Making Heaven Joyful
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
A team of researchers from the School of Computing at the University of Portsmouth, England, created a mobile phone app that distinguishes good messages from bad and neutral ones, and colour codes them accordingly. The application works by learning from past messages how the user perceives the content as being positive, negative or neutral. Users may choose not to open negative messages if they are already having a stressful day. But, as some experts think, ignoring such messages may also be stressful.
I wonder how such a phone app would colour code the gospel—positive, negative or neutral. If the app works by learning what the user classifies as positive, negative and neutral then it might be like Jesus’ parable of the sower in how the seed developed according to various soil where it landed. Take the opening line of Psalm 14, for example, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God;” how would that get colour coded? Would you open it to read it?
Culturally speaking, what messages are we opening and reading? Dr. John Seel is a senior fellow at the research institution Cardus. In a recent article he asks: “Why is it that the stories we are celebrating and investing millions of dollars in have a reoccurring theme of collapse, destruction, and world ending apocalypse?” He was writing about a number of recent movies with these reoccurring themes; Star Trek Into Darkness, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Iron Man 3, Oblivion, After Earth, World War Z to name a few.
Seel continues: “The apocalyptic spirit of the age is not a measure of overheated eschatological expectations but a symptom of the myth of progress placed under strain. … We are assured in Scripture that if we live long enough our worldviews, idols, and faith will be tested (Matthew 7:24-27). (Jesus’ parable of the house built on the sand). The waters will rise, the winds will blow, and our foundations will be shaken. This is as certain as the sunrise. It’s a promise woven into the fabric of reality. … what is true individually is also true collectively. Our culture is being tested and the cracks are beginning to show. Our cultural foundations either line up with reality or they do not. And ours is increasingly a culture without foundation—highly susceptible to every wind and wave.”
From cover to cover scripture is about a singular, looming, awesome reality as dense as concrete: God. The book begins, "In the beginning, God." It ends with the magnificent picture of God’s people awaiting the final manifestation of God’s own glory. From cover to cover scripture depicts God’s relentless reassertion of his own goodness and glory in the face of our denial of it. The one thing God is never going to do is endorse our foolishness in setting foundations for life and culture on that which is sand.
“Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’;” the Psalmist isn’t calling names. The Psalmist is pointing out the foolishness of ignoring reality; a singular, looming, awesome reality as dense as concrete: God. In my childhood Superman was a well-known comic book and television series hero; more than one child attached a cape to their body and jumped from some elevated surface thinking they would fly, only to experience the reality of gravity. It was a foolish thing to do.
1. When you read Jesus’ two kingdom parables—the lost sheep and the lost coin—they imply a reality much different from what many cultures and people today presume to be real. When Jesus said, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” he describes the world as it really exists according to the one he calls the Father. Jesus is not proposing a religious or spiritual add on to an otherwise functioning operating system. He says that the reality he describes is the operating system at work in our world.
Dr. Seel observed that our culture is increasingly a culture without foundation. It may be more accurate to say we live in culture of entities competing to be foundation; all manner of principalities and powers competing for people to embrace as their reality. Wealth, government, education, corporation, community, health care and on and on, all wanting to be the main thing for our lives. Each offers a description about the nature of the reality in which we live ever calling people to embrace it as their own. And then there is the domain of “me” that likes to crown itself as the measure of reality.
The presumption of Jesus parable is that this a world filled with people who need redeeming; is this so? Is God’s activity in heaven and earth organized to call people to repentance; to turn from all these pseudo-realities and turn to the One who is way, truth, and life? Jesus though so—“there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The scripture provides us with this bigger blueprint, so to speak, for what God is doing in the world and gives us the pattern we need for understanding how to live our lives. It isn’t that these other principalities of governance, education, health care, economy, enterprise, yes, and even family are to be trashed. It is to say they are not ultimately foundational. It is also to say that our lives can be organized according to God’s redemptive work in the world such that all these other important aspects of life are ordered and brought in line to this greater eternal service. Our lives in word and deed lived in proclamation of Christ serves this purpose. Commending Jesus Christ is done both in how we live (following him ourselves) and in word as we point people to consider him. To live our lives this way is to contribute to heaven’s joy, said Jesus.
2. Returning for a moment to our mobile app and its colour coding of messages how would this statement by Jesus be categorized; “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents?” In the gospel story there were a number of people whose apps were flashing the “bad message” colour. “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2) What colour is this message coded with on our app? Is it one that is of the “too-stressful-to-open” variety?
Everyone in this story agreed on one thing. The people identified as “tax collectors and sinners” were sinners. Jesus knew it, the Pharisees despised them because of it, and the “tax collectors and sinners” wouldn’t argue otherwise. The point I raise to you here is that these “tax collectors and sinners”, people regarded and treated as outcasts, found in Jesus One who did not despise nor reject them; they found in our saviour a ready welcome. Let us be clear that saying Jesus welcomed them is not to say that Jesus condoned or affirmed their sinfulness. Note that the joy in heaven was over a sinner who repents; stops going their own way and turns to follow Jesus way. Recall the story of the tax collector Zacchaeus; having found in Jesus a ready welcome it revolutionized his life turning from his fraudulent ways repaying those he had defrauded.
