Love is at the heart of the season of Lent. It’s at the heart of the biblical story. It’s a story of just how much God loves us. As someone once said, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
So, it’s only appropriate that the first Sunday in Lent this year began on Valentine’s Day. On one hand, we could say that it was just a coincidence that these two special days would fall on the same day on the calendar.
But, on the other hand, maybe it’s God’s way of reminding us, just in case we forgot, that we are loved by God more than we can ever imagine. Because the truth is, there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less.
It’s like God is saying to us, “I love you. Now, deal with it!”
A few years ago, Penny and I spent the beginning of Lent in New Orleans. We arrived on the day after Mardi Gras! Now, who travels to New Orleans on the day after Mardi Gras? What pastor travels to New Orleans and arrives on Ash Wednesday? This pastor!
Actually, Penny was attending an education conference in New Orleans so I decided to join her. While we were there, we visited parts of the city and were having a fun time together, but not too much fun!
As we were walking along one of the streets late one afternoon, we looked up in the sky and noticed that some love smitten man had hired a pilot to leave a message in the clear blue sky for his love interest to see. The message read in large smoked filled letters, “I love you Sarah.”
Other people who were walking near us were noticing it as well. We all kept gazing at the sky until the “I love you” message finally disappeared.
Penny was thinking about how incredibly sweet that was for this man to do. All I was thinking about was how this was going to make one heck of a sermon illustration some day!
The timing of that message in the sky wasn’t lost on me. It was the beginning of Lent and somebody wrote an “I love you” message in the sky for someone to see. God is writing an “I love you” message in the sky for each one of us during this time of year as we reflect on God’s self-giving love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If we open our eyes, we can see that message of love being written as we journey with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus is showing us just how much he loves us through his prayers, his presence, his gifts, his service, and his witness.
And in turn, we have been discovering what it means to respond to this love through the offering of our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
Today, we focus on how Lent is a time to reflect on God’s gift of love for the world by giving us the gift of salvation. Jesus was always trying to help people see just how much God loved them.
Jesus showed us God’s love in a variety of ways. In our scripture reading today, Jesus uses a parable to describe just how much God loves us.
We often refer to this parable as the parable of the Prodigal Son, but it really should be known as the Parable of the Prodigal Father. You’ll see what I mean as we look at this parable in greater detail.
Let’s first take a look at the youngest son in this story. The story begins with this son abruptly asking his father for his share of the inheritance and he goes off into the wild blue yonder to live it up.
And does he ever! Loaded with cash, he wastes no time in finding the nearest luxury camel dealer and five star hotel. A dream come true.
But there was just one problem. The money ran out. So he did the only thing he could do, just to survive.
Irony of ironies, he lands a low level job feeding pigs, which wouldn’t be a bad thing except that such a job would be the last job that any self-respecting Jewish person would ever think of doing.
But hey, what is a Prodigal to do when the bank is sending overdraft notices every other day in the mail?
But even this job wasn’t helping him to survive, because the text says that the pigs’ food was starting to look pretty good to him. We are also told that outside of giving him a dirty low level job, nobody in that country offered to help this guy out.
No hand-outs. No social services. No United Methodist mission sites. Don’t expect any hand-outs here.
It’s a hard lesson for this young man. This isn’t Israel, where the God of all creation calls upon his people to offer hospitality to the stranger and the sojourner. He’s living in a place with different rules. Different values.
There he stands, leaning against the fence post, watching those pigs make their way to the feed trough, and he starts thinking about his father, the father he left behind. “Dad has some hired hands on his farm. And at least they have something to eat each day.”
So off he heads home. Rehearsing his speech.
“Dad. I made a big mistake. I blew the money you gave me, and now I can’t even feed myself. I know you have every right to send me away because I’m not worthy to ever be called your son again. But please, let me at least work as one of your hired hands. Yada, yada, yada.”
Those miles back home must have been some of the longest miles he had ever walked. It’s funny how those same miles didn’t feel so long when his pockets were full of fifties and hundreds. Imagine his hands getting sweaty and his heart beating faster as he approaches the family farm.
“Will dad even recognize me at first? I’ve lost so much weight. What’s he going to say to me? I need to speak first and tell him that I’m sorry.”
And then he happens to look up, and in the distance he can’t believe his eyes.
The scene now shifts from the son to the father.
What the son sees is something that very few sons would have ever seen in 1st century Israel. It’s a picture of a father running toward him.
No father in the ancient world would have ever been seen running outside. It was against social custom. It would have been a sign of disgrace and embarrassment for a father to do such a thing.
And yet, here this father is running toward him. And not only is he running, but his arms are open wide and when he reaches his son, he embraces him and gives him a kiss.
As the father embraces him, this son tries to give the speech he’s been rehearsing the past several miles, the speech about how he is not worthy to be called his son, and how he’s sorry for the disgrace he has brought to the family, and then to beg for his father to include him as one of his hired hands.
No sooner has the son said these words, that the father is yelling out to have someone quickly bring a robe – the best robe they have, and to bring a ring – and some sandals. All symbols of forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation.
