Tuesday, May 11, 2010

LOST (Luke 15.8-10)

May 9, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Last Sunday we began a series looking at God’s perspective on the lost – on those who are hurting, lonely, discouraged, afraid, and alienated from God. We are spending three weeks in Luke 15, looking at three stories Jesus told to talk about the lost. Last week we looked at “The Lost Sheep,” this week “The Lost Coin,” and next week “The Lost Son.” The occasion of Jesus’ stories was grumbling from the religious leaders about the company Jesus was keeping. He was associating and eating with tax collectors and sinners, not the sort of people of whom respectable and religious people normally would approve.

Last week we looked at the first story. I mentioned that the particular story-form Jesus used was a parable. While not meant to be funny like the modern joke, a parable had a hook that drew the listener in and then a punch line that was surprising and memorable. For the Pharisees as well as the “sinners” in the room, the story of the lost sheep “hooked” them with a picture of God as a Good Shepherd who would leave His flock to go looking for a lost sheep. That ran counter to the teaching of the day, which at best accepted a repentant Jew back into religious practice and more likely disregarded those who had fallen into sin or disrepute as truly lost for good. But don’t miss this: that Jesus was interested in these sinners because God was interested in these sinners was only the ‘hook’! The punch line to the parable was the JOY over seeing a lost one come home.

In the short parable of the lost coin that we will look at today, Jesus repeats the same teaching with a different set of images.

A Woman, a Coin

The basics of the story are the same as those of the lost sheep. Something important is lost and the main character looks for it, joyful when it is found. There are some distinctive differences in this second story, however.

For one, the main character is a woman. While the listeners would have readily identified with sheep and shepherds and seen the analogy between the shepherd and God, casting the main character as a woman would have been more challenging. But think of the audience. We aren’t told who the “sinners” were other than tax collectors, but Jesus was known to associate with women, including prostitutes. He had a group of regular women followers. Women, in general, were excluded from the inner workings of Temple worship, and the kinds of women Jesus interacted with were doubly “unclean” as woman and disreputable ones. Perhaps this second story was to speak directly to them as well as challenge the Pharisees in the impending age of God’s Kingdom where the Spirit would anoint men and women alike. There would no longer be distinctions of male or female when it came to salvation and access to God’s direct salvation and grace.

Notice too that the relative value of what is lost increases in each story. The lost sheep was 1 in 100; the lost coin is 1 in 10; and the lost son is 1 in 2. Jesus is slowly ratcheting up the value and importance of the lost, surely a challenge to the Pharisees and a fresh word of grace to the disreputable sinners! Along with that observation, notice the implications in the analogy of the coin. Each coin was of equal value. One might rationalize that some sheep are more prone to wander and deserving of their fate. But a silver dollar is a silver dollar is a silver dollar (actually, each of these silver coins was worth one days wage – so if you want to convert that into a modern just-over-minimum-wage equivalent, think of a silver coin worth about $100). My point is that this parable subtly suggests that any given sinner in the room was just as valuable to God as the best scribe or Pharisee. That notion would have challenged everyone in the room and probably us as well!

Finally, notice the additional detail given to the searching in this story. Though this story is only three verses, compared to the five of the story of the lost sheep, we get a much clearer picture of the search in this one. The woman lights a lamp and sweeps the house and searches carefully. What a powerful picture of God’s diligence in seeking out those who are far from Him!

So those are the hooks in this round of Jesus’ parables on the lost and the seeking God. The Gospel is for men and women, the lost are of great value, our degree of obedience doesn’t make us more or less valuable in God’s eyes (wow – chew on that! …but our obedience is important! Why?), and God is diligent in seeking out those who are far from Him.

The Punch Line is Joy!

And then, having hooked the room again with different metaphors and images, Jesus delivers the punch line again. And the punch line is JOY. When the woman finds the coin, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me!” And stepping out of the story, Jesus adds, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Interesting to note the two perspectives: God finding the lost is also described as a sinner who repents!)

