The Older Brother
A Homily for Trinity IX
August 9, 2020
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Luke 15:11-23
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This morning as I was editing this sermon, I realized that it was nineteen years ago this month that I met Jesus for the first time. In the pits of my depression, loneliness, and lostness I asked the question “what is true?”
My walk with Him has been far from perfect, I fear at times it has been more marred by sin, and selfishness than a genuine desire to burn for Christ. But I remember meeting him, diving in deep, falling in love in a joy-filled way. I pray that my walk with Him today is deeper than it was yesterday. I pray the same for you.
Today we learn some more of two lost brothers – one who had wandered far from his father, and comes home to a grace we cannot imagine. The other had always been in the breast of his father – yet, he still held on to his sin. Chances are there have been times when we’ve felt the urge to be both of these brothers. Times when we wanted to run to a far country and dive deeply into sin, squander the gifts we’ve been given. It is likely that there have been other times when we’ve wanted to judge harshly the lives of sinners returned home to our father.
As I survey the last nineteen years, I know I have been the older brother and the younger brother, yet I am glad that I have a father who has come out to me, who has tenderly brought me back into his household, more often than I deserve. I am glad that I have a father who cares so deeply for His sons and daughters that he comes to us in the darkness of our sins, and walks with us back into right fellowship with Him and His whole church.
Last week we talked about an arrogant young man, a young man who cared little for the honor of his family, but only cared for what he wanted. We heard of how he went off and squandered all his money, squandered the wealth his family had worked so hard to accumulate, and then when he became completely destitute how he slinked back to his father, and asked, simply to be a servant in the father’s house hold. But the father welcomed him back with open arms, welcomed him back not as a servant but as his own son.
We learned how this is an analogy for how God welcomes us into His family, the church. We learned how it was an analogy for how God brings us in and makes us his children, when we barely feel worthy of being his servants, how he clothes us with the perfect garment of Christ, and how through Christ we gain the inheritance of His glory. We learned that through Christ, we experience the glory of God.
Last week, as I told the story as an illustration of our adoption, I am sure many of you recognized it even though I simply paraphrased it. Perhaps some of you even wondered “wait, wait, you left off the end of the story.” I did so intentionally. Although the end of the story is important, we didn’t need to hear of the older brother last week, but I hope that we now have a sure understanding of our adoption in Christ. Our undeserved love which we’ve experienced through Christ’s death and resurrection, through His love for us, so now we need to look at the second son.
Almost all of us know what this story is called. Most translations have section headings these days, and here are a few I found for this well-known parable: One read: “The Prodigal Son” “The parable of the Lost Son” says two different versions. Or you find a combination of the two such as is found in our pew bibles read “the Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
A professor of mine proposed a different title, a better title I think, and that is “the parable of the two lost sons.” For this is a story not of one lost son who went off and squander his riches, but two lost sons, who are lost in very different ways.
The younger son’s lostness was obvious, it was blatant and deeply painful. The old son’s lostness was more subtle, more acceptable, but he was still lost wasn’t he?
The first lost son is like us when we turn our back on God completely, when we dive in deep into sin, when we forget the admonish of St. Paul to not live according to the flesh, and dive deeply into the mire of sin and death.
Perhaps some of you have been so blessed to have walked with Christ since you were a tender age, perhaps some of you do not even remember a time when you weren’t walking with the Lord, and that is a beautiful thing. But my friends – here’s the thing, if you’ve always been with God then the temptation to be the older brother will be all that greater.
This is the temptation that the pharisees fell into. They had lived good lives, they were at least on the exterior good men, but they were also self-righteous and arrogant. They could not understand how Jesus had compassion on such horrible people. So if we have been in the church for any amount of time we must take heed, we must guard are hearts against the attitude of the older brother.
Even those of us who have walked in the world and came to know Jesus later in life can be tempted to look down on new converts, for certainly once we are in the church, once we are resting sweetly in Christ – it is easy to think “how could THAT sinner ever find repentance.” We must be careful of this spirit of skepticism, this spirit that thinks, “man, remember how terrible she was? There is no way Jesus could ever love someone like her, her repentance must be conjured up. She must just want something”
Let us look at another story to encourage us, to help us back from this temptation – the story of our dear Saint who taught us of our adoption last week. Let the story of St. Paul’s conversion enkindle deep compassion in our heart, let it fill us with optimism that even the person you struggle the most to love, the person you know of who has wandered the furthest from God, the person whose life is defined by sin more than we could ever imagine – let us remember that there is hope for them.
My friends, a genuine interaction with our divine savior, an interaction on the road to Damascus and their lives can be flipped on its head, and in that, they will meet the same God, the same Christ that we have walked with for five years, or ten years, or our whole lives, and their lives will be transformed.
There is always hope – Even for the worst of sinners.
