Sunday, June 12, 2016
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity - Lk 15:1-10
When I was growing up, my parents often used two phrases to describe me. The first was “big ears.” Now this was not a reference to my appearance. Instead, it acknowledged the fact that I had a knack for hearing everything … especially those things that really weren’t my business.
I always wanted to know what was going on. I could tell when my parents were talking about something that I knew had to be interesting. And I was very good at being just close enough to hear what was being said because I could hear very well.
Eventually my parents resorted to a tactic that allowed them to talk without having me eavesdrop. After dinner, they would announce that they were going to “take a walk around the estate.” Now I did not realize at the time that they were being ironic when they said this. They would walk around the house and look at how the flowers, shrubs and garden in back were doing. And as they were walking out in the yard they would talk about anything they wanted to discuss without risk that “big ears” would hear it.
The other phrase they used to describe me was “eagle eyes.” They called me this first because when I was a little boy I could be counted on to find things in the house. If my mom couldn’t locate something, she would tell me about it and ask me to see if I could find it. I would walk through the house, and to this day my mom will tell you that with great frequency I found whatever it was she was looking for – I just had a knack for spotting things that were “lost.”
This trend continued when I was older. As many of you know, my dad and I are both model railroaders. I grew up doing this with him, just as now Matthew does it with me. When working on a project at the modeling table it often happens that a small piece for a kit that is being cut off a sprue flies off the table; or a very small screw for a model engine drops to the floor. It lands somewhere on the shag carpet summer below. My dad knew that he could count on me to get down the floor and look until I found the errant item.
The theme of searching and finding stands at the heart of both the parables Jesus tells in our Gospel lesson this morning. These parables illustrate God’s desire to save the lost and the joy that is present when this occurs. But while it is usually not emphasized, there is another side to these parables. God wants to find the lost. But part of being found is the willingness to confess sin – to repent. The first two verses of our text provide the setting for all of chapter fifteen. We hear: “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.”
A distinguishing feature of Jesus’ ministry was the fact that he ate with people the Pharisees considered to be “sinners” – the kind of people that a religiously respectable person should know to avoid. The term “sinners” probably has a fairly broad meaning. Some of these people would have been those who didn’t follow the rule of the oral tradition that the Pharisees has set on top of the Torah – the so-call “traditions of the elders.” Some of these people, no doubt, really were individuals who led sinful lives such as prostitutes.
The Pharisees were right. Jesus did receive people like this and eat with them. And this fact was significant. Table fellowship in the ancient word was a big deal. To share in a meal with a person indicated that there was some kind of acceptance of that person. Now as we will see, we also don’t want to blow this out of proportion. Sharing in table fellowship didn’t necessarily indicate a blanket acceptance of everything about a person. But certainly, it did indicate the kind of people you were ready to accept.
Jesus responded by telling three parable in this chapter – parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. In the first two parables that are found in our text, Jesus is basically making the same point. He says, “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?” The question is asked in a way that assumes a positive answer. Of course a person leaves the sheep who are safe and goes and looks for the one that is lost!
Or as Jesus asks in the second parable: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?” Again, of course she does! The coin is precious to her and so she makes every effort to find it.
In both parables when the lost is found there is joy. And it is joy of a nature that can’t be kept to oneself. It is shared with others. Jesus says of the man, “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” He says about the woman, “And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”
After both parables, Jesus emphasizes this feature of joy. He makes the point that the friends and neighbors who come together to rejoice with the man and the woman are illustrations of what happens in God’s presence. After the first parable Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” In the second parable he adds, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Today in our culture many people like to emphasize the fact that Jesus ate with sinners. We are told that by this act Jesus showed that he accepted people for who they were. And if Jesus did this, why can’t his followers do the same? This is guaranteed to be heard whenever issues of religious freedom come into view – the principle that a person should not be forced to do something that violates their religious beliefs. For example when state laws providing religious freedom to business owners have been in the news a meme has appeared in social media that says: “Jesus regularly ate dinner with thieves and prostitutes, but you’re telling me it’s against your religion to bake a cake for a gay person?”
Now there are many problems with this line of argument. One of them is the notion that by eating with these people, Jesus was not judging them and their behavior. Jesus is pictured as accepting everyone no matter what they chose to do. And by extension, Christians are told that they should do the same thing. Any decisions that are made because a behavior is considered sinful are just wrong and do not reflect the loving and accepting attitude of Jesus.
It’s a common approach in our world. But it is dead wrong – a fact that our text makes perfectly clear. Yes, Jesus does choose to interact with people. Yes, he is open in inviting all to come to him. But Jesus has a goal in mind – he has a purpose, and that purpose is not simple acceptance of sin.
This fact becomes clear as Jesus describes the joy over the lost who are now found. After the first parable he says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” After the second parable he adds, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
For Jesus, being found means repenting. It means confessing sin as sin and then turning away from it. Earlier in this Gospel when faced with the same accusation from the Pharisees Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus is not in the business of accepting people for who they are. Instead he calls sin what it is because he is in the business of providing the forgiveness of sins. If “I am ok” and “you are ok” there would have been no reason for Jesus to go to the cross.
But, I am most certainly not ok, and neither are you. And that is why Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. He died as the atoning sacrifice sent by God. He died in your place as he received God’s wrath against your sin. Because of this, you are now a forgiven child of God. And then in his resurrection he began the new life that will be yours on the Last Day.
Being found means that now we continue to repent. Through the work of the Spirit who gave us new life in baptism we seek to live in ways that are true to God’s will. And when the old man trips us up, we repent and return to our baptism. We confess our sin. We don’t attempt to justify it. We don’t tell others that they should accept it. We repent. We return to the forgiveness that we have in Christ because we have shared in his saving death through the water and the Word of Holy Baptism.
Yet because we have received this from our Lord, we also now seek to bring Jesus’ brand of love to others. This means that we do show kindness and concern towards those who are different from us – even those who are engaged in overt sin such as the cohabiting man and woman, or the homosexual couple. We care about their needs and seek to assist them. And we also love them enough to tell them the truth – for that is the most difficult kind of love in today’s world. We speak the truth … not in anger or spite. But we speak in the hope that through repentance and Spirit worked faith the lost will be found. And as Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”