Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I want to tell you about something lost that my wife just wanted to stay lost. I have a blue St. Croix soccer T-Shirt that I’ve loved for a long time, and I mean a very long time. I got it when I was in 8th grade at the St. Vinnie’s Thrift store and it’s worn and threadbare and smells a little bit bad, but just a little bit. But I love it. I cherish it. I keep it. I wear it.
And so whenever Laura folds the laundry, she’ll make a point to fold that shirt and put it away for me. But, you see, I never know quite where she puts it. Sometimes its in one of the bins, other times it’s under the bed, but usually it’s stuffed way back in the back of my dresser, and I think she just hopes that I would forget about it.
I wait for the day when my beloved shirt in the trash, and when Laura just can’t stand it anymore, I’ll know, and I see it there, my beloved shirt, and I’ll run to it, pick it up, I embrace it, and bring it back to its home. The thing some just want to stay lost, I rejoice in finding it.
Today, we read the parable of the Prodigal Son, and it’s a sermon that preaches itself. It’s the story of a man with two sons. It’s the story of a father full of unexpected delight. It’s the story of a man that rejoices when his sons come back home. It’s the story of a son that doesn’t deserve to be forgiven and another son that doesn't see his father’s heart.
It begins with tragedy. A younger son says, “Dad, I wish you were dead. I wish you were dead and I wish my inheritance would be mine right now.” A family gets blown apart, and you’d better believe that this would’ve been like most family blowouts, it’s the last word in a long battle. And so the father gives him his inheritance. Now, know this, that the inheritance he’s asking for was probably in the land and in the cattle. It wasn’t so simple of a task as just cashing out your IRA or writing out a check. It was the long, painful process of a divorce. Deciding to sell a third of his assets, selling a third of his land, downsizing his herds, laying off his workers. It may have taken a year or more of painful bookwork to get to the next verse.
But they do, and then his son gets lost. He decides to walk in the wrong direction. He loses his name, he loses his family, but most of all he loses himself. He dishonors his father, he dishonors his family, but most of all, he dishonors himself. He is absolutely reckless – that’s what prodigal means – when it comes to food and drink and wine and women.
If you were the father, what would you do? Some of you have been the father. What did you do?
It seems a harder thing to love from afar than to cut ties. In our little baptism classes, we talk about how before the age of adulthood, I have two kinds of love for my little Benjamin Button: Conditional Love and Unconditional Love. Conditional love because on the one hand, if he does what I tell him to do, I reward him, if he doesn’t, I punish him. There are rewards when you set the table. There are consequences when you break the lamp. On the other hand, there’s unconditional love. It doesn’t matter if he breaks all the lamps in my house, I will love Benjamin no matter what, because he’s my son. Now, after he becomes an adult, conditional love fades away. I don’t have that power over him. I only have as much influence on him as he lets me. You don’t get to choose whether your son lands himself in the White House or in jail. Parenting, it seems, is the art of letting go, little by little, of your children and trusting them with their own lives.
So, this young man, he’s reckless and he’s unwise, and he’s foolish, and then he’s broke. He gets exactly what he deserves, exactly when he deserves it. Do you know any young men that have this coming?
He hits a place that drug addicts call rock bottom. There’s nowhere to turn. You have to face the truth or die.
And he comes to his senses and goes home.
Our story continues in unexpected joy. First the son dishonored himself, but now it’s the father’s turn. Dishonor number 1. His son wished him dead, and he let him have his wish. Dishonor number 2. He runs to his son. In that culture as well as our own, children run to their parents, not the other way around. Dishonor number 3. He embraces his son who’s full of mucky pig waste. Dishonor number 4. He kisses him on his filthy face, he fits him in his best suit, and throws a party for him. And he suffers all this because he sees that the main thing is the main thing: his son was dead but now is alive. His son was lost but now is found. His son had left but now is home.
Our God is absolutely reckless – that’s what prodigal means – when it comes to forgiveness and compassion. The Father is absolutely reckless with his love, so much so that at the slightest provocation, at the littlest gesture of turning, even before his son can get the words of his confession out of his mouth, he runs to his son, he embraces his son, he cherishes his son. He loves his son. That which some just want to stay lost, he rejoices in.
