Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

March 27, 2022

Joshua 5:9-12                     Psalm 3                                 2 Corinthians 5:16-21                            Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Stories.  Stories are told for entertainment and stories are told to teach.  Some stories provide both.  The stories in Joshua and Luke told in today’s readings are used to teach.  In Joshua, the people are reminded that God freed their people from slavery in Egypt.  They have been wandering through the wilderness for 40 years and have just crossed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. 

In Gilgal, they celebrate the feast of the Passover.  They, as a people and as a tribe, have been on a journey to the Promised Land so long that many have died along the way and many more were born and grown into adults.  This is a new generation of people.  The feast of the Passover teaches them the history of their tribe.  It reminds them that God heard the cries of their ancestors and freed them from slavery in Egypt.  God has provided them with bread from heaven until this day, for they are now in the land God promised to them. 

Jesus celebrates the feast of the Passover on the night in which he is betrayed.  From this and from the story of him revealing himself to his disciples on the way to Emmaus, we now celebrate the Eucharist.  Just as Jesus makes himself known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread, he reveals himself to us when we share the bread and wine of communion. 

Our celebration of the Eucharist recounts the last supper he had with his disciples in Jerusalem.  It tells the story of his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection.  We celebrate God’s love for us and Jesus’ triumph over death in the telling of this story and by partaking the bread and wine of communion.  We are united with Christ and together we are his body in the world today. 

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a powerful story of a man with two sons.  Jesus uses parables to teach us because when we hear a story, we tend to identify with one of its characters and it becomes our story.  In some cases, we can identify with more than one character.  In this parable, one son asks for his inheritance so he can leave home and spend it all on himself.  The other is faithful and stays with his father – doing the work that needs to be done. 

Some of us identify with the older son, the responsible one.  Some of us identify with the younger son.  Some of us know what it is like to have someone we love lose his or her way in life – we can identify with the father, even if the one we love has not returned.  And, some of us have been played the role of more than one of these characters at different points in our lives.  One way or another, this is our story.

The two sons share more in common than just their father.  They both struggle with sin.  The younger one is reckless and self-centered; the older is judgmental and jealous.  The oldest son may be more faithful in appearance, but is he motivated by love or a sense of obligation?   God wants our hearts.

At the beginning of the chapter that contains this parable, we hear that tax collectors and sinners are coming to listen to Jesus.  The righteous church leaders (the Pharisees and the scribes) are being critical of Jesus saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  The Pharisees and the scribes are like the elder brother.  They do not think the sinners are worthy of the attention Jesus is giving to them.  Earlier in Luke, Jesus responds to such criticism by saying, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).”

The story of the prodigal son is about sin, repentance AND God’s mercy and forgiveness which is represented by the father’s response.  When he sees his youngest son returning, he runs out to meet to meet him.  Then, when he hears, his oldest son is refusing to come and join the celebration, he goes to his son and says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  Whenever someone who is lost finds their way back home, it is truly a cause for celebration.  Not everyone is able to do this in this lifetime. 

Like the father, Christ comes to us to restore our relationship with God – a relationship based on love and not what we might gain from being faithful. A relationship based on love is rooted in humility and is self-giving.  The prodigal son’s story reads:

When he had spent everything . . . he began to be in need. 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; and no one gave him anything. 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.”

“When he came to himself,” it says he returned to his father without expectation of being restored to his former place – a place of privilege.  He returns with the hope of serving his father as a hired hand. 

          We don’t know if, after his father speaks to the eldest son, he too “comes to himself” and is able to share his father’s joy of his brother’s return.  We do know this is a story of repentance and forgiveness and it can be our story.  It is my story.  I have been lost and I know the joy of being forgiven. 

Lent is a time to reflect upon our stories of sin and forgiveness.   Forgiveness restores our lives and gives us reason for celebration.  The father says, “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Repentance and forgiveness offer us new life.   

Let us pray.

          God, the Father and Creator of us all, help us, we pray to “come to ourselves” and answer your call to return home to you.  In your tender mercy, forgive our selfish ways that being restored to life we might reach out to those who are lost and lead them back to you.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.