For the Love of the Father

Lord Jesus help, us to remember that we are a new creation that the old has passed away and the new creation that you long to make us into is coming.  Help us to remember that you will clothe us with your mercy, grace, and peace. Refresh us this day. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

There was a man from the early church named Augustine of Hippo who lived in North Africa. If you know your geography Israel, where Jesus is from, sits along the Mediterranean Sea. When Jesus was crucified and resurrected the church began to spread down along the coast and into north Africa. Some of the oldest churches in the history of the Christian story are in these places. Augustine grew up in a wealthy family with a Christian mother who sought to share her faith with her son. Augustine however wanted little to do with the Christian faith. The early church often suffered seasons of persecution and hardship and he found the faith very constricting and unattractive. Augustine aspired to be a wealthy person and to enjoy all the wild delights this life would hand him. His mother prayed continually for him and constantly brought up the notion of becoming a Christian despite him pushing her away and living a really sinful life. He was wild and yet the Lord continued to seek after him. 

There is an excellent book called Augustine For Armchair Theologians by Stephen A. Cooper, in which his story is powerfully displayed. He lived a riotous life enjoying the pleasures of partying, various and sundry love affairs, and running wild with his fancies. And yet God came and sought him out and he went on to give the church an incredible legacy of teaching and aspiring to holiness. The incredible works he wrote are the City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and the Confessions. You can still read these works today and I would encourage you to find them and read them. In one excerpt from his writing, Confessions, he writes, “I want to recollect my bygone filthy deeds, the fleshly corruptions of my soul, not because I love them but so that I might love You, my God. For love of Your love I’m doing this sort of thing, recalling my wicked ways in the bitterness of my examination so that You might become sweet to me, a sweetness that is not false, a sweetness happy and secure, one which gathers me up from the dispersion in which I was cut apart for naught. Turning away from You who are One, I lay waste among many things. For at that time of my youth, I burned to be satiated with hellish things. I even dared to grow wild with various shadowy loves. My beauty faded away, and I became putrid in Your eyes, pleasing myself and desiring to please human eyes. And what was it that delighted me but to love and to be loved?” 

Augustine rejected his mother, christianity, and anyone of faith and yet he eventually came to see that the love of the Father was far more fulfilling than any pleasures he could find on earth and he had tried many of them. He summed it up best when he said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The love of our Father is the only antidote to brokenness in the world and brokenness in our lives. There is nothing in this world that will leave you satiated or feeling as if you have enough. Not money, sex, drugs, food, shopping, or acquistion of stuff can fill the longing we have in our souls. It is only when we stand in front of the Father and let him love us wholly and rightly that we can feel satiated. The scriptures say that we are naturally selfish people longing after the things we can see and touch in the world. We are all addicts and lovers of things that are not of Him, we often love the created things more than the Creator. 

 For those of us in the church we need to allow God to work in people’s lives to change them, turn them around, and give them a new life. Augustine’s later life was used to bring about teaching, doctrine, and the teaching of holiness of life to others. God used a broken story to bring about others to His mercy and good news. Augustine truly was a prodigal son who came back to the faith and was used for God’s glory. His brokenness allowed him to connect with people and for new converts to find a way to the Father. In the westminster’s catechism it asks a question, “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We can not be truly known and found without God and our whole lives need to be pointed to him so that others might see the way to the Father. When we sacrifice our time, energy, and finances for another person then we are invested in eternity. Loving others, serving others, giving of ourselves is the way of the Christian life. It is by losing our life that we will find it. God used Augustine’s early broken years to keep him humble and to help others see a way to Jesus. 

If you have fallen in love with Jesus then you should be changed. You should not be the same person you were when you found the Lord. As time moves by in our lives we are supposed to be seeking out ways of drawing closer to God, sitting quietly with Him waiting to hear what He wants to do with our lives. Lent is this precious time in the year when we are given many weeks to hear the Lord in our lives. Maybe it is your anger the Lord wants to address, maybe your obsessive checking of your phone, or maybe your cross, judgmental attitudes towards others is what the Lord wants to address. Perhaps our need to always be busy and to never linger or slow down. We can not encounter God unless we make space for hearing Him. Dan Rather, CBS anchor, once asked Mother Teresa what she said during her prayers. She answered, “I listen.” So Dan turned the question and asked, “Well then, what does God say?”  Mother Teresa smiled with confidence and answered, “He listens.” A relationship in listening to God does not have to have words. You can just sit and be with him. Sometimes our rushing around and avoiding God is our sinful nature not wanting to take time and energy to encounter Him. I think we are often afraid of what we might hear from God. I think we often fear judgment, harsh words, and guilt and shame. I promise you that if you come close to God the Father He is the perfect Father, who loves you perfectly and longs to soothe your harried mind and soul. 

