Friday, September 28, 2007

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10, "For Sinners Only"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, Luke 15:1-10. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

All of today’s lessons are about sinners. You’d be correct to say that it’s a frequent topic in the Bible. We all might wonder why the Bible, and the church for that matter, is so intently focused on the topic of sin? Every worship service we gather for, we make a full admission of our sinfulness. We began our service with a confession of our disobedience to God and neglect of His commandments and word. At worst, this is downright offensive to some, at best it might seem a little odd. But maybe a better question to ask ourselves is why are we so bothered about being identified as sinners?

Two thousand years ago, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were a group of people unmatched for their moral behavior. They would be the citizens or employees of the month, if there had been such a thing. Their clean living and careful avoidance of evil would have put each one of us to shame. And they were offended to see Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. Of course, they couldn’t see themselves as sinners. But they were happy to point out that the people Jesus was eating with were an unfit crowd—tax collectors and sinners. You could sum up what it means to be a Pharisee, both then and today by the attitude, “Just don’t touch my sin!” We all have a little Pharisee blood in us. We consider ourselves mostly moral people, ready to point the finger safely away from us—at the ills of society, the corruption of politicians, the immorality of celebrities. But don’t dare speak of my sin!

There was another man who had once been a Pharisee. He too could claim to be blameless by the law. But he was so passionately devoted to the law of God, that he was driven to fervent persecution of the followers of Jesus, throwing Christian men and women into prison. Why? Because the teachings of Jesus seemed to threaten the law of God, by opening the kingdom of heaven to sinners! The followers of this Jesus were telling people that God had sent His Son Jesus to seek and to save lost sinners! That they could receive salvation as a free gift through His death on the cross and resurrection. This Pharisee was the person we now know as the Apostle Paul, who in the midst of his persecution and hatred for Christians, was sought after like a lost sheep and found by God. He made a complete 180 degree turn in his conversion, to become the most ardent messenger of the Gospel in the early days of the church. And as you can see in our second reading today, Paul, once a Pharisee, came to realize he too was a lost sinner. And he gave us a saying that is trustworthy and deserves our full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”

By grace Paul had hit on the truth that the Pharisees missed, and that we also miss when we say in our hearts “don’t touch my sin!” That truth is captured in the first line of an old hymn, “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me, died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die.” The reason that we can boldly (not proudly, but boldly) confess our sins each Sunday is because we recognize that we really are sinners, and I myself am the worst of all. I cannot look to another and say that they are a worse sinner than I. Perhaps it’s too uncomfortable an admission for us to make, but when we do, we find that God’s love and forgiveness overwhelms us and frees us from that guilt we try to hide. Hiding it even from ourselves. And we know that Christ came into the world for sinners only. He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. When we gather for worship, this is precisely what we do: boldly repent because we have an even bolder confidence in the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death on the cross.

But for some, its all too easy to realize we are sinners, and the problem is not so much denial of our sin, but the fear and uneasiness that somehow we cannot leave it behind. Or that sometimes we cannot even believe there is forgiveness for our sins also. Like a lost sheep, we have found ourselves cornered by the circumstances of life, and seemingly there is no way out. But Christ came into the world to save sinners! As the Bible says, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

When we see ourselves in this light, and take full stock of the seriousness of sin, we will begin to find that the really amazing thing is not how much the Bible is focused on sin; but rather that God is so merciful to us despite our sin! The shock for the Pharisees was that Jesus would welcome and eat with sinners. In the two parables that Jesus taught, we see how persistent God is in pursuing lost sinners. In the first parable, there is a flock of one hundred sheep, and one wanders off and gets lost. The shepherd then leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for the one lost lamb. That lost lamb represents the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus was getting flak for eating with. That lost lamb is also the apostle Paul. That lost lamb is us. Anyone who has wandered away from God. This shows us how deeply God cares for His sheep, that when even a single lamb is lost, Christ our Good Shepherd goes seeking after it. God doesn’t let one of His sheep slip away, and say, “Oh well, chalk another one up to foolish, wandering sheep! You never can tell when one is going to run off!” His concern as a Good Shepherd is to always retrieve every lost sheep.

