Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 31, 2019
You love the punch. It’s ginger ale and some kind of sherbert and something else. You can’t quite place all flavors, but it is fantastic. Does the wonderful conversation you’re having make the punch taste better, or is it good by itself? You’re not sure, but you’re enjoying both, the tasty drink, and the conversation.
You’re surprised that you are talking with the person you’re talking with. It’s the mayor! This surprises you because the mayor is not usually at your church, or any church. When he was elected, he was very public about his atheism. And just last week, he was involved in a public scandal of a sexual nature. It wasn’t enough to have him removed from office. But he was painted with embarrassment and shame. It likely killed his political ambitions. Would he ride out his term in seclusion?
No! Here he is, the scandalized, atheist mayor in a delightful conversation with you here at your church’s reception. You talk about how much you both love the town and how you both enjoy the spring weather. Eventually he moves on to talk to other people. As you contemplate why he might be there, a friend from church sidles up.
“Can you believe that scumbag has the nerve to show up here?” She asks, her face joyless. Her negative mood has thrown a wet blanket onto your warm feelings. You look into her eyes, peering out from her frown. She looks down and grumbles, “This is too fruity.” She throws out a full cup of the punch you’ve been enjoying.
In Luke 15, Jesus has something for all the party poopers in the church. God wants you at the party, whether you a scandalized mayor, a self-righteous church busybody, or whomever you might be. God wants us to understand that church is a party with laughing, drinking, dancing, good food, and good conversation.
There are people outside who don’t realize the gathering of God’s people is supposed to be a celebration. Worse, people inside the church don’t know that either. In some churches, the people inside who don’t know are the ones who run the church. They think church is for them. It’s not. Church is the body of Christ. We in the church who have already put our trust in Jesus are to spend our lives getting to know Him. To know Him, we have to be with Him. To be with Him, we have to be where He is. Luke 15 makes it clear that Jesus is out in the world, looking for people who don’t know Him so he can help them find their way to his party.
“Tax collectors and sinners were coming near” Luke writes. The Pharisees and scribes - religious leaders, kind of like pastors, elders, and deacons - grumble. “This fellow welcomes tax collectors and sinners, and eats with them.” Tax collectors was a catch-all phrase for the immoral people decent individuals avoided. When Jesus welcomed them and ate with them, he invited them into intimate circles of friendship. When he heard religious leaders complain about his sinner-friends, he told parables of lost things, a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.
In these stories, we see three ways of being lost and three ways of seeking the lost. Among the many lessons of Luke 15 are these certainties. People are cut off, far from God, and in that condition, they’re in trouble. God seeks the lost and expects His church to do so. And finally, many of the lost are lost inside the church.
Jesus begins with a lost sheep. How does a sheep get lost? It wanders off. It is a stupid animal. It’s not willfully ignoring the shepherd. It just doesn’t pay attention to Him. Due to the animal’s own carelessness and ignorance, it ends up lost. It didn’t know where it was going.
So many people within blocks of our church are in this exact condition. Having grown up in the church or at least with a sense of who Jesus is, people don’t understand how important it is to be connected to Him. Spiritually, they know they’re hungry, but unaware of how to be filled. So they try this religion or that church; they try to be filled by wealth or status; maybe it’s an obsession with fitness or extreme sports; maybe drugs and partying. How does God respond to us when we are oblivious and blindly wander away from Him?
The shepherd in Jesus’ parable leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go find the lost one. That’s crazy! Won’t they all get lost too? Probably. When they do, the shepherd will go into the wastelands to find them. This shepherd is reckless and that’s Jesus’ point. Being lost is so dangerous for the sheep, the shepherd will search recklessly because he is urgent to save the lost one. When he does, he celebrates!
God expects us to be just as urgent in our concern for people who don’t know Jesus. If we truly want to follow Jesus and love others, we have be driven to help others find their way to the salvation Jesus offers. When we do that we are truly sharing hope. We are called to recklessly seek out the lost as Jesus does.