Turn to the book of Jonah and how the prophet went to Nineveh. You remember that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, the nation that sows salt into the conquered lands that they have a grudge against. The nation that slaughters cities that oppose them. The nation that hauls slaves away a thousand miles to force them to work the land. He goes there to the nation that had just slaughtered and deported the kingdom of Israel with a message of judgment, that their number was up, and they repent – and that’s remarkable in and of itself – when they repent, do you know what God does? He relents. He forgives. He runs to them. He embraces them. He cherishes them. He loves them.
That’s God’s stance on sin, not that he lets it go or ignores it, but on the cross he pays for it fully. While we were still sinners, he rescues us. While we were still running away, he chases after us. While we were still dead in our trespasses, he makes us alive. While we were still chanting “Crucify him, crucify him!” he was pronouncing forgiveness over us. He’s reckless – that’s what prodigal means – with his love in a way that makes dead things alive.
Our story ends in wondering. You can wonder about what the neighbors would have said when they heard the story. You can think, as I did when I wrote this sermon, “Well, how can you tell your people to do this? They’ll just get burned!” You can think about how unreasonable it would be for him to take in his son again.
And then realize that the logical choice, the one that you jump to first, you can see is in fact the exactly what the older brother says. One author writes from the older brother’s perspective: “There was no way […] I would join in that ungodly celebration. What was there to celebrate? A faithless son? A destroyer of our family? A sexual predator? At the very least, he ought to have been taken back in quietly and made to do the work of the lowest slave if, and until, he had earned our trust. He needed to be taught a lesson. He needed to earn his way back into our family’s good graces. That boy didn’t need a forgiving father but a strict judge. Otherwise, who’s to say that history wouldn’t repeat itself and, once again, he’d soil the good name of our family.”
He would rather that the lost would just stay lost.
When we think about the older son, the application is simple. Rejoice where your Father in heaven rejoices. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Jesus calls us to have compassion on others the way that God has compassion. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy. When I think of the older son, I think of the siblings that have held an olive branch out to the black sheep for too many years. I think of the friends who are afraid that they’ll be taken advantage of. I think of the fear that someone’s not going to learn their lesson.
You can see that the older son is just about as lost from the father’s will as the younger son was. The younger may have wandered farther from home, but the fact of the matter is that both sons weren’t following the heart of their father.
The heavens rejoice when the church follows the compassion of our heavenly Father. The heavens rejoice when the undeserving are given compassion. The heavens rejoice when God’s people are persecuted, beaten, reviled and despised for doing good, showing compassion, running to others, cherishing them, loving them.
The kingdom of heaven is like a Lutheran school where the Gospel is not only taught in its truth and purity but practiced as well. Where teachers chase after all kinds of wayward students to follow them around with goodness and mercy. Where parents and students alike know that the compassion of their heavenly Father. Where no one - and I mean no one - is turned away.
The kingdom of heaven is like a community food shelf in a small town where tens of thousands of pounds of food are given away every year, where pastors and laypeople alike chase down the hungry to stomachs with bread but moreover to fill their souls with the bread of life.
The kingdom of heaven is like fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters having compassion rather than anger, in the business of mending fences more than setting fires, knowing that they were all lost sons until they were found by the reckless – that’s what prodigal means – love of their Father in Heaven. Amen and Amen.
Matthew 27:45-49 Now from the sixth hour[f] there was darkness over all the land[g] until the ninth hour.[h] 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
Dear Friends in Christ,
• A story with an ugly beginning, but a beautiful ending……from forsaken to loved……..A story of Micah, adopted son of a pastor and his wife from Richfield. He had been left to die in a dumpster in India. Born as a survivor of abortion, born with cerebral palsy and a host of other health issues, rescued by folks who wanted him to live, baptized into the Name of the Triune God, raised in a loving Christian family, sat next to me for hours and hours on our bus rides to and from the remote mountains of Mexico.
• Few stories are more heart wrenching than stories of being unwanted, left behind, and abandoned. A baby left in a trash container. A student getting bullied with no one to stand up and protect him. A wife abandoned by her husband as he runs off with a younger woman. A teenager is told by his dad to leave and not bother coming back. An elderly parent sits alone for days at a time feeling as though nobody really cares.
• We cringe when hearing stories like these. We’d rather not think about how painful it is. Tonight, for just a few minutes, we are going focus on Jesus being unwanted, left behind, bullied, and left alone on a little hill outside of Jerusalem. Isaiah had predicted it, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised.” The painting before us is one of darkness, thieves are far behind, guards are barely visible, little groups of people talking to themselves, Jesus forsaken.
