Through Contrition

Lent 4 – 27th March 2022

Contrition is the state of feeling remorseful and penitent. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it is the repentance of past sins during or after confession.

During Lent, we focus much on sin and forgiveness. These terms are misunderstood outside our Christian community. Assuming sin means only shame, and forgiveness means forgetting about things without accountability, the Christian focus can be scorned. However, understood in the context of God’s abundant supply – whether in the wilderness or out – sin and forgiveness are themes that encourage us to feel the cost of God’s forgiveness through the death, burial and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Today’s message continues our journey series through Lent, “Walking with Christ through Contrition”. Let us go through today’s Gospel reading and walk with Christ through its story.

Lost and Found

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”So he told them this parable:

Luke 15:1-3 (ESV)

The lectionary reading starts with the first 3 verses of Luke 15 and then jumps down to verse 11 to tell the parable of the prodigal son. If you are not familiar with Christian scriptures, you would not notice that it is not the parable referred to in verse 3 where we left off: So he told them THIS parable.

In fact, there were 2 other parables told by Jesus before that of the prodigal son. Verses 4-7 record Christ’s parable of the lost sheep. Verses 8-10 preserve the parable of the lost coin. It is in that context that today’s Gospel passage on prodigal son is given in verses 11-32.

All 3 parables have a common theme: “Lost and Found”. A shepherd had a 100 sheep but lost one. He left the 99 to find that 1 lost sheep. The woman had 10 silver coins but lost one. She worked feverishly until the coin was found. In both of these parables, the emphasis is on the owner, not the object lost. That means when we read the story of the prodigal son, the emphasis is meant to be on the father, not the son. We identify so closely with the son in the story that we often miss its message: the loving forgiveness of the Father.

Let’s take another step with Christ through the story of contrition.

Individualism and Family

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

Luke 15:11-16 (ESV)

One of the two sons exercised individual liberty and rights, ignoring the needs of the family. That is balance our society seeks today: respecting individual rights over the need of the whole. Many believe mandates are a pendulum swing in the wrong direction. Our text shows the problems of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction.

I point out the contrast between individualism and family because Christians — especially post-Covid outbreak — believe their individual rights  outweigh the church family’s needs. Collective worship is a need for all Christians. Corporate worship like we exercise today was established by God for God’s people. I fear many Christians are going to get lost in the far country.

Do you know where the “far country” is? St Johns Papatoetoe is a city church. It is not unusual for me to come into the building to work during the week and observe homeless souls outside our doors. They find shelter from the elements in the recess next to the front door. When I see someone there, I stop and I watch to make sure they have what they need. That’s the far country; and that is place where “no one gave him anything.”

The parable tells us the prodigal came to himself. Some preachers interpret that graciously: He recognised the error of his ways and resolved to improve his life. Others are more skeptical: He realised he was starving to death, so he decided to come up with a good speech to deliver to his father and head home. The grace of it all is that it doesn’t really matter if he recognised the error of his ways or simply desired a solid meal. His father takes off running for him and there is a new robe, a new ring, a big feast. That’s when the far country comes home.

Baron Mullis

Contrition and Forgiveness

“But when he rcame to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’But the father said to his servants,‘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.’ And they began to celebrate.

Luke 15:17-24

This passage of the story is one of the most powerful representations of God’s forgiveness. It didn’t matter if the wayward son’s confession was sincere or just desperate, the Father already forgave. Forgiveness does not have to follow repentance. We can forgive those who hurt us whether or not they confess their sin.

Probably no one is more famous in recent Christian history for highlighting this part of the passage than Henri Nouwen. He was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian who passed away in 1996. Before his death, he published 39 books and authored hundred of articles. His books have sold over 7 million copies worldwide and have been published in more than 30 languages.

Nouwen visited a community in France where he saw a poster of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son. It made such an impression on him that he decided to see the original painting, traveling to St Petersburg/Leningrad where it was kept at that time. He contemplated on the waiting for several days and wrote a book of the same name. It has since been ranked in the top 100 Christian books.

There are many powerful themes in Nowen’s book that we could quite literally spend hours unpacking. However, I will only offer a few to give you a sense of his insight.

“The journey from teaching about love to allowing myself to be loved proved much longer than I realized.”

“Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.”

“One of the greatest challenges of the Christian life is to receive God forgiveness.”

“My true freedom I cannot fabricate for myself. That must be given to me. I am lost. I must be found and brought home by the shepherd who goes out to me.”

“Here lies hidden the great call to conversion: to look not with the eyes of my own low self-esteem, but with the eyes of God’s love.”

“The great conversion called for by Jesus is to move from belonging to the world to belonging to God.”

Henri Nouwen

Grief and Love

As we move toward the end of the parable, we discover the elder son was lost in resentment and without joy needing to learn to let go of rivalry. We also learn just how much the Father exudes grief and forgiveness.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might ecelebrate with my friends.But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15:25-32 (ESV)

Our Old Testament reading given before the sermon has an amazing confession: “the Israelites no longer had manna.” This could be taken negatively if read in isolation; however, it is given as positive proof of God’s blessing. The temporary supply during wilderness wanderings was replaced by annual harvests in the land of promise. The passover celebrated in Gilgal was a watershed. It was God’s forgiveness manifested. Confession of sins is a source for joy, not shame. Shame is shed when sins are named and forgiveness received.

What has brought you joy this week or even today? What has happened this week or today which has robbed you of your joy? It’s time to turn those things into prayers of joyful thanksgiving and surrender by praying either “Thank you Lord for (for that which brought you joy).” Or “Lord, I let go and turn over to You (something which you release to God so that it can’t steal your joy).”

The New Testament reading confirms the state of forgiveness means manna is no longer required. As a new creation, we enter into a new ministry. We become ambassadors for God proclaiming the message of reconciliation. The diplomatic discussion of sin is surrounded in language of God no longer counting them against our account because of what Christ has done.

Today, I want to close with a reflective Psalm being sung. Psalm 32 celebrates forgiveness. It does not dismiss sin. It acknowledges it and presents it before the Lord. The Lord forgives the guilt associated with sin. Forgiveness is removing of that guilt and is possible only when sins are named with intent to shun.

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