In the second parable a coin is lost. The sheep got itself lost by ignoring the shepherd. Nothing the coin did led to it being lost. Someone else lost that coin. We know so many people who have been raised in families that have no connection to Christianity at all. Or, we see people raised in abusive church situations. In church, they don’t experience love. They don’t meet Jesus. Church is a place of judgment and guilt. They end up driven from the church. These poor souls, these lost coins, are far from God because people have driven them from Him.
Note that Jesus compares God to a woman who will stop at nothing until she finds her coin. The shepherd recklessly sought the lost. The woman relentlessly searches. She is determined to find the lost coin, and God is determined that your non-Christian neighbor will come to faith in Jesus and be saved. Furthermore, just as God wants us to care about lost people the way the reckless shepherd did, God also wants us to evangelize with relentless determination like the woman.
We are to seek out the lost that they might meet Jesus and be saved!
The third story in the Luke 15 trilogy is the most familiar, the lost son or the prodigal son. The sheep got itself lost by being careless. The coin was lost by someone else. Both needed to be found. The lost son willfully turned away from the father. He knew who the father was, what the father was like, and still he turned away. He knowingly chose to reject the father in favor of a life partying and sexual promiscuity. His was open, honest defiance.
How does God react to this overt rejection? Differently. Unlike the shepherd and the woman, we do not see the father go out to the far country to seek out the lost son. The son made a choice and the father honors that choice. That doesn’t mean the father has given up on this wayward one.
The son’s life falls apart as our lives always do when we reject God. He finally realizes his only hope is to go back to his father. While he is still far off, the father runs to him. The father could only do that if he had been watching for him. The father could not have known which day the son would come if he ever came home. So, the father spent time every day watching instead of doing his work. He should have been managing all his holdings, overseeing his business, but to him, watching for his son mattered more.
The shepherd sought the lost sheep recklessly. The woman sought the lost coin relentlessly. This father watched for his lost son restlessly. He couldn’t go on with life. He harbored a foolish hope that his son was alive out there and would one day come home. When we turn from God and reject Jesus, God keeps an eye on us longing for that day when we will choose to turn back to Him.
The body of Christ, us, God’s church in the world today, needs to live with that same watchfulness. We never know if today will be the Sunday God has led a lost soul through our doors. So every Sunday, we have to be ready to heap the love of God on everyone who comes through our doors. Through prayer and worship, we have to present our hearts to God that we may be transformed, moved from the competition and destructiveness of our society to the grace of God. We need to be a community of grace ready to receive and love and encourage the lost when they find their way to us. That’s our work as a church, helping the lost meet Jesus and be saved.
Church is supposed to be a party, a gathering of people who are joined together in Christ. He didn’t just tell tax collectors and sinners how to be saved. He welcomed them into the deepest levels of friendship, sharing the table with them and doing so with loud laughter and deep draughts of joy.
God wants church to be a party when we gather. Furthermore, God wants us to know we’re at a party and experience the happiness of not just any party, but the best of parties. The older brother in the prodigal son story missed the joy of the father. He spent all his life in the father’s house and never entered that joy. He didn’t leave, but he was as lost as his younger brother.
Many churches are full of older brothers like that, complainers. Many who have spent their lives in church are like the member I mentioned in the opening story, the one who complained that the scandalized atheist mayor would dare show up at church, at my church; when they are done griping about the sinfulness of lost people, they mutter about the way punch is too fruity. They’ve spent a lifetime lost at church.
It’s not their church or mine. It’s not our church. It’s God’s. We are guests at God’s party, invited to stay forever. We only enjoy it when we realize we are at a party.
Tax collectors and sinners were coming near [to Jesus] to listen to him. God wants us to be near Jesus and, with the Holy Spirit, to go out to lost people and help them draw near to Jesus. Because God wants them at the party too.