Pastor James Preus
July 7, 2019
There are about seven and a half billion people on the planet. And around two billion of them profess to be Christians. Do you think God has time to pay attention to all their individual needs? Do you think he has time to listen to all their prayers? Do you think it is possible for God, who must govern the entire universe to be concerned with what you are suffering right now? Do you think he cares whether you are part of his fold or not? Do you think he even knows your name?
God is thought to be so far beyond human matters, that it is hard to fathom how he could possibly be concerned with one of us. We confess him to be all powerful, but we often associate that with his ability to create the universe and do miracles, or to a more terrifying extent, we think of his wrath and his ability to recount every sin we’ve committed. Yet, Jesus teaches us in our Gospel lesson today that God does indeed care about every single human being and especially those within his fold. He is able to pay attention to all their needs, to listen to all their prayers. He is concerned about what you are suffering. He knows you by name. He knows when you go astray from his fold, and even more, he seeks you out!
Jesus teaches us that our God is compassionate. The father, who saw his son returning poor and starving felt compassion on him. God feels compassion on us. The Greek word for feel compassion comes from the Greek word for guts. The father’s guts were wrenched when he saw his son in such a sorry state. God, according to his divine nature, does not have any guts. He is a Spirit. Yet, he did not need to become man in order for him to have compassion on us. Rather, God became man, because his guts were wrenched for us. God felt compassion on us sinners, so he sent his Son to take on our human flesh, to come and eat with us, to seek and save the lost.
Jesus is God. If you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus. Look at what he does. He receives sinners and eats with them. God is compassionate toward those who have no one to blame but themselves for their own plight. See how Jesus touches those who are unclean, heals those who are suffering, feeds the hungry, comforts the sad, raises the dead. Jesus is not afraid to get dirty. He bears on his own body our sins and pays their debt. He feels the torment of hell upon the cross, yet cries for those who nailed him there, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is what God is like. His compassion drives him to earth, to the cross, into the grave, to seek and to save the lost.
If you want to know what God is like, listen to Jesus’ teaching. He teaches us that God seeks out those who have strayed and gotten lost. Like a shepherd, who leaves his ninety-nine sheep in the open field and seeks after the one lost one, so God seeks out you when you’re in trouble. God is able to give you the utmost attention, like a woman cleaning her house searching for a lost coin, yet without neglecting the billions of others under his care.
And when the shepherd returns with the found sheep on his shoulders and when the woman finds the coin she had lost, they cry out to their friends and neighbors to celebrate. And so, Jesus says, it is in heaven over one sinner who repents. God’s work of compassion is to bring sinners to repentance.
This may seem odd because, we normally think of repentance as our work, not God’s. We are the ones who must turn from our sinful ways. But here, Jesus teaches us that it is God, who works repentance in us. We can only truly repent when God leads us to repentance. True repentance is not only being sorry for your sin. True repentance is to have sorrow over your sin and to have faith that God forgives your sins for Christ’s sake. It is not enough to feel sorry for your sins. Judas felt sorry for his sin of betraying Jesus, yet he did not have faith that Christ would forgive him. God isn’t satisfied that we be sorry for our sins. Even unbelievers can recognize how harmful their sins are. No, God is only satisfied when your repentance brings you back to him. God is not satisfied until he is carrying you in his arms back to his fold. When you have faith that God accepts you for Christ’s sake, that is when the heavens burst forth in rejoicing.
Two things are necessary for true repentance: 1. sorrow over sin, and 2. faith in Christ.
Consider the young man in Jesus’ story, who asks for his inheritance from his father, so that he can sell it and move away. What does it mean when he asks for his inheritance from his father? It means that he wishes that his father were dead. And indeed, that is how he lives afterward. He lives as if his father did not exist, as if his will did not matter at all. He moves to a far-off land; he forgets his family and the love they had for him. He squanders his father’s wealth doing unspeakable things, and finds himself in poverty. He’s in a strange land where no one loves him. Is it okay for him to remain in this condition? How does his father later describe this situation? He says he was dead and lost. His son must not remain dead and lost. He must recognize the error of his ways. He must have sorrow for what he has done wrong.
And this is how it is with us. We must repent of our sins. All sin is rooted in unbelief. To live in sin is to live as if God is dead, as if he does not exist. The Psalmist speaks of the wicked saying, “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 10:4) To continue in sin without repentance, without acknowledging that what you do is wrong and that you should stop, is to live as if God does not matter, as if he cannot see you. This is to be dead to God; to be lost; to be separated from him. And so, we must have sorrow over our sin. This is why the law must be preached. We should know our Ten Commandments. We should know what the will of God is. And we should repent when we do wrong. We heard last week from Proverbs chapter 9, “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.” And so, we should not abuse or hate when the law condemns us, but recognize our sins, that they separate us from God and harm ourselves and our neighbor.
It is part of God’s work of compassion to bring such sorrow of heart. King Solomon says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:11-12) God sends messengers to confront us with our sin. Sometimes it is a pastor. Sometimes it is a family member or friend. And sometimes God lets us suffer the consequences of our own foolishness. All this he does out of kindness, because he loves us. The Psalmist cries out to God, “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:4-5) The Lord laid down his hand and David repented and was forgiven.
Again, in Psalm 38, King David gives another example of how the Lord’s momentary punishment brings sorrow of sin and faith. “For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sins.” Yet, do these arrows of the Lord drive David away from him? No. On the contrary, they drive David closer to the Lord. David continues, “O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. … But for you, O Lord do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. … Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.” Had God not laid down suffering upon his servant David, he would have gone astray and never returned.
It is in sorrow over our sins that we recognize Jesus and his compassion for us. We meet Jesus on the cross suffering for what we know is wrong, for what we know we have done. In God’s compassion, he brings us low, so that we may see our God, who has descended to us to save us from our sinful condition. God makes us sinners in our own eyes, so that we can look to him, who receives sinners with compassion.
It was not enough that the young man recognized that he had done wrong. He needed to believe the Gospel. He needed to believe in the forgiveness of sins. The son was returning home to beg his father to make him a servant instead of a son. But his father would have none of that. His father saw him from a long way off, had compassion on him and ran to kiss him. He clothed him in the best robe. He put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. He prepared a feast with music and dancing for his son. He would not have him as a servant. He will be his son.
That is what our God does for us. He preaches the Gospel to us poor, miserable sinners. He doesn’t let us ask for small things. He doesn’t have us earn our stay. He makes us his children by grace. He forgives us for Christ’s sake. God makes our repentance complete by implanting faith in this promise into our hearts, so that we do not flee from our God, but cling to him and cry out to him for help, no matter how grievous or embarrassing our sins are.
Out of compassion God sent his Son to be made filthy by our sins, so that he might wash them away in his blood. And out of compassion God sends us his Holy Spirit, so that we mourn our sins and turn to the only one who can save. God does not forget you. He has worked very hard to make you his own. God knows your sins. He knows your shame. And he seeks you, not to destroy you, but to rescue you and make you his own. Our God is compassionate. Our God saves sinners. Our God saves you. Amen.