Over the past four or so weeks we have joined as a parish in the Lenten practices of fasting and praying and (soon-to-be-added) almsgiving. These spiritual disciplines have long been recognized as really good tools for connecting us with God — and for revealing just how little we have our spiritual stuff together. We fast, and, um, fail. We pray, and, um, get distracted. We try and try and try and end up finding out that we are seemingly incurable sinners.
People have often remarked that Lent can be a serious downer for precisely that reason. Now more than at any other time in the church year, we are reminded of how imperfect we are, how easily we submit to temptation, and how even the best of us make mistakes. In the words of one of my favorite hymns, we are “Prone to wander, . . . prone to leave the God we love.”
So if that’s the case, where does that leave us?
In our Gospel lesson today, we hear one of the most famous stories in the Bible. There once was a man with two sons. One day, the younger of the brothers came to his father and said, “Give me my inheritance,” which is essentially the same thing as telling your dad you’d rather him be dead than alive. But our protagonist (?) doesn’t care. He gets what he wants, and then he leaves, going as far away as he possibly could go from the man to whom he owed his very existence. And, as we know, once he got to where he was going, the younger son spent all of his money on booze and sex and every pleasure he could get his hands on. But then his money ran out and a famine arrived and no one cared that this once-wealthy man was now relegated to the pig pen.
Sitting in the mud, watching the pigs eat and hating them for it, the younger son wept. He was dirty and ashamed of the dirt and the actions that had brought him there. But what could he do? He had no money, no friends, no back-up plans. All he had was the man he once called father, a man he knew to be just but also gracious. “My father treated his slaves better than this. Perhaps he will have mercy on me, though I am no longer worthy to be called his son.” Picking himself up out of the mud, he began his journey home.
Now we don’t really get a description of what was going on in the Prodigal Son’s mind at this point. Was he repentant? Maybe. Was he just making the best of a bad situation? Perhaps. Jesus doesn’t care about that backstory because the focus of his story, the goal it has all been moving toward is the moment I’m about to describe.
Coming around the bend in the road, while he was still far off, “His father saw [his son] and was filled with compassion.” His father, the one he had abandoned, had wished dead, was suddenly running toward him. And before this wastrel child could get a confession out of his mouth, his father grabbed him up in his arms and called to his servants and said, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
No one, least of all the Prodigal son, expected such an ending from the way our story began. That kind of unquenchable mercy is almost unimaginable. It sounds like a bad idea. We catch ourselves thinking, the father is just setting himself up to be hurt again. Chances are his son will leave again. But none of that matters to the one who had been so terribly wronged in the first place.
All those years, the Father waited and watched. He walked the boundaries of his property. He lingered at the door. More than anything else in the world, he longed to welcome the son who had been lost home. Because nothing was more important than the reconciliation and restoration of his family.
Did you know that that’s how God feels about all of us? Did you know that God wants to gather us up in his arms, safe and secure forever, no matter what we’ve done or who we’ve been? It can be easy for us to miss the extravagance of God’s mercy because we’ve heard so much about it, that it’s just a given, something we don’t really think about as we run from one activity to the next. But the reality that Lent shows us is that we need a savior just as surely as both brothers needed their father.
For try as we might to keep our feet on the path of life, we will all absolutely wander off from time to time. We may not notice it. Or we may try and pretend we’re doing just fine. Whatever the case, getting back on track doesn’t mean we should sit in the mud and stew in our sins. Getting back on track means remembering who God is. It means allowing him to show us mercy. It means focusing and refocusing, turning and returning to the one who has made us new.
As we all have said here before and will all continue to say, God is merciful always. He is faithful in the face of our faithlessness. He would take any chance to bring us home again. And he in fact does. For there is one very important difference between the father in our Gospel lesson today and our Father above. And that is this: God didn’t wait for us to come back. He sent his Son to find us. AMEN.