Before and After Portraits

Sermon delivered on Laetare Sunday, Lent 4C, March 6, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32.1-12; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. Laetare comes from the Latin word meaning to rejoice. It marks roughly the midway point of Lent with its disciplines of self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial, and begins to point us to the joyous celebration of Easter. Hence the rose-colored chasuble I wear this morning. Appropriately, all our readings provide us with biblical portraits of before and after. In other words, what happens to us before God touches our lives and after he does. This is what I want us to look at this morning, focusing especially on Jesus’ wonderful parable in our gospel lesson. As we shall see, we as God’s people in Jesus have much to rejoice about.

We begin with our OT lesson. God’s people Israel have just crossed the Jordan River and are about to enter the promised land. Their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, punishment for their rebellion against God, are about to come to an end. But before they began their conquest of the promised land, God has Joshua, the successor to Moses, order the mass circumcision of every male in camp. Ouch. Given that the Israelites are about to enter battle against formidable opponents, this is a rather curious command God gives his people. Not only is circumcision painful and debilitating (cf. Genesis 34.1-26), it also takes a good while to heal. And after Joshua orders the mass circumcisions, the Lord tells him that, “today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” What’s going on here?

Well, we are getting our first look at God’s before and after portraits. It means we are seeing God renewing his covenant with his people, despite their sin and rebellion against him. God in effect is giving his people a second (and third and fourth) chance to be included as his people and enjoy his promises that God made to them through Abraham (Genesis 17.1-14). There seems to be no consensus among commentators about what God meant when he told Joshua that in their circumcision God had rolled away from them the disgrace of Egypt. But it is a safe and reasonable reading of the text to believe that in saying this to Joshua, God essentially meant that no longer could Israel’s enemies see them as a people despised and rejected by God as they did when they saw God’s people wandering in the wilderness all those years. Israel wasn’t a despised people. They were a covenant people whom God loved and cherished and was about to restore, despite their sinful rebellion. Not only was there circumcision, the sign of entry into God’s people Israel, there was also the renewal of the Passover celebration that commemorated God’s rescue of his people from their slavery in Egypt.

And because we are new covenant people in Jesus, we have analogous rituals as Christians: baptism and the eucharist. Just as circumcision was the sign of being initiated into the Abrahamic covenant and the Passover celebration was the sign of the continuous renewal of that covenant, so are baptism and communion signs of our initiation and place in God’s reconstituted family around our Lord Jesus. As Paul reminds us in Romans, those of us who are baptized into Jesus share in his death so that we can also share in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And we celebrate our place at God’s table of the redeemed each week when we partake in the eucharist, the continual sign of God’s faithful love and promises to us. Despite our hostility toward God, despite our flaws and fears and failures, both big and small, God remains faithful and we are transformed from the walking dead who wander aimlessly in our own respective wildernesses to those who are alive in Christ and who will share in his risen life for all eternity.

To be sure, God’s gracious love demands a response of obedience from us. Since God’s justice will restore all creation to its original goodness, us included, we cannot continue to act in ways that cause evil or abet it. We are called to live like real human beings, not the counterfeits we are so often satisfied with. And of course none of us is able to obey God’s laws perfectly so that we all must die in our sin. But we are resurrection people who are given countless new chances when we act like our old selves before we encountered the love of God, and we have the blood of Christ shed for us as living proof of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness of our sins. What a stark contrast to our before portrait! No more manna. No more uncircumcision, no more wilderness. The old has passed away and all has become new, thanks be to God!

This is exactly what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson. Paul is standing on the promised land side of the Jordan, basking in his new life in Jesus. It changes us, he says. We are new creations in Jesus, bought with the price of our dear Savior’s blood, so that we no longer see things as the world does, but rather as God does. Look at me. I used to consider Jesus a fraud and imposter, and persecuted his people, but no more. I now see we have been reconciled to God though Jesus. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, history has been changed forever. No longer must we wander in the wilderness of our sins, bereft and separated from the love of God. No! We are called to help implement the new creation that God brought about when he raised Jesus from the dead. God’s love for us changes us and helps us to put to death all that is within us that keeps us angry and hostile and rebellious toward God. This process of killing off our wilderness wanderings is a messy and frustrating thing. But take heart. God remains faithful to us even when we do not remain faithful to him (cf. 2 Timothy 2.13). Don’t give up. Persevere. Follow my example as an apostle. Live like you already are living in God’s new world that is free from all evil. Forgive. Love. Be agents of God’s reconciliation won for you in Christ. Share it with others. This constitutes the after portrait of what happens when God’s love touches you. You are a new creation! Not a perfect one, to be sure, but you are a new creation nevertheless. Act the part, therefore. Get ready for the prize that is yours. Here we see the greater context for our Lenten disciplines. We are new creations in Jesus and are called to act the part!

And now we turn to the final before and after portrait in our gospel lesson. Jesus is partying with the lowlifes of his day, tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Substitute your own lowlifes here. They could be terrorists, drug dealers, gang-bangers, your priest. Get somebody in mind as we proceed. Why are you hanging out with these people, Jesus? Why are you partying so much? Respectable people don’t hang around with such scumbags, dude. You must be just like them. This was the hard-hearted attitude that provoked Jesus’ response and here we see the before portrait the Pharisees paint. There are bad people in this world who are outside of God’s love and undeserving of it. They are to be shunned and are worthy of our hostility because they are odious to God. Do you have someone in mind? Yourself perhaps?

