St. John's Lutheran -- Morgan
The 2nd Sunday in Lent -- C
Text: Luke 13:31-35
Subject: Prophetic Ministry
Predicate: is frequently dangerous and the messenger is often killed but God will stop at nothing to get his message through.
Just about every major city in our world has an image or a reputation that people know about, even if they've never been there.
Some examples. . .
Paris is thought to be a very romantic city, a city for lovers, especially in the spring.
Athens is known for its antiquities; remnants of a glorious culture of intellectuals who developed mathematics and philosophies that are widely used and taught to this very day.
Rome is sometimes called the "eternal city." I suspect that is because of its close association with the church. For nearly 1500 of the church's 2000 years of existence, its headquarters have been in Rome.
Quite frequently though, the reputation of a city is not all that positive, or, for everything good in the city there is a liability that everyone seems to know about.
Consider New York. It is the financial capitol of the world. Theater and the arts flourish there. And yet New York is the site of some of the worst slums in America. Crimes, even as serious as murder are daily events that don't even rate a one line mention in the newspaper.
Or how about Los Angeles? At first you might think of movie stars and the entertainment industry. But on the other side of the tracks, gang warfare of an unprecedented scope claims hundreds of lives each year, many of the victims being as young as 9 or 10 years old.
Now the fact that cities have a reputation that is known far and wide is not a modern phenomenon. The same was true 2000 years ago during the life of Christ.
Back then, the most important city in the region of Palestine was Jerusalem. Its reputation was twofold.
First of all, Jerusalem was known as a "holy city." The religious life of all the Jews was focused on Jerusalem. The temple was located there. Every devout Jew was expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once a year. While they were in town, the people worshipped at the temple and they made sacrifices to God.
But, even though Jerusalem was the religious capital of the Jewish faith, it also had a negative reputation that just about everyone was aware of.
Jerusalem was also known as the city that kills prophets who bring God's message to the people. Jerusalem was known as the city where, in the name of God, God's word is rejected.
In our Old Testament lesson this morning we heard about the prophet Jeremiah and how he was seized and threatened with death when he brought the LORD's message to the people of Jerusalem.
Right from the start of his ministry, Jeremiah knew that being a prophet was dangerous work. In fact, Jeremiah tried as hard as he could to find an excuse for not preaching the word of God.
One day, when Jeremiah was probably only 16 or 17 years old, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah telling him that God had plans for him even before he was conceived and born. From before your birth, God said, "I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations."
Jeremiah promptly replied saying, "But Lord, I'm only a youth, I can't do that." (And he was probably thinking that he didn't want to die young since that was often the fate of prophets.)
God answered him saying, "Don't say that you are only a youth. Go where I send you and do not be afraid for I am with you to deliver you."
Jeremiah tried another approach and complained, "I do not know how to speak in public! I wouldn't know what to say! So how can I be your prophet."
The Lord put forth his hand and touched Jeremiah's mouth and God told Jeremiah, "Behold, I have put MY words in YOUR mouth."
Jeremiah did what God wanted him to. He went to Jerusalem, and preached that God's judgment was upon the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. Jeremiah said that if the people did not repent and refocus their faith on the Lord, then destruction and desolation was inevitable.
Well, things turned out just as Jeremiah expected. When he preached the message God wanted him to, the people said, "We don't want to hear that." And the priests and the people seized Jeremiah and said, "You MUST die!" //
You see, frequently people blame the messenger for the message he or she brings. And sometimes, in fact often, especially in Jerusalem, when the message is the Word of God, people do not want to hear it!
Because of their sin, the people of Jerusalem would do anything to avoid being confronted by God's truth. They would ignore it. They would criticize it. They would attempt to discredit it. They would attack the preacher's integrity. They would seize the prophet and cast him in prison. And finally, if they couldn't get the preacher to shut up any other way, they would kill him! //
Six hundred years later, things hadn't changed very much in Jerusalem. The very same thing that happened to Jeremiah, happened to Jesus.
Every time Jesus preached, his message riled up the leaders of the political and religious establishment.
From the very first sermon that Jesus preached someone was always trying to discredit him or to kill him.
In Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah and told the congregation that the lesson had come true even as they heard it read. In other words, Jesus told them that HE was THE ONE sent by God to accomplish these things. But some of the people thought Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, that is, lying about God. They tried to toss him over a cliff to his death on the rocks below. But with the help of God, Jesus escaped because his ministry was just beginning.
As the months went on, the pharisees tried to discredit Jesus, and therefore his message, in a number of different ways.
They accused Jesus of being a terrible sinner because he did not keep the Sabbath Day laws. One of the Jewish religious laws said that, "No work shall be performed on the Sabbath." Healing people was considered to be work, and more than once Jesus performed miracles of healing on the day of rest.
The Pharisees also tried to discredit Jesus due to the people he associated with. Remember the time Jesus and his disciples attended a dinner party with prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners at Matthew's house? Remember the time a woman of "ill repute" crashed a dinner party and washed Jesus' feet with her tears?
The pharisees said that if Jesus knew what "those people" were really like he would have nothing to do with them!
Jesus' ministry also riled up the political leaders of the region. In today's gospel lesson from Luke we hear that King Herod Antipas, the ruler of the northern region that included Jesus' home town, wanted to kill Jesus.
When Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand, Herod Antipas must have felt threatened the same way his father, Herod the Great, felt threatened when the wise men sought directions to the newborn king.
Herod the Great had all the babies under age two slaughtered in attempt to kill the newborn who was called by some, "The King of the Jews." Thanks to God, Joseph and Mary took Jesus out of the country to a safe place.
But the safety of life in Egypt was only temporary. Thirty years later, Jesus was back home in Galilee. He traveled throughout the region, preaching, teaching, healing and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. And because he heard this as a threat to his rule, Herod Antipas was seeking Jesus to eliminate him.
But Jesus wasn't worried about Herod. When some well meaning people warned Jesus to leave and go someplace else because Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus told them to go tell, "That fox, that I will do what I have to do today and tomorrow. I will reach my goal. Herod cannot harm me because surely, no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!"
It is interesting that the God's word, the message that we now call "The Good News," is heard as "bad news" by so many people.
But the fact is, people are seduced by their sinful nature to want to live lives contrary to the will of God.
In 600 BC the rulers and upper-class people of Jerusalem frequently worshipped false gods and enjoyed a life of luxury and leisure at the expense of the poor. When God told them through Jeremiah to repent or face destruction, they rejected the message and messenger.
Later when Jesus said that God loved the world so much that he wanted to save sinners and outcasts, the religious leaders of the Jews also rejected the message and the messenger.
In each case, the power and the comfortable way of life that those in authority enjoyed was under attack. The reflexive instinct of the leadership was to strike back to preserve the status quo.
But in Jesus case, when they decided to strike back they were attacking more than the messenger. The were attacking the message. And, most importantly, they were attacking the source of the message!
For Jesus did not simply bring a message from God the way that
Jeremiah did. Jesus WAS the message. In Jesus the Word of God
and human flesh became one. Therefore Jesus WAS God. And therefore,
all attacks leveled against Jesus Christ were at the same time,
direct assaults on God.
Now since historically, Jerusalem was the place where the ultimate confrontations between God and his wayward people took place, it makes sense that Jesus would one day travel to Jerusalem for his final confrontation with those who stand in opposition to God's word.
Jesus knew that his ministry was leading to Jerusalem where the climax would occur. So he did not fear Herod Antipas. He thumbed his nose at Herod and continued on toward the citadel of his enemies for the final showdown between good and evil. //
We will continue with the story of what happens in Jerusalem as this season of Lent continues.
But before I finish up today, I think that it is important to bring the message of these texts into the present. Each of our lessons today confronts us with the question, "How do WE respond to the prophetic word of God?"
It is an important question. And it is a difficult question to answer objectively .
You see, even though we'd rather not admit it, in today's world, we who are members in good standing of the Christian Church are the pharisees, and Herodians, and citizens of Jerusalem.
We are the people who are tempted to ignore the Word. We are the ones who are tempted to criticize it. We may try to discredit the Word by attacking the integrity of the preacher. We may cast prophets into prison. We may even slay the messenger.
