Lent 5C – March 17, 2013 (March 21, 2010)

Isaiah 43:16-21 – Rivers in the desert: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Psalm 126 – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Psalm 119:9-16– How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
Philippians 3:4b-14 – I more than any have reason to be confident in the flesh (my own works-righteousness) but I regard them all as rubbish in order to gain Christ, and know him as Lord, a righteousness based on faith, not works. And so I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8 – Mary anoints Jesus feet with costly nard and wipes them with her hair. Judas objects. And the much maligned: You always have the poor with you, but not me.

Lent at-a-glance

  • February 13 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.

· February 17 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

· February 24 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.

· March 3 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.

· March 10 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.

· March 17 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.

  • March 24 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.

The Prodigal God – A Lenten Series Suggestion

During Lent my posts will be focused on the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, which comes up on March 10, Lent 4C. For a post on the lectionary texts, click the link to my 2010 post above. A number of our congregations are using Timothy Keller’s excellent book, The Prodigal God, as a guide.

Feb 17 – Lent 1 – Chapter 1: The People Around Jesus

Feb 24 – Lent 2 – Chapter 2: The Two Lost Sons

Mar 3 – Lent 3 – Chapter 3: Redefining Sin

Mar 10 – Lent 4 – Chapter 4: Redefining Lostness

Mar 17 – Lent 5 – Chapter 5: The True Elder Brother

Mar 24 – Palm Sunday – Chapters 6 and 7: Redefining Hope, The Feast of the Father

The True Elder Brother

This Sunday is March 17, Lent 5C. The appointed readings begin with Isaiah 43. I will make rivers in the desert. Behold I am about to do a new thing. It springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. This is a powerful message of hope. For those who have taken on Lenten disciplines, it is a reminder that resurrection follows. We were not created for asceticism. Fasting is a good discipline, for a time. The Psalmist says in Psalm 126, "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy." This is incredible poetry of hope.

The apostle Paul, in Philippians 3 considers all of his efforts, all of his good works, as rubbish in comparison with knowing Christ. Gospel outweighs the law. Finally, in John 12 Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Judas suggests this expensive perfume could have been used for the poor. Jesus, never one to pass on a party, says, "You always have the poor with you, but not me." Sadly this passage has been misused to justify ignoring the poor for a YO-YO (you’re on your own) visceral capitalism, something Jesus would never have supported.

Some of our congregations are involved in a series on the story of prodigal son, based on Timothy Keller’s book The Prodigal God. Last week Keller concluded chapter four with the observation that Jesus intentionally left someone out of this story, so that we might find him, and in so doing find our own way home. Luke 15 has three stories about lost things: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, or as Keller would say, two lost sons. There is an element in this story of the prodigal son, that is not included in the previous two stories.

Parables of the Lost and FoundWhen you are lost, what do you need most? Keller points out, first of all you need unconditional love. The father runs out to embrace the younger, prodigal son. The father comes out of the party and goes to see the angry, resentful older son. There is hope for the errant. There is also hope for the Pharisees. Keep in mind the apostle Paul was a Pharisee himself. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. But there is something else that we need.

In the first of the three parables in Luke 15, a shepherd has a flock of 100 sheep. One gets lost. What should he do? 1% attrition is an acceptable loss from a business standpoint. In fact, putting 99% of your investment at risk by spending an inordinate amount of time looking for the 1% loss would not be advisable. Some would say it is foolhardy, prodigal. And yet, that is precisely what this shepherd does. He leaves the 99 sheep, in order to seek out the lost sheep. This is an interesting parable for pastors, who are often pressed hard to spend most off their time taking care of the membership, often to the exclusion of seeking the lost sheep. In this story, the lost sheep is found, and rejoicing ensues.

In the second Luke 15 parable, a woman loses a coin. She seeks out that lost coin. She lights a lamp, sweeps the entire house and looks diligently for it. What is Jesus trying to say here? What is his message for us today? What should be the church’s orientation? Where should we put our energy, time and resources? In this story, the lost coin is found, and rejoicing ensues.

The third story in Luke 15 is the one we have been studying during Lent. The similarities between these three stories are obvious. In each one of them something is lost: sheep, coin, son. In each story, the lost is found, and rejoicing ensues. There is, however, something critical missing from this third story that is present in the first two.

In the first two stories, someone goes out and looks for the lost. The shepherd looks for the lost sheep. The woman looks for the lost coin. Who goes out and looks for the lost son?

No one of course. The listeners cannot miss this when the stories are told one after the other. They are left to wonder, who should go out and look for the lost son? Jesus of course knows another story of two brothers, as do we. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain asks God, "Am I my brother’s keeper?" The rhetorical answer is, yes, indeed you are.

This is what the older brother should’ve done. This is what a true older brother would do. Keller points out, it is only at the older brother’s expense that the search could be done anyway. The father has already divided his wealth between the two brothers. There is nothing left but the older brother’s wealth.

This story makes us yearn for the true older brother. We all need one. In fact we have one : Jesus Christ is our paradigmatic older brother, who loves and seeks the lost. He is the Good Shepherd, the true Elder Brother.

There is much support in Scripture for this image. Matthew 12:46-49 says,

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!

Hebrews 2:10-13 says,

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,’I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’

I’ll close with a song my mom used to sing to me as a child:

Jesus, Our Brother Kind and Good: Carol of the Friendly Beasts

English Traditional Carol

Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude;
And the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
"I carried his mother up-hill and down,
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town."
"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

"I," said the cow, all white and red,
"I gave him my manger for a bed,
I gave him my hay to pillow his head."
"I," said the cow, all white and red.

"I," said the sheep with the curly horn,
"I gave him my wool for a blanket warm,
He wore my coat on Christmas morn."
"I," said the sheep with the curly horn.

"I," said the dove from the rafters high,
"I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry,
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I."
"I," said the dove from the rafters high.

Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude;
And the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

Yours in Christ,

Michael Rinehart, Bishop