Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (C)
March 14, 2010
Text: Luke 15:1-3a, 11-32

When it comes to confessing sin to God, there are two kinds of confession. One is a confession that does not expect real mercy or real forgiveness, the kind of confession that believes it must work for and earn a new status and relationship to God. The second is a confession that casts itself entirely into the merciful hands of God, pleading no merit of its own, no ability to work for or earn the forgiveness of sins in any way, but pleading the blood and death of Christ alone. The first kind of confession is made on the belief that sins can be worked off, that the sinner can make satisfaction, atone in some way for his sin, even if only in part. We see this in the Roman system where satisfactions are added to confession and absolution, to make the forgiveness of sins an effective remedy for the sinner.[1] But this idea is not unique to Rome. Our fallen nature, with a little help from the devil and the world, always convinces us that we have to “make up for” the bad things we’ve done, our sins. How many people spend their whole lives trying to make up for something they’ve done in the past because they cannot escape their guilt? The problem with this idea of making up for sin is, of course, that it is a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrificial atonement on the cross, where He was punished for all our sins, where He made perfect satisfaction for us, where He alone earned our salvation, our new status before God. Beloved in the Lord, Jesus has done it all for you. You cannot add to His satisfaction, nor do you need to. You are too weak and sinful to add anything. But thanks be to God, Christ paid your debt in full. All your sins are covered by His blood. You are free. And so the only right way to confess your sin is the second way, in such a way that you cast yourself entirely into the merciful hands of God, pleading no merit of your own, but only the blood and death of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The prodigal son (and prodigal, by the way, means wastefully or recklessly extravagant), has sinned against his father. We all know and love the story. There is this man who has two sons. One son is loyal, dutiful, an all around good boy. The second son is rebellious, wild, and greedy. This second son one day goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance. It is as if he said, “Dad, I wish you were dead. I’d rather have the money than have you.” Now most fathers would have a few stern words to say to such a son. But this father does something prodigal, wasteful and recklessly extravagant: He gives the boy what he wants. In fact, he divides the inheritance, all that he owns, and gives both of his boys their share. The older, loyal, dutiful son gets the family farm, as is the custom. The younger, rebellious, wild, undeserving son gets money. And with that money the boy takes a trip to a far land (think Spring Break in Panama City Beach, Florida), and he blows the whole thing, his entire inheritance, in reckless living. And then to top it all off, a severe famine arises in the land. The boy begins to be in need. He looks for a job, but no one will hire him. Finally one of the local pig farmers feels sorry for the boy and gives him a pittance to feed the pigs (and don’t let the irony be lost on you, that this Jewish boy is feeding unclean pigs!). But the job still leaves the boy hungry and dirty and homeless. He longs to eat the pods that the pigs eat, the ones human beings can’t digest, but at least it would be some sort of “filler” for his aching stomach. Look where sin leads this boy. It leads him where sin always leads: To certain death. The sin is fun for awhile, but the fun is meaningless and harmful and quickly comes to an end. Finally sin leaves the sinner in despair and spiritual death, leading to temporal and eternal death. The boy is as good as dead sitting there beside the pig trough.

It is about this time that the boy hits rock bottom. And now he finally comes to his senses. “Wait a minute, here I am sitting next to this pig trough, starving to death, when my father has how many servants back home, all of them well dressed and well fed, with a roof over their heads? I know what I’ll do. I’ll go back home and I’ll confess my sin. ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’ (Luke 15:18-19; ESV). And then I’ll work my sin off: ‘Treat me as one of your hired servants’ (v. 19). Yes, that is what I’ll do. I may not find a kind reception at home, but at least I’ll have food and clothing and shelter and I’ll get away from these stinking pigs.” So the boy arises and sets off for home, a mere shadow of the man he was when he left, skin and bones, still reeking of the pigsty, disheveled, covered in mud and who knows what else.

