Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Lost are Found"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading paints pictures of God for us, to describe how the lost are found, and the spontaneous eruption of joy that happens in heaven when lost sinners are found. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A woman sits alone in a crowded restaurant, staring at the happy faces and animated conversation of other customers, wondering where her joy and laughter has gone. In the few years since her father died, she’s felt disillusioned and angry at God and unable to find peace. Somewhere else, in a high school classroom, a student wears a dark look on his face and buries himself in angry music to hide his pain and toughen himself against emotion. Growing up in a house where his parents just don’t care, his behavior has gotten worse and worse at school, and now he wonders if he’ll get caught and kicked out for drug possession. A few miles away in an executive boardroom, a successful CEO mechanically manages his business meeting while his mind is elsewhere. He wonders if his wife knows about the affair he’s having, and is ashamed and fearful of what will happen if his church finds out.

These could all be the life stories of people who are lost. Stories like them and people much like them could be found all through our island community. Some stories might evoke sympathy, others indignation. People who have wandered far from the sheepfold, and are stuck in a world of loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness, or sin and depravity. Their lives may outwardly be successful, or their lives may be a string of bad choices and tragedies. They may have pursued a path of sin and ignored all the calls of a guilty conscience to turn back. They may have convinced themselves that there’s some justification for their actions to silence that voice of conscience. Or they may have been thrust into terrible circumstances by the neglect and mistreatment of others, and lost hope and faith in God. But what they all share in common, whatever their external situations, is that they’re lost. Adrift and wandering, separated by sin and unbelief from their loving God and Jesus the Good Shepherd who longs to have them home in safety. Sometimes getting lost was willful and on purpose, other times it was accidental and unintentional.

The details and faces may change, but do you know someone who is lost? Are you that someone? Then Jesus’ parable was written for you. Perhaps you were the sheep that bolted from the sheepfold, confident of your way and self-sure in your pursuit of greener pastures. You didn’t need the protection of our Good Shepherd and the safety of the pen, so you struck out for those inviting open pastures. Sometimes we despise the sanctuary and rest of church, and the goodness of our Lord Jesus, enticed by the forbidden pleasures of the world, confident that we know better. Until the deceitful pleasures of the world prove to be a bramble or thorny thicket that we cannot untangle ourselves from, and we harden ourselves against returning to the Lord.

Or perhaps you were the sheep that mindlessly wandered out of the sheepfold, peacefully munching on the grass, blissfully enjoying life while you slowly drifted further and further away, until the surroundings began to look dark and unfamiliar, you were left alone, and the howling of wolves echoed in your ears. Sometimes life just cruises on smoothly and we never even notice how far we’ve drifted from God until a crisis appears in our life and we find ourselves off-guard, alone and unprotected. We bleat for help but hear only the growling of unfriendly voices, or worse yet, total silence.

The surprise of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, is the effort that the shepherd and the poor woman in the respective stories go to, in order to recover their lost possessions. We live in a very practical and pragmatic world. People don’t tend to waste their time picking up lost coins off the street when they’re in a hurry. They might stop for a clean, shiny coin, but few would pick up a sticky, dirty coin covered in gum or dried soda. Most people wouldn’t risk losing 99% of their investment to return 1% of their lost assets. We tend to value efficiency and practicality. Losses are inevitable, so cut your losses and move on with life. Do what works and get the most accomplished.

But the shepherd and the poor women in the parable portray God and His unfailing love and compassion to search for the lost. He doesn’t make a practical evaluation or do a “cost-benefit analysis” to measure whether our lives are worth saving. Like a loving shepherd, He scrambles through the dry wilderness in pursuit of that lost lamb, leaving behind the 99 until He finds the one lost sheep. A poor woman missing one of her small stash of 10 meager coins, lights a lamp and grubs around on the dark dirt floor of her peasant’s home until she finds that lost coin. Likewise, Jesus “stripped Himself down to the deepest levels of our poverty and came into our darkness, so that we could become rich in Him and live with Him in eternal light” (Scaer, 237-9). For all those lost, lonely, angry, rebellious, or despairing sinners in this world, the message of this parable is that God has not written you off as a loss. Jesus has not given up the search for those who’ve gotten lost, and is passionately searching till the lost are found.

