Rocherty UMC September 15th, 2019
Luke 15:1-10 “Losing with Grace”
Sermon Manuscript
Luke 15:1–10 (NIV)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
15:4–7pp—Mt 18:12–14
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 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.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”*

 

Introduction
          Children and sheep are a lot alike.  They are innocent, often very trusting individuals.  Both require a watchful eye to keep them going in the right direction, lest they be distracted by friends, food, or curiosity.  They don’t have the best judgement about crossing streets, playing in and around water, or keeping their coats clean.  And another thing these two things have in common is that their keepers can get apoplectic if their little ones leave their sight—even for a minute.
          One of the most vivid memories I have is the feeling of being lost when I was a child.  My parents decided it would be a good idea to take me to Walt Disney World around the time I was ten years old.  Up until the point when my story begins, the trip had been largely uneventful—enjoyable, but no unusual occurrences. But on one particular day, in the very center of the Magic Kingdom, I suddenly got separated from my parents.  One minute my parents were just visible to my left peripheral vision, and the next minute they were gone, lost in the crowd.
          Now me, the sheep in the story, began wandering around looking for my parents.  At this time, I just didn’t have the wisdom to stop where I was and ask for help.  So, I continued to mosey along in the general direction we had been heading.  I don’t remember a feeling of panic coming over me; more like a sense of confusion.  If you know the phrase “deer in the headlights” that could describe what I was feeling.  That’s a lot like sheep.  They aren’t the most intelligent or wisest animals God ever created—and we are a lot like sheep.
          On the other hand, I later learned, my parents were frantic at losing me in the crowd.  Almost immediately after they realized I was gone they began to panic.  They, along with my grandmother, began a frenzied search of the area with the goal of locating me.  The contrast between my naïve stumbling about and their determined searching couldn’t be greater.  But each of us was doing what came naturally to us.  Don’t underestimate the power or determination of a parent who has a lost child.
          Now eventually, I was located—before the authorities or a person in silly mouse ears had to be notified.  When my parents found me, they were understandably relieved—but also a bit irritated.  You parents out there might understand.  Children are the best gift one can receive—but they’re also the most exasperating.
Our Text
          Now I want you to imagine how God feels about His children.  All over the Scriptures we are told that God loves us because he made us.  But also, we get this impression that God, like a parent, gives His children a bit of freedom to learn and make mistakes on their own.  Today’s passages reveal the depth of God’s love and how He reacts to the choices we make with the freedom he gives us.  The parables that Jesus tells in our Gospel reading this morning are all about God’s love and care for that which is lost.  As we move along in our exposition this morning, I want you to keep in mind several questions.
  • Who or what is lost in the story?
  • How does the seeker react when what is lost is found?
  • What would YOU do if you found that which is lost?
  • How should we look on “the lost”?
  • Just who IS lost in these stories anyway?
Jesus the Storyteller
          One of the most remarkable things about the Gospels as literature is their inclusion of so many stories or parables that Jesus told.  A parable is, like a fable, a fictional story with a moral attached that drives home a point the teller wishes to emphasize.  Jesus was a master storyteller.  His parables and stories are some of the most famous pieces of wisdom literature that survive from the ancient world.  In Luke’s Gospel especially, Jesus is shown as the wise teacher who opens up new worlds to his audience via his stories.
          In the context of Luke’s Gospel, the lesson for today comes in the heart of Jesus’ teaching ministry on his way to Jerusalem to face the authorities and eventually, the cross.  Jesus has been teaching the crowds, the religious officials, and whoever else would listen; he was teaching truths about the Kingdom of God. Let’s lean in this morning and see what he has to tell us…
Pharisees and Sinners
          Right in verses 1 and 2, we find already the tension that often surrounds Jesus’ ministry.  Verse one states, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.”  Its fairly common knowledge that tax collectors—both then and now—weren’t a particularly well-respected bunch of people.  Well, in the Roman occupied land of Judea, this was doubly the case.  Tax collectors were native inhabitants that in essence have turned traitor.  In order to advance their own standard of living, they have collaborated with the occupying Imperial powers and to top it off, they often took more than they were required to take and lined their own pockets with the excess.  Both Matthew (of Gospel fame) and little Zaccheus fit this bill to a tee.
