Sunday’s sermon: Love Follows Us

Prodigal son - father

artwork by Charles Mackesy

Texts used: Psalm 81 and Luke 15:11-32 (embedded in text)

  • For forty years, the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness in search of the promised land. For forty days, the ark journeyed across the waters until Noah and his family were once again able to step out onto dry land. For forty days, Jesus journeyed alone in the desert before facing down Satan’s temptations. And for these next forty days, we journey together through another Lenten season. As we go this way together this year, we’re going to do so through the lens of another familiar journey story: the story of the prodigal son.
    • Quintessential story for Lent
      • Prodigal son = story of the journey that one young man takes away from home and, eventually, back again
      • Lent = time focused on ways we turn away from God and, eventually, turn back again
    • But there’s so much more to the story of the prodigal son than just the journey of its namesake character. So much, in fact, that we’re going to spend all of Lent exploring this epic tale.
      • Read every Sun. from a number of different versions of Scripture
        • Hear different nuances
        • Hear different translation choices/challenges
      • Encounter the story from a number of different perspectives – some expected and some that might be pretty unexpected → reading and living between the lines of one of Jesus’ most widely-known stories, exploring 2 questions:
        • What is Scripture saying?
        • What isn’t Scripture saying?
      • And so we begin this morning with our first reading of Jesus’ story of the prodigal son from the New Revised Standard Version (the same as your pew Bible’s this morning).
  • READ LK 15:11-32 (NRSV)
  • Okay, so a little over a week ago, I took the boys up to the cities to meet a friend of ours at this indoor playplace. – great place!
    • Separate area for 3-&-unders – all sorts of crazy-fun things for the boys to do, all sorts of open space for them to run around safely
      • Fenced in
      • Only one entrance – gate latch too high up even for our crazy-tall monkeys!
      • But despite all those safety precautions, my eyes were on those boys the whole time.
        • Making sure they weren’t getting hurt
        • Making sure they were playing nicely
        • Making sure they didn’t need my help in some way
        • Even while I was sitting and talking to Sarah, I was watching them. No matter what they were up to, whether the boys were aware of it or not, my eyes were following them.
          • Not so different from God
          • Not so different from the father in our story today
  • So let’s explore the father’s part in this story a little bit more this morning.
    • The text itself is fairly sparse when it comes to the details surrounding the son’s departure: The younger [son] said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country[1]
      • Scholar – important cultural context: Not only does the younger son reject the value of family solidarity, but he demands his inheritance before is father’s death, which is a gross insult to the father.[2] → Think about that for a minute. In this one request, the son is treating his father as though he were dead – the ultimate insult! But instead of acting from a place of indignation, humiliation, anger, or even exasperation, the father acts from a place of radical love and does what his son asks of him, disregarding all personal and cultural expectations.
  • With a love that strong, that all-encompassing, I can’t help but wonder how the father reacted when his son willingly turned his back and left home. Now this is where we have to begin to fill in the gaps in the text – where we have to read and feel and wonder between the lines. When it comes to this part of the story, what is our text missing? What is Scripture not saying?
    • Imagine those last moments as father and son were saying “goodbye” to one another – What kind of words were spoken? What do you say in a moment like this? → hear echoes of possible goodbyes in God’s words to Israel in psalm this morning
      • Maybe father pleaded with son
        • E.g. in ps – God to Israel: I took the world off your shoulders, freed you from a life of hard labor. You called to me in your pain; I got you out of a bad place. I answered you from where the thunder hides, I proved you at Meribah Fountain.[3]
        • Father to son: Remember that time you fell and skinned your knee? I picked you up and bandaged your wound. Remember that time your feelings got hurt? I comforted your and reminded you that you are unconditionally loved. Are you sure you still want to leave?
      • Maybe father voiced a warning
        • E.g. in ps – God to Israel: Listen, dear ones – get this straight; O Israel, don’t take this lightly. Don’t take up with strange gods, don’t worship the latest in gods. I’m God, your God, the very God who rescued you from doom in Egypt, then fed you all you could ear, filled your hungry stomachs.[4]
        • Father to son: Never forget that you have a home here. You have warmth and food and security here. You have love here. Out there … who knows?
    • Imagine anguish father felt watching his son’s every step as he walked away → hear echoes of pain over son’s the decision to leave despite everything that’s been said in psalm, too – Ps: But my people didn’t listen, Israel paid no attention; So I let go of the reins and told them, “Run! Do it your own way!”
      • Heb. in this passage – so reminiscent of the young son
        • “my people didn’t listen” = exact same words as God’s plea to “Listen, dear ones” but with “no/not” added to it → So Israel did the exact opposite of what God asked them to do … sort of like a rebellious teenager … sort of like a prodigal son.
        • “paid no attention” = Heb. phrasing implies not an inability to follow but an unwillingness to follow → The prodigal son could have stayed. He wasn’t being thrown out of his home. But he chose to turn his back on all that was familiar to him, and go.
