The Agony of Waiting; the Joy of Return

A message given Sunday, March 18, 2007
Asbury UMC
Rev. Scott Summerville

Luke 15:1-32

…..15:31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 15:32 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.”

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We are in the thick of Lent.  It is the most solemn season of the church year.  It is the season of our Savior’s sorrows.  It is the season of the cross. The choir will sing this morning the words of Johan Sebastian Bach, words which express the longing of the human heart for release from sorrow:

“Come thou lord Jesus, O why dost thou tarry?  Common now for I am of waiting so weary.  Come now and comfort my heart in despair.  Take me from misery and sorrow and care.  Come now Lord Jesus, O why dost thou tarry? Come now, for I am of waiting so we weary, so weary.”

These words repeat the age-old question: “Why –  why does God’s comfort not come sooner? “

We may be in the solemn season of Lent, but the Gospel lesson today is the happiest of stories, and it is found in the happiest chapters in all of the Bible, the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  Luke sets the scene this way: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. “  Notice the way Luke puts it.  He does not say that a sinner or two and a tax collector were drawing near to Jesus, or that there were some sinners and tax collectors drawing near to Jesus; he says that the tax collectors and sinners – all of them – were drawing near to hear Jesus.

People are judged by the company they keep, and this was certainly true of Jesus. Decent and honorable people could not help noticing the kind of company he kept.  He attracted the worst people.

 This is a frequent theme in the gospels: that Jesus was very indiscriminate and reckless in the people he associated with and ate with.  The reaction was predictable.  Decent people were offended.

The decent people murmured among themselves saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”    The decent people were correct; Jesus did in fact receive sinners and eat with them.

The way the gospel of Luke sets this out for  us, Jesus hears the critical grumbling about the company he is keeping and he responds by telling three stories.  These are three joyful stories.  Taken together they make a joyful chorus.

The first story is about a shepherd who loses sheep, hunts the hills until he finds it, comes back caring that sheep on his shoulders, and says to his friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.”

Just so, Jesus said, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Jesus tells a second story, this one about a woman loses a coin and search her house and finds it and is overjoyed and calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.”

These two happy stories form an introduction to the longer and deeper story that is our lesson for today, the story usually referred to as the story of the prodigal son.

In everyday usage the word prodigal is generally used to describe someone who has strayed from the straight and narrow, someone who has broken the rules, abandoned their responsibilities – that sort of thing.

But the more precise meaning of the term, prodigal, is to spend money wastefully or recklessly; or it can mean yielding abundantly – as in the bounty of nature and nature’s prodigal productions.

So the story of the young man who claimed his inheritance and squanders it can rightly be called the story of the prodigal son.  But there are many levels to this story and at the end of the story it is not the son –  rather it is the father –  who stands accused of being prodigal.

For it is the father who lavishes upon that returning son a purple robe, a  gold ring, a fatted calf, and a celebration banquet. 

To which the older son responds with disgust and contempt aimed at his father.

[25] “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
[26] And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant.
[27] And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’
[28] But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,
[29] but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.
[30] But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’

Isn’t it amazing how two people can see the same situation and place such a different interpretation on it?

 What is for the father the spontaneous and fitting celebration of the return of his younger son is in the eyes of the older son a disgrace and a waste of resources.

So let’s all this “the Story of the Prodigal Son and the Prodigal Father,” because the older brother was right, in a sense; his brother was indeed prodigal; all that hard-earned money that he blew away; what a waste! 

And the father, who should have learned to be more careful with the family’s assets, seems to have learned nothing; the father responds to the return of the son by wasting more of the family’s precious hard-earned resources.  What a waste.

How different it all looked through the eyes of the father. The father’s eyes play a very important part in this story.  As a matter of fact one of the most important moments in the story is in verse 20:

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

His father saw him at a distance.  That phrase signals to us that the eyes of the father had been fixed on the horizon since the moment his son left.  What the older son could not or would not see is that the father’s celebration – all that wine and veal and music and dancing – was not a reward for good behavior; it was not a sign that the father approved of what his younger son had done.  It was a celebration of life. 

His child –  who had gone away and for all he knew was dead and gone for ever  –  was alive.  The agony of his heart had been relieved.  The agony of his waiting was over.

There is agony at the heart of the story.  Perhaps that is what links it to this Lenten season: the agony of the parent who does not know if or when the child will return.  We cannot hear the story of this child and his father today without feeling the pain of countless parents and separations of countless fathers and mothers and their sons and daughters who are far from home and in danger.  War has many agonies: the direct suffering of those who are in combat, the brutalities suffered by civilians, and the agony of long waiting at home for the return of loved ones.  For so many victims of our long and lengthening war, Lent is truly a season of agony.

Johan Sebastian Bach, that master of the music of the soul, expresses the longing of the human heart for connection to the holy one, the anguish of spiritual emptiness and longing, and the agony of waiting for reunion with those we love:  Come now Lord Jesus, O why dost thou tarry? Come now, for I am of waiting so we weary, so weary.

The parables Jesus tells express the human longing to be reunited, to cross over the chasm that death and misunderstanding and distance have created between us and those we love.

The parable also expresses what Jesus called the joy of heaven, the rejoicing in heaven when human lives are recovered, brought back from emptiness and misery and destructiveness. Where there is reconciliation and love and faith on earth there is a double joy: joy of the human heart and the joy of God.

The Story of the Prodigal Son and the Prodigal Father is always deeply personal.  I am sure that everyone of us can find ourselves somewhere in that story and find our family somewhere in that story. It is interesting also to be hearing this story as we are being asked to consider our Christian stewardship.

We have the model of the young son who cashes in the property and wastes all his money. He comes very close to killing himself.  Then there is the older son who is thrifty and hard-working and dutiful  – and stiff and miserable.   Neither one is a particularly good model of stewardship.   

Then there is the father, who does not seem to be the most astute manager of money and property, but his heart is in the right place, and he is happy.

There was a scientific study done recently in which people were shown a photograph of money or a $ sign or other symbol for money.  These images were shown on their computer screens or posted on the wall in their workplace.  The study concluded that people who were exposed to symbols of money or pictures of money –  with no other message being given –  tended to engage in much less cooperative behavior than those who were not exposed to those symbols, and they tended to withdraw from others. I’ll fill you in more about this at a future date  – it’s very interesting.

The study suggested that thinking about money, or even being exposed unconsciously to a symbol representing money, triggers something in the wiring of our brains that makes us less cooperative and less generous.  I find that to be quite intriguing.  Perhaps this phenomenon explains the results of the other research that I mentioned to you a month or so ago, which suggests that people who have more money tend to have more anxiety about money and are more likely to feel that they don’t have enough money.

Both studies are highly relevant to our stewardship as Christians.  It seems our brains are wired so that the more we think about money, the less we are likely to give, and the less joyfully we are likely to give. If we focus our minds on money, count up our assets and bank accounts and net worth and how much soybeans are selling for in Uruguay, our giving will be stiff and reluctant and even resentful. 

But if our hearts are busy with other things:
busy with life,
and service,
and the works of mercy and reconciliation,
and a passion for the future of Earth,
and the quality of life that we want for ourselves and our descendants; our giving will be joyful
and natural
and perhaps prodigal!

It isn’t easy to get this point, but we can grow into it.  I’m sure the prodigal father had many follow-up conversations with his older son. I’m sure he had to tell him more than once why he was wasting his money on that no-good brother:

 “Son –  let me say it one more time – you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  So I spent a few bucks too many on the party – we had to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
Shalom.

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