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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 15
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 merciful.

†††††††† 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 love us.

†††††††† 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 chest.

†††††††† 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 His love.

†††††††† 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 sinners.

†††††††† 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.

†††††††† Amen.

†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated March 3, 2013