First Reading Joshua 5:9-12
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Gospel Reading Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Sermon “Lost and Found”
There’s not a more beloved story in the Bible than that of the Prodigal Son. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the greatest story in the Bible…or out of it. Charles Dickens agreed. Along with the Good Samaritan, it is surely Jesus’ most famous parable. It tells the story of a man with two sons, Both of whom become lost or estranged from their father in different ways. The introductory verses we read this morning are important to keep in mind as they introduce a chapter with three stories dealing with something that became lost and was found again with much rejoicing. Listen to the introduction again: Luke 15:1-3 NIV  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Then Jesus told them a parable.
The first of the three parables that Jesus tells is about a lost sheep – one of a flock of one hundred. It has wandered off and the shepherd leaves the 99 good safe sheep to go hunt for the lost one and then rejoices when he finds it. By the way, Don’t worry about those 99 that he left. Shepherds normally worked together in groups, so they weren’t abandoned. We are simply meant to hear of the surpassing diligence of the shepherd towards the lost sheep. The key message of the parable is not that a sheep wandered off – sheep do that often. It is not even that the shepherd went looking for it, that is what shepherds are supposed to do. The key message is the joy of the shepherd when the sheep is safely carried home. He calls his friends to celebrate! Then Jesus offers this interpretation: Luke 15:7 NLT In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! What causes joy and celebration in heaven? The homecoming of a lost one!
We are confronted with contrast between the introduction, where The Pharisees and teachers of the law are complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners, and outcome of the parable where the returning lost are celebrated with joy. In telling these stories, Jesus is telling those good upstanding religious citizens that they have missed something critically important to God – God rejoices when a sinner comes home.
Similarly, he tells the story of the woman who has lost one of her ten bridal coins. In the houses of the day with their dirt and stone floors, a little coin could easily slip down into a gap between flag stones. But she searches diligently until she finds it and also rejoices with her friends. I wonder if the party didn’t cost more than the coin she found! But it’s not the monetary value that motivates her, it’s the symbolism. The coin was probably part of the row of coins which formed a headpiece, signifying her married state. To lose a part of it was like losing a stone out of one’s wedding ring. That’s what makes her look so hard and rejoice so much when it is restored. Each of these stories ends with a similar refrain: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
So this is the setting – the extravagant grace of God who rejoices over the lost being found. More so than for 99 faithful who never left. If you consider yourself as one who never wanders, perhaps the setting has you feeling a bit uneasy. You see, these stories were told in the presence of tax collectors and other sinners gathered around Jesus to hear him and be welcomed, but also in the presence of muttering Pharisees and teachers of the law. It is to this crowd that Jesus tells the third story of the Father with two sons. Various Bible translations title this story differently and it likely colors the way we hear it. Most commonly it is called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but we could just as well it call it the parable of the Waiting Father or The lost son or maybe even the the lost son and the grouchy son – you get the idea.
So how are we to hear this story today?
First, one of the things that strikes me in this story is the seeming foolishness of this father. In response to his son’s remarkably offensive request – asking for an inheritance ahead of time is akin to wishing your parents dead – this father just goes ahead and gives it to him. Given that wealth is tied up in land, this isn’t about going to the bank but rather selling off tracts of real estate, herds, and more. And then, when his son has wasted all this away, the father runs to meet his son, interrupts his lame apology, and restores him to his place in the family. Another detail that intrigues me is whether or not the younger son is truly repentant. Was he really sorry or just desperate and hungry? It doesn’t seem to matter – His father runs to meet him with no way of knowing. Likely, several of us have felt like the younger son – eager to get away, abashed by our mistakes, willing to do almost anything to get at least a part of our old lives back again. If so, this parable is for you. We are children of a Heavenly Father who runs out to meet us, and rejoices that we have come home and that is good news indeed.
Let’s not forget the older son. I mean, he’s right, isn’t he? In almost every possible way, he’s right – about his brother, about himself, about his ridiculously permissive and forgiving father. But, as I often tell my own firstborn son, sometimes we have to choose between being right and being in relationship. The elder son, too, ends up in a “distant country,” this one of his own making as he loses any connection to his brother, his father, or the others rejoicing in the new life his brother has been given. In this way, he had become lost too. Many of us have likely felt like the older brother at times as well – hardworking, diligent, and then resentful at the undeserved gain or unpunished wastefulness of another. Since you are here, in church today, I suspect there are at least a few older brothers. If so, this parable is for you as well, for you also are invited into the celebration if you will only leave your stubborn self righteousness at the door.
And most parents have felt like the father in this story as well – desperate for a sign of a long-missed loved one, overjoyed by his or her unexpected return. Where do you locate yourself in the story this morning?
It is as true as it is unbelievable that God rejoices more over the return of one lost soul than the ninety-nine righteous who never left. That is good news but also disturbing if you happen to be the older sibling. I think children are as surprised as adults are by this story of the Prodigal Son. “It is not fair!” is something parents hear from children a lot. They want life to be fair and are offended when it is not. This story says that it is better to be “loving” than to be ”fair.” If we ask the kids, I bet they could come up with a list of “fair” ways the father could have treated the brother when he came home. But the father did not treat the son fairly but with love when the son came home. So here is the uncomfortable admission we have to make: it is easy to want love and mercy for ourselves and fairness or justice for other people. Jesus tells us this story to insist that God treats all of us with love and grace rather than justice. Thanks be to God that is so.
I think that Paul gives us yet another lens to look at this story. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he talks about a whole other way of looking at the world. A perspective so different that it is unknowable outside of a firm relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ. Listen to his words with the Story of the Lost son in your mind. Remember the meaning of the word reconciliation we talked about with the kids today – “putting something broken back together.” Broken relationships in this case.
Paul says:  So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The revelation of Jesus to Paul has produced such a crisis. Seeing the resurrected Lord has changed how Paul sees the world all around him. Paul is now aware that God has invaded the world as he knows it. The old is passing away. The world that Paul knew is not all there is. The new has dawned. God is in the business of rectifying God’s creation, and Paul has seen God in action. He cannot go back to life as normal.
The distinctions that seemed to matter so much in the old world — Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free — do not matter in God’s world. Because in this new world, God is reconciling all to God’s own self — regardless of gender, status, identity, or position, Regardless of sins and mistakes. The old definitions of lostness no longer apply. Tax collectors and sinners are loved and reconciled. Older brothers need to be reconciled to their father just as much as the prodigals. We either come to God by his invitation and grace or we do not come at all. It is all God’s doing – It is NOT fair, its grace. Wonderful, unreasonable extravagant grace.
Paul reminds us that we are Christ’s ambassadors, charged with a ministry of reconciliation. Who did you identify with in the story of the Prodigal? Could you dare to be the father? Can you accept your commission to be an ambassador of reconciliation? Would you risk reaching out to the hurting and desperate? How about those who have made really bad mistakes? Will you tell them of the great love of God and welcome them into his family? You see, it’s an entirely different way of looking at the world. ReceivIng the forgiveness of God, being reconciled – being put back together into the relationship that we are intended for is surely a wonderful privilege. In this season of Lent we naturally focus on our own sins and this is good. But we must also be ready to receive and welcome others who come as well. The grace of God is more than we can possibly know.