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A Sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son: Welcome Home to the New Creation. March 27, 2022 on

March 31, 2022

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) on March 27, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. You can watch the service. The image is The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt (1669, public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Growing up in Wisconsin, I assumed that nearly everyone was Lutheran. What else could explain the presence of a Lutheran church on seemingly every corner? You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a Lutheran church, not that you’d want to. Why so many? Well, more people went to worship on a regular basis back then. And, of course, each synod needed its own presence. But what really seemed to drive the number of Lutheran congregations was ethnic background. Even the small towns that sprouted every eight miles at long-forgotten rail stops had multiple Lutheran options. There would be a German Lutheran church, and a Norwegian Lutheran church, and perhaps even a Swedish Lutheran church. But what always surprised me was seeing two Danish Lutheran churches on the same street. Why two Danish churches? Well, because the Danish Lutherans who had emigrated to America had divided into two broad camps, known colloquially as Happy Danes and, yup, you guessed it, Sad Danes. I’m not sure what’s sadder than having “sad” as your predominant adjective. They were hardworking, faithful people, these less happy Danes, but central to their faith was an opposition to drinking, dancing, and entertainment. No wonder they were sad! Now, to be clear, the point is not that drinking and dancing are necessarily good. Drinking has caused more than its fair share of problems. And my wife’s cousin Knute, more of an exuberant Norwegian, tore his ACL dancing at our wedding reception, so there you go. The point is simply this: Do you want to be known for what you’re against? For thinking that following God means stomping out the joy around you?
  2. If the Parable of the Prodigal Son had been set in nineteenth-century Wisconsin, it’s clear which church the older brother would have attended. Faithful and responsible, he would have slid into the front pew week after week with the other pillars of small-town society. And on non-Sabbath days, he would have been up before the roosters, tilling the earth and wondering what got into his younger brother all those years ago. I can relate to this elder sibling. There’s much to emulate in his values and virtues. The problem, you might say, is in how much value he places on his value. It’s been a long time since he’s been able to see the forest for the trees, or the farm for the crops. He’s so caught up in doing the right thing, so taken with his own impeccable ability to do the right thing, that he has lost all sense of joy. And grace? He doesn’t begin to know what to do with that.
  3. Which brings us to the younger brother, about whom there is little to admire or emulate. What a bum! He goes to his father, tells him that he wants his inheritance now – which is a nice way of saying I wish you were already dead – and hightails it to the Big City. I don’t imagine he was hanging out with the highly pious, and neither the Happy nor the Sad would have seen him in church on a Sunday morning. Sounds like it was fun for a while, but only the cheap sort of fun with no joy underneath. The fun ran out, as it always does. Hungry and broke, he finds himself working with the pigs. Down and out, he has a moment of clarity. He needs to pull himself together, find a little religion, and head on home. At least, perhaps, he can be a servant on his father’s estate. He rehearses his lines and prepares his confession, ready to take life seriously for a change. It might be too late, but perhaps he can become a bit more like his older brother.
  4. If we’re not careful here, we’ll miss it. It is tempting, especially for those of us who relate to the older brother, to see the younger son’s confession as the hinge on which the parable swings. Yes, crawl back home and admit what you’ve done. For that matter, if we relate to the younger son, we might think the same. We got ourselves into this mess, and it’s up to us to get out of it. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll see that son’s confession is of secondary importance. The father doesn’t even seem to hear his son’s pious words. The father, you see, wasn’t scanning the horizon day after day, hoping against hope, yearning for his son’s confession. He was simply yearning for his son. And when his son returned, there was no time for pious platitudes. It was time for a party. As Robert Farrar Capon writes, “Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation to secure forgiveness; it is the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.”
  5. It is the grace of the father on which the parable turns. Not stern forbearance but unmitigated grace that forgives sin and welcomes home the wandering child with joy. Grace that raises this dead son to new life. And in this new life there is no time for old ways of seeing the world. The younger son is dressed with new robe, ring, and sandals; covered with the righteousness of Christ, you might say. He is what Paul calls a new creation. He is not to be seen as a sinner to be tolerated, but a sibling to be loved. And the older brother, fuming outside the party? He is in danger of missing out because what he has always valued most is his value, believing that he can earn, has earned, his father’s love. But he’s always had everything that belongs to his father, just because the father loves him. He never had to earn a thing. Both boys need to die to themselves, to their sin or their seriousness, and be resurrected to the joy of a father who simply loves them and yearns to be with them.
  6. And this, Jesus wants us to know, is the scandal of his Father’s grace. God loves you before all the diligent, dutiful work you will do, and God will love you after all the sins you’ll commit. God loves you with a prodigal love, a love that is excessive, extravagant. God loves us so much that when we say, “drop dead,” Jesus does exactly that. For us. Which brings us, finally, to the surprising main character of the parable: the fatted calf. For the party to begin, the fatted calf needs to die. This fatted calf, this Lamb of God, gives himself so that the God and God’s sons and daughters can be reconciled. So that the party can begin and, having begun, can roister its way into eternity. Neither our confession nor our works will get us into the party, and our sin can’t keep us out. Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, is the lifeblood of this joyous celebration. In his name, for his sake, by his grace, you are welcomed home. Dead no more, come home. Get over yourself, your sins and your seriousness. There’s joy waiting for you, the free gift of the God of grace. Why would you want to remain outside the party?
  7. In a few moments, we’ll sing of our wandering and our squandering. As well we should. As we continue our Lenten journey to Christ’s cross, we confess that we have exiled ourselves from God. But make no mistake, God is always there waiting, yearning, looking for you. And in the grace of God, you are already found. As we sing our Lenten hymn, we catch, perhaps, an echo of the music the divine DJ is already playing on the dancefloor in the party tent. It might just be that happiest of Danish hymns, “O Day Full of Grace”: “When we on the final journey go / that Christ is for us preparing, / We’ll gather in song, our hearts aglow, / All the joys of the heavens sharing.” Friends, you were dead but are alive. You were lost but are found. The celebration has started, with grace and joy abundant. Come on in. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

From → Lent/Easter, Sermons

  1. Martin Baumgaertner permalink

    The Prodigal‘s wandering and squandering
    Set responsible sib to bleak pondering.
    Older Bro, get a grip!
    It‘s not works, but sonship
    That‘s the ticket to Christ‘s gracious laundering

  2. Sue Zebrosky permalink

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! So much to think about!

  3. LaNell Mahler Koenig permalink

    What an incredible sermon. I will save it to re-read it often. (Martin’s poetry is amazing too.)

  4. Sandra Schuette permalink

    I never thought before of the fatted calf being a symbol of Christ! He had to die for the party to begin. Also I related to the prodigal in a new way for me. God has been showing me for a while how self absorbed I am and I can see it as sin. I am grateful for this sermon and thank God for it and for your service to Him as His agent.

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