4 Lent Proper 4C                                  
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32 sermon                                      
March 14, 2010

Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
----- "Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing"
572 "Children Of The Heavenly Father"
428 "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing"
577 "Nearer My God To Thee" 


 TEXT (vs. 21-24):  "21 "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.'"

            "What can I fix you for supper?"  That's the question that various people have asked me over the years.  The usual occasion for people asking me this question comes when I let them know I'm coming to visit them.  Of course these people know my propensity for food.  And I have become acquainted with the various foods people prepare.

            Bob and Shirley Scrugham have asked me this question numerous times.  They are a retired couple who live in Marietta Georgia, and they were members of a congregation I served.  While I lived in Georgia, they would always invite me for a meal on my birthday--and other times too as well.  Shirley is a whiz in the kitchen, and I don't think I've ever had a bite of food that she has made that I didn't like.  But whenever she asks me what I'd like her to fix, my request is almost always the same:  cherry pie.

            I don't know what you all think of cherry pie, but Shirley makes one of the best cherry pies I've ever had.  Bob, her husband, has had to tell her to only make it by request, and then not too frequently since he loves it so much.  He just can't restrain himself if there's one of Shirley's cherry pies in the house, and I certainly know why that is.

            But I can assure you that if I were to pick up the phone today and tell them I was going to be stopping by for a visit, I could be reasonably assured that I'd find a cherry pie waiting for me to enjoy.  Of course there's a whole lot more to our 16 year friendship than just food; however it's one of those nice enjoyable things we can share together.  And when Shirley has made a cherry pie at my request, I know that I feel very special.  It's one of those acts of love that I really appreciate.

            I guess that I find it rather interesting how food can enter into the picture of love, friendship, and celebration.  In the Bible, we are told about many feasts that happened for a variety of reasons.  And besides the actual feasts that happened, the Bible also talks about feasts in a metaphorical sense for heaven.  For example, Jesus says in Luke chapter 14 verse 15:  "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God."  This is followed by the parable of the great banquet, where all of the invited guests were too busy to come.  Jesus ends this parable in verses 23-24 by saying: "Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. 24I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet."

            As we look at our Gospel reading for today, food is a big part of it.  The fatted calf is slaughtered for this huge celebration feast.  The prodigal son has returned home safe and sound, and this is the cause of much rejoicing and celebration.

            According to the historic church calendar, this Sunday carries the Latin name, "Laetare" (pronounced lay-TAR-ie).  Laetare simply means, "rejoice."  And if you noticed under the masthead of your bulletin this morning, you'll see the words of the historic Introit that go along with this.

            Rejoicing sort of seems out-of-place during the more somber and penitential tone of the Lenten season.  After all, this is the time that we focus our attention upon Christ's suffering and death, and what he did on the cross to pay for our sins.  That's a sobering thought for sure.

            However we also need to see the bright side of all this.  And that's what our Gospel lesson for this morning strives to do.  Here is a situation that has caused a father an intense amount of grief and sadness.  His son whom he loved had taken his share of his inheritance and wasted it away.  And now he comes back home with his tail tucked between his legs, as the old expression goes.

            This parable of the prodigal son happens to be the longest parable in the whole Bible.  This is the last one in a series of three that Jesus uses when addressing a group of the Pharisees.  These three parables are collectively known as the "lost and found" parables.

            There are two parables that precede this one, and I think that it is helpful for us to remember the conclusions that Jesus made from these previous two stories.  There's the story of the shepherd who diligently searches for his lost sheep.  Jesus concludes this story by saying in Luke chapter 15 verse 7: "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance". 

            And then we have the story of the woman who desperately  searches for a lost coin.   In a similar sense, Jesus concludes in Luke chapter 15 verse 10: "Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." 

            Each of these three stories compares those who repent with the self righteous who believe they do not need to repent.  Jesus comforts those who repent and warns those who are self righteous.

            We should take a brief look at the situation in which Jesus found himself.  Like I mentioned a few moments ago, Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees.   Jesus had been hanging out with tax collectors and sinners again.  The Scribes and Pharisees thought this was absolutely scandalous behavior.  They had hoped to drag Jesus' name through the mud by pointing out the poor reputation of his associates.  They were saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."  They hoped that these words would somehow bring shame to Jesus, and discredit him in front of his followers.

            The Scribes and Pharisees had diluted God's Law to the point that it actually seemed doable.  They had surrounded each of God's laws with a buffer zone of lesser laws.  These lesser laws were set up so that someone could fool themselves into thinking that they had kept God's law.  But in reality, they were doing exactly what they wanted to, instead of doing what God commanded.  The Scribes and Pharisees made it look like they were keeping God's law; but in fact, they were only keeping the rules they had made up themselves.

            The tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Jesus because He gave them hope.  The rest of their culture continuously told them that they were unworthy.  They were beyond redemption.  Their sins were so terrible that God would never forgive them.  These people had come to the point where they were beginning to believe that there was no hope for them before God.  Then Jesus came and gave them hope.  And just as it is for us today, faith in our Saviour Jesus Christ is the only way to a right standing before God, regardless of the sin that separates us from him.

            The parable of the Prodigal Son is one that demonstrates the remarkable depth of God's love.  Jesus uses some very harsh when describing this prodigal, or wasteful son.  He is the type of person that society would detest for all intents and purposes.  He represents someone we would perhaps classify as "unlovable." 

            Let's face it, this kid was guilty of some pretty bad things.  He couldn't wait around for his father to die; he had to have his inheritance right now.  And so the father divides up his assets, and gives his younger son what he has coming to him.  And then he goes out and wastes everything on drinking, and partying, and other various acts of immorality.  He blows the whole wad.

            And then he does something even more detestable in the eyes of the Pharisees.  He goes and lives with the pigs, and eats the same food the pigs do.  Pigs were unclean animals, and good Jews stayed completely away from them, let alone the fact that they never ate pork. 

            It doesn't matter though.  The father's love and acceptance has nothing to do with what the son had done with his life.  All that mattered now was the fact that he came home, safe and sound.  The father was elated!  It was time for a major celebration.

            Here's now where we get back to the fatted calf.  Exactly what are we talking about here?  Are we just talking about any cow out in the pasture?

            No we aren't.  The fatted calf was a special creature.  A healthy male calf, without any defect, usually the offspring of a dairy cow was taken aside after weaning.  Then it was fed a special diet of milk, grain, and hay so the meat was marbled and very tender.  After a period ranging anywhere from 22 to 35 weeks, when the calf weighed anywhere from 650-750 pounds or thereabouts, it was ready to be slaughtered and prepared.  Such an animal was reserved for very special occasions.

            We also need to remember that the methods of preserving meat weren't all that great in those days.  So when the fatted calf was prepared, the people would hang around until the whole thing had been eaten.  You can imagine the kind of party a person would have to throw to consume roughly 700 pounds of meat, let alone all of the "fixins" (like we say in Nebraska) that go along with it.  Using our modern terms of reference, can you imagine how much coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans, chips, and drinks you'd go through?  It would be safe to say that this enormous feast that this man's father organized had to cost him a small fortune, regardless of whose terms of reference you use.

            But let's look at that calf.  From the time it was born, it was set aside for a purpose.  It's whole life, short as it would be, was to live in order to die.  That calf would have to die for there to be a celebration feast. 

            The calf didn't do anything on its own to warrant this.  The calf was innocent, and without any spot or blemish.  All the calf did was to be born into this world!  But its innocent blood would be shed so the people could rejoice and celebrate.  In this case, the celebration would be because a wandering and sinful child had returned to his father's house.

            When we think of this innocent calf, we can also think of our Saviour.  In much the same way, the Bible uses the livestock metaphor when speaking about Jesus.  In Isaiah chapter 53 verse 7 we read:  "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."

            In Acts chapter 8, Philip meets up with the Ethiopian eunuch.  The Ethiopian was reading this very passage from Isaiah.  Verses 34-35 say:  "34The eunuch asked Philip, 'Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?' 35Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus."

            When we come to Jesus in faith, when we know him as our personal Saviour, we are like that prodigal son returning home to his father.  We can approach our heavenly Father too--not timidly though, but with full confidence.  We know that Jesus gave his very life for our sakes.  Because Jesus shed his innocent blood on our behalf, we now have a heavenly celebration awaiting us.  What has happened in our past doesn't matter.  Through faith in Jesus Christ, God no longer sees our sinfulness.  All he sees in us is the righteousness of his son that is ours through faith alone.

            And the best thing of all is that every repentant sinner has an open invitation to this heavenly feast.  In Romans chapter 11 verses 30-32 we read: "30Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may nowreceive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. 32For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all."

            I know that the next time I tell Bob and Shirley Scrugham in Marietta Georgia that I'm going to pay them a visit, I can pretty much guarantee that a cherry pie will be involved somewhere along the line.  I know I don't need it, but it's one of those things I can anticipate.  Even though it's been over 10 years since I've had her cherry pie, those memories are firmly planted to the point I can almost taste it.

            We all have a banquet awaiting us in heaven, and our heavenly Father is the host.  Through our Saviour's blood and merit, we are the special invited guests.  We are the prodigals who have returned to our Father's house.  God doesn't need to ask us what we want for supper when we get there, because he already knows.  Therefore we can trust the words of Psalm chapter 34 verse 8: "8 Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him."

            In closing today, I'm going to share a couple verses of an old hymn with you:

Today thy mercy calls us to wash away our sin;
However great our trespass, whatever we have been;
However long from mercy our hearts have turned away,
Thy precious blood can cleanse us, and make us white today. 

Today thy gate is open, and all who enter in,
Shall find a Father's welcome, and pardon for their sin;
The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given;
A future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven. (TLH 279, v.1-2)