Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
June 20, 2021
Our Lord Jesus is the greatest teacher who ever walked the earth. And his parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin are among his most well known and loved lessons. If a man has one hundred sheep, but loses one, he’s going to be much more concerned over the one lost sheep than over the ninety-nine safe ones in the fold. And when he finds it, he rejoices with his friends and neighbors. So also, God rejoices more with the hosts of heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance. If a woman has ten silver coins, but loses one, she is going to light a lamp and obsess over finding that lost coin. And when she finds it, she will celebrate with her friends. So also, the Church shines the light of the Gospel in search of sinners to return to God and the angels of heaven rejoice when a single sinner is saved. These are simple stories that succinctly teach God’s love and mercy for sinners.
But does a shepherd leave his ninety-nine sheep in the open field in search for the lost one? I suppose he would. If you lost one percent of your flock every day, you’d soon be impoverished. Then again, leaving ninety-nine sheep unattended in the open country is risky. They could fall prey to wolves or thieves. And besides, the ewes will birth more lambs in the spring. If one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, how much are ninety-nine sheep worth compared to one lost sheep that may already be eaten? Likewise with the coin, losing money is bad. But while it is certainly worth a woman’s time to scour her house in search for lost money, at some point, if she doesn’t find it, she’ll have to call a loss a loss and make sure that she doesn’t lose what she still has.
Our Lord, being the great teacher that he is, thought about such barriers to understanding his parables, so he provided us with another parable to complement the first two, this time about a lost son and his father who loves him. The younger son asked for his inheritance early, pretty much telling his father that he’s tired of waiting for him to die. He then runs off to a faraway country, again telling his father that he wants nothing to do with him. He lives contrary to how his father taught him. He put his father to shame. Yet, his father continues to love him. He waits for him. And while he is still a far way off, he runs to him, embraces him, kisses him, clothes him in his best clothes and throws a party with the fattened calf for the main meal. In short, the father welcomes back his son with rejoicing.
I’m not a sheepherder, but I imagine I’d be pretty upset if I lost one of my sheep. I imagine I’d look pretty hard for it, but I can’t say how long I’d leave the other sheep. I know I’d look for lost money, but I also know what it’s like to lose money, and you know, you get over it. But I am a father. And I tell you, if one of my sons or daughters were to abandon me like the boy in Jesus’ parable and go off and live contrary to how I’ve taught him, I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else. I would long for my child to come home. I would be like the father in Jesus’ parable, watching far down the road, anxious for his son’s return. I would do anything to have my child back, give up my wealth, become a servant, even die. And if my child returned, I would hug him, kiss him, and celebrate. And I think the fathers who first heard Jesus tell this parable thought much the same thing.
A common error made while interpreting the Bible is to say that when Scripture says that God is our Father or that Jesus is our Good Shepherd, or the Door, or the Vine, that it means that God is like a father, and that Jesus is like a good shepherd, a door, and a vine. But this is wrong. Jesus is not like a vine. He is the Vine (John 15) and we are his branches. No, Jesus is not a wooden plant that pushes out leaves and grows grapes. But he is that to which we must be joined through faith, or we have no life in us. Jesus is not like a door; he is the Door (John 10:9). No, he is not a slab of wood on hinges with a brass knob. But he is the only portal into eternal life. Likewise, Jesus is not like a good shepherd. A shepherd does not lay down his life for his sheep. But Jesus does. Jesus is our Good Shepherd (John 10:14). He lays down his life for the sheep, so that he may take it up again and win for us eternal life. Only the Good Shepherd does this.
God is not like a father. God is our Father. We are his children. And he loves us more than any father could ever love his own children. In Luke chapter 11, Jesus asks, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” We fathers are but flesh and blood. We love our children, sure. We want what’s best for them. Yet, we’re sinners. And we’re tried by the sins of other. And we don’t always know what’s best. But our heavenly Father does. The Psalmist says, “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in.”
