“The Finder of the Lost”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Among the large crowds that followed Jesus were tax collectors and sinners. Even without knowing much about the special hatred reserved for Jewish tax collectors at this time, it is not hard to guess at their status when they are included in the designation “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1; cf. 5:30; 7:34). Perhaps we might paraphrase, “Jesus welcomes IRS agents and sinners.” Or, “Jesus welcomes lawyers and sinners.” Or, “Jesus welcomes politicians and sinners.” But it was these tax collectors and sinners who gathered close to Jesus in order to hear His words. Words like, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored” (Luke 14:34, ESV)? Words like, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33, ESV). What was it that drew these tax collectors and sinners to a Man with words like these? It was the same thing that caused the Pharisees and scribes to sigh with frustration, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2, ESV). He received them. He welcomed them. He gave them words of relief from their self-imposed burdens and their self-inflicted exile. Luke is not being ironic when he calls them sinners. They were. The Pharisees and the scribes were not being arrogant. They were right. The tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus welcomed and with whom Jesus ate were people who had disobeyed the Law of God and everyone knew it. The crowds knew it. The Pharisees and the scribes knew it. The tax collectors and sinners knew it about themselves. And Jesus knew it. What were they coming to hear from Jesus? How about this: “It’s okay. You’re listening to me. That’s good enough. I accept you just as you are”? Or maybe this: “You have been oppressed by the government and the hypocrites around you. Follow me and speak out against oppression in all its forms.” Or this: “You can’t help the way you are. Society has imposed its own unreasonable standards on you. Experience the liberation of living fully and freely as the tax collectors and sinners that you are. After all, if you feel like being tax collector and sinners, God must have created you that way, right?” No. That’s what we in our enlightened age would have said if it were up to us. Jesus, though, is not enlightened. He is not modern. He is not progressive. And He is not up on the most recent psychological theories which aim at making us feel good about ourselves. No, every word spoken by the Man who drew crowds of tax collectors and sinners, scribes and Pharisees, was a variation on the same theme: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31, ESV). Does Jesus answer questions about the relative guilt of those whose blood was mixed with the blasphemous sacrifices of Pilate, or those on whom the tower of Siloam fell (Luke 13:2, 4)? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5, ESV).
Let us be done with the Jesus-lite sentimentality. Jesus does not love you for who you are. He loves you in spite of who you are. Jesus does not welcome tax collectors and sinners because they are closer to the Kingdom of God or because they’re more authentic or because they’re nicer than the self-important Pharisees and the uptight church ladies. He welcomes them because they know that they need to repent. There is not more joy in heaven over one sinner who forms an alternative community because the church is so repressive and medieval. There is not more joy in heaven over one sinner who joins with other sinners to affirm their sinfulness as created good. There is not more joy in heaven over one sinner who tells the Pharisees where to get off. There is not even more joy in heaven over one sinner who comes to hear Jesus. No, the joy shared by angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven is over one sinner who repents. Jesus does not receive tax collectors and sinners because they have chosen to listen to Him. He receives them because they are the ones for whom He came looking. They are the ones whom He has found. Being found by Jesus tends to have that effect on people. When you are found by Jesus, when who and what you are is brought into the light, there are only two possible consequences: hardening of your heart or repentance.
Do you think the sheep or the coin knew it was lost? Do you think either was diligently seeking to return to its place with the other sheep and the other coins? As far as we know, the sheep was probably living it up with the wolves. The coin was likely enjoying its time in the dust and the dark where it had fallen. You know what I mean. Watch a good action movie. I suggest Live Free or Die Hard. Real life will seem so much more boring. Isn’t that how it is? Spend a few Sundays at the lake fishing. Skip the Sacrament for the game. Spend your extra time on Sunday with your safe dreams in your warm bed. What we do here will seem to pale in comparison. A lot of standing and sitting, listening to the words of an old book, singing hymns you don’t even like, a bite of bread and a sip of wine-I’m with you. If this wasn’t my job… Lost? We’re not lost. I know theoretically I need to repent, but I really don’t feel that bad.
