Last month an eight year old boy from Wisconsin went camping with his family at a state park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The boy had gone away from the camp into the woods. When he went to return, he couldn’t find his way back and became lost.
Naturally, when the parents realized that he hadn’t returned, they looked for him. However, the normal efforts to bring back a child playing in the woods produced no results. One can easily imagine the growing anxiety in the parents as they began to realize that their son was lost.
The boy truly was lost. The parents contacted authorities, but a day past and they were not able to find him. A large scale search began as more than 150 law enforcement members took part. Eventually, after 48 hours being lost in the woods, the search team located the boy. Thankfully the boy was in good health and was joyfully reunited with his family.
We can all empathize with the plight of the parents. How frightening it would be to know that your son was lost. We can understand the intensity of the search that this event prompted. A young boy lost in the forest is the cause of great concern, and there is a desire to find him as quickly as possible.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells a parable about a sheep that has become lost and the search that takes place to find it. In this story, our Lord teaches us about how valuable we are to God. Though we were lost, he has exerted the greatest effort to seek us out and save us.
Our text takes place at mealtime and involves Jesus and the Pharisees. We are told, “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.’”
By this point in Luke’s Gospel, we are not surprised to hear this. The Pharisees have repeatedly complained about how Jesus associated with those whom they considered to be unacceptable. In particular they were offended that Jesus ate with such people.
When Jesus called the tax collector Levi – also known as Matthew – to follow him, he hosted a great feast for Jesus. A large number of tax collectors and others were eating with our Lord. The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled at his disciples saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Here again in our text, we hear the exact same complaint. The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus ate with people the Pharisees considered to be sinful, and this drove the Pharisees crazy. They couldn’t understand it. The Pharisees were a group that had developed in Palestine during the centuries that led up to Jesus’ time. They were largely a lay group, though they did have individuals who had received specific training, and these were the scribes.
The Pharisees were very concerned with maintaining purity among God’s people. They had taken aspects of the Torah that applied only to priests, and had extended this to include all people. They had developed a body of teaching that interpreted how the Torah was to be lived. This they called the “tradition of the elders.” This tradition was something that they considered to be equal with the Torah itself.
Because the Pharisees were living in the specific way that they considered to be correct, they looked down on others who didn’t follow these rules. The Pharisees considered themselves to be superior to all who were not Pharisees. In particular they looked down on tax collectors and those whom the Pharisees called “sinners.”
Now no one likes to pay taxes, and those who are involved in collecting taxes are usually not our favorite. When I say, “Internal Revenue Service,” your first thoughts are probably negative. This was true as well in first century Palestine. However, in addition, tax collectors had a reputation for being crooked. They could assess the value as being higher than it really was, and then keep the extra money collected for themselves.
The term “sinners” is a little more ambiguous. This probably included people who really were living in ways that broke God’s Law. But it also included people who weren’t Pharisees, and thus weren’t doing all of things that were part of the tradition of the elders.
The Pharisees were offended that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Meals were a very important part of life in the ancient world. They demonstrated the people whom you accepted. By eating with tax collectors and sinners – by engaging in meal fellowship - Jesus showed that he accepted them. This was entirely unacceptable to the Pharisees and our Lord’s continuing practice irritated them to no end.
In response, Jesus told a parable about a man who had a hundred sheep. When he realized that he had lost one, he left the 99 and went to seek the lost sheep. He searched until he found it. Then, when it was found, he put it on his shoulders and carried it home. When he arrived there, he called together his neighbors saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Our Lord concluded the parable by saying, “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.”
Our text today contains bad news and good news. The bad news is that we were lost. We were lost in our sin. And it’s not just that we were once lost. Instead, we continue to act in ways that can lead to being lost. We find it easy to break the Third Commandment by despising preaching and God’s Word. We let other activities take priority on Sunday morning. We don’t spend time during the week reading God’s Word. In general, we expend far more time and effort on things that interest us than we do on God and his Word.
Because we were sinners trapped in sin, God sought us out. He sent his Son into the world in the incarnation as Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus declared that the words of Isaiah chapter 53 were fulfilled in himself: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” In that same chapter Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
God laid the iniquity of us all on him as Jesus died on the cross. He was “wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
And by his resurrection he has given us life. On the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. In Christ he has defeated death. We have life with God now, and the resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that God will raise up our bodies on the Last Day to be like Jesus’ own resurrected body.
Because of this there is joy. In the parable the man said at his home, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” There is joy in the presence of God. 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.” And there is also joy among us, for we know that we have received the gift we could never earn or merit on our own. It is purely God’s grace that has brought this forgiveness and salvation to us.
Jesus welcomes sinners. But it is crucial that we recognize what kind of sinners he welcomes. When Jesus called Levi, and the Pharisees complained he said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” In the same way, Jesus says in our text that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Jesus receives repentant sinners. He does not simply accept people and affirm their choices in the way that world expects. During this month we have been immersed in this kind of view. It has almost reached the point where I dread the month of June. The “Pride” theme supporting homosexuality is shoved upon us constantly by the government, the media and big business. The rainbow has been perverted from a sign of God’s promise to a symbol of perversion and sin.
Yet Jesus does not receive those who want to hold onto their sin. Instead, he calls sinners to repentance. He calls them to turn away from sin. He calls us to confess our own sin and to turn away from it as we believe and trust in Christ for forgiveness.
Because we do there is joy in heaven. In this forgiveness made possible by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, we learn how valuable we are to God. And if we are, then so are the people around us. Every person you meet is someone for whom Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. You must treat them with the love and respect because they are so valuable on God’s eyes.
We act in ways that reflect the love and forgiveness that God has shown us. When others mistreat you, forgive them because God has forgiven you. When they show anger towards you, bless and help them. As Jesus states in this Gospel, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
In our Gospel lesson, we see God’s desire to seek and to save the lost. We were lost, but by the death and resurrection of Jesus God has given us forgiveness. In Christ there is forgiveness for all who repent. This means that we must continue to repent. We confess our sin and turn away from it, as we receive the forgiveness won for us by Christ. We live in the confidence that there is joy in heaven when we do so.