Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lent 4-C Sermon (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (The Prodigal Son)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Jesus has a gut that aches for sinners. About a year and a half ago (September 14, 2008), I preached a sermon during which I had the congregation learn a Greek word. Some of you may remember it. The word was (splanchnidzomai), and we talked about how this was a word that meant compassion. But this wasn’t just any sort of compassion. It was a compassion that produced a deep inner ache in the gut. But even more than that, splanchnidzomai is a Greek word that is only used 12 times in the New Testament, and is only used to describe the compassion of Jesus Christ himself, or, in the case of today’s text, can be used of a character in a parable that stands in the place of Jesus. So what word do we see showing up in today’s Gospel reading? Well, if you have the bulletin insert handy, take a look at verse 20. And he arose and came to his father. (he, being the younger son) But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt COMPASSION, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. So, what Greek word do you think might be used for the compassion of the father in our text? That’s right: splanchnidzomai; which means that the father in this parable is to be understood as standing for the person of Jesus Christ; that one who alone has a gut that aches for sinners.

Have you ever stumbled upon a baby bird that has fallen out of the nest before it was ready to fly? I remember having this experience as a young boy, and feeling a sort of compassion for this little tiny creature, squirming there in the tall grass, hoping that momma would swoop down and rescue it. But in most cases, that little, helpless, wounded bird, doesn’t stand a chance. In much the same way, as we confessed in this morning’s Introit, from Psalm 51, you and I are like that baby bird which has fallen out of the nest, for Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. In other words, we never stood a chance. We were doomed to sin, even before we were born, even before our mother had fed us for the first time. Which is why Jesus’ gut aches for us sinners. We are helpless in our sinful condition. And for this reason, we are all like the younger son in today’s text. We all squander our inheritance with reckless living.

Now before we make the mistake of comparing the different forms of recklessness in an effort to justify ourselves and show that we haven’t done exactly the same thing as the younger son, there is a better way to know that you and I are all like the younger son—the prodigal son. Regardless of how your sinful nature has fallen into sin, and no matter which sins you have been guilty of, all of us know that we’ve uttered the very same words as the younger son: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son—or daughter. You see, what’s important is not that you’ve had to go feed the pigs because of your poor choices, what is important is to realize that we’ve all been on our knees, begging for our Father to be merciful. And if you haven’t been there, maybe we should talk after the service.
The point is, everyone of us here today—in fact, every human being conceived after Adam and Eve ate that apple—is a Prodigal Son or Daughter, and relies on the compassion of Jesus Christ to remain a son or daughter in the kingdom God.

If we didn’t rely on this on going compassion of Jesus to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, then we could get rid of the weekly confession of sins, and we would no longer need to come to the communion rail, but we do these things because we know, that we fight against our flesh on a daily basis. We know our transgressions; our sin is ever before us (Psalm 51). And so we end up confessing to our Father, like the prodigal son, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And in this moment, Jesus has no equal. When confession has been made, only Jesus freely forgives.

The prodigal son knows that his sinful choices have made him unworthy to be a son. And so his plan is this: to confess his sin, and then ask if his father will at least allow him to be a servant, working his way back into favor, getting at least food worthy of a man, and not a pig. The prodigal son has seen his sin, and so he approaches his father with the hopes of earning back his place, starting as a servant, and over time, working his way back. Because, you see, that’s how it works in life. You have to earn your keep.

The older brother definitely knows that it works this way. He’s been out in the field working, doing what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s not the one that went off and squandered the inheritance. He’s been serving the father these many years, never disobeying his command, and he’s never even received a goat with which to take and celebrate with his friends. It’s not fair that this foolish younger brother would receive a high feast in his honor. That’s not how life is supposed to work. You have to earn your keep, and that foolish brother of mine definitely hasn’t earned his. In fact, he’s thrown it all away.

We can understand how the older brother feels, can’t we? Because, you see, you don’t just play the part of the younger brother in this parable. At times, you and I have been guilty of the sins of the older brother as well. In fact, I would imagine that the older brother’s sins are the ones we’re most like to fall into. We are glad to be shown mercy when we acknowledge our sin before the Father, but we aren’t so quick to extend that mercy to others. Quite simply, our gut doesn’t ache like Jesus’ does—except for ourselves. We want to see something in our neighbors that gives us reason to believe that they will not continue to be foolish, that they won’t go right out again and squander away the gifts of God. We’re like the prophet Jonah, who was very pleased to have himself be rescued by the grace of God, but the wicked Ninevites, that was a different story—they hadn’t earned their place in God’s kingdom. We’re like the unmerciful servant, who was pleased to have his enormous debt cancelled before the king, but then when his debtor was on his knees begging for mercy, now he chose to operate by a different set of rules—a worldly set of rules. The older brother knew that in life, you have to earn your keep, and so do we. But the younger brother knew it to be true as well, which is why he planned to ask to be a servant—he thought he could earn his way back. Earn your keep. That’s how it works. But that’s not how Jesus works.

Jesus doesn’t wait until we can prove ourselves by a series of pious thoughts. Jesus doesn’t wait until we’ve demonstrated an ability to produce the good works worthy of a son or daughter of God. Jesus doesn’t wait until we are righteous. He can’t help himself. His gut is aching for a helpless humanity conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity. He has a quiver in his liver, an umption in his gumption for helpless sons and daughters who, like a baby bird squirming in the grass, are unable to help themselves. His gut aches for confused Christians who will on one day be kneeling down and confessing their own sins, and then on the next day have trouble seeing that someone may very well be in need of that very same mercy. Jesus simply can’t let His creation lie there helpless and unable to save ourselves.

And so, while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for the ungodly—for you and for me. Jesus died both for the younger son, and the older son. Jesus died for Jonah, and for the Ninevites. Jesus died for your sins, and he died for the sins of your friend, or your spouse, or your child, or your coworker, or the person sitting across the isle from you, who is only as helpless as you are. Woe to us, if after being shown mercy, we don’t show mercy to others.

But Jesus has a gut that aches for all sinners. And so, when that younger son is seen in the distance, the father runs to him. And before he can even ask the Father to let him earn his keep, the Father interrupts. It’s right there in verse 21 and 22. The son has planned to confess, and then ask to start earning back his place, starting as a slave. But the Father only hears his confession—that’s it. There’s no room for earning a place in the kingdom of God. For the place of a son—or daughter—cannot be earned—it is a free gift of grace.

And even when the older brother struggles to understand how the father’s grace could be given out so freely, what does the father still call him? A son: Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. You see both the younger and the older, in the end, are the Father’s sons. And both are in need of mercy.

nly Jesus has a gut that aches for sinners. The word is: splanchnidzomai Go ahead, say it with me: splanchnidzomai One more time, just for fun: splanchnidzomai Only Jesus shows mercy to those who have no hope of earning their keep. Only Jesus has a compassion that will lead him to the cross, where his gut would be pierced for our transgressions, and from it would flow a life-giving water that washes our sins away, and a blood that makes us pure. And so we pray, forgive us our trespasses, that we who have been shown mercy, might become merciful to others, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Whether you are guilty of squandering away God’s free grace, or are guilty of withholding it from others, the solution is the same: Repent, and receive the forgiveness of Jesus, a Savior whose gut aches for sinners—for that’s exactly what you have. In the name of Jesus. Amen.