Holy Communion: Prodigal Son; Prodigal People

The Third Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2023
A Sermon by The Rev’d Michael Anthony Bergbower


Deuteronomy 8-9: …Do not forget the Lord your God…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and thirsty ground where there was no water and who brought you water from the rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna…that he might humble you and test you…Beware lest you say in your heart, “my power and might of my own have gotten me wealth…” Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God’s wrath in the wilderness…

Exodus 34:6 The Lord passed before (Moses) and proclaimed, “the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love… forgiving iniquity and transgressions (but still holding guilty accountable)

Luke 15 But the father embraced him and said to a servant,” Bring quickly the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet; and, let us have a feast.” Now the older son was in the field and as he came near the house and heard music and dancing… a servant told him “your brother has come home and your father has received him”. The older brother was angry and would not go in. His father came out and appealed to him, but he answered his father, “All these many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command…but when this son of yours comes who devoured our living with harlots, you kill the fatted calf and have a feast, …” The father said, “we have to celebrate for your brother was as good as dead, now lives, was lost now is found”.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We continue in the season of Lent following our Lord into the wilderness where He was tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights. After His Baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. His ministry began not by rushing out announcing Himself a king or demonstrating His powers of healing or just drawing huge crowds. Jesus began by confronting the real reason for His coming into this world – to defeat sin, death and the devil. Jesus took evil head- on. Adam and Eve had succumbed to the lies of Satan in the Garden of Eden and humanity and all creation had descended into ruin, decay, destruction and death. Jesus had come to bring redemption, life and salvation. Man had fallen into sin through disobedience, now Jesus the Son of God had come to overcome sin and bring new life through His perfect obedience to the will of God.

Jesus temptation in the wilderness corresponds to the wandering of the people of Israel in the Old Testament for forty years. After God brought His people out of the slavery of Egypt by means of passing through the water, so Jesus becomes the means of creating a new people through the water of Baptism, and through combating the temptations of the devil, establishes his righteous life. Jesus enters into our struggles with sin, doubt and fear, turmoil and trials so that, as it says in Romans 5:12 “…as sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin…then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s (Jesus) act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all…”

The contrast is clear. We all stumble and fall, we all are still tricked by the devil to slip into something we should not think, say or do; we all need to fall on our knees every day and declare, “Lord be merciful to me a sinner”. Jesus’ perfect life as the Son of God stands in place for our sins. We keep the forty days of the Lenten season not to make up for past indiscretions, but to remind us that sin still sticks to us and impurity clings to us and soils our life. Lent drives us to hold on to Jesus even more for forgiveness and new life.

At the Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt were slaves at hard labor, their life was miserable and most of all they were not free to be what God wanted them to be. The mighty acts of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob freed them. Moses led them out of Egypt, the land of bondage, and brought them to Mt. Sinai where the holiness of God was revealed to them, and the purity of God’s laws demonstrated that they were to be the people of the True God of holiness, justice and righteousness following the One and only True God to a promised land. Moses called the people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might”. But every step of the way they tended to murmur, complain, resist, and even rebel against what God was doing. Truly, they were a prodigal people. A trip that should have only taken a few weeks or months lasted FORTY YEARS. And because of their sin and stubborn attitudes none of the generation that could have had the fruits of the promised land ever crossed over into it. They ended up dying in the wilderness. Not even the leaders, Moses and Aaron could go in. Only two faithful Old Testament believers, Joshua and Caleb made it.

The people of God in the wilderness generation had to face the consequences of their own sin. They could not enter the promised land. In our generation, too, there are consequences to the toxic elements of the world around us. Our culture is fixated on putting the self at the center and pushing God to the margins. Selfishness and satisfying our own desires become the priority. Gaining every advantage at the expense of others, having every convenience and getting rather than giving is a temptation at every turn. God and His ways are ignored or at best given second thought. Like a runaway train this world tempts us to keep adding freight cars- fulfill this desire, give in to this indulgence, excuse this or that sin, until the whole train goes off the tracks. This Lent we ask God to head us in the right direction by following His Word, praying for forgiveness and letting Him fulfill our needs and guide our ways. The people of Israel failed the covenant relationship, but God kept His promises bringing the next generation into the promised land.

To all God’s Prodigal people, the Lord declares as He did to those wandering, back-sliding people, that He still loved them and even though they were not faithful that He would keep His covenant. God’s character did not change or fail. The Lord is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and faithful, full of steadfast love.

Jesus also was surrounded by a prodigal people. The pagan Romans had many mythical gods, there was rampant sexual immorality, brutal violence and political corruption. Among his own people, Jesus faced self-righteous religious leaders and hypocrisy. To counter all this our Lord told the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:1-3. One time many tax collectors and outcasts came to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and teachers of the law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them”.