          On the other hand, “sinners” were another despised group of people in ancient Judea.  It’s not only the Pharisees, who we’ll meet in just a moment, that hated “sinners,” but the average people as well.  You see, a “sinner” in this context described someone who didn’t abide by the standards of the Law of Moses.  Many worked in professions that were outside the pale of societal approval.  But I don’t want you to hear in this term the notion of evil or callousness.  We’re not talking about murderers and thieves, though that might be true of some.  Instead we might be thinking of people who had drinking problems, addictions, prostitutes, and people who had to do what they had to do in order to scrape by.  This class of people were often poor and had little chance economically of ever getting out.
          But astonishingly enough, here we have Jesus hanging around with this rabble lot.  He’s hanging around with the Roman collaborators who had turned against the people to line their pockets.  He’s gathered with the lowest of the low who have forsaken the Law of the people and do things that society thinks are unacceptable.  In the ancient world, much like today, one’s reputation was often highly influenced by the company one kept.  If Jesus wanted to have a sterling reputation amongst the religious elite of his day, it would behoove him to shy away from these people.  But he doesn’t!
          And it’s understandable that the religious class of superstars of the day would take notice.  And in verse two that’s what we find: But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  In English, this sounds something like a mild rebuke, a judgmental comment  offhandedly made that asserts one’s moral superiority over another.  While that is true, what is lost in translation from the Greek to the English is the extremely bitter tone of the Pharisees remark.  The phrase “this man” in the Greek is extremely contemptuous.  It might be like us saying “that idiot over there” or “that evil man.”  And what is Jesus being called out for?  That’s right, he’s being called out for fraternizing with the enemies of the Pharisees, the collaborators and the lawbreakers.  Not only hanging out with them, but also EATING with them.  In the ancient world, to share a meal with somebody would demonstrate your acceptance and social identification with that person.  The Jews especially were very particular with whom they would eat.  For Jesus to not only be around people such as this in conversation but to share table fellowship with them was truly scandalous.
The Parables
          But Jesus doesn’t react in the way one might expect when confronted with criticism.  He doesn’t immediately rush to defend himself by explaining his intent to reach them with the Good News.  Nor does he call out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law who sometimes valued the letter of the law over the spirit of the law.  Instead, he tells them stories—parables—those moral tales to demonstrate what God is like and what kind of work he is about with the tax collectors and sinners.
          The lesson for today includes two of the three stories that Jesus told in response to this stunning rebuke he received from the religious officials.  The first is a story about a lost sheep.  The second is a lost coin.  The third is perhaps the most famous story that Jesus ever told, the story of the Lost Prodigal Son.  That story is both so famous, and so important that it deserves a sermon of its own sometime, so I’m just going to focus on the first two for today.  Each of these stories gives us a window on how God reacts to us when we’re lost.  Spoiler alert—the lost people in the parables here aren’t necessarily the same as who we, the religious and faithful, often refer to as “lost.”  You know, those “out there” in “the world.”  Jesus simply won’t allow us to use that kind of “us/them” language.  No, in fact, these stories invite us to see ourselves as lost.  That’s something that was too difficult for the Pharisees to do – is it also hard for us to do?
The Lost Sheep
          Jesus opens his parable of the Lost Sheep by asking those listening to: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.  Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  Because of the distances of time and culture between then and now, the true import of this passage is often missed.  To have one hundred sheep in the ancient world was a sign of true wealth and riches.  That’s a lot of wool, and a lot of meat!  One hundred in itself was a highly symbolic number, a number that represented the whole, or perfection.  To lose one of those sheep broke the perfection and was a stunning loss to the shepherd.
          But the shepherd doesn’t just merely cut his losses and protect the ninety-nine even more vigorously.  No!  He drops what he’s doing and immediately, and frantically begins to search for his lost sheep.  Just like my parents at Disney World, the shepherd won’t give up until what’s lost is found.  He searches through every briar, thicket, and landscape feature looking for the sheep.  Like I said, sheep aren’t the wisest of creatures.  They don’t panic when they’re lost, they just wander.
          But unlike my parents, when the shepherd finds the sheep, there aren’t any mixed emotions here – no scolding, exasperated sighs, or loss of privileges; the shepherd instead rejoices when he finds that which is lost.  Listen to Jesus: And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.  Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.  Notice the emphasis on joy and happiness here.  The shepherd’s emotions don’t stop at relief when that which is lost is found, but it overflows into joy.  Sheep are not light.  To throw the now tired and exhausted critter over one’s shoulders would almost be like carting around a teenager.  But the shepherd is so elated at recovering that which is lost that he doesn’t care.  He not only takes his lost sheep home but calls his friends in to celebrate with him.
