“Encountering Forgiveness” sermon from Sunday

Message Manuscript for “Encountering Forgiveness” Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
Delivered to Church for the Highlands   John Henson
Fourth Sunday of Advent, March 6, 2016

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” That’s a quote commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. It turns out, though, it isn’t from him. Apparently, the closest thing he ever wrote to it is, “Oft expectation fails, and most oft there//Where most it promises.” (All’s Well That Ends Well, act II, i, 145) Whichever quote you go with, the truth here is that expectations are often disappointing.

The story Jesus told of a prodigal son is one full of expectations.  There is the expectation the father has for his sons, the expectation the sons have of the father, the expectation of the prodigal son’s new “friends,” the expectations the son has of how life will be when he has money, the expectation the son has about his punishment when he returns home, the expectations of the brother about how his brother should or shouldn’t be treated by his father, and other expectations you might find in this perennial story with life lessons aplenty. All of these expectations are exceeded in various ways, but one stands out the most; the son’s expectation about his father’s response to his bad choices and resulting downward spiral into shame.

The son already had his speech worked out for when he would face his father.  He already knew how his father would treat him.  His expectations were based on what he knew of how forgiveness worked based on how his father had acted in the past or how he himself has treated people who had wronged him.  And he knew he deserved what his father would do to him, but must have had at least some expectation of his father’s love for him, enough for him to think he could still go home even if just to become a servant for his father. This prodigal son, however, was in for a wonderful surprise, one that would preempt his groveling and plea for mercy. He didn’t get what he expected, but more than he expected.  More of everything he didn’t expect:  his father waiting for him to come home, running to him with arms open wide, words of welcome, the call for a party with the best of food, with new clothes and shoes, and over the top expressions of his unconditional love for his son who had come home.

The father’s response must have come as a real twist in the story for the people gathered around Jesus that day.  Like you and me, they were probably thinking to themselves about how much trouble the son was going to be in when he came back home; of what they would do to him if they were the father.  Who could blame them for thinking this way, given all of the selfishness, ingratitude, irresponsibility, and foolishness of this son? In their minds and ours, he really shouldn’t have bothered coming home after what he did.  And if he did, his arrival would have been met with words and gestures of shame and indignation; perhaps a quick trip to the woodshed. Isn’t this what we see in the older brother’s expectation of his father? What must have shocked them—and probably shocks us still today—is not the older brother’s reaction; it’s the reckless approach of forgiveness the father gives his son. Why, he’s just enabling him in his sinful lifestyle, rewarding him with a party and gifts he certainly didn’t deserve or have any more need of, we would conclude. We would wonder about this father’s parenting skills for letting his son off the hook like this.
Jesus expanded their understanding of God’s forgiveness that day.  We are the crowd hearing this story today, one in need of having our understanding of forgiveness expanded as well. You probably do understand that God loves you or you wouldn’t have taken the time to be here today.  But do you understand it to the point of letting it change your life?  Has it become clear to you yet what difference it can make for you to know that God is like that father; that Jesus wants you to know that God never stops waiting for you to come back home, that God isn’t going to take you to the woodshed and make you pay for what you have done to him, to yourself, and to other people?  What amazing transformation there will be in your life when you see the kind of Father you have.

That’s what we are to know as we hear this story again today: that God exceeds our expectations of forgiveness.  Why is that important?  Maybe its because we have such normal expectations for God.  We so easily make God into our own image, attributing to God the characteristics and actions that we have and know.  Maybe we need this story because we have such a hard time forgiving ourselves, not believing that we are forgivable; that we are an exception to God’s grace.  It could also be that we are hearing this story because we actually don’t know unconditional love and, consequently, we can’t believe it really does exist for us.  Maybe we need to hear this again because  we are so much like the resentful bitterness of the older brother that we need to spend more time with the lavish love of the father.  We all have our reasons. Why are you hearing this story of Jesus today?

It was great to hear “Desperado” this morning, a familiar song about such a familiar character we all know in ourselves: the Prodigal. Have you ever really listened to the end of it,

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you (let somebody love you)
You better let somebody love you before it’s too late.

The end of the song doesn’t actually have to be the end for the Desperado, just like the end of your wayward path doesn’t have to be the dead end. The message of Jesus here is that somebody does love you. Are you willing to come home and let God love you?

[Audio of this sermon is here]

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