A Celebration During Lent… Really?!

Lent 4C, March 10, 2013
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

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Did you recognize the words that we just sang in the Old Testament Canticle?  They were taken right out of our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 12:1-6).  They are words of celebration; words that  claim the promise of God, a promise which proclaims that the bondage of His people Israel will have an end.  The words are meant to turn peoples hearts’ outside of their misery and towards a God  who is mighty in strength, faithful, abounding in stead-fast love; a God who brings and gives salvation.

Like the people of old, we too are invited to celebrate and sing praises to the Lord for the glorious things He has done and is still doing for us.  We are still asked to tell anyone in the world what He  has done for us, and what He will continue to do for them, if they will just return to HIM.

What has he done for us?  What has He done for you?  Well, once again we have a wonderful illustration of what He has done and what He is doing.  This morning, in the baptism of Shukri Sahiti  and Elsa Swan, you saw young adults in their early thirties, snatched out of the bondage of sin and given their freedom in Christ.  You saw darkness completely swallowed up by light.  Like all  sinners, even us, Shukri and Elsa were lost in a world that is controlled by the devil.  But God… but God made a way out of no way for them to rest in the Kingdom of Grace, through Jesus Christ, with  the promise that one day they will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Through the washing of simple water and the Holy Word of God, Shukri and Elsa, in the only way God has ordained, have been  clothed with Christ’s own robe of righteousness.  Did they deserve this rebirth of Christ?  No and neither do we.  And to illustrate this truth, Jesus, in our gospel lesson (Luke 15:1–3, 11–32), tells us  a story; a parable about the prodigal son.

Jesus told this story because judgmental, self-righteous hypocrites were grumbling these words about Him under their breath: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  If I was there, I think  I would have told those self-righteous Pharisees, “Thank God He receives sinners, or you and I would have no hope of ever entering into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In your baptism, like Shukri’s and Elsa’s baptism this morning, God looked upon you and not only saw your horrible sin, but He also saw something that you lacked; something that could only exist if He willed it and created it; and that was the goodness that you must have in order to be in a relationship with Him.  It is a goodness that you have always been invited to embrace and live out, but it is also a goodness that you have always had the freedom to reject.

Like the prodigal son, you too have at times struck out on your own; doing things your way, the way of the world.  And you can also testify to the truthfulness of this proverb, which condemns that way: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” [Proverbs 16:25]  At some point in our lives, each of us must see just how lost we are without God’s forgiving love, and then that reality causes us to simply call out to Him in despair.  What else can we do?

Despair of what?  The despair of being lost; despair of being dead in our trespasses, our sins.  In Jesus’ story, the younger son saw that all of the wealth that came from His relationship with his father had slipped through his fingers like water; all he had left to look forward to, was his own death.  His sense of self worth and value had vanished.  He lost all sense of what it meant to be home with the father he loved.  And it is only this feeling of despair, which led him to return to his father’s home, not as a son mind you, but simply as an unworthy servant who might find a little relief from his despair.

This kind of hopelessness is still played out today with the addict who will intentionally get arrested so that he can at least have the creature comforts of room and board, and a chance to be free of the demons that make up his addiction. Or the plea of a cheating spouse who is served divorce papers and ordered to move out of the family home: “Please, I’ll change.  You don’t even have to forgive or love me, just let me keep living in this home so I can be with the children.”  But despair can also be found in the plea of an employee who has been fired for bad work performance:  “Please… I’ll shuffle papers, make coffee, sweep the floors and empty the garbage; I’ll even work for half my pay if you will just keep me on the payroll.”  Yes, in this prodigal world, false realities crumble around the self-righteous sinner and then, a hopeless despair of reality and death barges in.  And when confronted with this dark reality, the prodigals call out, “Please someone save me; buy my soul if you must.  I’m not asking for a kingdom, but a crumb!  Dear God if you are there and you are listening, please save me!”

And now, the heart of a sinner begins to see the truth; the way that seemed right really does only lead to despair and death.  Nothing works.  Even when you cry out to God (if your honest, you’ll admit that many times before you did this), but even your cry for help doesn’t seem to work.  But wait; didn’t we all learn that to turn away from our sin is the first step towards salvation?  Well, let’s look at that for a moment.   In Jesus story, the prodigal did see the error of his way; he did turn away from his sin and resolved to return to his father’s home, but not as a son, but as servant.  So let’s not put too much importance on the prodigal’s wisdom in seeing his hopelessness; according to his terms, the only thing that would have changed in his idea of repentance was exchanging pig food for servant’s meals.  No, I don’t think looking at the mindset of the prodigal will help us learn too much from God’s Word that we don’t already know.  So instead, let’s look at the One he turned to; he turned to his father and his father’s home, which Jesus wants to make sure we understand, represents Almighty God and His Kingdom of Heaven.