Now, the boy’s father was heartbroken when his son left him. After all the love the father had prodigally showered upon his son, his son had wished him dead and selfishly taken his share of the inheritance to go and sow his wild oats. Still, the father loved the boy dearly. Everyday the father would spend the hours watching and waiting, hoping against all hope, eyes on the horizon. “Maybe my son will come back to me today.” And one day, over the crest of the hill, still a long way off, a figure appeared. It hardly looked human, but the father would recognize that walk anywhere. “My son! My son!” yells the father. And then he does something unimaginable, prodigal even. This man of means hikes up his robes and runs! Nobody respectable runs in the ancient world, but this father does. Why does he run? Because of his great love for his son. His joy overtakes him. He loses all reason and scruples. He runs to the stinky, rebellious, sinful boy and throws his arms around him. The boy starts to make his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). And right he is, but the father cuts him off before the son makes the rest of the appeal. There will be no talk of satisfaction for sins. There will be no earning of a new status before the father. The father will hear nothing of it. Without any merit or worthiness in the boy, purely out of love and mercy, the father commands his servant to cover the boy with the best robe, put the family signet ring on his finger, fully restore the boy to his original status, that of beloved son. It is all by grace. And now there will be a great party, great rejoicing over this son who has repented, who was dead, but is alive again, who was lost, but is found. There will be feasting. They will kill the fattened calf and eat and drink and be merry all night long.

You, beloved, are the prodigal son. But thanks be to God, your Father is also prodigal. You have squandered your inheritance in reckless living, in sin, which leads only to death. How your father has longed for your return in repentance. He watches for you. His heart aches for you. And whenever you return, whenever you repent, whenever you confess your sins, your heavenly Father runs to you and scoops you up in His arms, filth and all. There will be no talk of satisfaction for sins. There will be no talk of earning a new status before this Father. Your heavenly Father will hear nothing of it. Without any merit or worthiness in you, but solely on account of the merit and worthiness and sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, your God will put the best robe on you, the robe of Christ’s righteousness, given in Holy Baptism. He will put the signet ring on you, making you His own child. And He will set a Table before you, the Table of His Son’s true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. It is a foretaste of the eternal feast to come, where you will eat, drink, and be merry in the presence of God and His Christ forever and ever.

Of course, there is another son in this story. He hears the merry-making as he is coming in from another day in the fields. He grabs a servant and asks what all the hubbub is about. “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound” (v. 27). Now one might expect this son, too, to be overjoyed at the return and restoration of his brother. But this son instead is angered and refuses to go in to the party. The prodigal father leaves the party to beg his older son to join in the festivities. But the boy is jealous. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him” (vv. 29-30). Beloved in the Lord, many of you are also this older, jealous son. For this son represents the Pharisees and every lifelong member of the Christian Church who thinks that one must earn his status before God, or that at least his good works give him a special status ahead of the bigger sinners in the congregation. This son represents every Christian who feels superior to unbelievers for having been chosen as God’s child, every Christian who feels superior to drug dealers and rapists, IRS men and prostitutes and prodigal sons, you know, the really “big” sinners. This son represents every Christian who looks upon his neighbor in self-righteous judgment, judging himself better than others. This son does not make confession of sins, because he believes he has already made satisfaction for himself, and so, he too, denies the sufficiency and even necessity of Christ’s sacrificial atonement. Beloved, repent.

And join the party. Rejoice over the dead who have been raised to new spiritual life. Rejoice over the lost who have been found. Rejoice that God has found you, brought you to faith, raised you to new spiritual life, and given you an inheritance and life eternal in Christ Jesus. We don’t know whether the second son ever goes in to the party. The story is intentionally ended as an open question, because now the question is what you will do. Will you continue to believe that a sinner must work for his status before God and work off his sins, earn his salvation, earn his standing in the Christian community? Or will you believe that this is all by grace, for Christ’s sake, without any merit or worthiness in you? Will you cast yourself into the merciful hands of God, pleading only the blood and death of Christ? For that is true confession of sins. That is a confession that expects and receives absolution, the forgiveness of all sins on account of Christ, our crucified God.

In Christ, Beloved, you are reconciled to the Father. In Christ you are a new creation. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). And all of this is from God. It is not by our works. It is through Christ, who has reconciled us to Himself, so that God no longer counts our trespasses against us (vv. 18-19). Therefore let us confess our sins, not in such a way that we might thereby work them off, not expecting a list of satisfactions by which we may add to the atonement of Christ, as if we could, but in this way: Casting ourselves on the mercy of God and receiving full and free forgiveness of all of our sins in Christ alone. In this way God covers us once again with our Baptismal robe of Christ’s righteousness and prepares a great feast for us on this altar. And God, without any merit or worthiness in us, but only because of His Son Jesus, calls us once again by the Christian family Name: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1995) pp. 404, 407-08.

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