          Jesus then gives us the punchline or moral to the story.  He says: 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.  Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.  All this time we were talking about sheep.  But remember where we are—we’re in company with Jesus who himself is in company with sinners, tax collectors, AND the religious authorities.  Notice that this isn’t just directed towards the sinners.  He’s also addressing the religious elite.
          I want you to think about something.  What do shepherds have?  What do they tend?  That’s right, they tend flocks.  Ahhh… The church often uses this shepherd/sheep metaphor for the church.  “Pastor” is a word that comes from sheep farming.  Pastors are often called shepherds and the congregation are the sheep.  Notice now, that the shepherd is going after someone who is already part of the flock!  We often take this parable to mean that it’s those “out there” that need to find God. But what if this parable is not only addressed to “them,” but to us?  And the sheep doesn’t need to find the shepherd – it’s the other way round!  We got it all backwards.  I want you to hold that thought as we look at our second parable.
The Lost coin
          Jesus doesn’t give the Pharisees a chance to react.  Indeed, the word “or” used in verse 8 closely ties the two parables together. It means Jesus kept talking, without a pause.  Keeping with the theme of lostness, Jesus says: Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.  Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  Here again, we lose much in the cultural distance between Jesus’ day and our own.
          You see, the first thing I’d like to mention is that the main character in this parable is a woman.  Pharisees, like many in Jesus’ day, had a higher opinion of men than they did of women.  Women’s testimony didn’t mean much in court.  Women were not able to divorce their husbands, but men could divorce their wives for any trivial reason.  It was not an egalitarian society in the least.  But—spoiler alert again—the God character here—for that’s what both the shepherd and the woman represent—is played by a female.
          Even today, it’s often scandalous to dare speak about God having feminine attributes.  But all throughout Scripture—both New Testament and Old—God is portrayed via the model of women as well as men.  Thanks to thousands of years of patriarchy, the assumption that God is in essence male has stuck in our minds.  The problem is that God is BEYOND gender.  Gender is a human attribute, not a divine one.  Many species of animals are male and female, for the purpose of sexual reproduction – but God doesn’t need to pro-create – God just creates!  Human beings, both male and female are made in the image of God, and that means, logically, that God must have something in common with the female of the species as well as the male. And here in this parable, God is like a woman who lost a coin.
          This woman has lost a silver coin, one of ten.  Ten, like one hundred, is a number symbolically associated with perfection.  And many scholars believe that the coin in question was a part of a dowry that represented the woman’s life savings in case her husband died or divorced her.  These coins would be strung as jewelry around the woman’s forehead as a sign of marital fidelity and purity.  To lose something of such symbolic value would be scandalous.
          So, the woman makes a diligent search all through the house.  She doesn’t just look here and there or retrace her steps.  We get the impression that she turns her home upside down in search of the lost coin.  She lights a lamp to see in the darkness—in every last nook and cranny.  She sweeps the floor and doesn’t stop searching until she finds what is lost.  And when she finds the coin, she doesn’t just breathe a sigh of relief.  She, like the shepherd, rejoices.  Let’s listen again to Jesus: And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin!’  And giving us the moral, Jesus says: In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Application
          What are we to make of all this?  Who is looking? Who is found? What does it mean to search?  What does it mean to repent?  These stories seemed pretty simple to interpret, but are they?
          The most common surface reading of this text focuses on those people who haven’t yet come to know the love of God as revealed in Christ.  It takes the tax collectors and sinners as the starting point and immediately jumps to the tax collectors and sinners of our own time—namely those outside the fold to keep using the shepherd imagery—as the go-to target of the parables.
          But there really is a problem with that interpretation.  Remember, these stories are about things that are lost.  In order to be lost, something already has to be in possession of something, by definition.  And there’s another problem with the typical interpretation.  That is that we assume that it’s just the tax collectors and sinners that are the target of Jesus.  That’s simply not the case.  It’s the entire gathered body of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and teachers of the law that are in view.  Jesus loves them all and is teaching all who will listen.  So, it’s not just the “them” that are in view but the “us” as well.
