Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Punch Line is Joy (Luke 15.1-7)

May 2, 1020
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Today we are starting a series about things and people that are lost. Jesus used a series of stories to try to explain God’s diligent attention to and pursuit of the lost, though Jesus was working against religious expectations to the contrary. In a day when it is easy for church to be one more club or organization that we see as meeting OUR needs, we are going to look at what Jesus has to say about having a mind and heart for others, especially those who are lost.

I want to walk through these verses with you and highlight a situation and Jesus’ response to it, then consider the application for us

Sinners Coming Near and Grumbling Within (vv. 1-2)

Verse 1 sets the stage for us: “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.” We’ve talked before about tax collectors. They were seen as traitors and thieves, for betraying their people as well as robbing from them with exorbitant taxes. They, as a class, were considered sinners by the religious leaders.

We also read that other sinners were coming to Jesus. Literally, these were “non-religious Jews” – those that were rejected by and/or did not participate in the observance of the Jewish faith. And for whatever reason, these folks were drawn to Jesus though they were not drawn to the Temple. Indeed, they would not have been welcome at the Temple, so it is a bit of a circular problem – they didn’t go where they weren’t welcome and weren’t welcome because they didn’t go.

We also read in verse 2 that Jesus “[received] sinners and [ate] with them.” So, the issue was not just with their presence, but also Jesus’ response to them and association with them. Verse two also describes the response of the scribes and Pharisees: grumbling. The scribes were the experts in the Jewish religious Law. The Pharisees were a kind of political party (which included the scribes), with great emphasis on and loyalty to the Jewish religious Law. And for any number of reasons, they were not happy with this scenario. They didn’t like tax collectors, sinners, Jesus, or any of these congregating together. For them, Jesus’ association with sinners remained one of their biggest problems with him throughout his ministry.

The Punch Line is the Joy! (vv. 4-7)

Into this tense scene between sinners and grumblers, Jesus told a story. And a parable isn’t just any kind of story – it’s kind of like a first century joke with a point. It’s not meant to be funny, but like a joke, there is a twist at the end that makes the thing work – a punch line, if you will.

There were some among the Jewish rabbis who stressed God’s forgiveness for the repentant, for those who turned to God in humility and sorrow for sin. But apparently these folks did not follow that line of teaching. The scribes and Pharisees were already grumbling at these sinners who were coming near to listen to Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just press the description of the heart of God past rejection of some kinds of sinners to welcome the repentant; he pressed WAY past that (and even past the present situation) to say that God actually sought out those who were lost and not turning to God. This was radical – unheard of!

That would have been punch line enough. “Yeah, yeah; we understand that a shepherd would go looking for the one sheep. Sheep are valuable; you don’t let one go if you can help it. Oh wait; you are comparing sinners to sheep? No, we’ve heard that teaching, but we reject it… Wait a minute more; your story isn’t right. These sinners came looking for you. Are you saying that God is even interested in the ones who aren’t here?! Unthinkable!”

That is the first jarring twist that would have hooked the attention of those listening – Pharisees and so-called sinners alike. But that turns out not to be the big punch line. The punch line is the joy!

That God would seek the lost, even the uninterested, unobservant, sinful lost, was a challenge to the Pharisees’ religious perspective. But that God would DELIGHT in finding the lost?! That turns a Law-based and inward-focused religion on its head. I can just imagine the dual reaction in the room – the sour lemon-face horror of the scribes and Pharisees, and the surprised wonder of the lost ones who grasped what it was Jesus was saying.

And this was just the first pass. Jesus went on to tell two more “jokes” – each with the same punch line, and each building on the unthinkable claim of the one that went before. Over the next two weeks, we’ll look at each of those that follow: the lost coin, and the lost son.

How Will We Rejoice?

For now, there is much for us to chew on. The first big change of perspective is one that we’ve been wrestling with for a number of years now. The Church is not meant to be a club for members, but more like a fire station for firefighters. Firefighters come to their station to train, prepare, study, and learn. They keep their equipment tuned up, shiny, and ready to use. But it would be completely missing the point and mission of being a fire station if they never went out to fight fires. So also the church gathers to train, prepare, study, and learn. We keep our equipment tuned up and equip the people of God for the work of God. And God is at work in the world. To only gather within our building would miss the point and mission of being the Church!

