Monday, September 12, 2016

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10, for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, "God's Joy for Finding the Lost"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today our Gospel reading in Luke 15 contains some of the most beloved parables that Jesus taught. The parable of the lost sheep, of the lost coin, and of the lost son (or sons). Our reading is the first two, but as a set, they convey the love and heart of God our Father, and the Lord Jesus, to seek after the lost. They also speak of the joy God experiences when He finds the lost. Before we dive into the two parables, note a couple of things about the set of three as a whole. First, there is a progression in the joy. First there is joy in heaven. In the second parable there is joy before the angels of God. In the parable of the lost son, the joy is of the Father himself, and by extension, the joy of the whole household. Secondly, there is a progression in how much of what is lost. In the first, one of 100 sheep is lost. In the second, one of ten coins is lost. Finally, the last parable seems to be about one of two sons is lost—but on further examination, we find that both sons were lost in different ways. This gives the listeners to the parable the growing awareness that we are all lost apart from Jesus. Jesus was teaching Pharisees and scribes, who grumbled and criticized Jesus for eating and associating with the tax collectors and sinners. By the end of the parable they would learn that they carried their own unique “lost-ness” with them as well.
Being “lost” typically makes us think of location and directions—like a person lost in their car, or hiking in the woods off trail, or like that. Once you get to the correct place or location, you’re not lost any more. But this definition of being lost doesn’t capture the full sense of the Scripture. The “lost-ness” of these parables is much more a matter of our heart than our location. The parables are particularly pointed at the Pharisees and scribes who were so critical of Jesus’ association with sinners. They didn’t even see or perceive their “lost-ness”. Crucial to our understanding of what it means to be “lost”—is to know that this is a condition of our human hearts and our sinful nature. In other words, our “lost-ness” is part and parcel of our sin. We are all lost because of sin. Ever since Adam and Eve first sinned in the garden, humanity has been lost, and we carry this lost-ness with us. Our lost-ness is not a matter of our location, but of our orientation away from God, because of sin. Paul said it in trustworthy words for us all: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”
The original complaint of the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus was, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus teaches us through these parables, that the orientation of their heart was away from God’s. In order to share in the joy of the Father, we not only need to acquire His heart and compassion for the lost, but also to rejoice over every lost sinner that comes to repentance, just as God, the angels, and all heaven does. Jesus’ first question is, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Then He asks, “What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep diligently until she finds it?” The point of both questions, is that God does go looking. Whether we would or wouldn’t go looking for the lost—Jesus did go. He looks for us everywhere. It shows the orientation of God’s heart is to searching after what is lost—every last, precious one. There’s not a sheep in His fold or a coin in the purse, or a child in His family that is not precious to Him, and that is not worth Him dropping everything, and hunting in the wilderness for His lost sheep, or brushing through the dirt floor to reclaim that one lost coin, nor is there a lost child whom He’d turn away. It’s you that God is after, and that are so precious for Him to recover. Until he finds it….He’s not giving up, getting bitter, resentful, or discouraged. He is determined! Until he finds it!
Now Jesus’ parable is a winsome picture of Jesus’ love, not only for the Pharisees—whom Jesus was teaching to have a heart after His own—but also to the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the known sinners in the community, that Jesus was so notorious for associating with. They needed to know that God’s love for the lost included and embraced them. This gives us insight into what it means to have a heart after God’s own heart—to learn His love for the lost. A book I recently read on gospel-focused parenting reflected deeply on what it means to be lost, and how we reach the lost. In the bulletin quote, Paul Tripp describes lost-ness as something we carry around with us inside of us—our sinful orientation away from God’s good care and protection, and it makes us think we can live more independently than we were ever designed to live. The sheep that wander from the fold go away from the care and protection that was meant for their goodness and well-being. This is what sin does to us. And this condition of being lost, doesn’t particularly depend on whether we realize it or not. Even if we don’t know it or realize it, our lost-ness is hurtful to both ourselves and others.
That’s what I mean that it’s part of our heart condition. Something that we all carry around inside us. Tax collectors and sinners were “lost” from the way of God, because they chose greed, dishonesty, and corrupt gain, instead of trusting in God’s providence and performing their jobs faithfully and honestly. They hurt others through their sinful actions. But the Pharisees were lost too—but lost from the way of God because their hearts were not attuned to His grace. They were striking the chords of legalism, of self-righteousness, of judgment and grumbling. They hurt others through their sinful attitudes. They would have kept Jesus away from “those sinners.” They just didn’t see their own sin and “lost-ness”. Their growing discomfort with Jesus’ parables increased until the third parable exposed to them their own lost-ness too. Whether we are more like the Pharisees or the tax collectors, or like the older son or the younger son in Jesus’ last parable—our “lost-ness” is not defined by our location, but it’s a matter of our hearts and deeds being out of alignment with God’s. In other words, being lost or found is not a matter of whether you are in this building on Sundays or not—or whether a person knows the Bible backward and forward, like the Pharisees. It’s not even a matter of having gone so far in the opposite direction from God that we can’t get back. It is a matter of where our heart is toward God.
So what does the parable teach us about how God deals with sinners, and what does it mean for us? Continuing Paul Tripp’s explanation of being lost, he says that Jesus’ stories teach us powerfully that what the lost need most is not criticism, judgment, condemnation, or punishment. That was probably what the Pharisees wanted Jesus to deliver to those sinners. But instead, what every lost person needs is deliverance. Tax collector or Pharisee, outward sinner or inward hypocrite, Jesus is after every lost one of us, to deliver us. But what do the lost need? They need compassion, understanding, patience, acceptance, forgiveness, and grace. (Tripp, Parenting, p. 105). Jesus’ compassion, patience and forgiveness enabled Him to reach a whole category of people the Pharisees had summarily written off. Today we have the same opportunity to approach others with the compassion and forgiveness of Christ.
The parable of the sheep ends with Jesus saying that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Now this goes right to the heart of what we are talking about. Is Jesus saying that the Pharisees and scribes, or that those of us who are here and church and call ourselves Christians, are the “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance?” Are we here, not in need of repentance? Many later teachings of Jesus, including the Pharisee and the tax collector, show us that really everyone is in need of repentance. Thinking that you are righteous, and don’t need to repent, doesn’t actually make us righteous in God’s eyes. Nor does it mean that we don’t need to repent. Instead, as we recite the Biblical words each week: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So we—first of all—need to recognize our own lost-ness that we carry around in our heart. Secondly, this should open our hearts with compassion to others who are also lost—in whatever circumstances we may find them.
Sometimes people are happy and carefree in their lost condition—like the sheep exploring the newfound freedom of leaving the flock—not aware of what dangers lie ahead. Other times people may be so beaten down and hopeless in their lost condition, that they are utterly helpless, like a trapped sheep, or a lost coin. We have no ability on our own to get back to God. But this is why Jesus comes on His rescue mission. So that we can join in the joy of His rescue mission. So we don’t miss out on the heavenly party, the great celebration that all heaven throws, when a single sinner repents, and is found by the Lord!
What more enduring picture of compassion, love, and rescue, is there than the image Jesus gives of finding the sheep, laying it on His shoulders, rejoicing, and carrying it home? Calling His friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost!” We were dead and lost in our trespasses and sins. Jesus came and searched and found each one of us. He carries us home to heaven on His strong and able shoulders—rejoicing! Jesus rejoices for you! He rejoices for the lost! Every precious one of them—every precious rescue mission that brings the gospel, the good news, to any lost sinner. Whether that be the homeless veteran lost in a world of loneliness and disillusionment, or the young woman lost in a moment of crisis over an unplanned pregnancy, or a hard-hearted Christian who’s forgotten God’s first love and grace toward them, and sees only the faults of others, or a devout follower of some false god, who doesn’t even know the grace of God. Whoever and however they are lost, God is after them—He’s after us! Until he finds [us]! God isn’t giving up—He’s searching for us everywhere! And when He finds us, it’s not to bring us condemnation, but the forgiveness of ours sins, the welcome embrace into His loving arms, and to usher us into the celebration of the community of His people. Most of all He wants us back home with Him. All of us lost and redeemed sinners! Here at Emmanuel, and everywhere that people gather to His name. We are found—not by our location, but because God has found us, and He joyfully gives us a new heart—His heart. God desires to make each and every one of us, a child, a brother, a sister, a man or woman after God’s own heart. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Jesus’ fellowship and eating with sinners offends the Pharisees. But how is it emblematic of His whole purpose and ministry? Luke 5:30-32. How should that shape and direct our ministry and attitudes as Christians?
  2. Why is grumbling a sin? What is at the root of grumbling? What are the positive counterparts to grumbling? Luke 15:7, 10; Philippians 4:11
  3. Luke 15 is a series of three related parables, that have a progression and unity of thought. Today we hear the first two. But to better understand each, notice a few progressions: what percentage of things are lost in the parable of the sheep? Coins? Sons? How does the focus of the joy at finding the lost progress in each? Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 32  (hint: who is feeling the joy in each instance?)
  4. Based on the 3rd parable, who excludes themselves from the rejoicing and celebration? Luke 15:28-30. Who does he represent in Jesus’ audience? In our audience? How do we “get in” on this heavenly joy?
  5. How would you define what it means to be “lost”? Does our lost-ness depend on our awareness of our situation? Our ability to get ourselves out of the situation? Our present happiness or misery in the situation?
  6. Who, among the human race, are lost? Do those who are righteous and “need to repentance” (v. 10), really exist? Or is it just a matter of their self-reflecting perspective? Romans 3:10-23. How does the recognition that everyone carries this “lost-ness” within them, in their human nature, increase and change our sympathy toward others? What does it mean to have the heart of Jesus toward the lost?
  7. Describe the tender love and joy with which Jesus rescues the lost sheep, or the passionate search He undertakes for the lost coin. What does this show about the nature and sacrifice of His love for us? What comfort does it speak to us? How should we know our Lord? Psalm 23; John 10.
  8. Why are sheep (and us!!) made to be in the Shepherd’s care and fold? How is life improved by being with our Shepherd?

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