Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are well-known to us. If we take them seriously, we’ll learn something from them about God and about ourselves. To help us get at what they mean, we’ll lean on the thinking of some wise Christians of days gone by, though I’ll try to put their ideas into present-day language so that our sermon-time doesn’t seem like a trip to an old warehouse.
Our first point is that God seeks sinners. He takes the initiative and comes to us. His active seeking surprises us, because our human minds like to think of God as remote and demanding. We naturally think that God has nothing to say to sinners, that we need to be truly sorry for our faults first and then divine justice will reward us. The Pharisees and the scribes were shocked when they learned that Jesus spent time with sinners. Their ideas about faith create rigid minds and cold hearts, the sort of personalities that make us feel guilty. There are dangers in thinking that we are good; there’s no joy in lifting ourselves above others. Jesus never did that. He came with forgiveness, with an invitation to enter his father’s kingdom and the assurance that salvation takes place now, in the present, and not after a period of arduous penitence. It goes without saying that Jesus doesn’t approve of sinners. He comes, instead, with an offer of love and friendship and the hope that his power will work on our behalf and that life will be better in the future than in the past.
God is a seeker. He looks for lost souls even more diligently than a shepherd looks for a lost sheep or a needy housewife looks for a lost coin. A Christian poet once referred to God as the hound of heaven, who pursues his quarry until he catches him. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” Jesus said. He’ll keep on finding us until the last day.
The two parables also teach us what the Lord does with the lost when he finds us. He doesn’t reproach sinners or force us to walk along beside him. Instead, he carries us on his shoulders to the better life he has prepared.
Now, we need to know what means he uses since we can’t be content with vague or sentimental images.
God’s law reproaches us. The law always accuses. It shows us our sins, because our flesh needs the reproaches of the ten commandments and the prodding of the law to love our neighbors. It also drives us to seek the mercy of Christ. But the law is external, outside us. It doesn’t save, neither does it help us meet its demands. As a result, the law frightens us. But Christian hearts aren’t filled with terror and self-reproach. We live by trust in Jesus. This is what it means to say that he carries us. He lived and died and rose again so that we would receive heaven’s forgiveness. We are sinners, we do wrong, but we don’t despair or run away from God in fear, for we take hold of Jesus, who comes looking for us and claimed us in our baptisms and promises all his blessings and benefits to us through our faith in him. As Christians, forgiven by our Lord, with Jesus in the center of our hearts and minds, we command the accusations of the law and the threats of the devil to be silent. Even though we haven’t followed it and can’t because of our weakness, the law has no right to make demands on our souls. We have all things in abundance in Christ – everything we need or lack.
God does not offer his assurances, though, to satisfied consciences, to folks who feel secure or to people who are rebellious or shallow. He makes his promises to lost sheep, whose consciences may be in torment and in terror because of their sins. Jesus deals tenderly and gently with wounded consciences. As Luther said, he takes us dear sheep upon himself with all our distress, our sins and anxieties; he calls us by the gospel in the most friendly way so that we will come to him to be taken up and carried on his shoulders and stay as his dear sheep. So, renewed and refreshed, with Jesus alive in our hearts, we take up the good works that God’s law asks of us, not to win his favor, but to give glory to the Shepherd who has saved us.
So we come to another lesson from this morning’s parables – the importance of a clear understanding of Jesus’ intentions toward us. Some folks think of God as a task master, a tyrant who frowns at us from dawn to dusk. Jesus shows us that he rejoices when he finds a lost soul. He delights in his faithful people, he takes pleasure in his kingdom. We are the apple of his eye. He won’t let us go.
How much we benefit when we hold onto the promise that our Shepherd rejoices and that he comes after us – not to frighten or strike us, but to help us and bring us home again and to share his joy with us. The devil likes to afflict our minds and to fill our hearts with self-doubt. Jesus does the reverse. He makes our hearts joyful and fills us with a strong confidence, not in ourselves, but in him.
God is a seeker, then; he carries us on his shoulders; he rejoices over the lost when he finds us. Martin Luther put it this way: he lays us on his shoulders, carries and defends us, so that we’ll be safe from all the dangers of sin, death, and the devil, even though they terrify us and look as if they want to devour us. Christ’s act of carrying us is our salvation; we remain safe from every peril and don’t need to fear a thing. He carries us home, rejoicing. Heaven will receive us with joy.
The parable teaches us that Jesus looks for lost souls more diligently than any human looks for earthly things. If we want true comfort and joy, we take hold of the gospel’s promise that we find them in Jesus and nowhere else. The most important thing for us is to believe him, to trust in him, for we are the lost sheep and the lost coin whom he diligently seeks and over whom he rejoices.
The seeking work of the Lord continues in the church today. He commissions his people to find the lost and bring them the law and the gospel. Where do we fit in? Each of us has a few others whose spiritual welfare concerns us. The parables show us how to proceed – we persist in seeking, we carry the lost on our shoulders, we rejoice with them when they turn to the Lord.
Luther said that it’s our Christian duty, for love’s sake, to serve our neighbor in all things. Outward works of love are important, such as times we share material goods with others. It’s more important, though, to share spiritual goods. We surrender our own righteousness, as Luther put it, and make it serve for the sins of our neighbor. We point out their sins and vices, if need be, but we love the sinner and become his or her friend to cover her or his sins with our righteousness. “We descend and get mixed up,” Luther said, “in the mire of the sinner as deeply as he sticks there himself, taking his sin upon ourselves and floundering out of it with him, not acting otherwise than as if his sin were our own. We should rebuke him in earnest, yet we don’t despise but sincerely love him. If we are proud toward the sinner and despise him, we are utterly damned.”
It’s against God to become so proud and harsh that we can’t show any love at all. It’s wrong to think: “This person isn’t worthy to untie my shoes; therefore, don’t say to me that I’m supposed to show him affection.” Pride can be a great problem, as we know, but fortunately God takes action to solve it. He lets the proud receive a severe shock. They fall into grave sin, despite their pretensions, and find themselves saying, “Keep still and restrain yourself, you’re made of exactly the same kind of flesh as the person you look down on.” Luther said that in God’s eyes there is no greater sin than when virtuous people build themselves up at the expense of their neighbor’s sin.
Instead, we look for our neighbor as we might look for a lost sheep. We use our honor to cover his shame, our piety to cover his sins. We don’t backbite to prove how virtuous we are or cause wounds we can’t heal. A good reason for speaking well of others is very near at hand: Jesus commands us to do unto our neighbors as we would have them do unto us.
We follow the example of Jesus, who was an expert at bringing sinners to the Lord. Paul wrote that he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of man. More than this, he was obedient to his Father’s will and accepted death on a cross. He gave himself to be our servant. His righteousness stood in the place of our sins, and his fullness for our weakness. Our method is the same. We befriend our neighbors, we pray for them, we stand beside them. This morning’s parables encourage us to keep on the path we’ve been following, trusting in the depths of our new-born hearts that we are sheep in Jesus’ flock and that he is carrying us on his shoulders. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.