Our gospel passage today is one of the prodigal Son. Jesus tells a story of a father with two sons. One of his sons asks for his inheritance early from his father, which his father gives over even though Jewish custom was not to give an inheritance until you have died. The father loves his son even though his son is essentially saying, “I wish you were dead.” The younger son then goes off away from the family to live as he pleases and to see the world without any anchor at home or plans to return. The son then frivolously spends his money in riotous living and before you know it his funds are gone. 

Money is a bit like water if you do not tell it where to go it will slip through your fingers. The young son is a wonderful example to us of foolish versus wise  spending. Money is simply a tool given to us that we either steward, live beneath our means, avoid debt, and deny ourselves instant gratification by setting aside and saving funds for when the hard times come. God has done miraculous things in our lives by living by these principles and we found them in the Bible. The young son spent his money with passion and emotions and did not plan for difficult seasons. Every single one of us will have hard seasons. Our governments will struggle, we will face inflation, we may face illness, or unemployment or underemployment. Living beneath your means, owing nothing to anyone, and saving for repairs for your house, car or cars, boats, or any other responsibilities that you have is responsible living. God wants us to be able to ride out the difficult times with more security for our families and ourselves. God wants us to be able to be generous with those who are around us in less fortunate situations when widespread calamity occurs. 

The young son did not plan or think about hard times and he ended up being in a place that faced a famine. He had made bad choices and then natural disasters were occuring at the same time. I am not sure if you have ever lived during a famine as I have not known that level of scarcity, however a friend of ours became the Bishop of the Horn of Africa and he came home and shared with us what it was like to live through a famine. Where he served was extremely poor and war torn and they were in the middle of a famine. When the government subsidized trucks rolled into his town all of the seats and floor boards would be removed from the truck so that every grain of corn could be found. Not even one grain of corn should be lost as every piece of food was needed for bare minimum survival. The prodigal son would have found it most difficult to find work and the cost of everything would have been extremely high. The only work he had was to be hired by a local man to tend the pigs. For a Jew no occupation could have been more distasteful. A rabbinic saying runs, ‘Cursed be the man who would breed swine’. The pig was unclean (Lev. 11:7) and the Jew under normal circumstances would have nothing to do with it at all. The young man must have been in desperate straits even to consider this job.

The scriptures say the young son longed to eat the food of the swine however no one was helping him or providing him with provisions. The son may have been stealing the pigs food as he had nothing. It was in this low place of disgust and filth that he began to remember his family and to remember what his father’s servants would have been eating. Not every master was good to his workers as the young son was finding out, however his father was good to his servants and always provided what they needed. He thought that just maybe his father would allow him to work as a servant and he could at least survive. At the rate he was going, survival was not going to happen. I can not imagine his journey to home, with no provisions and working and starving in the pig sty he must have been a total smelly, starving mess. 

The young man resolved to go home. If his initial motive was not particularly lofty, the desire to be better fed, the confession he planned to make is a classic. He expressed sorrow not for what he had lost but for what he had done: he had sinned. Sin is always sin against God first. When we sin we should go to God first tell Him what we have done wrong and seek His forgiveness, then go to the people or person we have sinned against and apologize. In our Anglican tradition Lent is the time when we are supposed to make appointments with your priests to hear confessions in preparation for Easter. Canon Chris and I are here if you want to make a confession. They can be done in two different ways: one, we can have a casual conversation where you talk about what is burdening you and standing in the way of your relationship with God. The second way is to use a formal liturgy where you bring a list and share your sins at a given time in the liturgy. Both ways can be opportunities to unburden you from the weight of sin in your life. They are ways in which you can be freer, you can find this liturgy called the Rites of Healing, Reconciliation of Penitents on page 223 of your Prayer Book.  I would encourage you to look at it and pray through whether or not God wants to set you free with this gift of the church. I think the ending of the liturgy sums it up best when the priest says to you the final words, “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.” We are all in this hard, sometimes messy, and beautiful life together cheering each other on to glory. 