We first learn of a man named Saul in Chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostles, after the execution of St. Stephen the very first martyr and St. Luke simply writes that: “Saul approved of (Stephen’s) execution. A bit later he writes: “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
But then we don’t hear much of him again, until a bit later in the Acts of the Apostles, when he turns his eyes upon another city and heads towards Damascus. Here we learn that it was not simply enough for him to ravage the church in one place, but he asked for letters to head to another city and from there take any Christians he found, bind them and bring them back to Jerusalem!
But then on that fated road to Damascus a light from heaven shone around him and he fell to the ground and heard a voice. “Saul… Saul… Why are you persecuting me?”
But Saul did not know where the voice was coming from and he asked “Who are you Lord?”
And then Jesus responds “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city and you will be told what to do.” And now Saul was struck blind, and bewildered but he was obedient and headed to Damascus.
In the city of Damascus was a Christian named Ananias, and God told him to rise and go to Saul. But Saul’s fame of terror had spread throughout the church.
Think about this for a moment: If God called you to love the most terrible person you can think of, if God called you to go to them with the gospel, would you? Would you be like Jonah and run as hard and fast in the other direction? Would you be like Ananias and say “I know of this man, he is rotten to the core!” Would you be like the eldest son and stand outside and refuse to go in?
My friends – we learn with Saul turned Paul that God radically transforms lives, God radically turns hearts around, pulls men and women out of the pit of despair, pulls them out of their sin, and puts them on the right track, turns their faces not towards Gehenna but towards the new Jerusalem, the eternal city where we are invited to dwell with Him through eternity.
And this is what he did to Saul who became Paul. He took his life and turned it around. We know that Ananias was obedient, despite his fear, and he cared for Paul, baptized him and showed him the way. We know that St. Paul would go on to be a powerful force, not against the church, but for her, we know that he would go on to write some of the most theologically profound epistles to the church, epistles that still form our hearts and minds today. He no longer persecuted the followers of the way – but he illuminated the way all the more brightly with his words by the grace of God in the Holy Spirit.
Stories like this – whether ancient or modern encourage and challenge us. They make us ask – are we the little brother or the older brother? Or are we ready to be the Father who welcomes our new brothers and sisters in with warm hearts – with joy for their changed lives.
Henry Nouwen wrote a delightful little meditation on this story of the prodigal son. In his own life he realized that there had been periods where he was prodigal son who desperately needed to be reminded that he is welcomed home by the loving father. He realized at other times he had excelled at welcoming home those who had wandered far and wide, that he had cared for these precious souls well. But he also noticed that there were times that he had failed brutally, that he had been the older brother, standing outside the house with arms crossed, angry that the Lord would ever think of welcoming THIS sinner in, after all, if God knew how really terrible this person is, he would never have welcomed him home.
Here is the thing – our call as Christians is that we love well those whom we interact with, and that we welcome them into our community, even those whom we find to be scary or undesirable.
Now, it seems as though every generation, and every social group has acceptable sins. It’s generally easier to see other groups’ acceptable sins, especially if we don’t like that group. We think “my what a bunch of hypocrites they are! I’m so glad I’m not like them” And then we give into this self-righteousness and look down upon those horrible hypocrites.
The reality is that it is quite likely that we also have acceptable sins, there are things that it’s just easier to love people through, to overlook. As you hear this, does the Lord bring to mind any sins that you just find easier to overlook instead of confronting in yourself or calling out in others? Perhaps they are sins that you’re struggling with. Perhaps it’s just easy to look the other way with those whom you love or respect.
We are all prone to over look sins and just pretend they’re character flaws. I know that I tend to do this. And if we start to think about the older brother and his relationship to his little brother, I think we see this.
The cultural shame of running off with half of your father’s money hasn’t really changed much in two-thousand years. I suspect if this happened to a friend of ours we would feel such horror for him, we would feel shame for him, perhaps we might wonder quietly what he did wrong. But certainly we would see this younger son’s actions as a sin, we would recognize that something terrible had befallen our friend.
But, the older brother was faithful, he was the good son. We would be glad to know that our friend had at least one good son. So what if the older son was a little arrogant, so what if he didn’t really have much compassion? So what if he didn’t go looking for his brother? We can overlook his negligence because at least he’s dutiful to his dad.
But then his brother returns and his heart is revealed.
Now, let’s look at the older brother’s response to the return of his younger sibling. First he is angry and refuses to enter the house. We don’t get this impression that he’s sad or hurt or something, we get the impression that he burns hot with anger.
I don’t know if you’ve dealt much with angry people but there’s a kind of anger that is violent in nature. It is terrifying to experience, it can cause trauma in people if they experience it enough over time. We get the impression that he BURNS with violent anger against his brother and his father.
He must be thinking: How could my father do this? How could he welcome back this person who had treated him so poorly? And left me alone to do all the duties laid before me. Doesn’t my father know that I put my life on hold?