There are all kinds of things that may cause us to attack the Word. Some of them are obvious, others are more subtle. They include our desire to be popular, our longing to cling to "tradition," our need for security, our politics, our greed, our pride, our apathy. And there are probably many more.
Now what God wants us to know through the lessons we heard today, is that NONE of these things will lead to our salvation!
Instead, they are the gateway to damnation.
The only way to be saved is through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
Thus the confrontation between good and evil comes to a head in a personal way for each and every one of us when faced with these options:
Do we forsake our sinful ways and follow Jesus to the cross?
Or will we be a part of the crowd in Jerusalem on Good Friday shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
4th Sunday in Lent
Text: Matthew 20:17-28
Subject: The cup of suffering
Predicate: may vary greatly but is still the prime requirement for being a follower of Jesus.
When the government proposes big changes, such as a new tax and spending plan, individual voters like you and me are most likely to evaluate it by asking the question, "What's in it for me?"
We want to know how we will personally benefit from it, and we want to know what it will personally cost us.
Then, after we've learned how it will affect us, we can decide to support it, or to oppose it.
The only problem with this however, is that if we are only thinking about ourselves and how WE will benefit or what WE will have to pay, there is the possibility that we may support a program that does not help the majority of the people in our nation, or we may oppose a program that will be good for the country.
Of course I don't want to over look the possibility that what we think will be good for us personally will ALSO be good for the majority -- but I do want to lift up the very real danger that our personal agenda, our selfish desires, can stand in the way of what really needs to be done for the good of all.
Now I used the example of a "tax and spend program" to stimulate our thinking this morning because it is an issue that is before us on the new president's national agenda.
But this phenomena of "me-ism," is every where.
We see it on the local level when we struggle with property tax assessments, or zoning decisions. We cry NIMBY (that is - Not In My Back Yard) when someone proposes a power plant or prison or factory next to where we live.
We see it in churches when major decisions come before the annual assembly.
We see it in education when students say, "Why do I have to take THAT class, what good is algebra going to do me when I grow up -- I'm gonna be a pastor!"
We hear it in pop music when Sinatra sings, "I did it MY way."
We hear it in advertising when a hamburger chain says, "Have it YOUR way."
And we read it in the Bible when the mother of the disciples James and John came up to Jesus and asked, "Sir, grant that one of my two fine sons can sit on your left and the other one on your right when you establish your kingdom." //
(Now I might add before I go on any further, that there is some dispute as to if James and John's mother requested this of Jesus, OR if James and John actually asked Jesus for the seats of honor themselves. The same request is presented both ways in different gospels.
It is a interesting question - but unfortunately we will never be able to figure out just how this event actually happened.
Yet at the same time, I don't think it matters whether James and John did the asking themselves, or if their mother did it for them. In either case the same dynamics apply. In either case, these two disciples were looking out for themselves, and trying secure positions of honor and power in Jesus' kingdom.)
Now it is only natural that a mother (or father) would want the best for their children All of us who are parents are willing to help our children achieve worthy life goals. We'll sacrifice to give our kids an education. We'll give hours of time so they can participate in sports, or other recreational activities. Perhaps we'll even offer financial help so they can start a business, or take over the farm, or buy a home.
And, it is only natural for those of us who work hard to expect to reap some rewards - such as a promotion, or an increase in salary.
So it follows that not only James and John, but ALL the disciples were expecting something in return for their years of service with Jesus.
James and John just happened to be the ones bold enough to come right out and ask Jesus for important positions in the kingdom.
Actually it was right in character for them. As you may know, some of the disciples had nick-names. For example: Peter was also known as "The Rock." James and John were known as the "Sons of Thunder" for their zeal and enthusiasm.
And James was sometimes called James the "Bombastic." For he often started spouting off at the mouth without thinking about what he was saying.
Once when Jesus and the disciples arrived at a Samaritan village only to be rejected and expelled, James and John wanted to call down fire and brimstone to destroy the town and all its inhabitants as punishment for their rude behavior. But Jesus calmed them down and they proceeded to another city.
Now a simplistic interpretation of this text would be to focus on the selfish behavior of James and John, and simply say "don't sin like that!" Instead, be generous, and share with others.
But what really happened with James and John and their mother was a lot more complicated.