We’ve talked about that dynamic in terms of being a “searchlight.” Sometimes it’s easy to have the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees. We can treat church like a club, mainly for the members. All the money and energy and focus goes into those that belong. That can result in some quality programs for our own, but it lacks spiritual health and balance and is missing the love of neighbor that is absolutely central throughout all of Scripture. Then we can have the perspective that some held in Jesus day, and it sounds so reasonable. We can welcome those who are repentant and want to turn to God. These are the “seekers” – the ones who seek us out looking for God. Surely the Church exists for anyone who is looking for God and turns to us for help. This is, after all, why we talk about being a lighthouse, a safe harbor and secure haven for those looking for help. Even as reasonable as it sounds to be that kind of lighthouse church, it takes energy, openness, and a willingness to help those in need. And you are that kind of people – you always have been. But it takes continued focus not to ease back into that club mentality – not just for us, for any church.

But listen; as vital as that effort is, it is not what Jesus is talking about in THIS parable. Here he is describing God – the One we worship, follow after, and serve – as One who goes out seeking those who are lost. God is not just the shepherd who waits for the sheep to wander back to the fold and then gives it a bath. God is the one who goes out into the night and into the wilderness to look for the one that is lost, to bring it home. When we talk about being a searchlight church, that’s the image we are talking about. That’s why we talk so much about the neighborhood and why we try things like this Wednesday night experiment of leaving the church property and going out among our neighbors. We just celebrated the church’s 30th anniversary. 30 years ago, God established this church here in this neighborhood, and this greater neighborhood is the flock we are to tend. Some don’t want a shepherd or already have one elsewhere, but the picture Jesus paints for us is that we are to seek out the lost. And of all the names we could have had – we are GOOD SHEPHERD Presbyterian Church.

I realize that seeing the neighborhood as our flock is a different mindset about church than many have – maybe even some of you. But that is the consistent understanding of Church and mission in the Bible, and Jesus pressed further still! Remember, a God who actively seeks the lost is just the startling set up to the parable. The punch line is joy.

Joy. I’m not sure what to do with that. What I hear Jesus saying is not just that seeking the lost is on the table (it is); it is not just our duty (it is); but if we follow and serve the God who is our Good Shepherd, then we will share in His delight and joy when one of His lost sheep is found. That makes this an act of worship – sharing in God’s joy. I can’t wave a magic wand and create joy, but I do know that as we engage in this mission of seeking the lost, I can invite you to celebrate with our Heavenly Father when some are found. By “seeking the lost” I mean getting out there among our neighbors… where they are. Shop at Food Lion and Harris Teeter in our neighborhood. Volunteer at the elementary school. Take your walks or ride your bike throughout these neighborhoods and speak to people as you see them. Come with us to meet our Brighton Place and Swan’s Run neighbors. Have a cook-out and invite your neighbors. If you live outside this neighborhood, you can do the same where you are. The church exists where you are, not in this building. We are only church this morning because you are here. When you leave, you take it with you! And the one for whom you are the church is out THERE seeking the lost.

In two weeks we will be welcoming a group of middle school students into the church as they confirm their faith and God’s claim on their life. For some, this comes after a lifetime in the church, hearing the stories of God. Others have just started coming this year, because someone sought them out. And there is a momentum to this seeking. This is something we have been growing in for a number of years. More and more I am meeting people interested in Good Shepherd (or simply in God) and I find out that they had a conversation with ones of you, or live next door to you, or exercise with you, or their kids go to school with you.

Jesus reminds us that those who love the Father love the lost. And he reminds us of the Father’s joy – the Good Shepherd’s joy – in finding one who was lost. As we spend this month reading about the lost, we will really be focusing on our Father’s joy. It is my hope and prayer that each of us will come to know that joy as we grow in the Father’s mission to our neighbors. Amen.

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