First Reading Psalm 14
Second Reading 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Gospel Reading Luke 15:1-10
Sermon “Rejoicing in Heaven”
The gospel lesson this morning presents us with a set of three parables about lost things which are found and then rejoiced over. In the first Jesus uses the figure of a shepherd who notices 1 of his 100 sheep is missing. He sets out to find the lost one, presumably leaving the 99 in the open country with his fellow shepherds. When he has found it, he carries it home and calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. Here we are confronted with a shepherd who behaves with an unexpected passion. This is no mere job and the shepherd is no hireling. So strong is his love for the sheep, that he goes off in search for it without a complaint about “some stupid sheep” and he throws a party when he has found it. Immediately Jesus lets us know the application – the shepherd is Himself and the lost sheep are the sinners he is welcoming home. No grumbling just joy!
In the second a woman has lost one of her 10 coins. It is a silver drachma, worth an entire day’s wage, possibly part of her dowry. Think about losing a 50 dollar bill and you’ll get more of the idea of her loss. Houses in Palestine in that period had dirt floors, and few if any windows. It would have been a difficult task. When it is finally found, she too calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Here, there are no recriminations about carelessness or poor housekeeping or shame at having lost the coin, just joy! Both of these brief parables conclude with Jesus commenting about the rejoicing in heaven over the repenting of a single sinner.
The third is the most familiar of all – a man has two sons. The younger one brashly asks for his inheritance with his father still very much alive, then goes and wastes it all in a distant land. Soon, he is destitute and miserable and decides to go back home and beg to be allowed to work as a servant, thinking himself no longer worthy to be a son. The father is the star of this parable. It turns out he has been watching for the younger boy to return, he casts all dignity aside and runs out to meet him. He refuses to even listen to the boy’s confession, has the servants outfit him as a proper son and throws a huge party. Not surprisingly, the older son has a huge problem with the welcome home party that his father has thrown and he sulks and refuses to come in. We are left to wander which son is lost and what kind of father behaves so.
Parables are purposely constructed to invite us into a familiar scene, and then to challenge us to think about how the lesson might be applied. So I invite you along with me this morning as we consider these parables and their lessons for us.
The setting the stories are told in is critically important. Luke sets the situation up with Jesus being surrounded by a very mixed crowd – Disciples, Tax collectors, sinners of all kinds alongside scribes, Pharisees, teachers of the law and no doubt many ordinary people – all curious to hear what he had to say. Now Jesus’ association with sinners made him very popular with those whom the religious leaders considered the lost in society, but not so much with the leaders themselves. Jesus values these people where the scribes and Pharisees do not. They seem to have considered them to be lost, contaminated and beyond redemption – as we see and hear, Jesus did not.
Jesus said plainly that came to this earth to seek and save the lost. These parables are aimed right at those good religious folks complaining about Jesus associating with folks like that: tax collectors, prostitutes, those with less than desirable histories and reputations. They certainly didn’t consider one of them to be rejoicing over in the slightest, certainly not like a valuable sheep or coin, but Jesus did and that is the main point. They find themselves cast in the role of the older son. Standing outside of the party, sulking and nursing outrage.
There is even an inside joke hidden here. Jesus describes the attitude of God – 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!” Now just who gets to claim 100% righteousness on there own merits by the way? No one of course, we are all sheep prone to wandering off. It was also the case for the Pharisees whether they acknowledged it or not.
Another aspect of these parables is the rich tradition of the setting, particularly around the metaphors of sheep and shepherd and also of a loving parent. This are very common in both new and old testaments. We know and love the 23rd Psalm with its wonderfully comforting words about God’s protection and care for us as a loving shepherd. But there is much more. For instance in Is 40:11, we read of God’s love and care for his people this way “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. As we have discussed before, the office of Shepherd also applied not only to God but also the the leadership of the nation.
