Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Text: Luke 15:20
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

Welcome home

“Welcome home, son”, the old man says with tears streaming down his face as he hugs the son who had demanded his inheritance as if his father was already dead, then left home. 

“Welcome home.  I have longed to welcome you back to the place where you belong.  No need for explanations and apologies – just let me hold you.  You’ve been gone so long and went so far away.  My dear child, it’s like you were dead but here you are in my arms.  I’m so happy. Let’s celebrate”.

Note in this parable there is no mention of the pain and longing of this father when his son left; there is only the great joy his homecoming brought to this old man.  The son had abandoned his home, his family and his village, his community (community was an important part of life in Jesus’ time).  He wanted nothing to do with the people who had watched him grow up and loved him.  He turned his back on all that he had been taught because he thought he knew better. 

For a while he lived the high life.  But soon he was broke, and feeding pigs, and so hungry he ate what the pigs were eating.  He came to the realisation of how wrong he had been.  No-one cared about him.  Not even considered a human living and eating with pigs.  Without a shred of dignity, he walked the long and difficult road home expecting no favours from anyone, least of all from his father. 

Seeing his father running toward him must have confused him to say the least.  The people in the village would have been confused as well.  It was not customary for a father to run toward such a rebellious child.  What was even more surprising for the son was the joy on his father’s face and the warm embrace and the “Shhh.  No need to say anything.  Welcome home, son”.

“Welcome home”.  These are words that reflect the kind of love that is able to put in the past the extreme hurt and the pain that his son has caused.  This is forgiving and forgetting the past and giving the lad a new beginning in his home.

Artists have tried to capture the moment when the father in the parable embraced his son and welcomed him home.  Rembrandt painted the father with one of his hands on the son’s shoulder and the other on his back.  If you look closely at the son whose face is side-on resting against father’s chest there is something unusual.  The son’s hair isn’t knotted and untidy, his face isn’t bearded and unkempt, his cheeks aren’t sunken from hunger, there are no signs of exhaustion or filth on his face as would be expected living with pigs. 

His clothes and shoes are well worn and dirty, but his hair has been closely cropped and his face looks like the face of a small child.  The artist is conveying the message that the father’s welcome is giving this rebellious son a new beginning, a fresh start.  It’s like being born again into the family and all that has happened in the past has been wiped away.  The boy is young and fresh again. (1)

There is beauty, glory, salvation in the embrace of the father.  There is grace – scandalous grace, grace that defies all the rules and accepts this boy as horrible and as immoral and disobedient he has been.  It happens to us in baptism when water was poured over us.  No matter how old we were when we were baptised, we were born again – made new, given a new beginning, recreated to be like Christ.  The grace of God embraced us and welcomed us as a child of God.

Isn’t that exactly what Paul was talking about in our 2nd reading today.  He says, Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17). Christ has made us new through his death and resurrection.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; the One who makes us right before God, removing everything that separates us from the Father. Pauls writes, “Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. ​(2 Corinthians 5:21). God’s love for us is immeasurable.  He allowed Jesus to be our sin on the cross.  We aren’t perfect by any means, but Jesus has made us perfect through giving his own life for us.  He has made it possible for us to come home and be embraced as a child of God. 

This welcoming home – the depth of God’s grace for us kickstarts a whole new way of life:
a new way of thinking and new attitudes,
new ways of acting and behaving,
new ways of treating other people,
new ways of sharing with others the love that God has shown to us,
new ways of forgiving others as God has forgiven us.

You might remember the family in Sydney who lost 3 children and a cousin when a drunk teenage driver mounted the footpath.  The strong Christian parents refused to be controlled by anger and forgave the teenager.  This story is similar. 

A small girl was killed by a reckless teenage driver.  It was revealed that the young teenage boy had been in trouble before; he didn’t have a family who cared what he did, and it was clear his life was heading for more trouble.

Instead of being bitter over their daughter’s death, these people of faith made the tough decision to open their home to this lad.  In time they became for him the family he had never known.  Their love gave him a fresh start in life.  They gave him the opportunities for an education and career.