Our God is our heavenly Father. And he loves us so much that he sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ to die for our sins. That is why Jesus is eating with tax-collectors and sinners. He has come to seek and to save the lost. The father in Jesus’ parable said that his son was dead, but is alive again, he was lost and is found. That certainly is true about us. We were by nature children of wrath, dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2). So, God sent Jesus to die for us and to come to life again, so that we who were spiritually dead and headed toward eternal damnation could be brought back to new life with Jesus through the power of his resurrection.
Because Jesus ate with sinners, he is sometimes portrayed as someone who does not care whether a person sins. He’s cool with sin. He’s accepting of your vices and lusts and would likely march in a pride parade. But that is a gross mischaracterization of Jesus. Yes, Jesus eats with sinners. Yes, he loves sinners. But Jesus does not condone sin. Jesus tells us that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. To repent means to change your mind. It means to be sorry for your sins and to believe that God forgives you for Christ’s sake.
One of the saddest things is when people says that the Church rejected them and said that, because of a particular sin they’ve committed, that they were not welcome in church. This is the common perception. People think that they must change in order for God to love them. And I know that for many who are trapped in sin, whether in drug or alcohol abuse, adultery, homosexuality, pornography, or just being a total mess, they think that they must first fix themselves before God can love them. But they keep failing. They fight against their feelings, but they lose. They become exhausted and frustrated. And so, they listen to those who say that they don’t need to change; that what they know is wrong is actually good. And they instead embrace their sin as their identity. And so, you have people identifying themselves with their sin.
But God does not wait for you to change before he loves you. In fact, you are not able to change yourself. Only God can bring you to true repentance. You’ll notice that the lost sheep doesn’t find his way home. The coin doesn’t find the woman. And even the son wanted to be made a servant. It was his father who ran to him and made him his son again. God brings you to repentance through the proclamation of his word. He preaches the law, which is what he commands of us. This shows us that we are sinners and that we need to change. But the law gives us no power to change. Then he preaches the Gospel. The Gospel declares God’s love for us and how he saved us from our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is through faith in God’s love and forgiveness that we are truly repentant. That is when we are born again, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And having been born again from God, we then are able to fight temptation and sin through the aid of the Holy Spirit. But all the while, we remain God’s children, even when we are tempted, even when we sin.
God does not identify you by your sin. He doesn’t call you an adulterer or a lecher. He doesn’t call you gay or an abortionist or a gossip or a thief or a liar or a drunk. God calls you, his child. He seeks to save you from your sins. He desires to forgive you, to cast your sin into the depths of the sea. You cannot change yourself. Only God can change you. And he does this by forgiving you and making you his child.
This lesson warns against self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is when you think that you are already righteous before God, that you aren’t lost, that you don’t need to be forgiven. But we are all sinners. No one is righteous of himself. Without Jesus we are all lost. But this lesson doesn’t focus on us fixing ourselves. Rather, it focuses on God our heavenly Father having compassion on us and forgiving us. When God forgives us for Christ’s sake, he is calling us his children whom he loves. When God forgives us and we believe it, the choirs of heaven sing.
Jesus received sinners and ate with them, because God loves sinners. Jesus is God, the Father’s Son. His dining with the most hated sinners is a message to you that your sin cannot separate you from God’s love for you. However you’ve soiled yourself, Jesus desires to wash you clean. However far you have removed yourself from God, your heavenly Father wants you back home.
Jesus still receives sinners and eats with them today. The father in our parable killed the fattened calf, which would have been the most expensive meal reserved only for a special occasion. In Church every Sunday, we feast on the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most precious meal reserved for the most special occasion. That occasion is sinners returning to their heavenly Father in repentance. The Lord’s Supper is a meal for sinners, because it gives forgiveness of sins to all who believe it. And the Lord’s Supper is a meal only for God’s children, because its benefits can only be received through faith. As we receive this meal in faith today, the hosts of heaven rejoice with our Father in heaven. And by God’s grace we will hear their cheers when we are finally united with them in eternity. Amen.