I want to note two things. One is the direct implication for the Pharisees and religious in-crowd is that if the angels of Heaven celebrate a lost one being found, then how can we not? How can we claim to be devoted to God and not share in the things that bring Him joy?

The second thing is derived from those questions. These parables suggest a new model for our obedience. Remember me asking that obedience question? If the point of our obedience isn’t to have more value in God’s eyes, then what is it? This has been the focal point for so much error and terror in the history of the Church. Jesus is teaching that our obedience – faithfulness to God’s Word and Spirit – is not a cause that results in God’s favor, but the right response TO God’s favor. God has declared His love for us and demonstrated it in seeking us out, even when woefully lost. Having been welcomed home, our obedience is an expression of love and gratitude. Easy enough to say and map out on paper, but it is harder to live out, especially if we have known God for a long time.

We will wrestle some more with that dynamic in next week’s parable about the two sons.

Implications: Joyful Mission

For us, I’d like to focus on the punch line, on the joy, and this specific part of obedience that is seeking (or at least associating with) the lost. It seems like a no-brainer on paper that we are to open our doors to all people, those who “have their act together” as well as those who do not. (And trust me, as one to whom people entrust much of what goes on under the skin and behind the doors, even those who appear to have their act together often have equally significant struggles to those who wear their struggle on their sleeve!) But even more than having open doors, Jesus’ example and teaching mean that we are to associate with and even seek out those who may have little interest in God, perhaps may never attend or join our church. That example and teaching forms the Biblical foundation to our lighthouse/searchlight core value.

But here’s the big challenge for me as a pastor (as well as personally) – those things look great on paper, but how do we digest God’s Word and live out this mission in our individual and collective lives?

I think the key is the same as the punch line: JOY.

We can create committees and budgets and mission statements and all the old ways of doing something as a church, but in many ways, I think that sets us up for the same kind of challenges (if not mistakes) the Pharisees made. What Jesus offers us is a glimpse of the heart of God. Sharing in God’s delight and joy over seeking and finding the lost paints mission as something more akin to the best moments of worshiping or drawing near to God. And I say that realizing that some people struggle to find worship a meaningful way of drawing near to God.

So, perhaps this is a new way to understand worship and draw near to God. Think of it in these terms. If you were just starting to date someone for the first time and found out they loved – LOVED – to hike, would you go hiking with them? Or what if they loved music and concerts? Would you take them to one? And yes, there are the same dynamics there. You could do it to impress them and win their approval. And that might work out temporarily, but not in the long run. To truly connect and experience closeness, you want to like or at least learn to like the things they like. Okay, it’s not perfect; but you’re not trying to date God. We’re talking about worshiping, obeying, loving, and serving the God who created the universe. It’s important to understand what God delights in and join in those things. I am convinced that as we do, we will draw near to God, experience God in more tangible ways, cultivate hearts that delight in the things that cause God joy, and yes, accomplish the work God has set out for us to do.

I’ll end with a story of my own.

A while back, in this last year, I had a conversation with someone in this church. We have not been training you to do explicit evangelism or campaigns into the neighborhood, but we have been emphasizing our calling to love and connect with our neighbors and ask ourselves questions like, “What is God doing and how can I be a part?” Well, in all my years of being in the church (which is all of my years), I can’t remember talking to someone more excited about sharing faith. It went something like this, “I was out at so-and-so, and this person said hello to me. I took time to speak with them, and even though I wasn’t trying to bring up God, they asked me something about God or my faith or my church. And I told them what was going on here. And you won’t believe what happened! They asked me to pray for them… they asked if they would be welcome at our church… they asked me if God loved them….” What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had this conversation, not just once, but multiple times over the last year. And in every case, the person I talked to was excited to be a part of what God was clearly doing – looked like joy to me!

Sharing in God’s joy is not something reserved for pastors, holy men, the super-religious, or those with special callings. It is God’s purpose in making each and every human being. If those words don’t make sense, keep wrestling with these parables until it does. This is at the heart of real and meaningful faith and it is the antidote to wearying religion.

Ask it, mean it, live it: “What is God doing in and around me, and how can I be a part of that?”  Amen.

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