And see with what tenderness our Good Shepherd seeks after the lost! Though we like sheep are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love, He patiently seeks after us and draws us back to Him. God has sought and found poor lost sinners in all the dark places of life, and people who have fallen so far away from God. Christ came for the lost and the sinners, for those suffering from addictions, from immorality, from greed and violence. From unfaithfulness to Him. Wherever Christians have brought the good news of Jesus Christ, God has found lost lambs. Notice the Good Shepherd carries the sheep home on His shoulders, to safety, and that He is rejoicing as He goes home. He does not drive the lost sheep home with His staff, berating and cursing it for wandering away. So also Christ has come and sought us when we were lost, and He rejoices to bring us home to Him and to the safety of the church, His sheepfold.

I always like to point out who it is that does the seeking and the finding in this parable. Because the way we often talk as Christians gets it precisely backwards. We are accustomed to talking about how “I found God,” or “I found Jesus.” Churchgoers have even coined the term “seeker” to define those who are seeking some spirituality or God, and are exploring their options. Problem with this label is that we humans aren’t very good “seekers” according to God. You see, none of Jesus’ parables and illustrations about lost sheep end with the lost lamb wandering its own way back into the fold. For all the seeking we do ends up being aimless wandering. Truth is we don’t know what we are looking for or how to find it. God had to come after us and seek us. It was never Jesus who was lost, waiting for us to find Him. Rather, Jesus is the true seeker who goes out and retrieves the lost lamb, and brings it to safety on His own shoulders. God is always the first to awaken faith in our hearts by His Holy Spirit. All who come to Him have first been sought and found by Jesus Christ. And we see what a delightful labor this is for our Lord Jesus, by how He tenderly lifts the broken and wounded sinners to His shoulders. All who tremble in fear at God’s holiness, and see that they have disobeyed Him, He brings His forgiveness in Jesus Christ. All who have been awakened, like the Apostle Paul, to their own sinfulness, He gently restores to the sheepfold where there is food and there is life.

The second parable Jesus taught the Pharisees and scribes was about a woman who had lost a coin, and engaged in a panicked search for it, lighting a lamp and carefully sweeping what was probably a dirt floor, to find the coin. In a world where few people stop to pick up a penny any more, it might seem that the point of this parable is a little lost on us. But in actuality, this coin was worth about a day’s wages. So it had some value, but the woman would probably not be so concerned for it except if she were poor. But honestly now, who calls up neighbors to celebrate finding a lost coin? But perhaps that’s just the point we fail to realize. Though it might seem trivial to us to rejoice over finding a lost coin, the woman is unexpectedly joyful. In the same way, God and all of heaven shows surprising enthusiasm over the repentance of even one sinner. To the eyes of the world, one seemingly insignificant person becoming a Christian might seem a rather unimpressive feat. Hardly worth making a fuss over. But not in God’s eyes! In God’s eyes, the poor, lost sinner that has been found and recovered by God, is worth setting all heaven to celebration! Every time a sinner repents the whole angelic choir of heaven tunes up their voices for praise.

A quote from a seminary professor of mine sums this up well: “The value of the lost coin was in the mind of the poor woman and nowhere else. We have little value in ourselves. Our value is completely in the God who saw something in us that we could not even see in ourselves.” That is the message I want to leave with you today. Jesus shows us God’s remarkable love and desire for us, that even as lost sinners who have rebelled and gone astray from Him, He still seeks after and finds us. Christ gently restores us through His forgiveness, earned by His death on the cross. And to those of us who see no value in ourselves—to the lost, the broken, the burned out, and the weak—God has seen in us priceless value that we could not see in ourselves. So precious and valuable are you in Jesus’ eyes, that He shed His own blood as the price of your salvation. You were worth the death of God’s own Son. And God has raised Jesus from the dead, that we might eternally be His possession in heaven, where all the saints and angels rejoice over one lost sinner who repents! Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

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