Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sermon -- 4th Sunday in Lent (March 6, 2016)

LUKE 15:1-3,11-32


In the name + of Jesus.

     I don't know if it is unique to America; it's probably a human nature thing: We like to see justice done.  Even our entertainment taps into that desire.  We want the cop shows to end with the bad guy being arrested, convicted, or even killed.  We like to see James Bond foil the evil plot.  On a smaller scale, we watch YouTube videos to see people do stupid stunts.  We don't feel bad for them because they get hurt.  Rather, we point and laugh because their stupidity got them what they deserved.  Even Oscar winners can't help but rant about some injustice they deem important.  People have varying ideas about what justice looks like, but everyone demands it and delights in it.
     For that reason, we might have some sympathy for the older brother in the parable that Jesus told.  The younger brother had asked for his share of the inheritance.  He took the money and went off to spend it all on booze and prostitutes.  The older brother, however, was the good son.  He did not dishonor his father by asking him to cash out his last will and testament before he was dead.  He did not sully the family name with a lifestyle of drunken nights and fornicating.  He stayed at home.  He did his chores.  Far from squandering the family fortune, he did all he could to add to his father's estate with hard, diligent work.  Now, you be the judge: Which one was the good son?  Which one should the father love and honor?  It's a pretty easy answer, isn't it?
     Now you can appreciate why the Pharisees were disgusted by Jesus.  The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)  What kind of rabbi honors people who so flagrantly sin against God?  What kind of prophet rubs shoulders with people who sully the Lord's name with their wicked ways?  Jesus did not merely give them a polite wave or a brief acknowledgment; Jesus received sinners and ate with them.  In other words, he bonded with them, declared unity with them, and accepted them.
     The older brother was the good son.  He never left home.  He always showed up for duty.  And he expected to be rewarded for it.  After yet another day of laboring out in the fields, he came home to the sound of music and dancing, to the smell of beef roasting, and to the noise of the revelers laughing.  But the party was not for the good son; it was for the scoundrel who came home destitute and dirty and desperate.  Honor and reward were being bestowed upon the derelict.  Where is the justice in this?
     When we hear Jesus' parables, we often try to associate ourselves with the hero of the story.  But which are you really closer to?  Is it not the older brother?  He is the one who claimed: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command...” (Luke 15:29)  Those were not empty words.  For all those years, he was the good son who tried to be obedient.  Doesn't that describe us?  We are the ones in church again.  We daily strive to do what God's Commandments call us to do.  But like the older brother, we believe that justice demands that we be rewarded for our good behavior and our church attendance.  We think that we have earned something from God because we have not given ourselves over to a life of boozing and whoring.  The Pharisees truly believed that they did deserve better from God, just like the older son who was outraged that the flagrant sinner was celebrated while he was weary from another day of toiling in his father's service.  That, we would argue, is not justice.
     But the Lord does not work according to justice; the Lord is gracious to the sinner.  That really begins to bother us when we see God's grace put into practice.  We want to see justice done.  We want to see sinners pay the price.  But God desires to be gracious.  He delights in saving sinners, no matter how sinful they have been.  That is why Jesus welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes, telling them that there was mercy even for them!  If we say that we like the idea of the tax collectors and the prostitutes being welcomed by Jesus, what we mean is that we prefer to know about it in a magazine article, not in our own church.  We rejoice that a prostitute in Vegas repents and goes to church.  Would we have such joy if that woman came off the street from last night's work and sat down in Good Shepherd this morning?  That is how we are like the older brother who refused to step foot in his father's house when the prodigal son was welcomed back with open arms and without strings attached.
     We fail to recognize what justice looks like.  If we demand God to give us what we deserve, he will.  And for our sins, we deserve death and everlasting punishment.  Maybe you don't think your sins are as egregious as the crook or as flagrant as the prostitute, but God sees the deeds we do behind closed doors, hears the words we say behind people's backs, and knows even the secret thoughts of our hearts.  The divine justice we deserve for those is eternal fire.
     But God has revealed a different justice to us.  The Lord is gracious to the sinner.  In our parable, if we are going to compare Jesus to anyone, it may well be the prodigal son.  For, Jesus left his Father's house and went to squander all of God's gifts and his goodness on people, even on the likes of the prostitutes and sinners who came to him.  That is exactly what disgusted the Pharisees: The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)  Jesus spent his time and his mercy on all kinds of sinners, including those who will never care or repent or believe.  We find this lavishness foolhardy.  Why be more merciful than you need to be?  But Jesus never considered such lavish mercy a waste.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—even our sins of being so stingy with our compassion and failing—even refusing—to love the unlovable.
     Our mercy has strict limits, but Jesus poured out boundless mercy and grace upon us.  His mercy caused him to take our sins upon himself and to suffer for us what justice truly demands.  He was condemned and cursed for us.  And his grace caused him to give to us a place in the Father's house that we could never earn or deserve.  Jesus has cleansed us of our filth, wrapped us in a robe of righteousness, and put the ring on our finger which gives us all the privileges of being in the Father's house.  We rejoice in seeing justice done.  The Lord finds great joy that Jesus was prodigal (i.e., wasteful) with his grace; for it means the salvation of sinners.  And after Jesus had completed his mission, the Father received Jesus back with festal joy and fanfare.  Jesus lives and reigns on high, assuring us that we, on whom he spent his grace, will live and feast with him.
     The Lord is gracious to the sinner.  If you are the older brother who dwells in the Father's house, you have not been cheated out of anything.  As the father said in the parable, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31)  Jesus' lavish grace has been spent on you, and it continues to be spent.  For though you strive to be obedient children to your heavenly Father, you and I still fall short.  But God does not grow tired of being gracious to sinners.  He is not stingy with his compassion and forgiveness.  All that is his is yours.  You have his blessing, his peace, his favor, and his salvation.  As his children, you are heirs of eternal life.  These have always been yours.  And so, you have a comfort that all people crave even though they wallow like pigs.
     The Lord is gracious to the sinner, no matter how wicked that sinner has been.  And if the Lord's grace means that flagrant sinners are brought into the family, you have lost nothing.  But you have gained a brother.  Therefore, it is fitting to celebrate at the salvation of every sinner.  We welcome them to the feast, and we look forward to the eternal wedding banquet of the Lamb, where his mercy, his grace, and his goodness endure forever.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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