March 3, 2013 - Third Sunday in Lent
†††††††† We sat just in front
of a bunch of rowdy, noisy Nebraska cowboys. Willie Nelson came to the state
fair. Beth went with me to see him. It wasnít anything like the opera broadcast
we went to yesterday, by the way. Willieís concert was a lot shorter. In any
case, listening to Willie sing while the guys behind us drank and hollered and
stomped their feet, I discovered that I really liked Willie Nelson, but I
didnít much care for some of his fans.
†††††††† Some Pharisees and
scribes felt like that about Jesus. As Luke chapter 15 opens, verses 1 and 2,
we find them listening. But they werenít pleased at all with some other people
who came to listen. The very fact Jesus was ready to welcome and instruct even
the worst elements of society made them suspicious and upset with him. Luke
tells us they ďwere grumbling and saying, ĎThis fellow welcomes sinners and
eats with them.íĒ
†††††††† Jesus chose not to
answer the scribes and Pharisees directly, but to confront their attitude by
telling them stories. The first two of these are short, to-the-point, brilliant
metaphors for the heavenly joy which surrounds and blesses the repentance and
salvation of a lost sinner.
†††††††† Those parables of the
lost sheep and the lost coin fit together perfectly. The first grabs the
attention of any male livestock owner and draws him into the picture Jesus is
painting. The second turns to women in His audience and pulls them in as well.
Whoever you are, you know what itís like to lose and search and then find
something precious. Jesus wanted everyone to realize that God is like that and
more. Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents and is found by Godís grace.
†††††††† He could have left it
there. Most preachers would. I would. Then proceed to explain the point. There
was plenty there already. He could have shown how the Pharisees and scribes failed
to understand how precious any human being is to God. He could have asked a
rhetorical question like He did at other times, saying, ďIsnít any person, even
a sinner, worth more than a sheep or a silver coin?Ē Jesus had a nice little
sermon going and all He needed to do was ride it home, bring it in for a
landing. But He didnít.
†††††††† As we read on
beginning in verse 11 we find that the lost coin and sheep were just warm-up
acts. Those two parables were like whoever got up on the stage before Willie
Nelson did 25 years ago. Iím sure they were fine, good musicians, but Iíve
totally forgotten about them. And when we come to the story that Jesus told
next, we forget about these first two little parables of Luke 15 as well.
†††††††† Along with the parable
of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Prodigal Son stands out for us and
for Christians down through history as one of the most beautiful expressions of
Jesusí came teaching. Even hearing it over and over, we are moved again by that
image in verse 20 of a father so full of hope and love that heís been watching
all this time. When he sees his lost son coming even at a distance he runs to
meet him. We realize that father is our God.
†††††††† Christians havenít
always remembered this. As the Covenant Church was being born among poor
farmers and laborers in Sweden, their hearts and minds were clouded with a
different picture of God. Their Lord was an angry judge. Like Luther their
spiritual leader centuries before, they thought of God and were afraid. They
knew they were sinners and believed that God the Father was full of wrath. Their
only hope was that Jesus would somehow change the Fatherís mind and make Him
†††††††† Into that spiritual
climate of fear and judgment came the picture from this parable. The people who
formed the Covenant began to believe and teach that anger was not Godís nature.
God didnít need to see a bloody sacrifice in order to calm down and change His
mind about us. No, they saw what Jesus taught here. God has always been waiting
for us. God has always wanted us to come back to Him. God has always loved us.
Jesus died on the Cross because God loved us, not to make God
†††††††† That new spirit in
Scandinavian theology did not deny Godís wrath and anger. They simply realized
God is not angry at sinners. Heís angry at sin. Like any good parent, God loves
His children dearly even while He hates what they do to themselves. That father
in the parable hated the fact that his youngest son took his inheritance and
went off to waste it in a foreign country, but he never quit loving his son.
Thatís how it is with God and us.
†††††††† So the parable of the
Prodigal Son became a central text for us. Covenant people sang ďChildren of
the heavenly father, safely in his bosom gather.Ē We love Rembrandtís famous
painting of the father doing just that with the prodigal son, gathering him
into his arms, pulling him in to rest his poor, shaven head on his fatherís
†††††††† Thereís a certain
famous pastor here in the northwest who preached a sermon in which he spoke to
non-believers and told them, ďGod hates you.Ē It was on You Tube for awhile.
Nobodyís famous here, but we can read this great, beautiful chapter of
Scripture and realize heís just wrong. God loves you. Like the father in the
story, He may hate what you do to yourself or to others, but He loves you. He
always has, He always will.
†††††††† Thatís what the
prophet said long before Jesus came to make it so clear. We read Isaiah 55 this morning and heard, ďlet the wicked forsake their way and the unrighteous
their thoughts.Ē Yes, God hates our sin. But God loves us, because Isaiah goes
on, ďLet them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our
God, for he will abundantly pardon.Ē
†††††††† God is always waiting
for our return. He knows when we are off in some foreign country of our own
choosing, wasting our lives on worthless and destructive pursuits. Thatís why
Isaiah said, ďWhy do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your
labor for that which does not satisfy?Ē God offered the same invitation always
open to any prodigal, ďeveryone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that
have no money, come, buy and eat.Ē
†††††††† The Father waits for
us, ready to prepare a banquet, ready to throw a party if we will only come
home. If nothing else, may you know that God loves you and is always waiting
for you. Even if most of the time you are safely at home with Him, trusting His
love for you, we tend to wander off. Like the hymn says, ďProne to wander, Lord
I feel it, prone to leave the God I loveÖĒ Even those of you closest to God
will sometimes find yourselves in a foreign country of doubt or confusion or
even deliberate rebellion and sin.
†††††††† Jesus taught this
story of the loving father to tell you, wherever you find yourself, that you
are loved. There are holy, merciful, loving arms always open, waiting for your
return. Return to the Lord, for He will abundantly pardon.
†††††††† Lent is a church
season for us to remember our sins, but only so that we can get up out of whatever
pig sty we are in and go home, home to our loving Father. Confession and
repentance are not meant to make us into cringing worms who hate ourselves.
Itís all meant to send us stumbling home into the arms of our Savior, our God.
†††††††† Iíll say it again,
Jesus did not die on the Cross to turn aside Godís hate for us. He died and
rose again because God has always loved us and wanted to make a way for us to
come to Him, wanted to make us into people who would truly enjoy and receive
†††††††† Thatís why the
prodigal sonís father had his rags stripped off him and dressed him in new
clothes and new sandals and put a shiny ring on his finger. The love of God in
the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is there to dress us in the new clothing of grace
and righteousness so that we might not only know we are loved, but look and
behave like we are loved by God.
†††††††† Which means I need to
go off on a tangent for a moment, focus on a facet of this story that may seem
trivial. Iíd like to ask you a question, hear what you remember. Weíre told the
younger son went off to that foreign land and spent all his money. So he was
hungry, had to eat what the pigs were eating. You probably remember those
details. But do you remember the other reason the boy was starving,
another factor in why he was hungry?
†††††††† Iím guessing most of
you wonít recall a whole verse of the text, wonít remember that in verse 14 it
says times were tough in that country because of a wider problem, a problem
that didnít affect just that young man. There was a famine. Most of us donít
remember that. I didnít until it was called to my attention.
†††††††† But someone writing
about how we read Scripture and the biases and filters that are part of our
culture tells us it was completely different when people were asked a similar
question about this story in Russia. Almost all of them remembered the famine.
And I would guess the same would be true in Ukraine or Ireland or parts of Africa. If famine is a personal reality, if you or your parents or grandparents
lived through a time like that, you hear it when it gets mentioned.
†††††††† The point is that we miss
things in Scripture, not willfully or carelessly, but because weíre just not
wired by nature or experience to notice. We can learn by listening to what
people different from us hear when they read the text. And we donít want to
miss a huge portion of this story. It doesnít end with that great climax, the
father embracing his son. Starting in verse 25, thereís almost as much to
follow as what came before, the other son.
†††††††† We donít want to miss
the second half of this parable of two sons because itís what connects
it all back to the beginning, to Luke 15, verses 1 and 2, to those Pharisees
and scribes complaining about Jesus keeping company with tax collectors and
†††††††† In the little stories
of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus left those righteous folks to draw
conclusions their own conclusions. If this parable stopped with verse 24, it
would be the same. But this time, Jesus put those good, upright citizens in the
story. They are the second son, the elder brother, and as much as the younger
son, they need to come home.
†††††††† The elder brother hasnít
gone anywhere. Heís been there slaving away at the family business, doing
whatever his father asked. Heís been a good son, while his younger, black sheep
brother has thrown away the family money on wine and prostitutes. Yet now
thereís a party, not for him, but for that good-for-nothing jerk who only came
home when he had nowhere else to go. The older son was ticked. Most of us would
say he had every right to be.
†††††††† A number of us here grew
up like I did, in a Christian home, in a loving family where parents taught you
about Jesus and took you to church. You heard about Godís love and forgiveness
nearly all your life. You werenít perfect. You knew you sinned. You had those
times when you wandered off a little. But mostly you stayed home. You believed
and trusted Jesus early in your life. Overall, you were a good child, an
obedient son or daughter. Just like those scribes and Pharisees.
†††††††† Now we hear Jesus
telling us, showing us, that God loves everyone, especially those younger
brothers or sisters, the ones who werenít like us. We look around at homeless
people whoíve waste their money on cigarettes or other drugs. We think of
siblings who go off to live their own lives and wonít help when parents get
older and need care. Weíre reminded of co-workers who donít pull their weight
or fellow students who donít do their share of group projects.
†††††††† My mother and aunt
were born seven years apart. I remember conversations between them and things
they each said to me. My aunt is sure my mother was always their fatherís favorite.
My mother said my aunt got gifts and privilege she never had, like a horse and
piano lessons. We carry such jealousies and resentments all our lives.
†††††††† But at our Father in
heavenís home, there is really only one question, and itís the same for
prodigals and for elder children. Jesus told us we are all loved, just as the
father here told his oldest son that everything he had was his. The questions
is, ďWill we come home?Ē Will we come into our Fatherís house and enjoy His love?
The prodigal answered by showing up dirty, hungry and very sorry. We donít know
how the elder brother answered, whether he stayed outside or whether he went in,
hugged his brother and joined the party.
†††††††† From wherever place
you find yourself at the moment, thatís the question. The Father has laid out
the banquet. Heís sacrificed His best to fill your life with abundance. Now
Heís waiting for us each to come in from outside and join in the feast. My hope
and prayer is that each of you will enter His house today. Come and find your
place at His Table.
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj