loves a cheerful giver and gives us the freedom to give to Him as we respond to His love and grace. She answered, "I couldn't attend a church that doesn't require a tithe." This was the moment I realized that she did not want to find a church home, that she was looking for excuses not to turn to God.

The most heartbreaking part of this story is how she viewed the Church. She told me repeatedly that there were things in her life she had to deal with before she could even think about entering a church. She had sins she had to fix. She had past experiences that she needed to overcome. No matter how much I told her that the Church is a place where she could find peace and help through her troubles, she refused to go to church until she was fully prepared. She thought she had to be good enough before she walked in the door. She could not see that she will never be good enough without the help of God. She was willing to turn around, repent, but only when she thought she could present herself as righteous.

I don't know what happened to her; we moved before she found peace. Sadly, she would never find peace without repentance.

God is not waiting for us to turn around so that He can judge our sinfulness or punish our disobedience. He is not anxiously awaiting the day He can say, "I told you so." God is waiting to embrace and restore our whole being. Our sin makes Him sad because it means we are not living up to our potential, but we can never be good enough. He knew we could never be good enough, that's why He sent Jesus. We are tainted and the only way we will ever be made clean is through the grace of God. He offers forgiveness, justification, transformation, sanctification and ultimately eternal life through our Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing. And we meet Him in the company of other tainted human beings who have discovered His saving grace. We dwell together, lifting each other up off the ground, encouraging one another, and helping one another through our struggles.

The text from Isaiah begins with a song of thanksgiving because God has repented. That might sound odd, since we generally think of repentance as the act of the contrite heart that turns to God. In this case, God turned His wrath from the sinner. God's heavy hand was removed and His saving grace was applied so that we can sing for joy and experience life in His grace. Without God we are helpless; with God we are happy, blessed and thankful.

I had another friend, this one I only knew on the Internet. He had been a committed servant of God, powerful in ministry and dedicated to the work of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then one day he began asking questions he could not answer and the lack of answers made him doubt everything he once believed. He walked away from his work, from the Church and began to argue at the foolishness of faith. He was a frightful opponent in debates because he knew the scriptures better than anyone who was willing to argue with him. Most decided that there was no hope; if he could turn his back on God with so much knowledge and so many gifts, what chance was there for him to be saved again?

So many believed that you could not slip and be restored. He was a fallen Christian, though he had once experienced the grace of God, he rejected it. To them, talking to him was a waste of time because he had thrown away the gift. He denied Christ and therefore Christ would deny him.

That's not the message we get in today's story from Luke, is it? The young brother had it all; he was a son. He was more than just a member of the human race, a child of God in terms of his birth. St. John Chrysostom says, "The son who went away represents those who fall after baptism. This is clear from the fact that he is called a son, since no one is called a son unless he is baptized. Also, he lived in his father's house and took a share of his father's goods. Before baptism no one receives the Father's goods or enters upon the inheritance." The younger brother turned his back on his father and the life he had in his father's kingdom.

The son had everything. He had a home, food, water. He had the love of family and a future of prosperity in the estate of his father. He wanted something different. Perhaps he thought the family business was boring or too much work. He may have just wanted to see the world, live in a city, or experience something new. Home and family was not enough. He may have felt oppressed or trapped, by the expectations. He may have wanted to go to a place where he was honored and respected. After all, he was the younger son. He would never control his father's estate. He would always be number two. He wanted to be number one.

He asked his father for his share of the inheritance. He was taking a risk because he had no idea what would happen in the future. The value of his inheritance was likely to grow over the years, but he accepted what his father offered and left home to see the world. That portion was probably enough to begin a wonderful life. He could have done great things with his wealth, but instead he squandered it all away. It is very easy to spend vast fortunes if you are not a good steward of your resources.

He didnít foresee his future. He not only lost everything, but the land in which he lived suffered a severe family. There was no water, so food became scarce and expensive. People went hungry, including the son. He took on a job as the hired hand that fed the pigs and there he suffered the ultimate humiliation and frustration of watching the pigs eat better than he. He knew his only hope was in his father's house. There he could find everything he needed for life. He decided to repent, to turn around and confess his sin against his father. He was willing to be a servant, to work for his food and shelter. It would be better to be a servant feeding the pigs in a place where he would have bread to eat rather than to wither away into death.

The focus for Lent, and it seems to be an overwhelming focus this year, is repentance. We live in a time when Christians need to be humbled because we have, in so many ways, taken upon ourselves the role of God in our own lives. We follow our hearts. We walk our own paths. We do what we think is best. We even interpret the scriptures to mean what we want them to mean. We squeeze God into a box and take Him out only when it is convenient or comfortable for us. We spend these days of Lent remembering that we are sinners in need of a Savior, and responding to the invitation to turn around to our Father so that we'll fully realize and experience the reconciliation that comes through the cross and the empty tomb.