Yes -- there was selfish behavior. Yes -- the disciples were thinking about themselves and their own future. But remember, as I tried to point out in the examples I've just given you, they were acting quite logically. The had given themselves in service to Christ, and now, in the coming kingdom they wanted to give even more. You or I would probably have wanted to do the same thing.
But there WAS a problem with their self-centered behavior. And the problem is that it closed their eyes, ears and minds to what Jesus was saying, and to what he was trying to accomplish, and to what was going to happen to Jesus when they arrived in Jerusalem.
Just take a look at the gospel as Matthew recorded it.
Jesus was going up to Jerusalem with his disciples. On the way he paused and took the 12 disciples aside and he told them EXACTLY what was going to happen when they got there.
Jesus said that he would soon be betrayed, condemned, mocked, tortured AND crucified. Jesus told the disciples in plain language that he was going to suffer and die.
He also told them that on the third day he would rise again to a new life!
But NONE of this sunk in. It went right over the disciple's heads.
The very next thing that happens is James and John asking for the right and left hand seats in Jesus kingdom.
Their "what's in it for me" thinking enabled them to completely ignore everything Jesus said, and instead strive for their own glory.
Ironically, Jesus did want to give James and John seats of honor in his kingdom. But Jesus wanted them to know what they were really getting into. He knew by the way that their mother phrased her request meant that the disciples missed his point.
So Jesus tried to drive it home once again. "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
"Yes WE CAN!" they replied, enthusiastically, but still ignorant of what Jesus meant.
And Jesus replied, "You will drink from the same cup I do. The seats of honor in my kingdom are not for me to grant, only God can do that -- but you WILL drink from the same cup."
Now I do not know if James and John were starting to put two and two together yet. But I do know that the same ignorance and "what's in it for me - ism" that infected the sons of thunder also infected the other disciples.
Matthew tells us that when the 10 heard about what happened, they were ticked off at James and John -- and probably Jesus too because Jesus did say that James and Johns would drink from his cup.
Fortunately Jesus was a patient person. After all his preaching and teaching and private explanation of his message to the disciples they just didn't get it.
If you or I did that poorly in class we'd get an F! If you or I did that poorly on the job, we'd get fired!
Jesus sternly rebuked his disciples for their thick headedness, but he didn't fire them and replace them with new disciples. Instead he patiently tried to explain his whole program one more time.
He said, "You guys, just at the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, you too must become servants who are willing to give everything, including your life, for the spread of the kingdom and the sharing of the good news."
I'm still not sure that that lecture sunk in either. For over the next few weeks Peter would deny that he was a disciple, and the whole lot of them would lock themselves up in hiding, fearful that they would be the next ones hanging on the cross.
But eventually, what Jesus was saying did make sense to them. And not only James and John, but all the disciples would drink from the same cup, the cup of suffering that Jesus did.
In fact, James was the first of the 12 to do it. Several years later, he was arrested and beheaded and became the first of the apostles to be martyr, that is, killed for his faith and ministry.
John also drank from Jesus' cup, but in a very different way.
John lived to a very old age. Many scholars say well into his 90's. But along the way he was frequently persecuted and eventually he was exiled.
So, unlike James who's cup was to die because of his faith, John's cup of suffering was his daily sacrifice and struggle for the sake of the gospel. //
Today, we should imagine ourselves in the same place as the disciples, asking the same kinds of questions they did..
The temptation is to approach our faith asking, "What's in it for me?"
Or, "How can I get a position of honor and respect and glory within the church?"
And in either case, Jesus gives us the same answer.
The Church is not about getting something, it is about giving something. It is about sharing the good news that Jesus suffered and died and rose again to win forgiveness and salvation for all people.
Yes this good news is for us, for ALL of us. But it isn't something that we get and keep for ourselves so hopefully we feel better when things are going bad for us.
Instead we hear it, believe it, rejoice in it, AND THEN SHARE IT. Because lots of other people need the hope for eternity that it brings.
And if you aspire to a churchly position of leadership for glory, honor, power, or prestige, your motives are not what Jesus is looking for.
Instead, Jesus wants suffering servants who will be on the front line, giving everything they can to the proclamation of the gospel.
For some of us it is our time and talent and we answer the call to preach, or teach, or administer the work of the church.
For others of us it is our treasure and we will give generously, even sacrificially to support the mission of the church.
For some of us it may be our lives and we will be called to die on behalf of our faith.
But for all of us, at the minimum it will be the same kind of life long, rock steady commitment through thick and thin that John displayed during his 90 plus years.
Like the disciples, we may go through our ignorant phase, and our selfish phase, and our rebellious phase. . .But by the grace of God and power of the Spirit we CAN drink from the same cup that Jesus did, and in so doing be fully united with him in his eternal kingdom. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran -- Morgan
3rd Sunday in Lent -- C
These days, it seems that just about every field has its own unique vocabulary.
The church is no exception. There are all kinds of special words that form a kind of "church lingo."
You know what kind of words I'm talking about. Words like, righteousness, salvation, crucifixion, redemption, ascension, supplication, incarnation and transfiguration, just to name a few.
Now these are all important words. They all refer to teachings or aspects of our faith that are vital.
Yet at the same time we have to be careful with these words. Many of our church words are what I call "50 cent words." By that I mean that a lot of these church words are long words with complicated meanings.
If we are not careful, we easily start using them among people who don't really understand them.
For example, if you are trying to convert someone to Christianity and start telling them that, "Thanks to God's gracious providence, by the power of the incarnation, Jesus' passion, crucifixion, humiliation, exultation, resurrection and ascension has brought us the redemption and salvation and sanctification that we cannot accomplish for ourselves," they are likely to respond by saying, "HUH?"
Even within the membership of the church we must be careful because not every one is fully certain about all the meanings of all the words and terms we frequently use.
Today, I want to talk about one of the most common of our church words. And yet, despite its importance and frequency of use, many of us may be hard pressed to quickly and accurately define what it means.
The word is HOLY.
We usually use it as an adjective with various rites, rituals and things in the church.
Some examples: The HOLY Bible, HOLY Communion, HOLY Baptism, the HOLY Spirit, one HOLY catholic and apostolic church. We sing, "HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God Almighty. . ." We Pray, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed (or HOLY) be thy name. . ."
But just what does "HOLY" mean? If someone who knew nothing about church asked you, what would you tell them?
It might be interesting to go up and down the rows and hear some of your ideas. I'm sure that many of you would have some very good definitions and illustrations.
But in the interest of time and efficiency, let me share with you some basic information about what HOLY means.
First of all, HOLINESS starts with God. In fact, we would even say that HOLINESS is an attribute of God. The word HOLY denotes God's awesome majesty and purity. That God is HOLY means that God is the high and lofty ONE who inhabits eternity.
Frederick Buechner, the author of a popular theological dictionary for lay people, begins his definition of HOLY by saying that, "Only God is holy. . ."
And yet, as I've already noted, we believe that other things and people are also HOLY. Though HOLINESS is an attribute of God, somehow, God's HOLINESS can be extended on to people, places and things.
When this happens, our definition of HOLY is, "To be set apart. To be set apart."
For a place to be HOLY means that it is "set apart" from other places because something special dealing with God has, is, or will be taking place there.
For a thing to be HOLY means that it is "set apart" for a special use or function in church or worship. Or a thing is "set apart" when it is given a unique meaning as a result of the presence of, or command of God.
For a person to be HOLY means that they have been "set apart" from the crowd when they are called or chosen to live and work in a special relationship with God.
In his theological dictionary, Pastor Buechner concludes his discussion of the word HOLY by saying, "To speak of anything as HOLY is to say that it has something of God's mark on it. Times, places, things and people can all be HOLY." //
Our Old Testament lesson for this morning is a story about HOLINESS. It is about how God touches places and people and in so doing transforms them from an ordinary place or an ordinary person, into a HOLY place and a HOLY people.
One day Moses was out in the wilderness, tending his father-in-law's sheep, when he saw a most unusual sight. A bush was burning, but despite the raging flames, it was not consumed into a heap of ashes.
His curiosity got the better of him and he decided to go over for a closer look at the "fire" to see why the "bush does not burn up."
What Moses didn't know, but soon found out, was that the burning bush was actually the presence of God. As he drew close to the bush, God called Moses by name. Moses answered, "Here I am." And God said, "Do not come any closer, and take off your sandals for the place you are standing is 'Holy ground'."