You know that feeling when you’re angry? How easy it is to justify it, how easy it is to get wrapped up in anger… with everyone and everything? And what would you feel if God welcomes home your worst enemy? What he if extends His love to the one who has hurt you deeply? What if he drives him or her to their knees and they cry out with us “Abba, Father – save me”?
Would you burn with compassion or jealousy? Would you stand outside angrily stomping your feet? Would you refuse to go in?
I know there have been times where the Lord didn’t do what I wanted Him to, there have been times when he’s said “this is enough,” and I thought “NO! I want THIS thing and I want it now!” and I stomped my feet like a little child, and threw myself the most glorious pity party. And this is what the older brother does – throws a gloriously angry pity party.
But then we learn the heart of the Father. Remember his reaction to the son who had wandered? To the younger son who had squandered all he had been given? He went out to him. He RAN to him. He embraced him… he showed the younger son and inestimable depth of love. The Father goes out to his sinful son.
And the father goes out to the second lost son and entreats him with words of compassion –The Father pursues both sons. I cannot think of anything sweeter. The heavenly father pursues his children when we are stuck in our sin: When we are stuck in our stubbornness. When we are stuck in our hard heartedness. When we are stuck in our lust, gluttony, and anger. Our heavenly father, our Abba Father – comes to us, and entreats us. Turn back oh sinner, come back into the house, come back into the love which I have for you. Don’t stay out in the dark and the cold forever.
But the older brother responds with self-righteousness. He points out all the good that he has done. I think we are all prone to do this “Lord, I want this thing, look at everything I have done, look at what I’ve done for you!!!” But the point of our good works isn’t to buy God off, it isn’t to gain some favor in His sight. The point of our good works are to glorify God, so that others, even our enemies might see those works and praise our Father in heaven.
A friend and I were talking this past week, and he made a good point about the nature of sin. When we sin we act against God’s glory, we fail to give Him the glory that he deserves, in a very real sense we tarnish His glory.
When we do good works – we glorify God and how good it is to live a life spent burning for God’s glory! How good it is to live a life that points not towards our own ego, towards our own goodness, but towards how good God is, towards how merciful He is to sinners such as us. May our lives be defined by His goodness, not our own selfish egos.
But then the older brother does something even worse: He responds to his father and says – “your son.” I have seen this done jokingly with parents who don’t want to deal with disciplining their child at that moment, or couples who don’t want to walk their dog. The wife will say “your son did this terrible thing today” to her husband. Or the husband will say “your dog needs to go on a walk.”
When it is a joke it isn’t terribly hurtful, but I suspect that the conversation we see today in St. Luke’s gospel has happened in real life as well, where the words were meant as a knife wound that was meant to hurt. The brother says, “your son,” he can’t even say “my obnoxious little brother.” He owns no part of that relationship. As I read these words I hurt – and I think that’s the right reaction.
His little brother who may as well of been dead twelve hours ago is still dead to him, he wants nothing to do with him, and he can’t possibly imagine his father would ever want anything to do with him either.
And his father still pursues him.
If you were in that situation – would you pursue your older son? Or would you think “fine, you’re being jerk, you just need to grow up!”? Would you turn around in anger and walk away and let your son sit out the cold, let him sulk off to a bar to get waisted, call up his friends and tell them how horrible you had been? Or would you calmly assure him of your love for him?
My friends – in our imperfection we react in the heat of the moment, we often act irrational, often slam the door shut in the face of those whom we should reach even more aggressively with compassion. We let our emotions get the best of us, and return wound for wound. But God doesn’t do this, He pursues us.
God pursues us in our sin, God pursues us so aggressively that the second person of the trinity gave up His glory and came to earth to save sinners.
Our dear saint – our persecutor of the church turned leader of the church wrote:
“”Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death upon a cross.”
Christ gave up his glory to come and save us. Christ is the good older brother, the older brother who seeks us out as we are lost, who brought us in to know the Father. Who brings us back, brings us home, and is preparing a glorious marriage feast for us on that last day.
God has pursued us and made us whole. And we are always with him, and all that he has he has given us.
In our adoption, in our being brought into fellowship with Christ, we are made his – and we learn today that we are made heirs. It is not as though in the kingdom of heaven there is a limited supply of anything. It is not as though if you get more grace, I some how get less. As though – if God loves me more, he somehow loves you less. You receiving an abundance of grace and love from God does not mean I am some how deprived of God’s love and grace.
No, for all the grace you enjoy, I enjoy it just as much, as does your neighbor, and as will those who are not yet entered into the covenant of grace.
Our parable this morning leaves us hanging, and of course Jesus is intentional about this, it is as though he is asking the pharisees: Are you the older brother? Or will you come in to the marriage feast when prostitutes, tax collectors, and the other undesirable ones come home?
And he is asking us: Will you run to your lost brother when you see him coming home? Will you welcome home those who have hurt you? Will you leave behind the cold and enter into the warm party of the joy-filled father?
In the name of the Father and the son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.