Sermon  for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Text: Luke 15:20b-24
He (the son) was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him. "Father," the son said, "I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son." But the father called to his servants. "Hurry!" he said. "Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found." And so the feasting began.
 

Letís party!

A group of young adults from the church went on a retreat with their pastor. They were encouraged to invite friends who knew a bit about the church but even less about the gospel of salvation. After everyone settled in their dorms on the first night, one of the group asked, "What are we going to do at this retreat?" The pastor was up front and stated simply, "I am going to use whatever means are at my disposal - films, arguments, music, the Bible, discussion - to arm wrestle you into following Jesus". To the surprise of those who were regular church members, no one decided to pack up then and there and leave. Then the next morning a video was shown of an actor reciting passages from the Gospel of Luke, with dramatisations of events on Jesusí life and stories he told like the one about the lost son. At the end of the video the group sat in stunned silence until one said, "Thatís a great story, a really great story".
Another said, "Thatís a powerful story, a fantastic story. What I can't figure out is - why are so many Christians boring and unenthusiastic about their faith".

It was that young man who eventually went to classes to prepare for baptism. The group from the retreat was invited to the baptism. The day arrived and one of the retreat members approached the pastor and said, "Just to put your mind at ease pastor, I want you to know that everything is organised for the party after church. I ordered a keg of beer". And he said it as if this was the most natural and normal thing to be done.

This young man had been lost but was now found Ė so letís party. Lukeís gospel has a party theme running through it.

Earlier in Luke's Gospel Jesus critics come and say to him, "The disciples of John (the Baptist) fast frequently and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same; but your disciples eat and drink" (Luke 5:33). In other words, we can tell John's disciples are sincere about their religion because they act religious - fasting, praying, always looking so serious, but your disciples are always partying. And Jesus agrees. He says that while the bridegroom is still present at the wedding that is the time for celebrating. The time for fasting will come soon enough.

Our Gospel reading today begins with the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law grumbling about Jesus, "This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!" (v 2) He is much too friendly with the derelicts of society. What is more he parties with them Ė drinking wine, laughing, telling stories, loving those whom no one else loves.

Jesus tells the story about a woman who lost one coin around the house somewhere. Have you ever gone through rubbish bins and looked under furniture for a cheque or an envelope of money and you didnít rest until you found it? But have you put so much effort into finding one coin? Well this woman didnít rest until she had found this one coin and what relief and joy when she finds it (You would think she had found $100.) She called her friends and neighbours together and said to them, "Iím so happy! What I thought was gone for good has been found. Letís celebrate!"

Or what about the shepherd who lost one silly sheep? Ninety nine others had the brains to follow closely but not this one. And when the shepherd finds it, "he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep". Letís party! (Luke 15:5,6).

Then Jesus tells the reaction of a father who sees his son returning home after rebelling against his family and living a wild life. He sees the son in the distance and without any thought of how inappropriate it was for a father to behave in such a way Ė he didnít wait for the son to come to him but without shame he ran to meet him with robes flying and in full view of the neighbourhood. He didnít wait for the son to hug him (as the neighbours expected) but wrapped his arms around his son, kissing him, ordering that cleans clothes and shoes be brought to get rid of the rags he was wearing permeated with the smell of pig filth. The father ordered, "Letís have a party! My son was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found."

The older brother doesnít question whether his little hell-raising brother should be received back. What gets to him is the party. Why hasnít his father thrown him a party for all his hard work and loyalty?

Let me add to this theme of partying in Lukeís Gospel by referring to the partying that goes on in heaven when one lost sinner is found. Jesus says, "I tell you, the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents". You might say the angels in heaven open a bottle of champers, clink glasses and celebrate over every lost person who comes to realise their lostness and the love of their Saviour. I would like to think that the angels never stop partying and are popping one bottle of champers after another, celebrating sinners who repent, come home, are saved.

What is Jesus getting at with all this talk about partying? Remember that Luke started our reading today with people grumbling about Jesus because he not only talks to all kinds of undesirable sinners, but also befriends them and eats with them.

