September 11, 2016

Until She Finds It

Passage: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Service Type:

‘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?  ‘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?

For those of you who have been in the leadership of tour groups you will know what I mean by the importance of head counts. Whether it was when I went with our church youth group to the Creation festival in Pennsylvania or when Valerie and I lead trips overseas, it was important to make sure everyone was on the bus (coach) when we moved on from one stop to the next. There were 35 travellers on our recent trip to Italy. We had a tour guide with us throughout the trip and at one stop during the latter part of our journey she and I were doing the routine head-count and kept coming up with different numbers. Finally I said, loud enough so all could hear, “34, close enough!” Doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence in your tour host, does it?

In our Lord’s parable of the lost sheep he is responding to grumbling Pharisees and scribes with respect to his welcome of “tax-collectors and sinners” who have come near to listen to his preaching. He is illustrating the heart of God for the lost. He tells of a shepherd counting his sheep at the end of the day and discovers that one is missing. He has 100 sheep and 99 isn’t close enough. Aren’t you glad that God is not one who says, “99, close enough?” Such is his pursuit of those lost to him. He knows when just one is missing.

1. One day last April (2016) a Massachusetts woman named Cecelia Callahan had been cleaning her diamond engagement ring, a diamond pendant and her grandmother's diamond ring in preparation for a wedding anniversary dinner. She then rolled each of the pieces up in paper towels when she was finished. When she heard the garbage truck coming, she swept a number of things into the garbage in a hurry—including her jewelry. Upon notifying the waste removal company's authorities of the accident, the truck arranged to stop and a worker helped the 51 year-old woman and her husband dig through the garbage until they found the treasure that was so precious to them. Cecelia said she was ecstatic to find her jewelry.

When we hear Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we may not immediately identify with the precious nature of what had been lost. Few of us if any, have been shepherds and the significance of the lost coin to this woman isn’t immediately evident to us in the era of electronic banking. Those who have farmed know the value of livestock—I grew up on a dairy farm and I recall the energy expended for one of our dairy cows that eventually died of rabies. The woman’s lost coin was a tenth of her life’s saving—we may feel her angst as we experience an investment sink in value. So I thought that hearing the story of Cecelia’s lost jewelry would help us with immediacy to feel what everyone hearing Jesus could immediately feel as he told these parables. Jesus didn’t have to explain why the shepherd and woman would take the action they did. Nobody has to explain to us why Cecelia and her husband dig through a truck-load of garbage. We sense directly the value of what was lost; something precious isn’t where it is supposed to be. We can see ourselves digging through garbage just as the people in Jesus day could see themselves hunting for sheep and sweeping the house looking for a coin.

In both parables the value of what was lost is seen in the diligence of the search. I would like us to reflect on this aspect of these stories. The shepherd went “after the one that is lost until he finds it.” The woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully “until she finds it.” Until she finds it. So the next time you are sitting on the couch and call to your spouse—do you know where the (fill in the blank) is—you may understand that your spouse might not think you are all that motivated to find said misplaced item. (Not that this ever happens in our household.) The point of the parable I am underlining with you is the sense of loss felt by the shepherd and the woman. So precious is the item everything else gets set aside until they find it.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells these parables as he is on his way to Jerusalem. Luke sets the immediate scene. “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him (Jesus).” It is worth noting that imperfect tense is used here and likely indicates that this is the general circumstance of Jesus’ ministry. I remind you that the tax-collectors were considered traitors to Israel because they collected tax for Rome; sinners were society’s outcasts because they did not keep God’s laws.

The Pharisees and scribes kept their distance from them lest they be contaminated by them. However, these people, tax-collectors and sinners, find in Jesus a ready welcome. They come near to hear him preach—his message of “repent and believe the good news” does not send them running away. “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees see these tax-collectors and sinners as “lost causes”. Jesus sees them as lost to him. There is a world of difference.

In Luke’s gospel these parables are told to explain why Jesus welcomes them. They are lost not because they don’t know their way to their homes. God has lost them; God is the one who senses great loss and willingly searches until he finds. God has lost something precious to him—our relationship with him. Even though we are solely responsible for the breach God is the one who can’t let it remain that way. We read today from Psalm 14 that declares that God looks from heaven to see if any seek after God and finds that all have gone astray. God is the one who launches search until he finds them. Jesus wants his listeners to know that this is what is going on in his ministry. Jesus is God’s search and rescue mission.

In both parables the lost can’t rescue themselves. A lost sheep won’t bleat out its location lest they be easy prey for predators; they hide. So the shepherd must do the finding. And, of course, the coin is an inanimate object so can hardly give away its location. The searcher has to find the coin. The good news of the gospel is that God has come for us. It is his action to rescue that means our salvation. In that great verse in John’s gospel that God so loved the world that he gave his Son we note that salvation is God’s doing—he loved, he gave.

