Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
31st Mar 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Luke 15.1-3, 11-32. The Prodigal Son.
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. Luke 15.32
Luke gathers together in his gospel in the one place three stories of Jesus -- the parable of the Lost Sheep – the parable of the Lost Coin – and the parable of the Lost Son, otherwise known as the Prodigal Son. They follow each other – one—two—three. All these parables enhance and elaborate the theme of loss, each in its own way enlarging the dimensions of what it means to be lost and then to have found and to celebrate with great joy and thanksgiving. All of these parables tell us profound things about the nature of God, and of his unconditional love.
The theme of love and of loss is a key to our understanding of who we are. You know the old piece of unwanted advice given to someone after the collapse of a relationship: “Better to have loved and lost and not to have loved at all”. (From Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’). It is irritating because there is more than a grain of truth in it, and that love and loss walk hand in hand. But any saying which becomes well-worn is often used in an insensitive manner. And then there is the long tradition of singing songs which in a melancholy way, celebrate the idea of love as a parting of company and of a meeting again and of a keeping of faith. In the last World War, songs like ”We’ll Meet Again” and in the First World War “Goodbyee, Goodbyee, Wipe a Tear Baby dear from your eyee” struck a deep chord… Because death and unsureness intervened. Two statues in London railway stations commemorate the poignant quality of human separation and the hope of a return to meeting once more. The giant modern one at St Pancras International Station by Paul Day entitled ‘Meeting Place’ and the rather beautiful and moving bronze statue of a (departing) soldier by Charles Jagger on Platform 1 of Paddington Station and entitled ‘Letter from Home’ (see over).
Let us remember that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is seminal Christian Teaching and arguably Jesus’ most important parable. Important because it teaches us about God and about the extent of his love. If God is love then this must be a love which is recognizable for us and for our experience of life on this earth. It must be seen and known. As we look at the painting of the prodigal son by Rembrandt we come to know that this is no ordinary scene but shot through with much deeper meaning. The Father and the son are plunged into full light. This light reaches its most intense power as it shines on the father’s face and onto the sons shoulders as a blessing. The son who stayed at home is painted scowling down at this scene and standing in the half light. The father’s face is as we might imagine God the Father, infinitely kind and loving, as he places his hands in blessing on the son very delicately, almost with reverence. The love the father has shown the son, even as he experienced its apparent rejection is nonetheless returned to him. Love has won through and this is cause for rejoicing. The painting presents an icon of God the Father’s love for us all, we who have in the past found ourselves in the prodigal state. In the context of Lent, it is this same strong and unconquerable love which under vastly different circumstances will enable God’s own son, Jesus Christ to proclaim that “I and the Father are One”.
I once was once asked to take a Bible Reading Class at Pentonville Prison, and the chosen reading was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. About 50 prisoners came to the meeting and after some prayers and initial discussion we split up into three groups, with one group taking the part of the father, the other the prodigal son and the third the son who stayed at home. What ensued was fascinating. The parable encouraged the understanding of these three men from within the prisoners’ own experiences of their own fathers. Swirling around this story were feelings of anger at the favoritism shown to the prodigal son, of thinking about the father/son relationship generally and of differing accounts of its trustworthiness. Someone came to see this parable as the one which provides the Christian answer to all the earlier Old Testament accounts of sibling rivalry, as between Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, and of Jacob and Esau…But undoubtedly what was moving was the idea of a love from which a restoration to new life and of forgiveness could emerge. The hope of this for many prisoners was felt very deeply. Lost sons seeking to find a loving father. The gap between the experienced reality and the hoped for, perhaps impossible reconciliation with the father was expressed very movingly and even tearfully.
The theme of love and of loss and of the keeping faith is allied to the theme of love’s return. But this is no romance that is being playing out: it is no sentimental ‘weepie’. Because this love is who God really is. He loves what we are and longs for our reconciliation; come what may. The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that the prodigal Son guesses (perhaps in a calculating way) that his Father will forgive him. His return would be manipulative were it not for the fact of his willingness to ‘own up’ and to put a name to what has been going on and of his own unworthiness. To repent. He begs understanding. He has in a sense touched ‘rock bottom’ and now throws himself into his Father’s dependable care, just as his father’s understanding issues in joy and in the throwing of an extravagant party. His experience is a resurrection experience ‘This my son was lost and is found was dead and has come back to life. What a journey out! What a return!
The restoration of love is likened to the return to God after a long absence, or after an absence of care on our part: God is always, like the father he is, ready to welcome us back. His love is for us a restoration of our life’s experience to its place of truest order and of peace. It is a love that has never ever gone away. It is we who have gone away.
We may like the prodigals we are, choose to wander, and we are of course free to do that. We bear in mind, however, that God remains the place of our true return and its everlasting habitation. I is this note of joyful assurance the beckons us to enter into Christ’s Passion in the triumph of grace over adversity and of dependable love over the wayward heart.