So, Jesus told them a parable, “Once a man had two sons…” The prodigal son recklessly demanded his share of the inheritance, foolishly loses it all in perverse living, and, then, humbled and humiliated returns home to the waiting father. The prodigal confessed his unworthiness but receives by the father’s love and grace, all the worth and riches of the family and even more than he had originally wasted. But while the father is reconciled to the prodigal son, there is another son, the older brother, who is just as alienated, if not more so by his own self-righteousness. This son represents the listeners who originally led Jesus to tell the story.

The extravagance of the father’s love had received the rebellious son who returned humbled and repentant. Now the love of God is magnified with each gift the Father gave. The father gave the embrace of acceptance letting the son know that the father’s love was unconditional and not just a trial period. The son was given shoes of assurance that he could not only return but be restored to the family. He could stand firm and confident. The father put a robe on him, a robe of righteousness so the son would no longer be covered with shame but have his act cleaned up and ready to share in all that the family had to offer. The father also put a ring on his hand. The ring of worth, not a piece of jewelry or a family heirloom, but a signet ring that represented the family. A ring of WORTH.

Think of all the prodigal son lost. He lost his inheritance, all his money. He lost his place in the family. He lost a home and the comfort it affords. He lost the security of safe surroundings. He lost the dreams of a hopeful future. He lost the pride of a loving father. He lost his respect and dignity. Perhaps the greatest loss was the loss of dignity. He had no standing and felt that all that was left was to be no more than a hireling in his own home. The Prodigal thinks to himself at his lowest point, “I am no longer worthy to be your son, I will be just a lowly worker in the household…”.

The loss of dignity and self-respect can be one of the greatest blows to a person. Money can be repaid and possessions can be restored, but it is much more difficult to rebuild honor and respect and dignity. That can be done only through the power God’s love and mercy. Christ lifted the burden of our despair and took it to the cross. Christ crushed the evil forces that attack us and declared a victory by His resurrection. This means we bury a life of sin and shame and arise with a new life in Christ. We are washed clean in the waters of baptism and those drops of renewal fall freshly upon us every day. The ring the son received represented a measure of the family’s power and authority being given back to the son, his dignity being restored. The ring was a signet ring emblazoned with a crest or symbol representing the family’s power and authority. The ring could be pressed onto a wax seal to imprint the symbol and convey the authority of the bearer of the ring. By putting the ring on his returned son’s finger, the father was accepting the prodigal son and returning him to a full place in the family. By accepting the ring, the prodigal son was accepting a much more responsible position as a wiser person who had learned hard lessons in the school of hard knocks. In Christ, believers now live a more confident life of faith. We can face temptation and trial not relying on our own schemes and devious means, but truly trusting in the power and authority of our Lord to guide us.

The father is so overjoyed that he organizes an impromptu party with the entire household and probably the whole village taking part. As the party celebrating the Prodigal’s return is underway
and we think that everything is about to end perfectly, Jesus returns us to the message of reconciling love by turning to the condition of the older brother; and all of a sudden we realize that there has been another lost son all along in the story.

The older brother may have stayed at home and done all the right things, but his attitude has pushed him just as far away from the father as all the actions of the younger, prodigal son. The words of the older brother refusing to go into the party and accept the return of the younger brother reveal all the rage, anger, resentment, hatred, jealousy, frustration and more that have been building up in his life all along.

This story is not just about breaking rules as the younger brother certainly did, but the older brother broke the relationship with the father and he is separated from the father, too. Now the father has another son to reach out to. He could confront the boy, argue with him or even threaten to cut him off if he doesn’t change. But the Bible word used here is “appeal”, plead, try to conciliate. This is the way of our heavenly Father with us. God’s action of His Son’s sacrifice on the cross is an “appeal” to a fallen and rebellious humanity to show how far our God will go to get us back; how much will be the sacrifice; how limitless the love; how enduring the patience; and, how amazing the grace.

Does the older brother listen to the father’s appeal and enter the party to reconcile with his brother? I think we all hope and pray that he does. But the parable does not give us the answer. The parable leaves the hearers with the invitation to accept the father’s appeal and are rejoicing in the renewing of life that is brought about by love and forgiveness. This is the challenge given
that is brought about by love and forgiveness: to continue the work of reconciliation and not give up on reaching out to the lonely and lost, the loveless and stubborn, the rejected and the restless, for this is where the Lord is leading us. Trusting then all that the Lord has done and is doing for us now, we can come to the feast of joy today. Kneeling at the altar, we can receive the Lord’s body and blood given and shed for us; and then we can rise and go to serve the Lord and share the love of Christ.

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