Fourth Sunday of Lent - RE: "Remain"
This week we are going to continue our Lenten sermon series--a series entitled "RE:" "RE:" is drawn from the Latin prefix that denotes change or transformation. Each of the sermons in this series is connected to a practice for the season of Lent: Remember, Repent, Renew, Remain and Restore.
This week we are going to explore the Lenten practice of remaining connected to Christ, which I believe is the surest way to move forward in life toward a hopeful future. In fact, that's the one thing I want to make sure that we hang on to when we all walk away from worship this morning: Remaining connected to Christ is the surest way to move forward.
The passage of Scripture that we are going to be studying today is one that is pretty familiar to most of us. Even if you didn't grow up in church, you have heard Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke chapter 15. The traditional name of this story isn't all that accurate, though. It should be called the parable of The Two Brothers.
Let's read through it:
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
First of all, we need to think about the people that are listening to this parable: The Pharisees & teachers of the law & Everyone else. What we discover about these guys, what Jesus constantly points out all of the time when he deals with them is that they look religious, but they don't act all that faithful to the basic tenets of their religion. And they are "muttering" here. The word for "muttering" in Greek corresponds with the same word in Hebrew that is found in the OT when the people of Israel complain to Moses while they are wandering in the wilderness.
As to Everyone Else who was listening--these were the regular people, the working class, the poor, people on the outside looking in, so to speak.
3 Then Jesus told them this parable:
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
This would have been absolutely scandalous. The Prodigal Son publicly humiliates his father and his family. Basically, he tells his father "I wish you were dead."
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
The young man forsakes his homeland, his family and his faith. We leaves home, leaves behind everything he has ever been taught, and then when the money runs out and the economy crashes, he finds himself eating with pigs--a direct violation of this religious upbringing.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
There are some things that are almost worse than death. The feeling of being utterly lost, for example. The young man finds himself feeling lost and alone, but he is still able to say the word, "Father." I find that so fascinating. He has disavowed his father, wished he were dead, humiliated him--and yet he finds the words on his lips when he's at the end of his rope.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
I taught on this some years ago. In the ancient Near East, a young man who humiliated his father, and his family--would have been received with violence and shame if he returned to the village. The father shames himself instead, running out to him to receive him with grace.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
In a reversal of what the Son did, the Father publicly receives and restores him.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
The older son appeared to be in a relationship with the father, didn't he? Here's where the rubber meets the road for the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus is zeroing in on them. The Older brother has all the appearances of a good son, but he's been walking around full of pride, jealousy, self-righteousness and the like.
And here's something underneath the surface of all of this... In his own way, the Older Brother is also wishing the father were out of the way. He's been living with resentment, and anger for a long time. This scene didn't happen in a vacuum.
His place was at the party. As the one day head of the family, the Older brother's duty was to be the host at a party his father was throwing. By refusing to attend a party his father was throwing for the whole village, the Older Brother was shaming him publicly. Notice a pattern here?
And get this. The father leaves his own party--which was a huge breach of etiquette--to go out and plead with his son. He could have disowned him. He could have had him drummed out of the village for bringing such shame on the family, but instead he meets the Older Brother where he is and invites him to the party.
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
And with that, the story ends. We have no idea what happens next. Does the Older Brother go to the party? Does the Younger Brother finally, once and for all get his act together? Do the brothers reconcile?
What we do know for certain, however, is what Jesus was trying to teach everyone who was listening: The only way to move forward in life, to embrace the hope and joy that God wants for us, to live abundantly... is to remain connected to Christ. Remaining connected to Chris is the surest way to move forward.
Just like all those years ago, there are basically two kinds of people who need to hear this story: People who know that in order to remain next to Christ they are going to need some scandalous grace, and people appear to remain next to Christ, but who secretly know their heart hasn't been in it, and they are going to need some scandalous grace to get back.
First, to those who know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they need some of the scandalous grace that was afforded to both brothers... You may be struggling right now with your faith. You don't know what you believe. You wonder if God is actually there, or if God cares about you at all. You are dealing with issues from your past, mistakes you've made, decisions that went wrong, people you've wounded, and people who have wounded you. Maybe you are feeling lost, utterly lost and abandoned.
Or maybe you just remember a time when you felt all of those things, and you experienced grace... scandalous grace that you didn't deserve. You were restored and God threw you a party, and you've never forgotten what that felt like.
Second, to those who have been going through the motions, who have been appearing as though they have remained with Jesus, but whose hearts aren't in it. You have serious doubts. Maybe you have been walking around full of resentment. You embraced this whole Christian thing, and thought that life was going to be so different. But you've watched while bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and you've decided that's not working for you any more. Or maybe you've decided that the world is divided into "us" and "them." You've become a stickler for the letter of what you believe to be God's law, but completely ignore the Spirit at the center of God's commands and covenants.
You find yourself thinking, "...things should have turned out better for me, where's my party? Where's my celebration? If I can't be happy in my faith--no one's going to be hapy in their faith."
How should we respond to this story?
To begin with, you need to find yourself in the story--right where you are, right now. There have been times in my life when I identified completely with the Prodigal Son, and then other times when I've been the Older Brother. There have been times when I was so spiritually hungry, I found myself longing for anything to make the hunger go away. And other times when I realized how ungrateful I'd been for all that I'd been given.
When you can find yourself in the story--you're well on your way to remaining in Christ.
Second, your self-awareness needs to lead you to confession. The Greek word for "confess" actually just means "to agree." When we confess the ways we've separated ourselves from God, all we are doing is agreeing with what God already knows about us. God knows everything about you, knows you better than you even know yourself. So it stands to reason that anything that you might need to confess--God already knows about that stuff. But when you finally align your mind and heart with God on the matter--that's when things can start to change.
God knows you suffer from frailty, brokenness and doubt. But when you speak your words of confession about your frailty, brokenness and doubt--it steals their power over you, and makes space for God's grace.
Which leads us to the third response--to embrace the grace of God. Both brothers in this story needed it, and they received it. We don't really know for sure how the story ends, but our hope is that both brothers embraced the grace. I've known so many people in my life who refused to embrace the grace. They doubted that they could be saved, that God could actually forgive them--that they could forgive themselves. God's grace is all around you. But you'll never fully realize just how incredible it is to be forgiven until you embrace the grace.
Finally, we need to join the party. After self-awareness, after confession, after embracing the grace--we need to join the party. I know far too many Christians who walk around in misery and anger. God knows, I've had my own seasons of dealing with a bad attitude, so I get it. But if your religion is making you miserable, if you are not feeling any joy in your Christian life--maybe you need to try something other than religion. Maybe you need to work on your relationship with Jesus instead. Jesus didn't come to start a religion, he came to make relationships. Sometimes I want to say to Christians--"Hey, if you're happy and know it, tell your face!" Join the party! Remain connected to Jesus.
Because remaining connected to Christ is the surest way to move forward into a hope-filled future.