Repent and Return
This is another Lenten “Repent and Return to the Lord” sermon. But it’s going to take me time to get there.
First, hear again this amazing line from the Apostle Paul: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
By virtue of our baptisms, we are in Christ. If Paul is right, that means we are made new. And, as I understand Paul, he doesn’t just mean made new one time. We are continually being remade, renewed, re-created.
That’s a little puzzling. If you start counting from my baptism, I have been in Christ for a long time—well over fifty years—and every day, I feel more old. But Paul is telling us, we are new creations, we are continually being renewed. So, what does Paul mean by that?
Our Gospel reading helps. It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son, one of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables. In the parable, the prodigal son is made new, just like Paul says.
Start with an odd question: When is the prodigal son most truly a son to his father?
In one sense, the son is always a son to his father, of course. But he is not always a good son. So, when was the prodigal son most “son-like”?
It is not at the beginning of the parable. As the parable begins, the younger son certainly had no doubts about his rights as his father’s son and heir. But despite what he thought, the younger son was not very son-like. He certainly didn’t honor his father. Quite the opposite. He took his father for granted.
We can’t know how old the prodigal son was, but he was clearly a young adult. Like the father in the parable, I have two young adult sons, so I can pretty easily put myself in his place. I think how I would feel if one of my sons asked to receive his inheritance in advance. Especially if he added that he wanted the money so that he could leave home forever, as the son in our parable planned to do. I would be irritated. I’d hand him five dollars and advise him not to spend it all in one place because that’s all he would get from me.
I say again, at the beginning of our parable, the prodigal son may have thought of himself as his father’s son, but he was not much son.
The father (who is more generous than I!) gave his son his inheritance, and the young man left home. He travelled to a distant country and squandered everything his father had given him in dissolute living. When his money ran out, he fell on hard times and sought work as a pig-keeper. Remember, pigs were considered unclean by observant Jews. The prodigal son has fallen really low. The whole dissolute living thing was not working for him.
But the problem was not really dissolute living. The root of the prodigal son’s problem was deeper than any particular behavior. The son had effectively disowned his father. He had denied his “sonship.” What came after that denial was just details.
The good news is, the prodigal son eventually saw what he had done.
When the young man hit bottom, he realized he had made a serious mistake. He realized he had squandered more than money. He had squandered his right to call himself his father’s son. It’s like he had lost his identity.
That is when young man “came to himself.” I love that phrase. The prodigal son remembered the life he had with his father. He decided to go home because life with his father, even as a hired hand, was better than life without his father.
Notice the great irony. Only when the prodigal son realized he was no longer worthy to be called his father’s son did he learn to appreciate his father. The prodigal son was more son-like at this point than he was when he was living with his father at the start of the parable. For the first time, the prodigal son seems capable of entering into a proper relationship with his father. His identity, his “son-ship,” was being renewed and made better than it was before, despite his acknowledged unworthiness.
Now we come to the sweetest moment in the parable, when the father first sees his son returning home. The father doesn’t hesitate. While the son was still far off, the father ran and put his arms around his son and kissed him. The father embraced his son and welcomed him home.
The father’s welcome of his son is a surprise, surprising to the prodigal son, surprising to us, too, if we have put ourselves in the father’s place.
It turns out the father had loved his son the whole time. The prodigal son could effectively disown his father. He could leave his father’s house. He could live in ways his father didn’t approve.
But none of that changed his father’s love. Despite what the son expected when he came to himself, the father always saw his son as his beloved child. Now, at last, the young man knows and values his father’s love. The young man’s renewal and restoration as his father’s beloved child is complete.
All of that is true of us, too.
Start back at the beginning. The original failure of the prodigal son, his sin, is presumption and complacency. He thinks of himself as his father’s son in good standing, with all the rights and none of the responsibilities that go with being a son.
That kind of complacency and presumption is a danger and a temptation for us, too, especially for those of us who have been Christians for a long time.
I know I sometimes take God’s love for granted. I float along, thinking everything is OK, while not living at all like God’s beloved child, not inwardly, not in my heart. I can even do the right things, and still not be in right relationship with God, not in a true, faithful, loving relationship with my heavenly Father. In those times it’s like I am God’s son in name only. I am prodigal, whether or not I know it.
When that happens, we need a shock to the system, something to wake us up, help us to come to ourselves, help us to see how far we have strayed.
It doesn’t have to be hitting rock bottom. It can be as simple as a change in the liturgical season. This is exactly what Lent is for.
When we begin to wake up, from whatever cause, when we begin to come back to ourselves, we repent. We turn around. We go home.
The good news of our parable is that there is grace in the very act of turning, of repenting. There is grace in recognizing our desperate need for God’s forgiveness, in longing to feel God’s love, in wanting to live as God’s beloved children even when we aren’t living that way.
In our parable, we see that we experience renewal in repenting, in acknowledging our unworthiness before God. Like the prodigal son, we are more God’s children than we were before. We are made new, once again, new creations, just like Paul says.
The best news of all comes next. God forgives us. God embraces us. God welcomes us home.
It turns out God loves us the whole time. But we know God’s love, we are made new creations in Christ, especially when we repent, when we repent and return to the Lord. Let us do that in Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan