Sermon / Sept 11, 2016 / Luke 15:1-10 / Lost & Found / Pastor Terry Defoe
Our sermon text is found in Luke's gospel, chapter 15. I'm reading verses 1 to 3:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable... (N.I.V.)
I begin this morning with a question. Have you ever lost something very important to you? Have you ever lost your wallet? Or maybe your car keys? Have you ever left a valuable item in a public place? That lost item becomes the focus of our attention, and we can't rest until we've found it. I remember a time at the Denver airport when I thought I'd lost my cellphone. I had a panicked sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Thankfully it was tucked away in a pocket I don't use very often. The fifteenth chapter of Luke's gospel has three parables, and each one is about something lost. The first speaks of a lost sheep. And then, secondly, a lost coin. And third, a lost son, or maybe I should say "lost sons," because both of them had a problem. We turn our attention to the first two of those three parables this morning. I pray that God would bless the time we spend in His word!
Luke tells us that tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear what Jesus had to say. The Jewish religious leaders were less than pleased with the type of people Jesus associated with and they were more than willing to say so. Jesus' words about the lost sheep and the lost coin helped his audience understand why he was willing to break with social convention and associate with anyone, regardless of who they were. This was one of many things Jesus did that separated him from the Jewish religious leaders who were very careful who they associated with.
When Jesus told these parables, two very different groups were listening in. One group included the despised tax collectors and other so-called undesirables. And the second group was made up of very religious people - the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Anyone familiar with the New Testament knows that Jesus and the religious leaders never saw eye to eye. Jesus' words and his actions were offensive to the scribes and Pharisees. During Jesus' ministry, they were often in the background, monitoring everything he said and did. The Pharisees were extremely proud of their religious heritage. They saw themselves as Defenders of the Faith (as they understood it). Jesus, on the other hand, was Defender of the Truth, God's truth. Jesus spent three years trying to tell them that there was a difference. But the message only got through to a few of the Jewish leaders. Nicodemus was one of them.
Jesus was a very real threat to the religious status quo -- and the Jewish leaders knew it. The Pharisees and scribes, as I say, took issue with almost everything Jesus said and did. In their eyes he was a false teacher, a heretic, someone to be watched and kept on a short leash. In our text today, they were murmuring, as they often did, complaining about his practise of hanging around with low status people. And if that wasn't bad enough, he sat at the same table and ate with them as well. The Pharisees did not like Jesus. They didn't even like pronouncing his name. They would refer to him as "this fellow," with a sneer.
Jesus obviously opposed much of what the Pharisees stood for. He told them that they had their priorities all mixed up. The common people thought of the Jewish religious leaders as cold and distant. Not approachable. The faith they proclaimed was the spiritual equivalent of cod liver oil. Their attitude seemed to be, "Take it, it's good for you. It may not be all that palatable, but it's what you need."
As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus spent far too much of his time with the wrong kind of people. Luke 15, verse 1 tells us that, in the crowd listening to Jesus that day was a group of tax collectors and sinners. At that time in Israel, tax collectors were despised. Many of them were Jews, hired by the Romans and given the task of collecting taxes for the Caesar in Rome. As such, they were considered turncoats and traitors. Tax collectors were told by the Romans what to collect from a certain area, and whatever they collected over and above that was theirs to keep. It's obvious that the whole system was ripe for corruption. And the Jews certainly resented the system and especially the Jewish people involved in it. The tax collectors, of course, with their greed, brought a lot of that hatred on themselves. Respectable people avoided them. But Jesus raised a few eyebrows because of willingness to associate with such people and, as I say, even eat with them. The tax collectors, for their part, were thrilled that Jesus was willing to speak to them. You can be sure they were listening to him very intently that day.
Jesus spoke on their level. His words weren't boring, or formal, or unrelated to real life. In Luke chapter 3 we find words of advice for the tax collectors from John the Baptist. Luke 3:12 says --
Even tax collectors came to be baptized [by John]. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Jesus' willingness to associate with these low status people turned out to have a long-term positive impact. One of the tax collectors who came to faith was none other than Matthew, called Levi. He's the one who wrote the first of the four gospels in the New Testament. I'm glad that Jesus took the time to get to know Matthew and that he treated him with dignity and respect regardless of his background. If it was up to the Pharisees, they wouldn't have given Matthew the time of day. And another soul would have been lost to the kingdom of God.
Another group of people listening to Jesus that day are simply labeled "sinners." This group included prostitutes, and thieves, and many others. Again, the Pharisees avoided contact with people like this, afraid they would get their hands dirty and compromise their righteousness. The Pharisees thought had God all figured out. They were sure that they were right and Jesus was wrong. But they were sadly mistaken and Jesus told them that. The Pharisee had a false sense of security when it came to their faith and their relationship with God.
In Jesus' first parable, he describes a man who had a hundred sheep and lost one of them. He left the ninety-nine in a safe place and went out looking for that one lost sheep. His efforts were rewarded. He located his lost sheep. He took that confused and frightened sheep and returned it to the safety of the flock. When he returned, he called his friends and together, they rejoiced at his good fortune. The point of the story is clear. Just as the man's friends shared his joy at the return of that one lost sheep, so all the angels in heaven rejoice when just one sinner is moved to repentance and becomes a member of the family of God.
The imagery of Shepherd and sheep is common in the Bible. Consider these words from Isaiah 40:11
He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
Jesus' parable reminds us that just one sheep is very important to the shepherd. But that's common sense. Notice how much effort is put into the search for one lost child. Hundreds of people will search until all hope of finding that child is gone. Notice how much effort is put into finding a lost mountain climber or hiker. So the shepherd leaves ninety-nine other sheep behind while he searches for the one that is lost. The other ninety-nine are already members of the flock. The shepherd's search is a wonderful image of God seeking the lost so that they can enjoy His salvation. A man by the name of Frances Thompson learned that truth about God by personal experience. One pastor describes what happened to Mr. Thompson. He says:
Frances Thompson lived years ago in England. He was a loser, a failure. He wrestled with his failures. He tried to become a Roman Catholic priest. He failed. He tried to become a medical doctor. He failed. He attempted a hitch in the army and they kept him only a few days and then released him. He couldn't get along with his parents at home. He ended up living among the down-and-outers in London.
He became a vagrant, addicted to opium. He was, in his own words, "in the pit of squalor." His clothes were tattered. His shoes were worn out. But beneath that rough exterior was a heart God sought to be his own. The Lord tracked that man and found him.
It turned out that Frances Thompson had a marvelous gift for poetry. And after the Lord tracked him down and sparked faith in his heart, Frances wrote an ode called The Hound of Heaven. It goes like this :
I fled him down the nights and down the days
I fled him down the arches of the years
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
of my own mind and in the midst of tears,
I hid from him.
Still, with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace,
deliberate speed majestic instancy came on the following feet.
And a voice above their beat--
"Nought shelters thee who will not shelter me."
And finally the fox was treed.
And the bark of the hound could be heard all over England!
The God we believe in, the God of the Holy Scriptures, is a God who never forgets his people. Every single one, no matter who they might be, no matter what their background, is equally important to him. Scholars tell us that shepherds of Jesus' day set up their sheepfolds in the shape of a capital C. At night, the shepherd wrapped himself in his robe and laid himself across the entrance. An enemy of the sheep would have to get past him before it could get to the sheep. Consider Jesus' words, in John's gospel, chapter 10:
I AM the Good Shepherd. I lay down MY LIFE for the sheep.
Should we wander away from the safety of the flock, we become instantly vulnerable to all kinds of things. And how does that wandering happen? One writer says:
The farmer came down the lane.
"Got a stray," he said.
The man from the city asked,
"How do they get lost?"
"They just nibble themselves lost," said the farmer.
"They keep their heads down, and wander from one green tuft to another, and come to a hole in the fence, and they're gone."
People sometimes wander away from the community of believers without really noticing what's happened. They just nibble their way from one green tuft of interest to another, and get separated from the group. It's as if Jesus is saying to the Pharisees,
"You complain about the kind of people I spend time with. If I don't spend time with these folks, how can I ever hope to bring them into my family? You spend all your time with each other, and you have no time left for the very people who most need your help."
And to the sinners, Jesus is saying,
"You, too, are my lost sheep. I'm concerned about you. Let me rescue you and bring you to safety."
Jesus is the Shepherd of the sheep – sheep past, present, and future. He's the Pharisees' Shepherd and the sinners' Shepherd, too. He would go to the cross to die for all His sheep. Jesus is, at one and the same time, both the Lamb and the Shepherd. He's the sacrificial Lamb who shed his blood to forgive our sins. And he is also the Shepherd who seeks out the lost and offers them all the benefits he earned at the cross -- sins forgiven and the promise of eternal life.
The second parable Jesus told is similar to the first. This time the lost item was not a sheep, but a coin. The coin, worth about a day's wages back then, was lost somewhere in the house and the woman swept the floor hoping to locate it. She spared no effort and, in due time, was rewarded for her diligence. Again, she called her friends together so they could share her joy. You'll notice that in the first parable the shepherd is a man. And in the second, the main character is a woman. Some scholars have speculated that Jesus intended for us to see him portrayed in the first parable, and to see the woman in the second parable as representing the church. If that thought is correct, then the point is clear -- Jesus seeks the lost. And his church does, too.
At another point in his ministry, Jesus spoke plainly and told the religious leaders:
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." (Matthew 21:31, N.I.V.)
They took that comment as a direct attack on their integrity and their faith.
During His ministry, Jesus searched for two very different kinds of people. He searched for those who had never known him and were alienated from a life of faith. That would be the tax collectors and the others. And, in addition, he searched for religious people whose faith was a liability instead of an asset. And what is important to Jesus is important to His Church. The most important thing we do as Christians to is reach out to those who need to hear the good news about Jesus. Everything else is secondary. We are told in 2 Peter 3:9 that,
He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Personal, persistent contact is a key factor in our outreach. I conclude this morning with an illustration I once heard at a District Convention of our church:
There was once a young man who courted a young lady in a very unusual way. Every day for one full year he sent her a special delivery letter. And so every day for 365 days she received a letter that he sent to her. Finally, one year later, she married. But she didn't marry the young man who mailed all those letters. She married the postman who delivered them!
After all, personal persistent contact makes all the difference!
Let's pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER -- Place within us a desire to share our faith - to introduce people to Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, the One who searched for and found us. We pray in Jesus, our Shepherd's' name. AMEN.