Sermon on Luke 15:1-3,11-32
4th Sunday in Lent | March 31, 2019
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father, and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, be with you. Amen.
The lesson for your consideration is recorded in the Gospel of Luke 15:1-3,11-32.
Dear brothers and sisters, fellow wayward, even prodigal sons and daughters, welcomed home by our Father. When Paul the Apostle talks of the foolishness of God, as he did in today’s second lesson (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), he hits upon the one thing that really makes the Christian message a stumbling block or utter silliness to those who reject it. It is not the demands of God, nor its promise of heaven; rather, it is the fact that it cannot be earned, cannot be grasped by effort or struggle, and cannot be ascertained by superior wisdom or insight. It is given freely by a loving God to those who repent and turn to him for help. Salvation – Through Repentance.
I. We are “prodigal” sons and daughters.
I’ve already compared you, and me, to the young Son of Jesus’ parable. “Prodigal” really means “prodigious” – in sin. The young man had taken his inheritance and spent it all in wild living, far from the path of righteousness. Repentance didn’t even occur to him until he found himself in a land stricken by famine and without a coin in his pocket – not even enough to put a square meal into his groaning belly. He longs for the pods used to feed pigs.
He sank pretty low before he was moved to examine his life and realize what was wrong. God does sometimes do that to us, chastising us so that we may learn from him, learn where we have done wrong and turned to evil, so that we can turn away from it. Others might require a bit more chastisement than others, while some need only a sharp rebuke. It depends on the person... and his sin, of course. But our God is an expert at getting to the heart of the matter. He knows what each of us needs.
King David, whom God called a “man after his own heart,” committed adultery, tried to get the woman’s husband, one of his best soldiers, those referred to as his “mighty men,” to shirk his duty so he could cover up the adultery, then arranged the man’s death in battle when he refused, and married the dead man’s widow. God sent Nathan the prophet to tell him a story with a very pointed lesson so that he would know his sin, and then took the child of that sinful union in death to make sure that lesson would be remembered.
Hopefully, God won’t have to reduce you to abject poverty or take away your children in order to get you to repent. Although we don’t often listen to it, or might even pretend we don’t understand it, we have his Word, and for Christian sinners like us, that’s usually enough.
II. Those who think they deserve God’s favor have no more right to it than we “sinners.”
But for many it isn’t. Look at all—and I do mean ALL, my friends—of man’s so-called “religions,” the things we’ve made up to make ourselves feel better or simply to give us some sense of control or power over our own destinies. Islam acknowledges sin, and even calls it damning, but also says that as long as your good deeds outweigh your evil ones, you’re good to go. So just make sure you keep your books balanced, and you’ll be okay.
Hinduism calls sin “bad karma,” and the only lasting price for it is that you’ll have to spend your next life, or several, making up for it in a more debased form, such as an animal or insect. Eventually, your good karma should be enough to float you up into a higher place on the wheel of reincarnation.
Buddhism defines good and evil both as “striving,” and requires you to put all of it aside and achieve “nothingness,” because only by losing your self can you rise out of the physical and become the spirit, the god, really, you ought to be.
The cults that try to define themselves as Christian, but aren’t—I’m speaking of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons—seek to earn enough “points” through suffering and good works to be granted a place among a glorified or exalted few, whom the rest of dreadful humanity will have to serve in the afterlife.
But the worst of them are Christians who preach a theology of works to their people, burdening them with laws and rules and convincing them that if they follow the correct formula then they will be saved. Holiness groups and Pentecostals think that by denying their own sinfulness and following pious formulas, meanwhile looking down on all those with a lesser understanding of the Bible, they can force God to smile on them and bring them to heaven, because they’ve earned it.
That’s really the sticking point for both unbelievers and self-righteous Christians, isn’t it? Why should so-and-so, who everybody knows is a drinker or a gambler or a strumpet, get to go to heaven? I’ve been a good person all my life, and I have to share heaven with him? Wasn’t that the older son’s problem in our parable? It wasn’t that he never even got to party with his friends, it was because his brother who partied away everything he owned was welcomed back without a hitch!
But what the Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and cultists and the older brother and even many Christians don’t realize is that no matter what you do, how often you meditate or how many infidels you kill or old ladies you help across the street—you’re still a sinner and deserve only hell.
Those who think they deserve God’s favor have no more right to it than we “sinners.”
III. Repentance is the key.
Fact is, no one deserves it. We can’t earn it or win it—and we can’t do without it. The only way to get it, friends—and here’s where we all balk a little—is by begging for it. On your knees, head bowed, humble, knowing that you don’t have the right even to look up at that Cross or fold your hands and ask him for anything, but also knowing that it’s what he wants you to do. He wants you to acknowledge your sin, turn away from it, and ask for his forgiveness. Look at the sinners in the Bible who repented: the Prodigal Son says to his father “I’m not worthy to be called your son.” The tax collector stands in a corner with his head bowed and asks “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” The insurrectionist on the cross next to Jesus’ says “we are getting what we deserve” and “Lord, remember me.”
Such is the humility, and the daring, of the sinner who approaches his God, knowing he has absolutely no right to ask anything, but who meekly, yet confidently seeks the forgiveness of his holy God.
And every one of them, my friends, King David, the son, the tax collector, the thief, you and I, all will go away justified, declared not guilty—forgiven and reconciled to our God.
IV. The love of the Father is given freely.
This parable really ought to be called “The Parable of the Loving Father,” because that’s what the lesson is all about. Look at the love of this father, our Father.
Offered even to those who are not repentant, or who think they’ve earned it—that they might repent, too. Moreover, the Father is proactive about it. His stubborn older son won’t come in, such is the depth of his anger and jealousy over the repentant sinner’s welcome. So he goes out to him, “all I have is yours, why should you begrudge my favor and forgiveness for this loved one of mine who has repented and returned? Rejoice with the rest of us, for he was dead in sins but now lives!”
He offers it, too, to those who are in despair over their sins. That is what the Law is designed to do, you know—the Law kills the spirit, cutting like a sword, so that sinners will feel the death that their evil causes. Then, in despair over their inability to fix the problem on their own, sinners turn to him.
And why do they turn to him? Because they have heard of his love. The young son knew his father would welcome him home because he knew of his father’s great love for him. Why else would we face persecution and ridicule as we tell others about the Father’s love? So that they might know him, too, as we do. We sin daily and turn back to him in repentance, and we urge others to do the same, because we know it’s the only way to have life—because while our holy God will not give us credit for anything we do to try to earn his love, he freely gives that love to us, because he is our loving Father. He doesn’t just wait to welcome his wayward children, he runs out to meet them.
Salvation – through Repentance. Jesus earned God’s forgiveness for us, and thus won us our salvation. In faith, we repent of our sin and eagerly accept the forgiveness of our God, and look forward to the salvation and eternal life he promised. Jesus said “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” “Trust in the forgiveness I won for you, and you’re in the kingdom.” “Trust in my father, and turn to his love, and watch how he runs out to meet you.”
The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.