“The Prodigal God”
March 10, 2013
On a day like today—after this past week when the winter snow once again changed plans and closed schools, when a foretaste of the spring rains fell, as scripture says, “on the just and the unjust alike,” and the temperature rose above freezing and the snow melted—on a day like today, with the promise of daylight past 7:00 p.m., we are reminded of what this season of Lent is all about.
In these days—even in the fog and drizzle—we look beyond the gloom and gray of ashes and late winter and old, dirty snow.
In these days—even through the fog and drizzle—we sense the increasing light.
In these days we open ourselves to experiences of God’s warm springtime mercy.
In these days we recall once more that our word “Lent” comes from the Old English word that means “to lengthen.” The name we give this season speaks to us of the lengthening of days, of the return of the sun to our hemisphere during these weeks before our joyful celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
We gather here today, a little more tired than usual after losing an hour of sleep, but nevertheless, we gather as people aware of the goodness of this season and these days. Perhaps you notice that your heart is a little lighter than it was even a few weeks ago. And if this is not the case—if you are here this morning weighed down with worry or sorrow or apprehension about the future, it is my hope and my prayer that you will know something of the compassionate presence of God in your difficult times.
Several centuries ago, when Lent was observed with more fasting and penitence than it is today, this fourth Sunday of Lent was referred to as “Refreshment Sunday.” It was a little celebration in the midst of the strictures of the season. It was a day on which the Lenten disciplines would be relaxed, a time when apprentices who lived far from home would return to visit with their families.
We Congregationalists have never been all that big on special seasons and days. In the simplicity that is one of our hallmarks, we prefer to regard each Sunday as a little Easter, a celebration of the resurrection. Still, I confess that I like the idea of Refreshment Sunday. I think that all us can use a day like that, even if Lent is no longer marked by the rigor with which it was once observed by some. We can use a time to let up on ourselves, to turn our hearts and our lives once more toward the God from whom all blessings flow.
So perhaps, on this day, we can catch a glimpse of the God made known in Jesus Christ, not as a demanding God or a judging God but as a God of abundant generosity, more ready to give than to demand, more ready to forgive than to condemn
The book of Joshua gives an account of the Hebrew people entering the Promised Land. There’s much in this book that is harsh, violent, and disturbing. A recent article in The Christian Century explored what the author called the “R-Rated” Bible—and Joshua is certainly a part of that.
But at the beginning of this book is a short reminder of God’s care for the people in the past and a statement of how that providence was transformed in a new situation.
For forty years the Hebrew people wandered in the desert wilderness after Moses led them out of Egypt.
And you remember what happened in the wilderness.
The people left slavery in Egypt. Finding themselves on the other side of the Red Sea, they began to think that captivity wasn’t so bad after all. At least in Egypt they had all the bread they could eat! In the wilderness, they were pretty sure they are going to starve.
The fear of scarcity plagues people. My sense is that it may plague the affluent even more than the poor.
A couple in one church I served lived in a small house; they never owned a car. Yet when I visited them and sat with them around their kitchen table, I saw a small jar with some money in it bearing the label “For The Poor.”
On the other hand, I still remember sitting with a group of very wealthy church people out in Connecticut—and to protect the innocent, I need to add that they were not members of the congregation I served there. As we talked, I found myself thinking: “These are the neediest people I’ve ever met.” We’re haunted by a sense of scarcity.
Both of the sons in the parable Jesus told were obviously doing all right. And yet both wanted as much as they could get. Both were concerned exclusively about their own well-being.
They aren’t very different from us or the people wandering in the desert.
“Don’t worry”—God told Moses.
The people went out in the morning and look around. Fine flakes appear on the ground.
"Man-hu?" the people ask in Hebrew. "What is that? Man-hu. Manna.
Those who study such things tell us that these flakes were most likely the excretion of two scale-insects that feed on the twigs of the tamarisk tree.
Moses tells the questioning people, this is your bread. Actually it is their daily bread—for it turns out that it can’t be hoarded or saved from one day to the next without rotting. But it is enough for the day.
Moses said: “This is the bread that God has given you.”
Manna. The word doesn’t have any content. It’s simply a question. The providence of God often just leaves us questioning, wondering. What is this that we have received? Is it what we asked for? Is it what we need, what we want?
What was the first thing that happened when the people entered the Promised Land?
The manna ceased.
This sign of God’s providential care in a time of great need ended. A new sign of God’s care became apparent—the people ate the produce of the land of Canaan. A new situation presented new opportunities and created new responsibilities.
From the time that the people entered the Promised Land up until today, bread no longer comes from heaven. But by faith we still affirm that our abundance comes from God.
John Calvin helped us see this when he wrote: “The fact that we ask for our bread to be given signifies that it is a gift, however it may come to us, even when it would seem to have been obtained from our own skills and diligence and supplied by our own hands. For it is by God's blessing alone that our labors truly prosper.”
The manna ceased, but we still know God’s care, God’s providing.
The manna ceased, but we still need to ask the question: “What is this that we have received?”
The stories that we read in scripture, like that of the Israelites coming into a new land, and like the story of the prodigal son, often speak of God’s abundance encountered in a time of scarcity.
The problem, of course, is that abundance is not always what we want—or at least it’s not always what we want for other people. If we’re used to playing by the rules, if we have a strong sense of winner and loser, good and bad, if we expect rewards for our behavior, then God’s surprising abundance might be disappointing. It takes some getting used to.
Which might be why so many of us are troubled by the parable of the Prodigal Son. A lot of good church-going people identify with the elder son. We do what is expected. We keep things going. And then late in the day the welcome seems to go out to someone else.
Hey, what about us?
And we are told “all of this was yours, all along.”
A calling to serve God in the world.
All the abundance of God in times of grief, illness, despair.
It’s all here, anytime you want it.
When the manna ceases, we are offered the fruit of the land.
So here’s the real surprise in what we heard this morning—this is not the parable of the prodigal son. It is the parable of the prodigal God.
Prodigal, after all, implies extreme generosity—so extreme that some would call it wasteful.
Are there enough stars in the heavens at night? There are billions more that we can’t even see, billions that we can only imagine.
Are there enough animals? There are hundreds, if not thousands, in the rain forests of South America, in the jungles of Africa that have never been catalogued.
We are given more than enough by the prodigal God—more than enough air and water if we would but keep them clean, more than enough food if we would distribute it equally.
Beyond those material necessities, our spirits are fed as well—fed by the creativity of artists, fed by the grace of friends and family, fed by the wonderful gift of forgiveness.
In listening to this parable that Jesus told, we discover—to our surprise—the God who is lavish with gifts, whose grace is sufficient for all our needs. We see—first in sketchy outline, then in remarkable clarity and detail—the God who wastes it all, giving to us even when we don’t deserve it, giving to us even when we do deserve it and know how much we deserve it.
God holds nothing back. The God known to the Jewish people, the God shown to us in Jesus Christ, is the One who loves with abandon, forgives to overflowing, and feeds us daily with all good things. God invites us to participate in the abundance of life.
Abundant love, forgiveness, and welcome can still surprise those who encounter them. Perhaps even we are able to be astonished as we open our lives to the prodigal God. We discover the abundance of life given to each of us that we might use it, share it, and expand it for ever increasing numbers of people and all creation.