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Look in from the outside

Can you ever think of a time when you were left on the outside looking in? Maybe it’s a childhood memory of not being included in a game or a time in adult life when you were passed over for promotion or not invited to a party. If you have had that experience, you can perhaps begin to imagine what it must feel like for a homeless person who finds themselves on the street because a relationship with a parent or partner has gone sour. Perhaps you can sympathise with those made homeless through war or natural disaster. Those who find themselves in refugee camps not sure where loved ones are. Whatever the circumstances, finding yourself outside the warm circle of friends and family or not having a place to call your own is surely one of the most devastating things which can happen to us as human beings.
It is an experience which is at the very heart of the message in the bible and reflected in different ways in our readings this morning.
In the book of Joshua, (5.9-12) we have the people Israel on the banks of the Jordan. ‘When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside’ wrote the Welsh hymnist William Williams. The people have wandered long in the wilderness after finally escaping their bondage in Egypt thanks to the plagues which by divine providence had afflicted the Pharaoh and his people. By rights they should have perished in the desert, but it was God’s provision of the mana, that mysterious bread from heaven which had sustained them. Now they are on the west side of the Jordan. By God’s grace, the water level in the Jordan was low enough from for them all to cross safely. They are finally in the promised land; the land flowing with milk and honey. It was not a place where any of them had lived. There were still hostile people living there whom they would have to overcome. It was not familiar territory, not the ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ as Tom Jones might have it, but it was the land God had promised. No longer were they disgraced slaves, refugees fleeing from a tyrannical ruler, one who would ridicule them the longer they roamed the wilderness. Now, this land long promised would be theirs. God had kept his word and they were home. All the men not circumcised in the long years on the move now undergo that initiation into the covenant of Abraham. The Passover, their community meal, is kept in the plains of Jericho. ‘On the very day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain’. (Joshua 5.11) It was hardly a great spread, rather like that first take away meal eaten sitting on packing cases when you move to a new house, this was the first meal in their new home. The mana was now no more, they did not need it.
Turning to the gospel reading (Luke 15.1-3 & 11b-32) I guess we have a story which is familiar to most of us as the prodigal son. In Jesus’ story, significantly, the younger son is not thrown out after a row; he’s not a victim of circumstance. Instead he decides of his own free will to ask for his share of the inheritance and then heads off on a wild back packing adventure that ends in disaster. After indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle holed up in some far-flung resort, the money runs out and the well brought up Jewish boy is left to feed pigs even contemplating eating their food. It could not have turned out any worse. He is well and truly left of the outside looking in. ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger.’ (Luke 15.17) he muses.
His devastating situation finally brings him to his senses. He decides that he will go back to his father saying ‘Father, I have sinned before heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired servants.’ Luke 15. 18-19) He returns, and we all know the happy ending. His father sees him coming and runs to meet him threw his arms around him and kissed him. As commentators often comment, it was not done for a respectable middle eastern man to run in that way. The father’s emotion over came him so great was his joy to see his son again. He is earnest in his desire to return him to the home he had left and called for the ‘fatted calf’ to be killed so that they might all make merry.
I hope we all get the message Jesus is trying to convey with this story. Like the younger, prodigal son, all of us as human beings in one way or another think we know better than God; that we can live our lives to a greater or lesser degree without him. We believe that the pursuit of material gain, and leisure will satisfy us much more than times of prayer or worship. We listen to legislators and experts who teach that our human rights and choices can supplant God’s law; that society will somehow be better for it. All is good for a time, but the moment will come when we feel distant from God, feel like we are looking from the outside on the warmth and love which flows from God who is relationship in himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The delightful truth of this story or parable is that God is a God of welcome. He hitches up his cloaks to run out to meet us. He lowers the waters of Jordan so that our anxious fears may subside. He kills the fatted calf to celebrate our return.
Yet, as we focus on all this amazing love and forgiveness which God shows, these readings do make three salutary points for us.
Firstly, the story of the prodigal teaches very clearly that the younger son came to his senses. He acknowledges that plainly he is not in a good place, that what he has done is wrong, that he has sinned. His sin is not just against his father, but also against God. He is unworthy of the love of either God or his father. He resolves therefore to confess his sin, to say to his father that he has sinned. All human sin whether we judge it great small is an offence to God who is utterly holy. It cannot be airbrushed out. It must be owned up to and reconciliation sought.
This brings us to the second point which Paul addresses in the new testament reading from 2 Corinthians. ‘All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ.’ (5.18) When we are honest with God about the sin which causes separation, which puts us outside his camp, he is the one who makes reconciliation possible when we cannot do anything ourselves to make amends, he does it through Christ. In the mystery which is Calvary’s cross Paul says, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ (5.19) There is a cost to reconciliation. That cost is born by Jesus on the cross not independently from God but as God suffering for your sin and mine. He is the true Passover lamb sacrificed for us recalling that first Passover in the promised land we thought of earlier.
And thirdly, and most soberly for us, members of an established respected church, there is the final ending of the prodigal son story. The elder son does not share his father’s joy and welcome his errant sibling home. He grumbles at not having a fatted calf to celebrate with his friends and rakes over his brothers’ sin. How ready are we to share God’s welcome for the lost? Do we share with our heavenly father a real desire to see people we know who seem far away, outsiders looking into the kingdom of God, come to their senses and come home to the promised land; the dead to come alive, the lost be found.
Lent 4 31.03.2019

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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