This part of the story reminds us of the story of Joseph from the Old Testament, when Joseph went from being a prisoner who had absolutely nothing to becoming one of Pharaoh’s top officials.
Remember when Pharaoh gave Joseph his own ring and gave him garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck?
For the Jewish people, that was a story of restoration. By God’s grace, Joseph was able to rise to this high position under Pharaoh, and would later end up saving his own brothers from a severe famine in the land, the same brothers who had sold him into slavery from the beginning.
Joseph, who was lost, was found and restored to his family and his father, Jacob.
Jesus, in telling the story of the Prodigal Son, is tapping into one of the great truths in the Bible – that God loves us more than we can ever imagine.
And when someone is found and brought back to God’s family, there is great rejoicing, the best party you have ever seen.
After the Prodigal son returns home, the father spares no expense in celebrating the homecoming of his son. The fatted calf is killed. They get the best DJ in town. And before you know it, the party is on.
We heard about the son who squandered his share of the inheritance, forsaking his family, all for a brief taste of the good life. This is why this parable is known as “The Prodigal Son” story.
The word, “prodigal” means “wasteful.” It means “overly extravagant.”
But this parable should be known as “The Prodigal Father.” Talk about being recklessly extravagant! His youngest son has disgraced the family, depleted the family reserves, and now has the audacity to return home.
And what does this father do? He spares no expense in throwing an outlandish party for his son. And he evidently doesn’t take into consideration how his oldest son will respond to this preferential treatment. What kind of father is this who would go to such extremes?
There’s only one word to describe this father. He’s just as reckless as his son. Impulsive. Wasteful. Extreme. He’s a prodigal father who gives us a picture of our prodigal heavenly father who will spare no expense in showing us just how much we are loved.
A couple of years ago, I attended a wedding brunch at an upscale restaurant with the groomsmen and the father of the groom. There were probably fifteen of us ordering off the high priced menu. We were all prepared to pay for our own meals, but the father of the groom asked for the waiter to bring one check. He was going to cover it.
As we were leaving the restaurant, I thanked the father of the groom since I know he had already helped with a lot of the couple’s wedding expenses. As he started toward his car, he looked back at me with this great big smile on his face, and he said,
“I love my son so much. Moments like this don’t come around very often.”
Jesus didn’t just tell us this parable to show us how much God loves us. He showed how much God loves us when he died on the cross for our sins. Jesus was the embodiment of God’s love for the world.
God gave us the greatest gift of all when he sent us Jesus. And like the prodigal father in the story, Jesus offers us his amazing, over-the-top, outlandish, and extravagant love even though we don’t deserve such love.
This outpouring of God’s love is at the heart of why we are invited to offer our gifts to Christ and his church. Our gifts are in response to the reckless and extravagant love of God.
When we embrace God’s over-the-top love in our lives, it makes us want to offer our very best gifts to be a blessing to others. What does it mean to offer our gifts in response to God’s extravagant love for the world?
I have a friend named, Stan. Stan is a retired United Methodist pastor who now lives in Michigan. He shared with me how some folks in his family who aren’t tithers to the church just can’t understand why he and his wife would even think about giving 10% of their income to their local church each year.
To them, that money could have been invested in other ways over the years to make even more money. Stan and his wife see it very differently. They believe that by being generous givers to the church, he and his wife, are rich in a different way, a way that is distinctive and set apart from the rest of the world.
In the eyes of his family, their commitment to tithing their income and giving 10% of their income to Christ and the church over all these many years is still viewed as wasteful.
The bible says that they are just being “prodigal” with their use of money. Prodigal, like a prodigal heavenly Father who gave everything he had to bring salvation to the world, even his very own Son, who died on a cross for our sins.
I served a church that was conducting a large capital campaign, much like the one that we are getting ready to launch here at our church. Phyllis was a faithful member of that congregation. She served as the church treasurer for a number of years
During the early part of that capital campaign, she, along with the other leaders in the church, were invited to write down on a little piece of paper, an amount that they thought would be a reasonable amount to give to the campaign over a three-year period. They weren’t asked to include their name, just the amount they thought they would probably give to the campaign.
Phyllis told me that she wrote down a number that she felt was pretty generous. But the more she thought about what she should give, the more she thought that number needed to be a lot higher.
As she reflected on her many blessings, what the church meant to her, how her relationship with Christ was such an important part of her life, she ended up giving a much higher dollar amount toward the campaign.
Someone would say that Phyllis was wasteful. Others would call it, just being “prodigal.”
John Bunyan, the great Christian writer from the 1600s once said, “A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he caste away, the more he had.”
As we prepare for the launch of our campaign which is only a few weeks away, I invite us to reflect on this story of the Prodigal Father. What does it mean for us to put Athens First with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness?
Let’s pray the prayer we have been invited to pray during this season of Lent. It’s found in your bulletin.
Dear God, what would you do through me to accomplish your will in my church? Amen.