In response, Jesus tells them three parables, all about being lost and found. In this third parable, we have the original poster child of the before portrait: the youngest son. He essentially tells his father to drop dead. Give me my inheritance, he demands. Now in Jesus’ day, this just wasn’t done while the parent was still alive, especially when the son was so indifferent or even hostile toward his father. I hate you, dad. You mean nothing to me. Give me my share of your life, of your livelihood, so that I can satisfy my own selfish desires. I could care less about you or your well-being. Those of us who are parents know exactly how deeply this cuts and how great is its power to wound. We must understand this for the story to have its desired effect.

But the father did not get angry with his son. He didn’t disown him. He gave him his share of the family inheritance as requested, and the kid left to squander it away in wasteful and degrading living. The son eventually was reduced to working for gentiles and feeding pigs, the ultimate disgrace for any self-respecting Jew of Jesus’ day. It would be tantamount to getting addicted to drugs and resorting to prostitution or theft or other unsavory activities to support the habit. We look at folks like this with disgust and disdain, especially when we do not know them.

The boy eventually comes to his senses. He realizes he has made a series of catastrophic decisions that have resulted in him living in destitution, and decides to go back to his father and ask for forgiveness. He would be satisfied to work as a hired hand. He realizes that he’s burnt his bridges. Elsewhere, the Bible calls this coming to our right mind “repentance.”

And his father’s response? The boy couldn’t even finish his well-rehearsed speech before the father cut him off and restored him as his son! That’s the meaning of the ring, the sandals, the fatted calf, and the robe. Not only that, but apparently the father had been looking for his son pretty regularly because he spotted him returning home and ran out to meet him, a violation of every social custom of his day. No self-respecting father would do this. But the boy’s father did. His son was dead, but now he was alive. There just had to be a celebration. Here we see the NT’s classic before and after portraits. This son of mine was dead but now he is alive. He’s come to his senses and this deserves a huge party. How can we not celebrate new life??

Of course, the older brother, when he caught wind of what was going on, was enraged. How can you treat a lowlife like that so well? He told you to go drop dead. He told you in effect he hated you or at least didn’t give two cents about you. And what do you do? You throw the kid a party! Me? I’ve always been an obedient son. I’ve kept my nose to the grindstone and what do I get in return? Notta. Zilch. Squat. Zip. If you love self-righteous whiners, you gotta love this kid!

But son—the dad replies with the same patient kindness he showed his younger son—all my possessions have always been yours. Don’t be angry. Come and celebrate.

Jesus didn’t tell us if the older son ever did come to the party and celebrate or what happened the next day. Did the younger son keep on the straight and narrow? We don’t know. But this misses the point Jesus was making: that he was reaching the least, the lost, the marginalized, the people nobody cares about and that good and decent people like ourselves refuse to associate with. And in doing so, death was being changed into life. Did the younger son deserve the father’s mercy and love? No, but he got them anyhow, and so do we. The father and his love for his wayward sons in the parable (and let’s be clear, both were wayward, but in different ways) was obviously God the Father and his love for us, his wayward children. Here Jesus points us to the coming feast of Easter and this is what I want to leave you with this morning.

There are many lessons we can draw from this parable, but I bring three to your attention. First, if you still labor under the delusion that God is a terrible God who is out to get you, especially because you know your own heart and your many sins, this parable directly confronts your delusional thinking in the most poignant of ways. Things weren’t neat and tidy in the parable; there are a lot of unanswered questions. But what is not unanswered is God’s love for us, his image-bearing creatures. Please do not throw that love to the pigs by rejecting it. Please.

Second, this parable challenges us, especially those of us who are “good and proper churchgoers” to take a hard look at ourselves in the proverbial mirror. Are we like the older brother in the parable who look down our nose at those we consider not to be part of us or our church family? Do we get all self-righteous and hard-hearted toward inveterate sinners? Are we willing to forgive as readily as the father forgave his wayward son or do we stand in judgment over those who don’t measure up to our standards and expectations (you know, We’ve upped our standards. Up yours)? Would we rejoice over their salvation if it occurred? I am not talking about being indifferent to sin or speaking out against it. We must always resist sin and speak out against it. I am talking here about being proud, arrogant, and hard-hearted people who are convinced we are saved and are therefore somehow more worthy than those who are not, and who treat them accordingly. Jesus would not be pleased if we can trust the truth behind this parable.

Last, our Lord reminds us that we are no longer dead but alive. We are this way because of his own death and resurrection, and because of our own baptism into both. This calls for a party and outrageous ways of behaving that will offend the hard-hearted. So what are we going to do as resurrection people during the upcoming seven weeks of Easter when we focus on the resurrection and the fact that once we were dead but now are alive in Christ? Easter should be our greatest celebration of the year, not Christmas. We have every reason to party because we’ve passed from death to life! I therefore challenge us as Easter people to witness our joy and faith to the world this Easter season. What will that look like in our life together and in our own private lives? And since it’s still Lent, we should also ask what we need to repent of before we can begin to celebrate. Don’t blow this challenge off, my beloved. It is critical to our witness and mission as Jesus’ people, precisely because we know we have Good News, the best news of all, that we are resurrection people, now and for all eternity. Let us be bold in proclaiming this to the world by how we party so that folks will have to stop and ask us, “What is the meaning of all this celebrating?” To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.