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The Fourth Sunday in Lent                                                 March 6, 2016

This Weekend's Readings (click each reading to view the passage)

Joshua 5:9-12Psalm 322 Corinthians 5:16-21;  Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Pr. Steve's Sermon: What About the Older Son?
Pr. Steve's Sermon: What About the Older Son?

Children's Sermon: Sandals
Children's Sermon: Sandals

Lenten Handbell Songs
Lenten Handbell Songs

Clean Water Presentation
Clean Water Presentation

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Sermon Notes from Pastor Steve...

Whenever you listen to one of Jesus' parables, it's important to listen to the set-up for the story. The set-up is important because it tells you WHY Jesus bothered to tell this story, and the "why" is often really important to understanding the full implications of the parable.
So before you consider today's parable, it's important to pay attention to the first couple of verses: "Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
"So Jesus told them this parable:" But who's "them"? To whom does Jesus direct this parable? Clearly, he's speaking to everybody, but the real target audience isn't the tax collectors and sinners, who clearly understand that they're welcome in Jesus' presence. Instead, the target audience is the grumbling Pharisees and the scribes.
You know - the "good" people. The people who have always tried to listen to God, to do what God wants and to be examples to the rest of the community. They're perfectly happy if "sinners" (whoever they are) repent, but they don't think God should make a big deal of them, and certainly don't think that Jesus should sit and eat with them, like he's at a big party. And often, when Jesus sat and taught, he was having meals with people, so this may in fact have been what was going on.
So basically, the grumbling Pharisees and scribes are the older brother in the parable. And we often ignore the older brother, because we're rightly impressed that the younger brother has recognized that his life is a mess and returned to the father. And we properly get caught up in the great love the Father has for the younger son, even when the son has behaved badly.
And so the older son seems like an addendum to the story. But the message for the older son is important, and not just as a rebuttal to the grumbling scribes and Pharisees. Indeed, it's a major point in the story.
And here's why: most of us love the idea that God welcomes sinners and celebrates the return of the lost, especially when we feel like we've been sinners and we've been lost.

But what about when we feel like the older brother, even when we don't like to admit it? After all, if you're sitting in church listening to the Bible and the preaching, then like the scribes and the Pharisees you're at least TRYING to listen and do what God wants. You know from experience that there are a lot of people who act like they're really sorry for the way they've behaved and treated you and your family, but you suspect that they're really not. And you've probably been taken advantage of by people who act contrite, and you don't want it to happen again.
We sometimes look upon the grumbling scribes and Pharisees as aloof, bad people. But in some ways, they were just being realists. Jesus, how do you know that these folks are really taking you seriously? Are you being used? Are you asking us to be used along with you?
And so Jesus told them this parable. And in the parable, the older son isn't told by the Father that the younger son has cleaned up his act. He doesn't tell the older son that there's no risk in what the Father is doing. And he doesn't tell the older brother that he doesn't have a right to feel hurt and betrayed by the way the younger son treated the family.
But what the Father did do was to:
  • Show the same love and compassion for the older son as the younger son (when the older son sulked outside, the Father came to him, just as he came to the younger son...)  
  • Assure the older son that everything he had been promised was still going to be his ... (his love and care for the older son was in no way diminished by his love and care for the younger son - which is amazing to us considering we usually think of Jesus condemning the scribes and Pharisees. Here, he effectively tells them that God's love and every promise they've trusted in will still be theirs...)  
  • Remind the older son that he didn't just have a private relationship with the Father. Instead, he was part of the family (and so, "this son of yours" becomes "this brother of yours".) And what the Father wanted was for both sons to be part of the party - that is, part of the family ...
And I raise all this, because while we don't often like to admit it, many of us deep down often find ourselves sympathizing with the older brother. But Jesus didn't tell this parable to condemn people who have been trying hard to be faithful to God. Jesus didn't tell this parable to encourage people to live in denial and pretend that they haven't felt hurt and betrayed (notice that the Father doesn't tell the older son that he's got it all wrong about his brother's behavior).
Instead, Jesus told this parable to remind us, especially when we can see the older brother's point of view, that:
  • Our focus shouldn't be on other people's behavior, but on God's love for us (too often, well meaning folks - not just the grumbling scribes and Pharisees - lose sight of God's love in their lives because they're busy focusing on what they perceive as other people's sins; when we do that, the problem isn't just that we can become arrogant and judgmental, but that we completely lose sight of God's love for us; the older son is called to be part of the party not so much to celebrate the younger son, as to celebrate the Father's love ...)
  • To really experience the love of God in our lives, we need to reject the win/lose mentality that governs so much of our lives (often, we have this idea - and sometimes it's true - that if I win, somebody else has to lose; and if I lose, somebody else must be winning. That was the idea the older son had - if the Father loves the younger son, it must mean less for the older son; but that's not the way the kingdom of God works...)
  • While our relationship with God should be personal, it can never be private (like the older son, because of our relationship with the Father, we're always called to be in relationship with others - to be part of the family. And this is really important during Lent, when it's easy to focus spiritually on our "personal relationship with God"; if it ends there, we've missed the point...)
In the final analysis, this parable isn't about how bad the younger son was, or how snarky the older son was. Instead, the point is the great and unbounded love of the Father - the love that Jesus says God has for all of us.
The Father loves the younger son, even though he's behaved badly. The Father loves the older son, even when he's being snarky. And the point of the parable is that the Father calls everybody to party in that love, to share it with others, and to always remember that the greatness of God's love is about who God is, and not about who we are.