Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Throughout the season of Lent, I have been presenting a series of meditations based on the spiritual treasures offered in the sacraments. In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, we are taught to remember our baptism and that the sacrament of holy baptism “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.” In the waters of baptism we have been given the assurance that God washes away the marks of sin from our lives. In the waters of baptism, we have been given the assurance that we have been united with Christ, so that his strength protects us from the power of the devil, and that nothing in all creation that can separate us from God’s love. Finally, it is in the waters of baptism, that we are encouraged to walk as God’s forgiven and protected children in the newness of life. Today, we turn to the sacrament of holy communion, Martin Luther’s simple explanation, “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” I imagine that is what the two sons needed to discover in this morning’s gospel lesson.
The story of the Prodigal Son may be the most familiar of Jesus’ parables, but it is often also the most misunderstood. Even the word prodigal is confusing. After all, prodigal means wasteful or recklessly extravagant, but the parable isn’t simply about wasting the father’s wealth in a distant country. The parable is also about resting blindly in the Father’s shadow and wasting his love.
The parable begins with the father and his two sons living in an idyllic, quiet neighborhood not unlike Lake of the Isles- in the summertime- with pleasant green lawns and quaint white picket fences. The shadows were long in the light of the setting sun. From inside the father’s house, you could hear the music of Mozart floating from the open windows. Or perhaps it was Buxtehude. The curtains were gently billowing in the breeze. And then suddenly the younger son appeared on the front porch forcefully pleading with his father. “Dad,” or in his best Downton Abbey voice, “Papa, I’m tired of all these rules and expectations. I’m tired of living in this house. I’m not a kid anymore. Just give me half of what will be mine, and I’ll get out of the way.” And so the father, took out his checkbook and calculator, divided his property between the younger son and his brother, and wrote a check. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country.
Mind you, the younger son had every good intention of beginning a new life somewhere else. He left his home and his father with hopeful dreams for the future. He couldn’t have imagined squandering the wealth he had been given. He had fond memories of his happy, sun filled home and he remembered dearly the melodies of Mozart and Buxtehude, the green grass and the white picket fence. He longed for these things himself. They were the finest gifts of life. But then his life quickly went south.
Perhaps the young prodigal’s story, reminds you of your own life, or that of someone you love. You had no intention of journeying down the path of sadness, disappointment and despair. You launched your life’s journey with the best of ideals and goals… family, friendship, and career. But along the way something went wrong. Life went south.
We are taught at an early age that God longs to give us everything we need, and to share the very best with us. Unfortunately, we want these things on our own time. And so, like the younger son, we take our life and destiny into our own hands and enter into the school of hard knocks. There the son faced one hardship after another. The transmission went out on his car, he was evicted from his apartment, and he was fired from his latest job. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; but no one gave him anything.
Then we read, “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father.” It must have been a glorious moment of self-discovery. In one brief painful moment, the younger son discovered the secret to a new life. It all began by turning around, repenting if you will, and offering himself freely and openly to God’s plans and desires. Yes, in seeking his father’s forgiveness, he was on his way to being found.
Of course, you and I take risks and chances every day. We step out into new and exciting adventures daily where we do not know the ending. Some journeys are successful, and some are disastrous. As a pastor I have heard many stories of successful people, but almost without exception, I have heard of the difficult times, and even desperate moments they encountered along life’s way. Sometimes the troubles came to them from outside, and sometimes the troubles came from within. Yet, somehow they were not defeated, but like the Prodigal Son, they came to themselves, time and again, and joy made its way into their lives.
How did they come to themselves you may ask? Most often, they had to admit that their ultimate goals, and the dreams that they were pursuing were not of God. Rather, they were simply chasing after their own passions. For those who are willing to turn their life around, even in the smallest measure, and to allow God to use their lives and gifts, they will be greeted like the Prodigal Son. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
This young son was on his way to his father; but he would not have reached him unless his father had not come the major part of the way. Even before he could see the green grass and the white picket fence, even before he could hear music playing, the strains of Mozart and Buxtehude filling the air, even before the evening breeze gently blew the curtains in the open window, the father saw his son returning. The father had been waiting for this moment. That is the wonder of forgiveness. When you give God an inch, he will give you a mile. If you come to him a little way, when you are still “yet a great way off” he will run to meet you. We do not know that the prodigal son saw his father from a distance, but I am certain that the father saw him. You see, the eyes of mercy are always quicker than the eyes of repentance. Even the eyes of our faith may seem dim compared with the eye of God’s love. He sees you returning, and he is running to meet you, to throw his arms around you, and to cover you with kisses of joy and happiness, of peace and forgiveness, of rejoicing and redemption.
And everyone celebrated the younger, lost son’s return, except for one- the older son who was standing alone outside leaning on the white picket fence. The parable, you recall, is really about two prodigal sons. The story opens with the wasteful younger son, and ends with the prodigal, sour-faced older son, displeased with his father’s gracious love. He was certainly just as interested in his Father’s inheritance as his brother. The older son didn’t understand that the riches of his Father’s love could be experienced here and now. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also live and salvation.”
My friends, which of the two sons are you? Are you returning to taste and see that the Lord is good after a prodigal journey, or are you worried and resentful that a prodigal father is sharing his gifts with those who really do not deserve it? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter to God. All are welcome. You simply need to believe in the words, “given and shed for you.” That is, as Luther described, the only condition for holy communion. In the meager gifts of bread and wine, he offers the assurance of the forgiveness of sins for you. In the gifts of his body and blood, he opens the door to enter a new life for you. In the gifts of his holy table, he pours out the fullness and richness of his eternal kingdom to enjoy, here and now, for you. You do not have to wait.
The Lord has to celebrate and rejoice your return. That is his nature. Do you hear the music playing? Just beyond the white picket fence, and the green grass, a waiting Father, is longing to embrace you with his love. Have you turned to him, or are you still far off? Come to yourself. Discover the gifts that are waiting for you inside. Taste the banquet of forgiveness and the life and salvation he has prepared for you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.