For many years the place where Moses was standing was just another spot in the desert. But suddenly, when God had a job he wanted to do, the place was transformed. The ground around the burning bush became Holy ground. It became holy because it now had the mark of God upon it. This particular area was chosen by God and set apart by God, specifically for this meeting with Moses.
The plot of land around the burning bush wasn't the only thing that became holy that day. An even more remarkable transformation was the one that happened to Moses.
Think about it. One minute Moses was just a shepherd minding the flock he was supposed to take care of. The next minute God himself is telling Moses that he feels compassion for the Israelites who are being held as slaves in Egypt. He wants to set his chosen people free and bring them to the promised land where they can live in peace and happiness.
And then God said to Moses, "So go! I am sending YOU to bring my people out of Egypt."
At that instant, the mark of God was placed upon Moses. At that instant, Moses was "set apart" by God for God's work. At that instant, Moses became holy.
Now at first Moses didn't feel particularly holy. He said, "Who am I that I should be the one to do this?"
But people don't decide who is holy and who isn't holy. God does. God told Moses that "I will be with you." In other words, like it or not, God was setting Moses apart for the job of leading Israel. Like it or not, Moses was now a holy person on a holy mission. //
The same pattern of God setting people apart for special jobs is seen time and time again throughout the Old Testament of the Bible.
Joshua was called to take over when Moses died. Deborah was called to be a judge and leader of the people after they settled in the promised land. David was called to be a king and unite the people into one nation. Jeremiah and Isaiah and a host of others were called to be prophets and preach the word of God.
Each and every one of them was a holy person. The were all called by God and set apart for a special purpose or mission.
In the New Testament God continues to work the same way.
However, in the New Testament we hear about the ultimate holy person, and the ultimate holy mission.
The person set aside is Jesus Christ. The task he is called to accomplish is more extraordinary than setting free a small group of people. Jesus is called to set the whole world free!
The story of Jesus suffering and death is also a story about holy ground and a holy person.
But unlike the glory of the burning bush, and the holy ground where Moses must remove his shoes and stand in awe and wonder, the holy ground in the New Testament is a hill called "Golgotha" where people are tortured and executed.
The holy presence of God is in the weak, wounded, dying body of Jesus Christ.
Though it looked like a place of death, and though Jesus appeared to be a broken and defeated man, God's mark was upon the events of Good Friday, the places where they occurred, and most of all, the person Jesus Christ.
Though it is often difficult for us to understand, the fact is, God choose this hideous scene and method to extend the gift of his love and forgiveness to all of us. //
There is one more thing for us to consider in this discussion of holiness.
And that is, since being holy means a person marked and set apart by God for a special task, then ALL of us are HOLY people too!
That's right. WE ARE HOLY!
Not because of anything we've done. Not because we deserve it.
But because Christ saved us. Because God forgives us through Christ's death. Because God knows each and every one of us and has called us by name to be his children.
We became holy for the first time when we were baptized. When the water washed over us we were set apart to be God's children, adopted forever. When the pastor traced the sign of the cross on our foreheads we were indelibly marked by God and united with his son Jesus.
As we live our lives we receive the call the makes us holy over and over again.
In the word preached from the pulpit God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and to let his light shine in all we do.
In the bread and the cup of holy communion Jesus enters into our bodies and hearts, forgiving our sins, strengthening our faith and uniting us with him into the one body that we call the church. //
And that my friends is what the word HOLY means.
It starts with God. But God doesn't keep holiness to himself up in heaven.
It is God's will that every place, every thing, and EVERY ONE be holy too! So God generously places his mark upon us, setting us apart as his holy people. AMEN
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
The 4th Sunday in Lent - C
Text: Luke 15:11-32
Predicate: means wasteful and each of the sons is wasteful with what the father gives them, one in the inheritance, the other in the father's love and sustanence.
Our Gospel lesson this morning, the story of "The Prodigal Son," ranks right up there with "The Good Samaratin" as one of the best known and most loved of Jesus' parables.
Unfortunately, the familiarity of these parables sometimes becomes a hinderance in terms of really understanding what Jesus was talking about.