Consider this. None of us would foolishly leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness (not safely in a sheep fold but in open country) and go hunt for the one stupid sheep which had got itself lost.
None of us would keep on searching relentlessly, untiringly for a single lost coin not worth all that much, especially when the bulk of our savings was kept in a safe place.
None of us would be quite so willing to welcome back someone who had hurt us so deeply without a few conditions and a sense of wariness that we could easily be hurt again.

And that's precisely the point of these stories of Jesus. Either the shepherd is an idiot, the woman had nothing better to do, the waiting father was a bit weak in the head, or these parables are telling us
how God relentlessly, recklessly, and untiringly goes to great lengths (as the woman does) to recover the lost,
what an unbelievable love God has for the lost (as the shepherd does),
and how God is prepared to shamelessly welcome home the disobedient and defiant (as the waiting father does).
Jesus is telling how marvellous God's grace is toward the lost.

And that is precisely why Jesus gets into so much hot water. And it happens again today in our text when his critics say, "This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!" They see Jesus doing what they wouldnít be seen dead doing even if their life depended on it.
He touches lepers, social outcasts, the oh so ugly and horrible and contaminated lepers.
He had no problem with the Samaritans who were despised as heathens and half casts; he even held one up as an example of godly living (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan) and demonstrated his love for a Samaritan when he healed a leper and commended him for returning to give thanks for his healing.
Jesus had no problem with the tax collectors, men whom everyone in their right minds detested.
Jesus had no problem with those whose minds were tormented or controlled by evil spirits.
In other words, people whom everyone else would cross the street to avoid, Jesus did what was regarded as stupid and idiotic. What is more, if he was really the Son of God, why would he mix with "those people" and not with the respectable people? And then when he said that the angels in heaven clinked their glasses and celebrated when one of these lost people was found, that was just a bit too much. Shouldnít they be celebrating those who are upright and holy?

No wonder they muttered among themselves about Jesusí strange behaviour. No wonder he was beaten and nailed to a cross Ė this is indeed strange behaviour. Jesus was demonstrating God's amazing love. We call it "grace". Jesus loves those who don't deserve it, those whom everyone else rejects.

One writer says, "We find it difficult not to be offended by God's grace toward another, especially if we have serious questions about that personís conduct and character" (F B Craddock, Luke, p188). Grace offends our sense of fairness. (Why should Jesus promise paradise to a man who has done nothing but evil the whole of his life? Itís unfair.)
Grace really goes against the grain of human nature. It would be far more natural for us to give the prodigal son a good tongue-lashing and to read the riot act before he sets foot in the father's house again. But what does the father do, he simply loved him? He runs, he embraces, he makes clean, he restores his identity, he throws a party.
It makes more sense to look after the ninety-nine sheep, rather than go tramping all over the wilderness looking for one silly sheep. But grace means that God's Son left the security of heaven and became one of us, he suffered and died for us, he risked everything for us, because of his love for the lost. Grace means that Jesus was prepared to be friends with sinners and to have dinner with them and spend an evening of fellowship with them. He put his arm around even those who were of dubious character.

So here we sit in our neat rows. We make our way through the service. One might get the impression that life with Jesus is a rather tame, orderly, neat and cautious affair. Don't believe it. Every Sunday we come here lost, covered in sin, and our heavenly Father welcomes us - his lost children - back home. In fact every day we, like the silly sheep, we lose our way when sin gets the better of us and we make silly decisions and go down the wrong paths. The Good Shepherd seeks us out. When the lost have been found, heaven goes wild.

There is a danger for those of us who have heard these stories about the love of Jesus so many times before and God's grace is very ho-hum to us that the wonder and the surprise has lost a good deal of its sparkle. We forget that God doesnít deal with us in the way we deserve, but daily welcomes us home. When the lost have been found, the angels of God go wild. As the father said to his servants as they prepared the prize calf for the feast, "This child of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now has been found" (Luke 15:24).

And so deep in Lent season with its themes of penitence and pain, nails and the cross, we have Jesus talking about parties. We are drawn to focus our attention only on the crazy father who welcomes home the lost. We are drawn to fix our eyes on the one who died on the cross because of his crazy love for us. It is relief to know that Jesus welcomes sinners Ė something worth celebrating.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
21st March, 2004
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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