          So, there is truth in referring to those who don’t know God’s redeeming love as lost.  God is their creator and God desires to be their redeemer.  And as the cross demonstrates, God will stop at nothing to save every last person.  She won’t stop until that silver coin is found.  He won’t stop until the hundred—the perfect number—are brought back into the sheep fold.  But God is also speaking about us—the ones already in the sheep fold.  Sometimes we stray too.  Sometimes circumstances get so rough or we become distracted with life that we, consciously or unconsciously, stray from the fold.
          In either case, God doesn’t just leave us go to our own devices.  God doesn’t cut the losses and protect the ninety-nine.  God, like the woman who lost the coin, will literally move heaven and earth, sweeping out every corner to bring back that which is lost.  The next story that Jesus tells, that of the Prodigal Son, is perhaps best titled as author Timothy Keller does, as the tale of the Prodigal God.
          We don’t use the word “prodigal” very much.  And when we do, we use it to describe children who have left the church.  This is to misunderstand the term and confuse the definition of this language.  To be prodigal is to be wasteful and extravagant, not to be lost.  But the sheep, the coin, and the son were what was lost.  It was GOD who was extravagant.  Extravagant in showing love, in showing grace, in showing mercy.
          Another thing I want you to notice about our passage is that—obviously sheep and coins can’t repent.  So often, we expect people, especially those new to our church, to clean up their act before they come and be a part of the flock.  Well, according to this parable, that’s not how it works.  First, the sheep is returned to the flock—then and only then—can the sheep be restored.
          Repentance is an important step in salvation, but it’s not something we do before we’re saved, it’s something we do as we are being saved.  Jesus said, “repent and believe the Gospel.”  But he’s already given the call at that point.  A work of prevenient grace has already been done.  Repentance and Faith—turning from our sins and believing in Christ—those things happen as a part of the process of salvation.  So, who are we to require that people do these things before they become a part of the flock?
          As these parables demonstrate, even us in the flock have need of shepherding.  The Christian life is a journey, not a destination.  And like any journey, there will be ups and downs, twists and turns.  There will be times when we are near the shepherd, and times we will drift away and chase after something that draws our attention away from the fold.  But we should be reassured that we are being tended by the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for the flock.  The one that will leave the ninety-nine to come after us.  And who won’t stop until we’re back where we belong.
          Now, how about us? Do you love like God does?  Do we care for one another like that?  What do we do when we haven’t seen someone in church in a while?  Do we just let them go, not call, not write, not check on them?  Do we just cut our losses and hunker down protecting what we have left?  That’s the attitude of many declining churches today, and it’s a fatal one.
          To be a church that survives and grows into the future, we can’t just be content with flock protection.  There are lost sheep around us.  There are folks who have lost touch with the Good Shepherd.  Maybe a pastor chased them away; or maybe they didn’t actively choose to leave, but they got distracted by life.  Why aren’t your children and grandchildren here?  Why aren’t more of our neighbors here?  Why aren’t people becoming part of the flock?
          God loves each and every one of us here.  He’ll pursue us when we go astray.  But he also loves those who have wandered from the flock.  He wants those people to return.  But in the meantime, through his grace, he’s at work in their lives too.  God will not let them go. Just because they aren’t here doesn’t mean they aren’t walking with the Lord.  But we can be a part of that.  We need to be invitational, inviting sheep back to this fold, or rejoicing with them if they find another flock where they are loved and accepted.  We need to reach out and SHOW those people God’s love for them.
          This means that we have to deal with a whole lot of tax collectors and sinners.  It means we have to go to places we aren’t comfortable, and do some new things we haven’t done before – or not for a long time.  It means we have to risk our reputation in order to reach people.  But it also means we’ll confront some Pharisees along the way.  Are we willing to confront them and their judgment and in turn invite them to leave their wilderness of selfishness, arrogance, or ownership, and return to the fold of love, grace, and joy?  Are we willing to lovingly point out their narrowmindedness and invite them to see the world as God sees it? Are we the Pharisees?  Are we able to see ourselves as those who are lost, and then rejoice with our brothers and sisters and all the angels when we are once again found, reunited with the flock of God’s community?
          God is the Prodigal God and the God of Prodigals.  He will not give up until all have returned to him.   If God, who is so holy, so righteous, so powerful, so busy— If God doesn’t give up—should we?