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16th Sunday After Pentecost PDF Print E-mail

TEXT: LUKE 15:1-10/EZEKIEL 34:11-24/I TIMOTHY 1:5-17

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Dear hearers of the Word:

Yesterday reminded us of a day of clouds and thick darkness (9/11).  I remember standing in the student center with then Vicar Catherwood – watching - dark smoke billowing from the World Trade Center towers – then a thick, engulfing, smothering, mushrooming cloud of dust and ashes and debris when the first tower disintegrated – even more when the second collapsed - the people who could scattered – fleeing for their lives. 

The next evening a number of you and some people from the community gathered near our baptismal font for a service of Evening Prayer.  Five days later, on Sunday, we used the texts for a day of Humiliation and Prayer.  Nine years have passed since that tragic assault - by far the most deadly of the attacks of modern-day radical Islamic terrorists.  It is important to remember amid other clouds and thick darkness of our time. 

The prophet Ezekiel spoke also of a day of clouds and thick darkness - of people being scattered - in need of rescue.  The picture is of a shepherd carefully counting sheep and ready to seek out the scattered and missing.  In context the prophet’s use of the phrase on a day of clouds and thick darkness refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  The image depicts the gloom and darkness of destruction and death awaiting “sheep” without the protection and guidance of a good shepherd.  Ezekiel also proclaims that God the Shepherd will come to the place of bondage and danger to personally intervene and rescue His sheep.  When Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd (John 10; I Peter 2:25) who came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt. 15:24), He asserted that the time of God’s personal and redemptive ingathering of His people had come.

It is this that the Pharisees did not believe at least the way Jesus embodied it!  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  The parables Jesus tells in response highlight the truth that we are lost sinners who need repentance – who need to be found.  The tax collectors, notorious for their cheating – the prostitutes with their coarse immorality were labeled socially as “sinners”.  The Pharisees, however, saw themselves as separate and disconnected from such a label.  They grumbled about Jesus’ searching love for sinners like these.  “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Their attitude is what Ezekiel expressed as the fat sheep pushing and thrusting the weak ones with their horns.  It is the exact opposite of the prophet’s witness to the messianic Son of David – I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…declares the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy.  Jesus’ parables take issue with the self-righteous, spiritually strong perspective of the Pharisees.

What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”  This was contrary to the teaching of the Pharisees.  They had a saying that went like this: “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world” (Edersheim – Leon Morris – Gospel of Mark – 239).  However that is not what God reveals.  In another place God said through the prophet Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked but…that the wicked should turn and live.”  (Ezek 33:11).  Here Jesus trumpets that truth this way, “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 

While the Pharisees muttered in self-righteous complaint Jesus rejoiced in God’s searching mercy for the lost with parables.  As He did so, it is important to note that He was not encouraging continuous, willful, unrepentant sin.  The heart that says, “I plan to continue on living as a dishonest tax collector or I plan to continue on living in sexual immorality or I intend to continue on in any sin is not yet the lost sheep that is found here.  Jesus was not condoning secure sinners who were setting aside God’s will.  For example, when He called the tax collectors Levi (Mark 2) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19) he called them away from greed and swindling the people under Roman rule to a new life.  It is clearly the one who repents over whom God’s angels rejoice!

Jesus’ words also highlight another important truth – the truth that we cannot repent by our own strength.  The coin did not find itself – nor did the lost sheep.  It is human pride (often unintentional) that speaks of finding God as if we sinners are capable of doing that!  But God is not lost!  We, by nature are lost!  Every single one of us sinners needs to be carried on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd in daily repentance as the heart of following Him.  There are not 99 who do not need repentance – nor even one!  

While the sheep wandered, the Shepherd searched.  While the sheep floundered, the Shepherd found.  When the sheep is found He is laid on the shoulders of the Shepherd who rejoices.  That is what the Pharisees grumbled at.  They felt it was up to man to repent on his own strength.  It was a strange idea to them that God is a seeking God who takes the initiative and works repentance, recovering the lost.  It was a foreign thought to them that God would carry the lost back by His power, not theirs. 

Dear Christians, God cannot be put in the debt of our searching, our praying our even our efforts at repentance.  We are not to view ourselves as too fat and too strong to need repentance.  Nor are we to view ourselves as fat and spiritually strong because of our repentance.  The first of Dr. Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis was this, “When our Lord and master said ‘repent’, He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”  St. Paul, the great missionary did not see Himself too fat and too strong to qualify.  The saying is trustworthy and deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.  St. Paul made this declaration in the present tense, even as He went about His missionary work. 

In this age of devotion to big numbers, it is vital to see how God stresses sin and comforting to see how God stresses just one sinner who is repenting.  In that singular stress, God is also emphasizing His joy over you –each of you!  As a child, youthful in years, with so much to learn, as a young adult on a college campus with hundreds or even thousands of students bustling around you, as one for whom the decades mount, along with bodily limitations - what’s your real worth?  With recognition of how much you can’t control and what you’ve left undone in the world of needs and demands, what is your real worth?

Beloved, God grant you joy in His joy over you!  Your worth comes from His undeserved, searching, love for the lost.  The God Shepherd foretold by Ezekiel said, “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…I will rescue them. God the Shepherd came down as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world.  On a day of clouds and thick darkness like no other (for darkness fell over the whole land from the sixth to the ninth hour, the sun being obscured (Luke 23:44, 45) – God’s wrath for the sin of the whole land fell on Jesus.  He who came to bind up the injured was injured with the bindings of our sin and its punishment – all of it!  He who came to bring us into our own land was cast out of His land.  He was wounded for our transgressions!  He was bruised for our iniquities!

The shoulders of the searching Shepherd are the shoulders of Him who went limp in death on the cross.  But His search for sinners took Him right through the valley of the shadow of death.  From the thick darkness of the garden tomb He rose with shoulders so strong they broke the entangling cords of death.  From heaven He comes into your midst today with shoulders strong enough to bear you through all your years and all the way to heaven.  The angels joy over you is a perfect reflection of God’s joy over you for they always behold His face.

The wondrous worth that you posses before God is the same worth possessed by every person you know – in your place of work – on a college campus – in your neighborhood.  Apart from hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him we sinners remain shrouded in the clouds and thick darkness of this sinful world.  The bright lights of entertainment – the promises of politicians pitched and polished to carry their spin – the academic pursuits of the prophets of macro evolution – will never ever pierce that thick darkness.  The light shining forth from this one man’s empty tomb and the words of peace the risen Lord continues to speak do pierce that thick darkness.

The chief concern of Christ’s church therefore centers on the finding of each one who is lost and Christ’s carrying of each one who is found.  Like the woman who lit a lamp and swept and searched her house to find the lost coin, so the Bride of Christ searches to find lost souls. In our prayers, in our relationships, in our generous gifts for the Gospel, in our receiving Christ’s gifts of forgiveness in weekly worship, the church bears witness to the searching, forgiving, load-bearing love of God.  I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.   

The Shepherd who hoisted you on His shoulders in Holy Baptism hasn’t forsaken His vocation of personal intervention in your life.  Again today He comes into your midst to satisfy you with pasture so rich that it carries with it forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.

In the name of Jesus, Amen. 


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