The psalmist writes, "I acknowledged my sin unto thee, And mine iniquity did I not hide: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." We may be tired of hearing about repentance, especially since most of us are more like the older brother. We think we have no reason to repent. We are not like my friends who find excuses to stay away or who run away when the answers do not satisfy, but we are reminded by these texts that even though we don't stay away or run away, we still reject God and His Word.

Perhaps the worst of our sins is how we, like the older brother, condemn those who find excuses or run away. We give up. We say there is no hope. We stop trying because we think it is a waste of time. Or we complain when they repent are embraced by the Father.

This story is used as an example of the extravagant generosity of God. In the image of the father running down the road and the excessive party we see how God is so willing to receive those who have turned from Him. If we see ourselves as the prodigal son this is a message that will keep us from despair. We want to identify with the prodigal son because it seems like that's where God's grace is found in this story.

The older son worked hard to keep everything going, and what did he get out of it? He didn't even get to eat the fatted calf with his friends. Yet, as we see in the beginning of the story, the father did not just give the inheritance to the younger son, he gave the rest to the one who stayed home. The father gave away everything.

We have a hard time seeing ourselves as someone like that young son. We have no sympathy for him because he took the wealth of his father and wasted it. He threw it away. We can understand the point of view of the older brother. At least he stayed and continued the work of the father 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.

And yet, he did. The older brother dwelt in the presence of the father; everything that belonged to the father was his. He never lost his inheritance. It was his hard work that was keeping the estate. When the younger brother asked for his share 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. No matter how much of a share the younger brother took, it was 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 left the family not only with one less body, but also without the resources that might be necessary in hard times.

The younger son humbled himself and turned toward home. He was ready to submit to whatever punishment the father decreed. He was ready to be a servant in his father's house. But the story doesn't end that way. The father, who had mourned the loss of his son, saw the boy returning, recognizing him from a long way off. It was improper for a father to run, and to run after that son was unbelievable. Everyone associated with the father's estate most certainly knew what had happened. The son would have been expected to be humiliated. A little knee bowing and humble pie should have been the order for the day, right?

But the father saw things differently. His son was dead, but now he lived! The reaction of the father was incredible joy. His son was alive, but he knew that there would be much to overcome. The father knew that the relationships needed to be rebuilt. The elder son had become, in essence, an only child. When the younger son returned, the elder son would have to learn how to allow the other into the dynamics of the family relationship.

The father sought to restore the relationships. He ran to the young son, but he also went out to the one who was sulking. He invited his beloved son to join in the joyous celebration. What happened? We do not know. We do not see the end of the story, but I hope that he realized that the return of his brother was a reason to rejoice. I don't know what ever happened to my friends, but I can only hope that somehow, some way, God managed to get through to them so that they would also realize the only place to find peace is in the Father's embrace.

We are reminded by these Lenten texts that our Father loves each of us. Our sin, and we are all sinners, does not keep Him from giving us what we need. It does not make us lose the inheritance He has promised us through the Gospel and our baptism into His family. Reconciliation comes from God through Jesus Christ. As we get closer to the cross and realize our own sinfulness, we humbly return home with the hope that our Father will receive us. If we don't see our sin but instead rest on our own works like the older brother, then we become bitter and jealous of God's grace toward others.

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 Godís 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 wonít listen, we don't want to force our religion, or we can't change the spots on a leopard.

The prodigal story is about restoring that which had been broken and making it whole. During Lent we discover that our bond with God is broken by our own sinfulness. We are all selfish, whether we are like the young son who took the blessings of the father's love and ran away to be free or like the older son who wanted to celebrate his own goodness. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. We are all separated from God and need to be restored to Him.

We are changed by God's mercy. Instead of seeing the world through human eyes, we see our neighbors through the eyes of Jesus Christ. We no longer see what they did in the past, but what can be in the future. 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." We are changed by our relationship with God, no longer looking at the world in quite the same way. We see things through grace. We act on mercy and love. There is always hope, for God reconciled the world to himself through Christ and freely gave forgiveness to those who turned toward Him.

At the beginning of this Gospel lesson, Jesus was gathered with the tax collectors and sinners, sharing the message of forgiveness with them. The Pharisees and scribes were offended. They grumbled about it. They were like that older brother that stayed home while the prodigal wasted the kingdom's resources. How could anyone receive them with such mercy and joy? But Jesus answered their grumbling, "They were dead and now they live."

This is a reason to rejoice. We are called to rejoice not only for ourselves, but also for those who were lost but have been found. We are called to be repentant, not just for seven weeks out of the year, but daily, so that others will see the transformation that comes as God embraces those who seek Him. We are called to keep speaking the wondrous message of hope and peace to our neighbors so that they will repent and humbly return to the Father. We are called to rejoice with the heavens for every sinner that is saved. We are called to invite them to the supper that is a foretaste of the feast that will last for all eternity.

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