• First, Jesus was forsaken by his people, the people of Israel. Five days after they shouted “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him.”
• Secondly, Jesus was forsaken by the religious establishment of his day. Priests, scribes, and Pharisees initiated, insisted on, and carried out his public execution.
• Third, and perhaps worse than that, his friends abandoned him. Like birds scatter when a cat comes into the yard, his good buddies ran when the soldiers came on the scene. Peter denied that he had ever been associated with him. Judas betrayed him with a sign of affection. Even John watched at a distance.
• The list of forsakenness goes on and on. The light of the sun deserted him, as total darkness ruled from high noon to 3 p.m. To add insult to injury, even justice abandons Christ. He hangs on a cross, though innocent of all crimes. A Roman governor declares him not guilty and in the same moment washes his hands. A wicked king Herod has to acquit Jesus of the charges against him, and yet there he hangs.
• Jesus doesn’t question any of that. He knew what was coming and that all of his days had been getting him ready for this day. Up until this point on the cross, he had been taking care of people, but now he cries out with one question for his Father. First he had pleaded with his father to forgive those who were nailing him to the cross, for they really didn’t know what they were doing. His second crossword was a promise to one sinner who was repenting that in fact paradise was on the way. A third crossword was making sure John would take care of his mom. But now he asks for what purpose His Father had to forsake him?
• As darkness covered the entire earth, Jesus tasted the very judgment of a righteous God. In Gethsemane, His Father heard his Son’s prayers, but not in these three hours of darkness. In Gethsemane, God sent angels to strengthen, but no angels were there for him in these three hours leading up to death. In Gethsemane, Jesus and His Father were one, but for three hours they were separated. In Gethsemane Jesus wrestled with himself and brought himself to do the Father’s will, on the cross wrestles not only with flesh and blood, but with the forces of darkness. As all
• A story of my wrestling days, and on how on the mat you really are alone. Coaches can encourage, and friends can cheer, but each wrestler fights alone. On their way to defeat, no doubt many wrestlers think about quitting, but every time victory comes their way, the will to keep on practicing and fighting is renewed.
• The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, and yet without sin. No doubt he was tempted to quit or to take the easy way out, but he didn’t. No doubt he was tempted to cry out for legions of angels to come down and smack these soldiers silly, but he didn’t. No doubt he was tempted to ask why his father had turned away, and he did ask the question.
• My God why have you forsaken me? Jesus knew well the purpose of dying, but was it really necessary for him to be left alone? We know now the answer was yes. It was necessary for the full price of redemption to be paid. He had to be left alone as an orphan so that we could be claimed as sons and daughters. He had to have this one prayer unanswered so that we could pray to our Father as dear children ask their dead dads. He had to be cursed so that we could be blessed. He had to be loaded down with sin so that we could have our burdens lifted. He had to be punished so that we could be forgiven. He had to be alienated so that we could say with St. Paul, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels no rulers, no things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What a privilege it is to be persuaded by the Holy Spirit that our sins have been forgiven, the price we could never begin to pay has been paid, that our names have been written in the book of life, that our mansions in heaven are on reserve, and that through thick and thin, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, in riches and in poverty, we are never alone. Christ is inside of us. He is walking alongside side of us. He goes on before us.
What a privilege it has been to minister to the redeemed, the forgiven, the persuaded and believing people of God over the years. Tears………..
• Ruth, as she approaches death, rejoicing in her forgiveness and soon to enter heaven.
• Ida, as she approaches death, telling me to quit crying, she’s going to be just fine, and then gives me coffee and cookies.
• Mom, as she approaches death, wondering why I am crying, and assuring me that she will be just fine.
What a privilege to say to you tonight, no matter what is causing you to be afraid, no matter what storms are blowing hard your way, no matter how alone the darkness is making you feel……….what a privilege to say to you that by virtue of your Baptism, Christ is inside of you. In the preaching and in the teaching and in the remembering of God’s Word, He is walking alongside of you. In the bread and the wine of the Holy Supper, He is forgiving you and strengthening you and drawing you close. And in those times you can feel his presence as well as those times you can’t feel it at all, know that He goes on before you.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther