Fourth Sunday of Lent - Return To Me: The Running God


Today is the Fourth Sunday of the Season of Lent, and also the fourth installment of our sermon series, Return To Me.

This series is inspired by a phrase that is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures--a phrase that is closely connected to repentance but is also much deeper and all-encompassing than mere penitence.  

The key verse for our particular journey, however, comes from Joel 2:12-13, which reads: 

12“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning.” 13 So rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion.

I've always been moved by this passage, mostly because of the way verse 13 starts off, "So rend your hearts and not your garments."  In other words, don't go through a big show of your piety, when your heart still might not be in the right place. 

And so this series will help us retrace our steps back to faithfulness, and enable us to discover the meaning of true repentance for the things we've done and left undone that have strained our relationship with God and others. 

Today we're going to talk about how our return to faithfulness is a journey where God's love meets us on the way in surprising and grace-filled ways that can change everything.  

We're going to be exploring a familiar story for many of us---a parable that Jesus told in Luke's Gospel, the only gospel account to contain it... the story is commonly known as the Story of the Prodigal Son.  

This is a story where we catch a glimpse of a young man filled with shame--brought on by his own doing, but also echoed by the community from which he came, and then we'll see how his father rescued him from it in a shocking display of grace and love.  Sound good?

First, let's talk about the power of shame for a moment because it looms large in our story and in this sermon.  

Shame is what we experience when we feel exposed in moments of vulnerability where we're laid bare and all of our faults, doubts, fears, mistakes, and so much more are visible to all.  

We also experience when we are "othered" by others.  When who we are is ridiculed, denigrated, mocked, or downright subjected to hate.  

We experience shame when we are rejected---from our fears as children from being picked last on the playground to being rejected by parents, siblings, or a partner.  Even further, we can experience shame from rejection when we feel cast out of religious communities, workplace groups, even family circles.  

We experience shame when we are marginalized because of race, gender, background, class, sexual identity, beliefs, and so much more.    

And here's the thing. We have all felt shame at the hands of religious people in our life.  And maybe... we've also been the religious people bringing it, too.  

It's not a coincidence, considering the power of shame, that it plays a huge role in the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis chapter 3.  After they eat from the fruit of the tree they were not supposed to eat from, both Adam and Eve realize they are naked, and they hide. 

They feel exposed... and they fear rejection... all of the things.  So they hide. 

Now I know that the story ends with them being cast out of the Garden of Eden, but that's really more of a consequence than a judgment.  It's an expression of the reality of living in a strained relationship with God and one another.  It's an expression of the sadness that shame can bring. 

But the beautiful part of this story is that God in compassion fashions clothing and covering for Adam and Eve.  God covers their shame, gives them their dignity, and does so out of love for them.  

Each one of us has had a moment when shame fell upon us, and we felt unworthy, outcast, unloved...  

We may even do everything we can to numb the pain of it---destructive things at times that rob of us joy, dignity, peace, hope and pretty much everything that can give us life. 

That's why it's so important in those moments to begin our journey back to God--to return to who God meant for us to be.  

And when we begin that journey, God always finds us on the road, eager to rescue us from shame, from ourselves, and even from those who refuse to show grace when they see we've returned. 

There's a very important truth that I want to lift up today, one that is going to weave its way all through this sermon, and I want us to hold on to it: 

WHEN WE ARE ON THE ROAD TO REPENTANCE, GOD'S LOVE ALWAYS RUNS TO MEET US. 

Our passage for study today comes to us from Luke's Gospel, chapter 15:1-3; 11b-32

This is probably the most well known of Jesus' parables--but it's probably a misnomer to call it the story of the Prodigal Son.  It might be better served to call it the Story of Two Sons, or as I've chosen today... The Running God. 

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.”

3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

“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.

The younger son in ancient culture would have an inheritance when his father died, but it would not be the kind of inheritance his older brother would receive.  Tired of playing second banana, the young man shockingly comes to his father and says, "I wish you were dead," in order to get his money while the father was still alive.  This would have horrified the people hearing this.  

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.

I know that this story has been told and retold as a cautionary tale for wild living, sowing the old wild oats, and all of that jazz, but this is a story less about the sins of the younger son, and more about the way he rejected his father's love.   

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.

We need to take a moment to talk about how incredible this particular moment is in the story.  The young man has shamed his father, brought shame to his family and to the entire community where he once lived.  To go back to where he came from in a culture that was grounded in ideas of shame and honor would have carried with it serious consequences.  He wasn't kidding about being made a servant.  

And even more besides, in this particular ancient culture when he returned to the village, there would have been a gauntlet of sorts that he would have had to walk when he arrived.  The people in his community would have struck him, spit in his face, thrown garbage or worse at him, and maybe even beaten him as he trudged down the road.   

“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.

The father sees his son approaching while he was still a long way off.  He was waiting for him.  Let that sit with you for a moment.  He was waiting for him.  And when he saw him, the old man did something shocking and shameful.  He ran out to meet his son.  He pulled up his robe, showing off his spindly legs, and ran. In this world, the patriarch would have never deigned to do such a thing, but this man knew what awaited his son when he arrived and in order to save his son from the shame he would endure, the father shames himself instead. 

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.

He then covers his filthy son with a robe, puts the family ring on his finger, sandals for his feet, and then he throws him a massive party, the kind that you would only throw for an important dignitary.  This is why the calf language is so important. The father is sending a message---" My son will not be shamed, he is forgiven, he is restored, he is my son."

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 brother doesn't want to be a part of this.  His standing outside the door, while the party was going on, was a shameful act as well.  Ironically, he brought shame to the family through his reactions.  But you can't really blame him, right?  

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 because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

The story ends with a cliffhanger.  You never know whether or not the older brother goes into the party or not.  Jesus was pretty savvy with his stories, right?  

So there are two lessons here in my opinion and they both relate to the brothers, and every single one of us has found ourselves in the role of both at least one or more times in our life.  

Younger Son- When you feel like you are too broken to be restored—love will meet you on the road back to you. 

Older Son- When your perceived sense of justice leaves no room for God’s radical love and mercy—you can join the party, or sulk outside. 

WHEN WE’RE ON THE ROAD TO REPENTANCE GOD’S LOVE ALWAYS RUNS TO MEET US


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