And you know what the other ninety-nine sheep were thinking, the righteous ones. “Where can that sheep have gone this time? The lambs are here, but I never see the sheep anymore.” And the other nine coins surely gossiped amongst themselves about the way that one coin could always find its way through the smallest hole in the purse, slipping back into the grime and the grit. “Why does she always go sweeping the floor, seeking that wayward coin? Maybe it should just stay lost this time.” Are you already righteous, having no need of repentance? Are you lost, but like it just fine? The door is open and unlocked. You are free to go. Jesus came for the sinners, not the righteous.
You who have stayed in your seats, whether you wanted to get up or not, hear the Word of the Finder of the lost: Repent. You coins and sheep who do not know that you are lost, repent. You righteous who feel no need of repentance, repent. Come along with the tax collectors and draw near to Jesus; hear His Word: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6, ESV). And it doesn’t much matter what your way is. It’s not God’s way. Just as you cannot restore your own saltiness, neither can you find yourself. It takes something from outside your woolen, golden surfaces. Which of us dirty sheep, which of us tarnished coins, can find its way back into the sheep-pen and back into the coin purse? None. None. Do not underestimate how great the miracle is that you are here this morning. Before you had even thought of returning to the Good Shepherd, before you even recognized your pleasant surroundings as the deepest wilderness and your nice, quiet corner as the filthy ground, the Shepherd came looking. He came, like a woman who had lost a single coin, sweeping away darkness with the Light of the world and searching diligently. He was looking for you. He found you as an infant, before you knew much of anything. Or He found you in school, while you were pursuing grades and sports. Or He found you at the office, under the pressure of deadlines and deskwork. Or He found you in the hospital with lung cancer. Wherever it was, whenever it was, He found you. And He picked you up and polished you to a shine you didn’t even know was possible. He picked you up, brushed you off, and carried you on His shoulders here, to His House.
And He carries you still. Sorry, but the “Footprints” poem is wrong. There were never two sets of footprints going in the same direction. It’s a nice thought, but Jesus doesn’t only carry you when you can’t walk by yourself; He carries you all the time. If you ever walked by yourself, your footprints would be heading in the opposite direction. Jesus does not carry you on His back, like you’re His little buddy. He carries you on His shoulders, as they’re stretched out on the beam of the cross. He does not carry you to keep you from all hurt and pain. He carries you on His shoulders so that you can be crucified with Him. Unless you die, you will not be raised again. So He carries you; on the cross and into the grave. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:3-4a, ESV). And on He carries you through the grave and into a new life. “[J]ust as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4b-5, ESV). Do not doubt; He will carry you, rejoicing in your repentance. And, at last, when He comes home at the resurrection of the dead in the new heavens and earth, He will call together the angels and the saints to rejoice with Him that you, a sinner, have been brought to repentance and mercy. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over [you, who have repented] than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7, ESV). You and I know just how much need we have of repentance. I assure you, with the Lord there is forgiveness, that He may be feared (Psalm 130:4). He rejoices to give you forgiveness on Sundays, but He also rejoices to give it to you personally and individually in private absolution through my mouth. You need not be burdened by some horrific, faith-threatening sin in order to confess into my ears before this altar. You need only desire to hear the words of your Lord as He raises you from your sin-sealed grave. It is for you that He comes, searching diligently, seeking you, pursuing you, all the way even up to the cross of Calvary and down to the very gates of Hell. Hear Him now: You are forgiven. You are found. Do not worry; I will carry you home. Rejoice with me, saints of God. You have been brought to repentance and there is mercy for you. Rejoice with me, saints of God. Jesus receives you and eats with you–sinners! Listen: can you hear the joy in heaven this morning? It is over you that they rejoice.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/11/07