Let me ask you a question.  When the lost son was making his way back home, and when his father spotted him way down the road, what do you think was going through the father’s mind?  I know what might be our thoughts: “Why is my son returning?  Has he learned his lesson?  Maybe he wants more money?  Has he come to hurt me even more with his disrespectful attitude?  I better go out and meet him and find out what’s up!”  Is that really what you think the Father was thinking?

No, instead we behold something that a world, which believes in law and punishment calls foolishness.  We see a Father who sees his son with through eyes of mercy and a heart full of the forgiving love running out to meet His son.  So, in both the Father and the prodigal son, we see a desire to be reconciled to each other. [2 Corinthians 5:16-21]  The son seeks reconciliation with terms and conditions; a downgrade of his status if you will, but the Father has something completely different in mind.    So now they meet.  The son begins to recite his practiced apology to the father, expecting nothing but hoping for just a little.  And what happens next in the story?

I’ll tell you what happens next, amazing grace!  The lost prodigal son is very simply, openly, and compassionately welcomed home.  No lecture, no punishment, and no downgrade in his status as a son.  Don’t you think the son was shocked?  Wouldn’t you be?  And so you should be!  You see that is what is so amazing about God’s amazing grace!  Just as the lost son is received before he can even open his mouth, so were many of you who were baptized as babies.  And even as adults like Shukri and Elsa, when we try to talk, to explain and describe our unworthiness to receive God’s forgiving grace, we like the prodigal lost son and his well thought out “I’m sorry” speech are simply ignored!  So, do we confess our sins to God for nothing?  Well no, not for nothing, but the confession is not what moves our Heavenly Father to love and forgive us.  But our confession of sins to the Father is important, because it reminds us that while we are in that state of sin and despair, right there with us is a God who has never quit waiting for and loving us; a God full of mercy and abounding in steadfast love.  In our repentance, we discover a God who loves and is longing for us to come home.  When we turn our hearts to our heavenly Father, we see a God who is eagerly ready to receive us, welcome us, restore us, and rejoice because we have come back home!

So hear this all of you who are in the Christian faith; you elder brothers and sisters of Shukri Sahiti and Elsa Swan:  Your brother and sister were lost, but now they’ve come home.  All who would judge them in the sense of fairness and say that they have a long way to go before you can “really” receive them as a brother and sister, our Savior Jesus Christ says in the clearest of terms this morning, “Not so!”

This morning, Jesus’ Words turn each of us, baby Christians and mature ones to the very same source of foolish grace.  A love of God that knows no calculations or limitations; a love that can only be presented in His passion; a passion that shouts out loud and clear from the cross of His Son Jesus Christ… “IT IS FINISHED.  YOUR DEBT, EVEN THE SIN OF THE WORLD HAS BEEN PAID IN FULL!”

Upon the cross of Jesus Christ, “He who knew no sin, became sin for us, in order that we on our part may become God’s righteousness in connection with Jesus.” [2 Corinthians 5:21]  On the tree of death, a Lamb without blemish or spot was put to death in our place. [1 Peter 1:19]

This morning, we each discover that Jesus still gathers sinners around Him.  We gathered around the font with Shukri and Elsa, and witnessed God call more sinners into our midst and into the Kingdom of Heaven.  And we along with Shukri and Elsa will gather again next Sunday and every Sunday thereafter here at this church to celebrate our entrance into the kingdom and receive God’s other gifts of grace that will keep us safely in that kingdom until He calls us into our new home, the Kingdom of Heaven.

And so here we are together, a bunch of sinners being and becoming saints, waiting and receiving just as little children, the loving care of our Heavenly Father.  But we don’t wait idly as those with no purpose.  Because you see, we have been called to do two things, celebrate and welcome.  We are celebrating the fact that the church, even little Trinity Lutheran has been given the ministry of reconciliation.  We celebrate the truth that in our midst God has chosen to do the greatest work we could ever witness, calling lost sinners out of darkness into His marvelous light.  So we welcome you home today Shukri and Elsa but we also invite you to be part of this group of older sons and daughters who will not rest until this church is filled with other lost children who need to come home to their loving Father through the forgiving love of their brother, friend, Savior, and God,  Jesus Christ.

So I hope by now you see, there is a need to celebrate, even in the middle of lent.  We must celebrate with God, each and every time these brothers and sisters of ours who once were lost in the death of sin are found and come home.   “So give thanks to the LORD, call upon His name, make known His deeds among the peoples”, proclaim as His ambassadors His greatness and exalt His name by calling all people to be reconciled to their heavenly Father.  I ask this in Jesus name… AMEN!

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