Monday, February 22, 2010

Prodigal God (1): Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-10 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: 4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Luke 15:1-10 (message)
Psalm 14
Matthew 6:1-6, children

Dad’s stories: Bad Bart, Nice Ned, Sweet Sue, Naughty Nell . . . and we children always appeared in the stories. . . . In the same way, in the three stories Jesus tells in Luke 15, his audience shows up in the stories. Today, we’re going to set the stage by paying attention to his audience. Then, we’re going to look at the first two of the three stories Jesus tells, the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Jesus uses those stories to set up the third, more elaborate story, of the lost sons. I encourage you to go deeper with this Scripture with the Thursday night Lenten dinner & discussion group and with reading the book, The Prodigal God, by Timothy Keller, whose resources contribute to this message series.

Verse 1 introduces the first group in Jesus’ audience: the "tax collectors and sinners". I don’t know anyone who is fond of paying taxes, but in the ancient world, tax collection was a job accompanied by spite, intimidation, deceit, and corruption – and, on top of that, it was done for the occupying power. And, who are "sinners"? We can get all biblical and quote the line "all have sinned" (Romans 3.23). But this word was used as an expression for those whose reputation preceded them, for those who were known to be good at being bad. We are told that these folks are "gathering around" or "coming near" Jesus. The verb, in another form, means "join end to end". I imagine not just a handful or even a cluster of "tax collectors and sinners" but a crowd, pressed together, joined together shoulder to shoulder like so many dominoes – all of those trains connected to Jesus.

In verse 2, we meet the second group in Jesus’ audience: Pharisees and scribes. These folks are "good people" – they are religious, obedient, upstanding citizens, pillars of the community. And complaint ripples, muttering flows through their part of the crowd: "This guy accepts sinners – and eats with them!" They see the world in good and evil. How can Jesus be good if he fellowships with evil people? As for us Pharisees and scribes, we have "no need of repentance" (15.7). That’s beneath us, and these tax collectors and sinners are beneath us.

Obviously, the tax collectors and sinners aren’t beneath Jesus. He replies to their muttering, but indirectly in story form. These stories were not designed to make us feel good but to press the buttons of the righteous folks, to challenge their assumptions. Even today, when we look at the details of these stories, they challenge us and our assumptions about sin and salvation, about being lost and being found, about God and the human race.

Lost in Laos: At 4 years old, tried to catch up to Dad when he went on a run. Thought my life was over (Greek term for "lost" here is also for "perish" or "destroy".) I was foolish; I thought I could run as fast as my father. Yes, I was preschool, so maybe it doesn’t count against me. Either way, I was lost. One of the wonderful things about this series of stories is that they provide us a multi-dimensional picture of lostness. In the words of Tim Keller, "the sheep is lost through foolishness, the coin through thoughtlessness, and the son through willfulness." Take, for example, abusive anger and violence. Is it genetic? brain chemistry? inborn, like the sheep? Or, is it environmental, a consequence of poor parenting or some other childhood trauma? Like the coin, did something that we cannot control happen to us? Or, are we just selfish and prideful, like the lost son? Well . . . yeah.

Keller writes, "Sin is deeply complex. It is inborn in you, it is magnified by sinful treatment, and it is deepened and shaped by your own choices". (Notes for pastors, session 2).

Searching for Casey’s lost keys ... Things that are lost don’t find themselves. They need to be found. You know the old line: "Admit it, honey, we’re lost." The sheep doesn’t find its way home. The coin doesn’t leap into the hand of its owner. And, the son doesn’t come in to the feast without the father’s invitation. "Admit it, honey, we’re lost."

Religion is all about the human search for God. And, most of us think that if we search hard enough, if we live right enough, if we believe firmly enough, we’ll find God. But that’s not what Jesus says in these stories. The biblical story is that we are LOST, and that God comes to us first. When the LORD met Moses at the burning bush, the LORD declared, "I have heard the cries of my people and I have come down to deliver them" (Exodus 3.7-8). The beginning of John’s gospel declares, "The Word (the Saving Message/Saving Messenger) became flesh and lived among us" (John 1.14). Elsewhere, John writes, "We love because God first loved us" (1 John 4.19).

In the first story, the shepherd goes looking for the sheep. In the second story, the woman searches high and low for her coin, probably a piece of her jewelry, her only status symbol. And, Jesus describes himself elsewhere in Luke’s gospel account as the "Son of Man" who "came to seek out and to save the lost" (Luke 19.10).

Because the Pharisees and scribes "have no need of repentance", they just see themselves as superior to sinners. According to Jesus, "there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who have no need of repentance". The writer to the Hebrews tells us that it was for this joy of finding us, "for the joy set before him" that Jesus "endured the cross, scorning its shame" (Hebrews 12.2).

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