In the gospel passage Jesus emphasizes the welcome the father gave his unworthy son. He saw him while he was still at a distance, he had compassion, he ran (which was striking in an elderly Middle-eastern man) and he kissed him with tender love and pure joy. There was an incredible teacher named Kenneth Bailey who lived and pastored in the middle east for 60 years and he wrote extensively on understanding the New Testament through the cultural eyes of the time. He said that an elderly man would never have been caught running and exposing his legs in front of others. The more established and wealthy he was, the slower he should move with grace and poise. To show the love and concern that this father is showing was unheard of at the time. The younger son would have brought great shame upon the entire family and their response was supposed to be one of shunning and beating. Instead Jesus paints a picture of profound unheard of love. The father loves when the natural human response should be expulsion or exclusion. We are all the young sons and daughters for every one of us has gone astray and needs the redemption of the Father. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. All of us bring shame to our Christian family at one time or the other and yet the reality is that God the Father loves us greatly. He longs to see you coming, to run out to greet you, and to cloth you as one of His people. 

The older son’s response is really for those of us who have been in the church for a long time. The older son grows angry and indignant at the lavish love of the father for the renegade son. The older son feels looked over, not noticed, and not appreciated for his faithfulness. I truly believe this passage of scripture is meant to open our hearts wide and to expose our brokenness and need for the Father’s love. Have you been serving in the church for a time? Do you feel pride in the things that you do? Do you look down on others for not doing as much as you do? Do you feel overlooked, not noticed, and as if the church is always focusing on finding others? Jesus says that the older son was always welcome to the things of the father and he did not really understand what being a son means. That is perhaps why he did not understand what being a father means. He could not see why his father should be so full of joy at the return of the prodigal son. Jesus is inviting us today to look into our hearts and to see where we are the young prodigal son rejecting the ways of the Lord, and where we are the self-centered older son who feels hurt and overlooked. 

To this son as to the other the father’s words are tender. They are both sons and he loves them both. He makes it clear that he appreciates this son’s constant attendance. He says plainly that the property settlement stands: all that is mine is yours. He does not propose to interfere in any way with the rights and possessions of the faithful elder son. The father cares for both sons and longs to love them back into the family. Jesus paints this portrait of how earthly relationships are to be so that we might see how much He longs to draw us continually back to Himself whether we are pushing away from Him, or running from Him, or out right rejecting Him. Or even staying close to Him, however judging others along the way. God the Father longs to love you in the right way with a compassion that extends beyond what you can imagine for yourself or for others. Jesus has paid the ultimate price for our freedom so that we can experience the love of Christ. 

The welcome to the younger son was not simply a good thing which might or might not have occurred. It was the right thing. The father had to do it. Joy was the only proper reaction in such a situation. Notice that he does not speak of ‘my son’ but of your brother. The older boy might try to overlook the relationship, but it was still there. The father will not let him forget it. And he finishes by repeating the wonderful thing that has happened: the dead have come to life, the lost is found. God in heaven rejoices when one of His beloved comes into a saving relationship with Him. God in heaven longs to see His people return to Him. The question for us today is can we let God welcome His people even when we do not think they deserve mercy? Can we make space for others to turn from their ways and come to God. 

The pandemic has facilitated a serious cultural acceleration in the United States of America. Over the past couple of decades more and more people are leaving the church and generations of people are missing from the church. The pandemic accelerated this cultural trend which can be very disheartening for those of us who love the church. We can either sit in sadness and blame the stinky pandemic or look at this as an opportunity to share the gospel. The average American functions much like a pagan. There are large numbers of people who know nothing of the Christian story and nothing of Jesus. What an incredible opportunity we have to share the lavish love of the Father with those who have never heard any of it. The Christian stories of God’s working in the world have been used by countless missionaries to draw people close to the gentle loving Father. God wants you and I to be outposts for His working in the world sharing our own stories of His miraculous healing.

One such missionary who changed the lives of so many people was Gladys Alyward. She was an English missionary who failed out of mission school. She was told to go onto something else as she was not smart enough to learn Mandarin Chinese. Undeterred she got hired to be a house maid and saved every penny to buy a train ticket to war torn China. Gladys encountered numerous difficulties but eventually made it to a town where she settled and started sharing the stories of the Bible with people who had never heard of them. She learned Mandarin and got to work slowly and steadily and God began to work in the lives of people in China. Over and over again she loved well, cared for others at great expense to herself and did remarkable things for the kingdom of God. At one point she took 94 children over the mountain ranges on foot to rescue them from the Japanese occupation. Her adventure was perilous and yet she was just a normal person with a passion for others to know the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. You too can live a life that draws others to the love of God and inspires them in a life of holiness. 

So may God draw you close to Him and may you see His gentleness, His goodness, and His compassion for you. May you linger in front of the only One who can heal your heart, mind, and soul. May God give you courage to confess your sins and what keeps you from Him and may you find Him mighty to save. And may the Lord show your prodigal son attributes and your elder son tendencies so that He might set you free and give you a new life. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen

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