Written by Bryan Niebanck
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.Psalm 32:7
Does anyone like spending money? Does it feel great spending it? You are finally getting yourself something that you feel like you deserve. That is what the prodigal son was doing. He felt like he deserved a better life away from his family. He asked of his father what any of us would not think of, asking him to split the inheritance early so that he could take what was his and go live his own life. It seemed intriguing for him. But then after you have gone on that Amazon spree, and it comes time to pay the bill, you wish that you had exercised some caution. You cannot go back on it, and neither can the prodigal son, but you can come to that moment of realization that something needs to change. You cannot go on living this way forever.
Have you run away from God? In the parable that Jesus recites, the father of the son represents a good, caring, compassionate God. God does not treat people in the usual fashion after they have run away from him. In ancient Israel, if a child ran away from home, they were to be banished or at least renounced as the father’s son. This is what the son expected and was preparing for: He was to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). But the Father gave a different response. He instead celebrated his return! God does just the same for us. Even when we do not deserve it, God runs to us with open arms. As we grow closer and closer to God through our own efforts, and our own realizations that we need God in our lives, God is the one running out to meet us.
In order for God to be running out to meet us, however, we need to do two things, both of which are presented in our Psalm reading for today. First, we need to acknowledge our sin: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide any iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). Acknowledging the guilt of our sin is a game changer when it comes to God having mercy toward us. The prodigal son realized guilt when he resolved to admit directly to his father, “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” He recognized that he needed to own up to his mistakes. If you have been moving in the wrong direction and then you come back to the door and knock, as did five of the bridesmaids who had not come to the banquet with enough oil, Jesus could tell you that he does not know you, as he did them. They did not admit their wrongdoing. The prodigal son did not arrive to a closed door because he fully admitted that what he had done was gone astray.
Second, allow God to be your hiding place. Psalm 32:7 states, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.” Allow God to be your place of protection. Surround yourself with things of God so that they may protect you from the world while you are still in the world. Surround yourself with godly friends and neighbors. Surround yourself with an attitude of grace. Trust in God’s ability to be your protection against the weapons of the devil. We have all seen the little child hide behind their parent when approaching a stranger. They peer out from behind their mother or father with wondering eyes. They are finding protection. They are hiding behind safety, behind what they know and love. They trust that their parents will protect them. When we allow God to be our hiding place, we are looking at the unknown not by ourselves, but enfolded in the merciful arms of God. We are facing the future, guided by our protector and encouraged by our comforter. God will not come running to us if we do not place our faith and our trust in God. We have to admit to our mistakes, and we have to allow God to be our hiding place. Then we can join with the words and the joys of the Psalmist: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (Psalm 32:10-11). Rejoice!! And shout for joy.
So far this Lent we have touched on three themes. First, remember what God has done for you. Remember the moments where God has met you, in trials, in joys, and in your fears. But when you do find yourself slipping, and you find yourself afraid, we come to the need for our second theme. Repent of your fears so that you can again place all of your assurances in God. If you are afraid of the future, if you do not know what is next, place all of your assurances in God. Third, we need to learn to accept everyone regardless of their race, belief, custom, or background. We do not need to accept their beliefs or customs, or not hold them accountable for a shady past, but we need to express extravagant welcome. Whoever comes into our life should feel like we welcomed them. Acceptance in our case is showing someone God’s love no matter what, and doing so under the shadow of God’s wings. Fourth, following acceptance, we need to forgive our neighbor for their wrongs, so that healing might begin. We need to give our hurt to God, praying for our enemies and not allowing the harm that anyone did to you to hurt you even more than the original harm. Pray for those who persecute you.
Who do you need to welcome home? Perhaps there was someone who is just waiting for his inheritance so that he can go live his own life. They have hurt you. There is the person who passed you on the way to church today, thinking that you were going too slow. They hurt you enough to the point that you are still thinking about it. Or it is that person who started spreading a rumor about you, and people are taking it for the truth. Are these people any less worthy of the kingdom of God? Not if they repent of their wrongdoing. Who do you need to welcome home? Who do you need to welcome into the kingdom of God? Have they been away from church for twenty years? Have they done away with God or perhaps even attacked the church of God? If Saul the persecutor of Christians can be turned into Paul the traveling preacher, and one of the building blocks of the Christian church, anyone can be turned around with a little grace of God. This morning, I present two challenges to you. First, show grace to someone who does not deserve your grace. And second, what is one thing that you can do that goes opposite to what the world expects of you? For the prodigal son’s father, that one thing was welcoming back a wayward son.
Jesus told this parable to all those who would listen for good reason. First, it tells us quite a lot about how welcoming and compassionate God is. God throws a big feast every time a lost son comes home. He celebrates each and every one of us who have come back to Christ, who have come back to church, and are ready to explore more about God with Christian friends and neighbors. And further, I believe he is challenging the listeners to do the same. Jesus is not just telling people about what God does. He is challenging them to also be welcoming, to also extend grace when grace is not deserved, and to also go against the world flow. As Leslie J. Hoppe so worded it, “Will the Pharisees and scribes join Jesus in welcoming and eating with sinners?” (FW C.2.121).
Michael B. Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, noted one final observation: “The parable points to God’s deepest desire, greatest yearning, and passionate dream for all of God’s children and the whole of God’s creation” (FW C.2.119). Remember a couple weeks ago when we were talking about finding God’s desire by seeking God more intently? We want God’s dream to be our dream too. This is how we best work for God’s kingdom. It would be tragic for two members on the same team to be working toward entirely different goals, would it not? If this is God’s dream for all of creation, how can we set about making it our dream too? How can we commit to radical love, extravagant welcome, and non-withholding grace? How can we extend our arms as the father did, saying “Welcome home!”? At the beginning of our bulletins and services, we often say “Welcome home.” Can we say those words to everyone and anyone? Can we say those words to someone who has wronged us in the past? Can we create a church here, locally and globally, that welcomes unconditionally, so that all the world might be saved, so that as many people as possible can understand what God has to offer? God does not ask much of us in exchange for a whole eternity in glory. May all glory and honor be to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
5:9 The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
5:10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.
5:11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.
5:12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
32:1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
32:2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
32:3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
32:4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
32:5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
32:6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
32:7 0 Selah
32:8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
32:9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
32:10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
32:11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
15:3 So he told them this parable:
15:11b “There was a man who had two sons.
15:12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
15:13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
15:14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
15:15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
15:16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
15:17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
15:18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘
15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But 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.
15:21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
15:22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
15:23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;
15:24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
15:25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
15:26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
15:27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
15:28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
15:29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
15:31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
15:32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”