By way of negative example consider Ezekiel 34:4-6 where the prophet points out the consequences to the flock where the human leadership has failed: “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.  My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”
But the passage goes on to describe God reaching in, past these shoddy shepherds to tend the flock himself: “ ‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.  As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.  I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord.  I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” These words may well have been in Jesus’ mind as he tells the shepherds of his day that God rejoices in finding the lost and providing justice and mercy to the weak.
So with this exploration of the setting, let’s move on to the task of learning what Jesus invites us to know from these stories. Let me say right up front – I feel strongly that the primary lesson from these stories is to teach us about the nature of God; what God desires; what produces joy in heaven; how God approaches broken relationships.
We of course tend to first locate ourselves in the stories. There are many possibilities. Perhaps you are one of the religious folks, worried about the scandal of Jesus associating with those they considered clearly undesirable folks. If we are honest, we can sometimes catch ourselves thinking like that. Us and them. With apologies the Clint Eastwood: The good, the bad and the ugly. If so, these parables are for you, for they show us that we all need grace, pharisee and sinners alike. Perhaps you are one of those sometimes looked down on and feel second class or excluded? This parable is for you too. It tells of the unconditional welcome of the grace of God. Offering acceptance and homecoming.
Perhaps you might even be feeling as one of the lost right now. There are many ways of being lost. One might be simply confused and uncertain – ignorant of the terrain or customs or history of a place or situation. Suddenly you are uncertain where to turn or how to proceed. You want very much for someone to come to your aid and redeem such moments. Maybe they became lost because they were forgotten or abandoned, without the means to care for themselves. The flock just moved on and didn’t notice they weren’t there anymore. One might become lost through abuse. They might have actually been driven away. Fleeing in fear and hurt, they just run and wind up in jeopardy – lost and alone.
Being lost need not be innocent either. Perhaps like that sheep, the grass looked so much greener just a little farther away from where you ought be be, when we substitute our own judgement for the shepherds and become wayward and rebellious, we can quite easily become lost and get into trouble. This is what drew the younger son. However it happened, this parable is for you too. God is patiently waiting, even seeking you out to bring you home in safety. It is so good to be found. Notice that sometimes the lost one is passive. The Shepherd and the woman do all the work – searching – going back and forth – looking everywhere until the lost sheep or coin is found. The Holy Spirit of God does the same.
Some of those folks in the crowd around Jesus didn’t like the parable very much I suppose. They were rather like the older brother in the third story who resented the return of the prodigal and particularly the party thrown for him. And yet Jesus carefully repeats – “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” There are many reasons why we Christian’s repeat that we are saved by grace alone so much. First because it is wonderfully true that we have been given a wonderful gift – acceptance in the beloved – God’s son Jesus Christ. But also to remind ourselves that the foulest sinner is saved in exactly the same way as one who has done their best to remain faithful all their life. God loves us all and graciously calls out to any who will come home.
Our lectionary passages lift up a very real story, with an equally vivid demonstration of God’s grace. We read of Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul. In his letter to his young helper Timothy, Paul remembers his vile past as a persecutor of the fledgling Christian church – one who hunted down those “Followers of the Way” who dared to view God differently than the established dogma, so that they could be arrested and imprisoned. This was the man who God called to open the way to salvation for thousands of Gentiles in his time – and countless millions more on down through the years – to us. We gentiles, who were once considered irredeemably lost. Paul proclaimed that Christ died for us too. He recalled his own past as proof that Jesus Christ came into the world to rescue sinners. In essence saying that if God could save him, he can save anyone. Just as in last week’s lesson, the runaway servant Onesimus became a vital part of the community of faith, Paul, before him went from a lost persecutor of the church to it’s foremost evangelist and writer.
It is so very good to be found. And isn’t it thought provoking that finding a lost soul brings such joy to the courts of heaven! Now here is your part – you know the way home, don’t you? Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life.” – isn’t that too good to keep to yourself? There are lost ones out there, here with the Lord is safety and forgiveness and welcome and belonging. You know what to do don’t you? Let’s be about our father’s business and join in the celebration for each and every one who comes home.