The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Series C – Luke 15:1-3a, 11-32
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.
This Season of Lent, is at its core, all about repentance.
It’s a time in which we think and reflect deeply not only about our own sinfulness, but upon the kind of savior that Jesus must be, that he is destined to be in order that we might be redeemed.
That Jesus comes not only to put a Band-Aid over our careless mistakes, not only to help us out in the righteous deeds that we’ve failed to accomplish, but to forgive our whole person, our whole nature.
That in his death, we might be put to death, so that in his resurrection we too might be made alive as his new creation.
Lent is all about repentance.
And in that season, we attempt to keep our focus and attention on that theme with many such things.
Perhaps it’s attempted in our giving up something for Lent, and focusing on Christ and His Word instead of that cookie, or coffee, or television set.
Or, perhaps this whole practice, helps to us to recognize how truthfully weak and fragile our fallen flesh really is, and how unable and unwilling we are to give up even the most mundane of things.
Or maybe it’s found in attending our midweek Lenten services and so hearing the Word of Christ and being grounded in His Faith.
That we would the fullness of God’s Law go out, see and believe our sinfulness, confess it, repent of it, be found in grace and be grafted into the Gospel of Christ crucified for you.
Yet, in any case, try as we might to focus perfectly on this season of Lent and its theme of repentance, we are bound to fall short, become distracted and even forget why we’re here.
We will have moments of forgetfulness and distraction during this sermon and perhaps every sermon. We will eat that cookie, drink that cup of coffee, and fall back into bad habits as much as we try to fast from them.
We will choose not think too deeply of our own sinful condition, but rather brush it off for another day.
Which at the end of the day, is to say, that our repentance, and even merely thinking about repentance itself, is imperfect, it misses the mark, and in that we see how fallen we really are.
On this Fourth Sunday in Lent as we look to the parable of the Prodigal Son, we see this very same theme cry out from our text in Luke 15.
That of ‘imperfect’ repentance meeting up with perfect, full, exuberant, and joyful absolution.
For as we look to the Prodigal Son himself, and carefully examine his ‘coming into his right mind’ and his recited confession, what we find is really nothing all that profound, nothing all that faithful, and most certainly nothing that we would call perfect.
Even after he has squandered the entirety of his father’s possessions and wealth, even after he has tried to make it on his own by hiring himself out and so feeding and living with the pigs, even after as Jesus says, “he comes to his senses”, his return to the Father’s house is not as it would seem in the text, motivated by his all-encompassing love for his father.
He does not return to his Father’s house in order to serve in him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.
His journey back is not quickened by his self-sacrificial love, his return to give all of himself into the Father’s hands.
Instead as the parable indicates, he came to his senses and cried out, “How many of my Father’s hired-servants have bread to spare, and I wallow here dying of starvation?”
He returns not for the sake of love, but out of despair, motivated by his basest of needs.
He needs bread, food on his table, a roof over his head, and he sees his Father’s house as the source of all these needs.
His repentance is imperfect.
If we think that repentance is fulfilled by saying that we love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul, then we are not seeing ourselves as we truly are.
For we too, return to God motivated by nothing more than our basest of needs, the guilt of our sins, the condemnation of the Law, it strikes at our very hearts so that we see and believe that we’ve sinned and so return to God.
But in that return do we really possess in our hearts a sacrificial and perfect love for God, a desire to fully live under him in his kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. Is our repentance not also imperfect?
As we move on through the parable, we look to the Son’s well-rehearsed confession, he says, “I have sinned against heaven and before You, I am not worthy of being called your Son, therefore, treat me as one of your hired servants.”
These words, the Prodigal Son most likely recited all the way back to his Father’s House. He carefully rehearsed them, crafting the confession in such a way to address his Father with the deepest humility.
To be sure, there are words of truth found within his recited confession, indeed, he has sinned against heaven and before his Father, but the problem here is not so much in the words he uses, but the object of hope that he trusts to be his sure and certain forgiveness.
For the Son’s repentance is again found as imperfect, as he returns to the Father not trusting in his mercy and grace, but rather in the exchange of humility for servitude.
There is a difference between confessing our sin because the Lord is merciful, and confessing our sin, because we think that by our humility and sorrow we can exchange our tears for absolution.
The difference is subtle, but it absolutely matters, for this kind of imperfect repentance leads us to trust in something that will always fail and fall short.
Mercy given because of humility is not mercy at all. Just as grace given because we done and offered something is not grace at all.
The Prodigal Son thinks that if he can bow as low as the dirt, and present his words in just the right order, then the Father’s anger will be satisfied and he will let him earn his keep as a hired servant.
And though we may not bow during confession and absolution so that we hit our heads on the pew in front of us, we are nonetheless given to same dangerous temptation of mind and spirit.
For do we not imagine at times that with enough tears, enough sorrow, enough desire to never sin again, that the Lord will in turn really forgive us?
Do we not worry that if we just say the words, that his forgiveness is somehow different?
Do we not in our hearts sometimes barter with God and promise him our faithfulness in exchange for his mercy again this one time?
Like the Prodigal Son, we imagine that we can give God something in exchange for the Mercy that he would give for free.
We come into this place, and to the Father’s heart, perhaps with right words, but in our fallen flesh, we often fail to have the right hope, the right peace, the right mercy.
Our repentance is imperfect.
Yet the Lord’s Absolution, the Father’s Mercy, is not only perfect despite our imperfections, but it interrupts our expectations, it cuts us short in our humble presentations, it halts and ignores our attempts to barter and bargain.
For the Lord’s Mercy is true Mercy, it is not bought, it is undeserved, it flows from the very depths of the Father’s heart.
It is a mercy that we could have never expected, a love that we cannot even begin to fathom, a joy that we know not in our own hearts.
The Lord is interrupting with his grace, his love is unexpected.
For indeed, at the very heart of the parable is this incredible truth:
That it is his absolution, his Word of mercy, his own work and his own sacrifice, that makes and calls you a son, that binds you into the family, that robes, covers and places over those imperfections, his perfect grace, his perfect faith, his perfect mercy.
Indeed as we come to the Lord we come in the frailty, weakness and ignorance of our flesh, we come with imperfect faith, with imperfect repentance, with imperfect hope…but what he gives not only washes away what we’ve failed to bring, but it fills up, perfects and hands completely over the fullness of who he is.
For when you hear the Words of the Father as he speaks to you, “I therefore, forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”…see and believe what exactly is being given.
That into your ears, hearts and faith is given nothing less than Christ himself.
He who has placed his own robe of righteousness over your imperfect flesh in Holy Baptism.
He who has made you family by His own blood, his own body, given and shed, the family ring, given to you.
He who has become that fattened calf, born and raised to die, so that you might be received with joy, peace and celebration.
Indeed the Father’s absolution interrupts our imperfection, it brings us all the way home, it makes our faith perfect in Christ, our hope certain, and our labors finished.
We are not worthy, but that is not what matters, for that is the very nature of Mercy and Grace. What matters is that by the blood of his Son, he has declared and made it so, you are his own, you are forgiven, you are held fast in this family unto life everlasting.
Indeed, we will still come into this place and to the Father’s House with imperfect faith and imperfect repentance, but take heart, Christ has been crucified for you, his Word is enough, you are joyfully and mercifully his own.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.