Which do you find more stressful; to know (admit) yourself to be a sinner and experience the forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus or to try to maintain the appearance of righteousness convincing yourself that you have no real need of repentance? The truth of this story is that everyone in it, except for Jesus, needs to repent. The assessment announced in Isaiah needs to be re-heard; “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). These grumbling Pharisees need to repent of their self-righteousness. They should know, better than any, that Israel was God’s people not because there was something especially wonderful about them but because of God’s gracious initiative to make them his own.
Last July, Pennsylvania resident Chris Reynolds opened an email from Paypal that showed a negative balance of more than $92 quadrillion (or $92,233,720,368,547,800). That's more than 5,500 times the U.S. national debt. (Now that is a stressful message; the colour code for such a message is one of a kind.) Fortunately, Paypal caught the error and corrected the balance. The debt of our sin is not an accounting error. Further, like the impossibility of repaying $92 quadrillion, so is the impossibility making our sin right before God; further still the cross of Jesus Christ shows that we cannot even calculate the size of the debt.
John Newton, the once slave-trader, author of the hymn Amazing Grace wrote, “I can see no reason why the Lord singled me out for mercy…unless it was to show, by one astonishing instance, that with him 'nothing is impossible'”
Heaven sings over every sinner who repents, said our Lord; this is to say that every person who repents is an instance of the fruition of this whole project God is undertaking to redeem the world in the wonder of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
3. Of course, it would be my hope that on the app of your heart messages from our Lord would be colour coded for immediate and happy review. One of the reasons that his messages are to be colour coded as good news is because God is in pursuit of us. Jesus taught us in these parables that God is persistently, going to any length, will not give up in his pursuit of us.
The sheep that is lost is depicted to be of the utmost concern for the shepherd. All other concerns are subordinate to this one. A hired hand may calculate that the 99 home and cooled out are sufficient; the one lost is not worth the effort. But not so the shepherd; he makes no such calculation; particularly the good shepherd that is our saviour Jesus Christ who went to hell and back for our sakes.
We are told that a lost sheep that is able to bleat out in distress often will not do so out of fear. Instead it will curl up and hide from predators. It is so fearful in its seclusion that it cannot help in its own rescue. But the shepherd “goes after the one that is lost until he finds it”. Such is our Saviour’s finding of each of us; dead in our trespasses and sins we needed spiritual life breathed into us. At the cross we are all on the sidelines watching what is being done for us. Note as well how the woman is depicted looking for the lost coin (likely a drachma about the value of a sheep). She lights a lamp, sweeps the entire house, and looks carefully; it is the thoroughness of her search that Jesus highlights. Think over the course of your faith life; of how people and events have been instrumental in pointing you to Christ. The woman too keeps on looking until she finds the coin.
Be sure not to miss that the shepherd goes to find a particular sheep; the woman is in search of a particular coin. Jesus Christ is in pursuit of you, of me, personally. Our trusting of Jesus Christ makes heaven glad. The kingdom of God coming near in Jesus is the occasion for a new app category of “great news” because God has come looking and searching for us. Is it not a wonderful thing to know that you are wanted? I commend to you Francis Thompson’s wonderful poem that depicts God’s pursuit of us, The Hound Of Heaven.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
… From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
I shared this story a few years ago with you; I repeat it here because it is illustrative of Jesus’ lost sheep and coin parables. From a sermon by Hugh Reed, as quoted in Paul Scott Wilson, Setting Words on Fire: Putting God at the Center of the Sermon (Abingdon, 2008, pp. 159-60):
Allan (not his real name) came to me at my previous church in Hamilton, wanting to be baptized. He was a child (or victim) of the “me decade” and felt compelled to leave home and family to find himself and, of course, lost himself, becoming a stranger to himself and the world, wandering the streets of Vancouver trapped in a world of drugs. One night he managed to get off the street for a night in one of the shelters. He crashed into the bunk, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the groans, and trying not to be overcome by the odors of the strangers in the bunks around him. He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know who he was, but he wanted it to be over with and he considered how he might take his own life.
He was shaken out of this thoughts when someone came in and called out a name from another world.
“Is Allan Roberts here?”
That had been his name once but he hadn’t heard it for some time. He hardly knew Allan Roberts anymore. It couldn’t be him being called.
The caller persisted, “Is there anybody named Allan Roberts here?”
No one else answered and so Allan took a risk. “I’m Allan Roberts (or used to be).”
“Your mother’s on the phone.”
My mother, no, you’ve made a mistake. I don’t know where I am, how could my mother know where I am?
“If you’re Allan Roberts, your mother’s on the phone.”
Unsure what to expect, he went to the desk in the hall and took the receiver. “Allan,” it was his mother, “It’s time for you to come home.”
“Mom, I don’t know where I am, I have no money, you don’t know what I’m like anymore. I can’t go home.”
“It’s time for you to come home. There’s a Salvation Army officer who’s coming to you with a plane ticket. He’s going to take you to the airport to get you home.”
She hadn’t known where he was, she just called every shelter and hostel for months until she found him.
He went home and, supported and loved by his mother, who had never ceased to know him even though he had forgotten himself, and influenced and inspired by the faith that had sustained his mother’s hope and love, he began attending church services and one day came to my office seeking to be baptized.
He did not find his own way to my office . . . A path, not of his own making, [was] made by the love that found him, that knew him better than he knew himself, and invited him to “follow me.”
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.