    • Imagine the worry and fear that gripped father’s heart as prodigal son was out there all alone in the big wide world → It’s not difficult to imagine the father’s overwhelming desire to follow after his son – to watch over him, protect him, keep him from harm, and help him “make good choices” (to borrow a phrase from our friends’ parenting style).
      • Scholar: Even as [the younger son] turned his back, the father’s heart and gaze continued to extend toward the son in the distant land.[5] → This is sort of an extended version of the way my eyes followed the boys at that playplace. The father’s eyes surely followed his son until he disappeared over the horizon. His eyes probably searched that horizon day after day as his heart followed his son to that distant land – through his riches-to-rags transformation, through the famine and the pigsty and the destitution.
  • And then one day, the unthinkable happened. Just like every other day, the father continually scanned the horizon in hopes of sighting that familiar, beloved outline coming down the road … and he saw it. His son was coming home. This part of the text, the homecoming and what follows, gives us the clearest view into the father’s heart where we find sheer joy, utter relief, and overwhelming generosity.
    • Again, father places love for his son above cultural expectations of the day – scholar: The father shakes off the normal restraint of a Palestinian male and breaks with the social customs defining the roles of fathers and sons. … So moved, this father does what few men in his culture would have done. He runs after his son and welcomes him home.[6]
      • And yet – text: While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.[7] → cannot miss the joy in this
        • Makes me think of the ways the boys run
          • Ian’s run = enthusiastic but still just a bit cautious
          • Luke’s run = pure exuberance
          • This is a Lukey sort of a run. He reaches his son and literally throws himself at him, wrapping his arms around the young man’s neck and kissing him.
      • Relief = painfully obvious – evidence of anguish and anxiety that we were just talking about
        • Twice father goes so far as to voice his fear that his younger son would never return – text: This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found![8]
      • Finally, hinge on which the entire parable swings = father’s generosity
        • Material generosity, to be sure – father calls a servant to bring him best clothes (robe, ring), to kill the choicest livestock he owns, and throw a giant party
        • Even more important = generosity of spirit – love, compassion, forgiveness
          • Scholar: The parable’s model of parental love insists that no matter what the son has done he is still the father’s son. When no one else would even give the prodigal something to eat, the father runs to him and accepts him back. … The joyful celebration begins as soon as the father recognizes the son’s profile on the horizon.[9]
  • Ahh, but sometimes this radical abundance of grace can cause trouble. Remember, the prodigal son isn’t the father’s only In his brief interaction with the resentful and irate older brother, we glimpse both the father’s greatest challenge and his greatest blessing: the expansiveness of his love for all of his children.
    • Older brother doesn’t understand father’s generosity – goes so far as to be offended by it
      • Did the younger son deserve it? No.
      • Had the younger son earned it? No.
      • Was the younger son ready for it? He certainly didn’t think so.
      • But the father was generous with him anyway. Hmmm … does that sound familiar friends? That is the very definition of grace: God’s unearned favor, God’s undeserved “welcome home” FOR ALL.
        • Do we deserve it? No.
        • Have we earned it? No.
        • Are we ready for it? Sometimes we don’t think so. And sometimes we go so far as pass judgment on whether other people may or may not be ready for the gift of that grace.
        • But the truth is that God gives to us – all of us, each of us, any of us – anyway. → Jn: From [God’s] fullness we have all received grace upon grace.[10]
  • Friends, Lent is a time of repentance, a time of turning and returning to God no matter how far afield our journeys have taken us, no matter what kind of muck we’ve had to slog through or how road-weary our souls may be. I chose to focus on the father’s role in this story first because it is in his character that we find that expansive, generous, radical grace extended to us by God in the life and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
    • Scholar: Grace lies at the heart of this parable – scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions.[11]
    • As distractions and temptations catch our eyes, God’s anguish and anxiety is as real as the father’s was for his wayward son. The father’s relief is God’s relief. The father’s joy is God’s joy. The father’s celebration is God’s celebration. Just as the father’s thoughts and prayers and love surely traveled with his younger son every moment that he was away, God’s love follows us. In all of our turnings and returnings, God not only welcomes us home but runs out to meet us with open arms and an all-encompassing love that joyfully declares, “You are found!” Amen.

[1] Lk 15:12-13 (NRSV).

[2] Leslie J. Hoppe. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 117.

[3] Ps 81:6-7 (The Message).

[4] Ps 81:8-10 (The Message).

[5] Randall K. Bush. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 151.

[6] Michael B. Curry. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119, 121.

[7] Lk15:20 (NRSV).

[8] Lk 15:24, 32 (NRSV).

[9] Culpepper, 305.

[10] Jn 1:16 (emphasis added) (NRSV).

[11] Daniel G. Deffenbaugh. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 118.

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