Yes, Jesus calls us to believe. Our believing is an expression of our willingness to be found. These parables teach us that we are lost to someone, who is, we are assured, seeking us. We are precious in his sight. This one to whom we are lost loves us more profoundly than we know. Not long ago I was in conversation with a recently bereaved widow; she has three children in their late teens and early twenties. I asked her what I could do for her and she said to pray for the faith of her children. I was able to remind her that our Lord is in pursuit of her children with a love that does not give up—a love that searches until he finds. Bear witness by your own faith in Christ before your children trusting in his pursuing love that found out you and me.

2. Until he/she finds it. In Luke’s gospel there is trilogy of “lost” parables that Jesus offers in response to the grumbling of these Pharisees and scribes. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (or the “prodigal son” as we, more popularly, know it). The lectionary appoints two of these parables for reading today but as you read Luke’s gospel you can see that the three belong together. First a lost sheep, then a lost coin, and so that we are clear he is talking about God’s love for people, a parable about a lost son.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem—this is in the background of the offering of these parables. Yes, the foreground context is the occasion of the rabble of society (so called) gathering to hear him preach and the condescending dismissal of Jesus’ preaching by these Pharisees and scribes because Jesus relished the opportunity to share good news with these “lost causes”, at least as many see them. But in the backdrop of the story we see Jerusalem and a cross in the distance. And Jesus knows what is in store.

When Jesus tells us hearers that the shepherd looks for the lost sheep “until he finds it” and the woman for the lost coin “until she finds it,” does he not also have in mind that he will persist in this journey until the very end for our sakes? Until she finds it. Surely Jesus speaks of his own pursuit of us that will take him to the cross where he will pour himself out without remainder for our sakes. This isn’t just a cute story he tells us to say—“well in spite of everything God really, really likes you.” He knows what it is going to take to “find us” his lost sheep.

These parables map the story of salvation. Something is lost, it is precious to the owner who will search until he/she finds it and then there will be great rejoicing because that which was lost has been restored.

Interestingly, and I think appropriately, the theologian Karl Barth uses imagery of the parable of the lost son (prodigal son), to relate the story of salvation, particularly of the son who left his father’s house to go into the far country. Barth makes this a framework for the journey made by the Son of God through his incarnation (becoming human) into the world of sin and death.

The Old Testament drama sets out the rupture that occurred between God and his creatures. (A great loss.) Barth calls this “the antithesis” between the righteous God and the suffering that has resulted from humanity’s fall. Only if we understand this chasm between our Creator and ourselves can we fully assimilate the gospel declaration: “In the passion story of the New Testament this antithesis is done away. It is God Himself who takes the place of the former sufferers and allows the bitterness of their suffering to fall upon Himself.” This is what it will take for Jesus to “find us” and he sees that even as he tells us this parable. Think of his great love for his hearers. Our Lord is committed to this journey “until he finds it.”

3. Someone once said that “an archeologist is someone whose career lies in ruins.” We may also say this of Jesus’ ministry career. He came among us in the ruins of sinful humanity (Barth’s “far country.”) “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” When our current culture, that champions “inclusion” and “diversity” as guiding values, reads these parables Jesus’ welcome gets emphasized. Emphasized to the point that nothing else matters. Yes, Jesus welcomes us as we are but never leaves us as we are. He calls us to repent.

The gospels make clear that Jesus endorsed his cousin John the Baptist’s ministry without reservation. Yet Jesus differs from John the Baptist in one important regard: for Jesus the decisive motive for repentance is the overwhelming, all-encompassing, incomprehensible mercy of God. We joyfully repent as God’s mercy floods us. Jesus speaks these three unforgettable parables of the lost coin, lost sheep and lost son; each parable concludes with a repentance throbbing with joy.

Humans aren’t sheep nor inanimate coins. Still, we are not able to rescue ourselves. Yet there is an open and active receptivity that turns to the finder, but does not do the finding. And even this active receptivity is something that God quickens in us. Jesus seeks “until he finds it.” I want to make clear here that I am not saying that God finds a way to save everybody in the end. There are warnings in scripture that we reject God to our peril. At the same time the success of our rescue lies solely with the rescuer. His grip on us is what counts for it is always stronger that our strongest grip on him. This is not to say that our grip of him has no value—it is simply to note that it is not what saves us.

We have enough experience in life to know that things can blindside us that makes our faith waver; weakens out grip. Diseases that impact our cognition and change us such that our person is not what we once were. We can’t articulate our faith and love for God being lost in the fog of cognitive disorder. We are never lost to God in the midst of such things. His love for us is not determined by our ability to express love for him.

Until he finds it. God has in mind a joyful future for us that is certain because God raised Jesus from the dead. Joy floods God himself when God’s love for us achieves its purpose and we lose ourselves in love for God. On this day when Jesus explains to his accusers why he welcomes irreligious people and eats with them he points to what makes God joyful. The parable of the lost sheep concludes with the declaration that there is joy in heaven over one sinner (even just one!) who repents. The parable of the lost coin concludes with the declaration that there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Of course joy floods God at this; for in the repentance of one sinner his fathomless love has achieved its purpose and has quickened an answering love for him.

‘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?  ‘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?