“1 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. 2 The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” 3 Their grumbling triggered this story. 4 “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? 5When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, 6 and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’7 Count on it – there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue. 8 “Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? 9And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ 10 Count on it – that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.” (Luke 15:1-10,The Message)
Jesus told two simple parables that are so small they might simply be overlooked. But these parables, like all his parables, tell us what God is like, and what we should be thankful for. Many of us at times can find it really difficult to find even one thing worthwhile to get excited about. Here Jesus gives us a picture of the greatest thing to throw a party for. Americans love to party. We love our holidays and reasons to spend money. But God doesn’t really have to be a part of that, does He? Parties without any real reason to celebrate are really just debacles. Get together to watch other people act stupid, get wasted, and hopefully get home and get to work the next day.
How much better to throw a party out of gratitude that something lost has been found! I had a friend who I knew for many years who in a very real way was very lost. His name was Isaac, which in the Bible means laughter. He was a homeless veteran, and he was a gambling addict who kept it hidden for many years. Most people never stopped to ask why he was here every week without fail for church, but a few of us pastors knew. We sat down with Isaac and confronted him about how he really needed to seek help for his addiction and use his monthly income toward housing. At one point I said to him, “Isaac, If you pull this off this time, after being here is 1985, I think the city should have you throw out the first pitch in the Cardinals game next season. There should be a ticker tape parade and the mayor himself should shake your hand.” He had been lost for many years, but now he would be found.
We developed a plan to access services and get into housing. And finally, I’m happy to say, Isaac got his own apartment. But sadly the years took their toll on his body, and like so many chronically homeless who get placed, he died within a short time. I share his story because even though most people never knew his name, and he never got that ticker tape parade, I know the angels in heaven knew him well. I know that Jesus knows Isaac. His life was no tragedy. Addiction or not, this sinner who repented was found.
Let’s go to God in prayer.
Your Word says in Psalm 32, “Happy is he whose offense is forgive, whose sin is blotted out!” We pray with David, “While I refused to speak, my body wasted away with day long moaning…but when I acknowledged my sin to you, when I no longer concealed my guilt but said, ‘I shall confess my offense to the Lord,’ then you for your part remitted the penalty of my sin.” Lord we know that the torments for the ungodly are many, but unfailing love enfolds those who trust in the Lord. We rejoice in you and are glad, we sing aloud, honest in heart” because of your love in Christ. Amen.
In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin Jesus reasons with us that it would only be common sense to know the value of what we have, to scour and find our lost assets, and to rejoice with our friends with a party in celebrating what we have. Sadly, in our age of excess, our culture, like the Pharisees who despise sinners, has lost its sense of what is truly valuable, and overlooks so much of what really matters that its celebrations are not out of gratitude to God, but are a reason simply to forget our troubles, and age our bodies more quickly.
In these little stories of being lost and found we find three reasons for thanksgiving:
1. It is good to be alive. The wisest thing I have learned here at NLEC is the simple prayer: “Thank you Lord for waking me up this morning. For setting me in my right mind. For putting a smile on my face. For giving me movement in my limbs. For giving me sight in my eyes.” Life itself is a miracle. Life is a gift. Gratitude for another day alive makes no sense in a world where we do not ask to be born and we are allowed to do whatever we want with our bodies so long as it presents no danger to ourselves or others in the sight of the law.
Life is worth living because God loves sinners. All alone we cannot love ourselves rightly. Without God the greatest “love” we show ourselves is actually self-harm. Why? Because our profoundest aspirations can only imagine life as good for our own self pleasure. Without God there is never pleasure enough. Never real satisfaction.
2. It is good to know that God loves us and is for us.
My story is one of always hearing that God loved me, but of really struggling to believe it. I never left church or publicly turned my back on God. But for many years I harbored an unspoken mistrust toward God. I wanted to believe that I was loved, but I was more certain that I was unlovable. I had to endure a lot of pain and come to the profound realization that I wasn’t just a sinner but that I could not save myself. No amount of information about God could save me. No spiritual experience or lightning bolt from heaven could save me. I had to learn from other addicts just how lost I am. Then I learned how good it is to know that God loves me and is for me. That is my particular story. Ask yourself, am I now grateful for God’s love and favor? And how does that gratitude shape me day by day?
3. God wants us to value and love sinners, because that is what we were, and Jesus died for them.
One of the hallmarks of really loving God is wanting all others to know His love. When I feel that I don’t want to be around sinners, or when I only want sinners to do things my way, that’s when I know that my own heart is not right with God, that my own sin is standing in the way. I remember going out on a street patrol in Chicago with an old friend who had once been, in his words, a hopeless drunk. We were out there in order to see that the homeless of Uptown had blankets and food and water. If they wanted to come in for shelter we were there to drive them there. But my friend got more and more cantankerous as the night wore on.
He kept saying, “These guys just need to repent. What are we doing out here if we’re not saving souls? I used to be a hopeless drunk. I don’t even like the sight of these people.” After he got loud and abusive toward one intoxicated man in a bus stop I finally decided our night was over, and I drove him home. I wanted to lead people to Christ by example, not try to guilt them into the Kingdom. I told my friend, “I don’t like seeing the effects of alcohol on people any more than you do, I know it’s hard. But we can’t offer the love of Jesus by getting angry and yelling at people like that.”
Some people’s sins seem apparent to everyone, because of the stigma attached by society. People assume that drunks and prostitutes are worse sinners than anyone else. Jesus’ parables illustrate that God loves all sinners, whether we recognize them or not. The worst sins are those that are easily rationalized and covered up. When we lose sight of the goodness of God we generally also lose sight of our own sinfulness.
We come to you with praise for this moment, this hour, this day to be alive! We celebrate the love you have for us, demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ for us sinners. We ask that you stir up in us a love for all sinners and a desire to be your agents of reconciliation. Relieve us, O Lord, from our bondage to selfish things. Forgive us for considering our daily service to others a burden rather than a blessing. We thank you in particular for people to the left and right of us who are your creation. Help us to speak graciously and kindly to them this evening. In Jesus’ Name, we pray. Amen.