You see, even though these parables are richly layered with meaning, we often find it difficult to work our way through the most obvious possibilities to the less obvious, but equally important ones.
We often find the easiest thing to do is to simply cling to the meaning that we learned 20 or 30 or 40 years ago in Sunday school, or we want to stay with the literal sense of the story that you get by merely skimming over the plot.
In light of this, one of my Bible study books even offers a word of caution to pastors who are thinking about preaching on this story. The author says that it takes a bit of courage to preach on a text so widely known as the story of the "Prodigal Son."
In the last 5 or 6 years I've come to understand what this author means.
Before I became a pastor I always thought that it would be pretty easy to preach sermons on Christmas and Easter and on other well known bible stories such as the parables. Before I became a pastor I dreaded the thought of trying to preach a sermon on an obscure text like Zechariah 12:7-10!
But now, give me Zechariah any day! It's a verse I've never studied before so I'll learn something new in my preparation and you'll learn something new in the sermon.
Now I know that the hardest texts to preach on are the familiar ones.
It is a challenge to get beyond old sterotypes about the meaning of the most familiar stories. It is challenge to pull new insights from them. It is a challenge to present a sermon that is fresh and interesting when the majority of the congregation thinks they know where the preacher is heading even before he or she gets past the introduction.
Now what I'd like to do with this parable today, is to begin by telling you what it's NOT about, and what I'm NOT going to say about it.
First of all, this parable IS NOT about the repentance of the younger son.
During the season of Lent, when repentance is a common theme in our lessons, there is a temptation to hold the young son out as an example of how we should repent of our sins and return to the "family of God."
Well that's not a bad idea. Repentance is a message we should hear, and a change of heart and behavior that we should attempt to make.
The only thing is, that in this parable, the younger son DID NOT really repent. Nowhere in the story is there any indication that he had a change of heart and attitude about what he did with his portion of the inheritance.
What really drove the younger son back home was his belly!
After he squandered all the money, the only work he could get was taking care of a herd of pigs. That was a job that was more menial that collecting garbage. And it paid virtually nothing. He was so hungry he longed to eat the same pods and slop he was feeding the pigs. But no one gave him anything.
When he remembered that his father's hired men and slaves had food to spare, he resolved to return home in order to survive!
When he finally arrived home, the son said to his father, "I have sinned and am no longer worthy to be your son." This may sound like a statement of repentance, but in fact it was a recognition of the legal situation the son was now in.
Since the son had received his portion of the family estate early, and then unlawfully sold and disposed of it prior to his father's death, he squandered his legal status as son. Though the blood relationship would always remain, legally the only position the father should allow his son to hold after what he did was that of "hired hand."
The son knew this was the law. But in the interest of physical survival, he returned home anyway, fully intending to become one of his father's slaves. He was resigned to paying the price for his sin, but true repentance in the sense of changing his ways and starting over fresh, and re-establishing his relationship with his father was neither on his mind, nor was it legally possible.
So, even though the younger son came home, and even though his words had the outward sound of repentance, it was in fact a growling stomach that initiated his return. So this story IS NOT really about repentance.
A better focus for us as we dig deeper into the meaning of this parable is to look at the father and his unexpected response when the prodigal son returns home.
The father has had his heart broken by the actions of his youngest son. The father also saw a full 1/3 of his estate spent recklessly on booze, gambling, prostitutes, and other forms of "wild living."
And yet, as he spots his wayward son coming down the road it as if all this has been forgotten. Even though the younger son has lived a dispicable life for the last several years, at least he's still alive. He's home again. And that is reason to celebrate.
Now for years, everyone thought that the main point of this parable was the fact that the youngest son came to his senses and returned home. In fact, that's why the parable is entitled, "The Prodigal Son."
Recently however, most students of the Jesus' parables have concluded that the main point of this parable has more to do with the father's joy and forgiveness than the son's return. Many scholars have even suggested that we rename this story "The Parable of the Loving Father."
And that is probably a good idea. For when you listen to the total body of Jesus preaching and teaching you hear a consistent message about how God loves us and forgives us no matter how terrible the sin. So it is a legitimate interpretation of this parable to say that God is like the loving father who welcomes his wayward children back home, no matter what.