Some who are lost may be at the point of despair. They may feel worthless and have no hope to be found. They may feel like the dirty coin stuck in the gum on the parking lot, with people walking by unaware, or worse, with looks of disgust. They may consider themselves of no value to anyone. Who would find me? Who would notice the problems in my life and care? But Jesus is like the person who picks up that coin, shines and cleans it off, and shouts with surprise and joy to those around, look at what I’ve found! Jesus finds lost sinners covered in their sin, and He cleanses them by His forgiveness, washing them in baptism from their guilt and sin’s stain, and clothing them anew with His innocence. Jesus finds us like lost sheep, and picks out the thorns of sin and disobedience, washes the mud of sorrow and guilt away, and heals the wounds of tragedies and losses. This is to say that Jesus sees the value in us, He sees the value in what is lost, even if we or others don’t see it in ourselves. Our value exists in the eyes of God. Jesus may be the only one who sees, cares and hears. But we need never fear that if we cry out in need for His mercy, if we bleat for relief, that He won’t listen. Removing the thorns of sin will be painful, and we might resist; breaking the illusion of finding greener pastures elsewhere might be tough, but for the lost sheep come home, it’s a blessed departure from what lies behind.

There’s peace and safety and freedom in returning home and receiving the joyful welcome of our loving and faithful Lord. Repenting of our sin and acknowledging that we’ve gone astray takes humility and accepting that God’s ways are right and good. But it’s so much better to have a conscience at peace, and be found, then to have a distressed and guilty conscience and be lost. See yourself being carried home on Jesus’ shoulders, with His tender words of relief and joy at finding you and bringing you home. It is for you that God did not spare His greatest love, that Jesus gave up His life for His friends. No greater love than this, that the Good Shepherd willingly laid down His life for the sheep that they may have life and have it to the fullest with Him.

And there is nothing but joy—sheer and unadulterated joy and celebration in heaven, when even one lost sinner repents. The one sinner despised and overlooked by the world, the one who was lost, is worth everything in the eyes of Jesus—yes, even worth giving His own life. For the joy of having you and I back as His own, Jesus was willing to endure the pains of the cross, as He suffered for our sins, our wanderings, our rebellion and disobedience. He was willing to become the most lost and forsaken man on the planet when He died on the cross, so that His death would open a way back home for us. And oh, how does heaven celebrate whenever one lost sinner repents and turns back from their way! Can anything make heaven burst into song like that? Just the glimpse of that heavenly jubilance can send our hearts soaring with amazement at the greatest love of God who cares so much for even a sinner such as I. And for all those examples of hurting, lonely, or defiant sinners that I gave before, who knows what dear Christian friend, parent, aunt or uncle, coach or mentor or colleague joins in the rejoicing and celebration when that lost sinner repents and Christ brings them back to Him. How long they have prayed and hoped for their return.

Treasure the images of that joy in heaven and of Jesus rejoicing as He carries lost sheep home on His shoulders, speaking tenderly to them, for these are not merely nice thoughts and sentimental images to be hung on a calendar or living room wall. This is the very truth of God’s plan of salvation that He is carrying out through Jesus Christ, and the real description of God’s active and searching love that risks everything to find us lost sinners and bring us home. It is the very picture of heaven, where celebration truly can’t be contained at a sinner’s return. Treasure this in your heart because we were all, every one of us, lost in sin and error’s way. We all, like sheep have gone astray. But just as you were once lost, now you’re found, and Christ has brought you to His sheepfold where there’s safe pasture. Take every opportunity to rejoice together with fellow Christians and with God and the angels in heaven at our own redemption and the redemption of every lost sinner come home. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What are the stories of “lost sheep” that you know? Your own? Where is there an opening to share God’s Word with them? In what situation might such a lost sheep need to hear the Word of God’s Law, to reveal to them their sin? In what situation might they need to hear the Word of God’s Gospel, to assure them of God’s forgiveness and a way home?

2. What are the traps for lost sheep in this world? What is the call for those who are entangled in them? Eph. 4:22; Hebrews 3:12-13. What will Jesus do for the lost sheep? Ezek. 34:11-16, 23-24.

3. What’s the surprise in each of the parables—of the lost sheep and lost coin? What is “impractical” about it? Why is pragmatism a poor basis for deciding to help those in need? How does God view the matter differently?

4. To what extent did Jesus go to search out the lost? Phil. 2:7-8; Gal. 4:4-5; What defines the Good Shepherd? John 10:11-18.

5. What gives us value, even when we often have a low opinion of ourselves? How does Jesus make us presentable to God? 1 Peter 3:21; 1 Peter 1:13-23

6. How does heaven react at the return of every single lost sinner? How can we participate in this joy and celebration? How can we bring more joy to heaven? James 5:19-20

7. In what way is every believer a sinner who once was lost, but now is found? Rom. 3:23-24; Isaiah 53:6-7

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