Their daughter had died, and they could also see no sense in allowing another child to perish.  So they did this incredible act of love and forgiveness and welcomed him into their home and hugged him as he had never been hugged before.

You can imagine how hard it was for that family.  And you know how hard it is to forgive.  Still, it's absolutely necessary to live the forgiven and forgiving life.  When you forgive others because of Christ, you let the whole world know the power of Christ's love and forgiveness. 

Paul puts it this way, “We are ruled by the love of Christ, now that we recognize that one man died for everyone, which means that they all share in his death.  He died for all, so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but only for him who died and was raised to life for their sake” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). In other words, the old worldly standards for living are gone, and new life in Christ has begun.  We no longer live for ourselves, we live for Christ and all who are loved by him. The love of Christ determines how we live.

We might want to rationalise our way around this and look for loopholes not to love or to forgive or to care for a particular person but Jesus leaves no doubt that just as God has done all this for us, so we are to be “ambassadors” for Christ – be his representative, his presence in the lives of others bringing his love, peace and forgiveness and being like the father in the parable to them and saying, “Welcome home”.  God loves all his children and wants everyone to recognise his love and be embraced by him just as the father in the parable embraced his rebellious and wayward child and gave him a new beginning.

We know there is another son in Jesus’ story. An older brother who had stayed home and worked on the farm.  He was completely confused and upset that his rebellious brother should get such a warm welcome and a party to celebrate his homecoming.  In fact, he is so angry he condemns and rejects both his father and younger brother and refused to go into the house and celebrate.  The father, against the custom of the time, once again goes out to this angry, self-centred, hateful older son.  The father wants him to enjoy his love and celebrate with the family and community.  He wants to hold him in his arms and say, “Son, you are truly loved, and you are my dear child.  You are always welcome.  Everything I have is yours especially my warmest embrace”. 

We don’t know how he responded to his father’s invitation. 
Did he remain cold and hard-hearted? 
Or did he recognise how much his father loved both his sons, want to embrace both of them? 
Did he join in the celebration not only of the return of the younger brother but even more so of the generous love of his father to the both of them who were hard-hearted in their own way? 

The parable is deliberately left unfinished to leave us thinking, “Where do I fit in this story?”  It’s clear, alone, by ourselves, we can do nothing.  As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above.” We can only come to God with empty hands and heart like the younger son and receive the warm embrace of our heavenly Father. That love changes us and renews us and gives us a new way thinking and doing.

We are deep in the Lenten season.  This is a time of reflection. We reflect on the undeserved grace the father showed his son in parable.  We reflect how the Father sent his own Son into the world to accomplish all that was necessary so that we can have forgiveness, an open door to our heavenly Father and eternal life.  Loving us cost him dearly – it lead to suffering and even death on a cruel cross.

In Lent, we also reflect on how the love of Christ has changed our lives, or on the other hand, failed to make any difference at all. 

And so we ask ourselves, “What difference has the embrace of God made to us?  In what ways have we reacted differently to the rest of the world –
how have we been more compassionate,
more caring even to those easily ignored,
more forgiving even to those to whom it would be ‘normal’ to be spiteful and angry,
more diligent giving up our bad habits and favourite sins,
more willing to let go of our hurts and reach out in love
more diligent of living life as a follower of Christ?”

In other words, have we become the father in the parable with open arms and warm embrace to those who need the love of God in their lives?

If you are saying to yourself this is a tough calling, then you are right.  It is a hard calling to be like the father to all the prodigals in our lives.  Some will accept our embrace of love; others will resist it as we saw in the parable.

But “in Christ” it is possible to keep on being God’s grace to others.  In him there is the strength and power to do amazing things, there is love to meet people’s needs, there is forgiveness for our failures and short-sightedness. 

The Father’s warm embrace forgives, renews and inspires us to be the people he created and recreated us to be.  And one day the Father’s embrace will welcome us to our eternal home in heaven.


(1)     Observation in The Return of the Prodigal, by Henri Nouwen, Doubleday 1992 p 54

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
27th March 2022

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