But you know what, if that is what this parable was really ALL ABOUT, Jesus would have ended it sooner.
The parables of Jesus are masterful stories in the way that they set up a situation and suddenly end so that the listeners are confronted with the message Jesus wanted them to hear.
That is another reason why I can confidently say that the parable is not about the repentance of the youngest son. If it was the story would have ended at verse 19 where the son made the decision to return home.
And though the father is a powerful illustration of the love of God, I know the parable is not solely about God's love and forgivenss or it would have concluded with verse 24 when the dad said, "My son was dead now he is alive, he was lost, now he is found! Let us make merry!"
Instead, the parable goes on for 7 more verses, and the elder son who stayed home on the farm for "all these many years" agrily bursts into the story.
As he came in from the fields one day he heard the sound of music and dancing coming from the house. He asked one of his servants what was going on and found out that his younger brother had returned home and that dad had killed the fatted calf and invited everyone over to celebrate.
And when he heard what was going on, a righteous anger swelled up within him and he refused to enter the house and join the festivities.
Now when you think about this situation, you really can't blame the elder son for being mad and both his brother AND his father.
After all he had been a good obedient son. He served his father well and faithfully. Yet despite the fact that he was the ideal son, dad never threw a big party for him and his friends.
To the eldest son, it just wasn't fair. Why should his brother, who lived like a jerk and broke his father's heart be treated so well?
Well, by now it should be apparent to you that in order to really understand what this parable is about we have to make some sense of what is going on with the elder brother. Some people would even argue that the MAIN point of the parable is found in the reaction of the elder brother and the response of the father.
I think one of the best ways to understand Jesus' parables is to put put yourselve into the parable. Ask yourself, who in this story am I most like? Then retell the story with you in whatever roll it is that fits.
Jesus actually used a variation of this technique when he was teaching. When Jesus taught he sized up his audience and then crafted his stories to fit the people he was talking to. We know this is true because there are several places in the Bible where the gospel writer tells us right out that the Pharisees percieved that Jesus was talking about them in the parables he told.
Now in the case of today's parable, the majority of the people Jesus was talking to were with out a doubt "elder brothers."
The second verse of the lesson, right before Jesus begins the parable, tells us that Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees because of his relationship with "sinners."
And when they challenged Jesus' relationship to sinners, they were in fact challenging God's relationship to sinners! The Pharisees just couldn't understand how Jesus, and God could love and forgive people who lived reckless lives and who broke ALL the commandments without so much as a second thought.
The pharisees thought they deserved God's love and blessings because they did everything right. And by golly, if God was going to treat sinners nicely and invite THEM to participate in the heavenly feast, they wanted no part in the festivities.
In the same way today, the majority of us who hear this parable are elder brothers.
We are for the most part members in good standing of our church and community. We live basically good lives. We keep the laws of the land and the commandments of our God fairly well. Most of us don't covet, steal, commit adultery, or murder others.
The prospect of God forgiving and inviting the likes of Charles Manson, Richard Speck and Jeffery Dahmer into the kingdom of heaven is likely to be repulsive to us. In fact, if we could do the judging we'd want to make sure that violent, anti-social people like them will burn in hell for all eternity!
But the truth is that God is a God of love and forgivness. His grace is for all people, no matter how sinful they might be.
The ultimate message of this parable is actually found in the father's words to the eldest son when he said, "Son you are always with me -- all that I have IS YOURS!"
The fact that God forgives despicable sinners does not mean that he forgets all about those who have been faithful for life and tried to do their best.
The grace of God is not an either - or option. It is not something limited to us or them but not both.
The truth is, God loves and forgives both the sinner and the righteous.
And God wants those of us who are predominatly righteous to love and accept those who appear to be the sinful scum of society.
For how else can sinful people know that God loves them unless we who are faithful Christians proclaim the love of God and the forgiveness of Christ through our words and deeds.
We are the body of Christ in the world today. And the Chirst first known by others will be the Christ they see in us.
So. . .what will they see?
A selfish, smug older brother standing to the side saying, "I want nothing to do with you."?
OR a brother or sister in Christ, joining them in the feast that has no end, rejoicing in the fact that though they were once lost and dead, now they are found and alive. AMEN!