SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY, 7-7-2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
Introit: Psalm 25
Old Testament: Micah 7:18-20
Epistle: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Holy Gospel: Luke 15:1-32
At the beginning of our Gospel today we are told this: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
John 3:16 has often been called the Gospel in a nutshell – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. But the preaching of the Pharisees and scribes this morning is right on the money! They say, “This man, this Jesus, He receives sinners and eats with them.” And praise be to God it’s true! All kinds of sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, those on the margins, everyday sinners, there they were, drawing near to Jesus, congregating around Him. And there’s Jesus, the Son of God, receiving them all in a friendly and kind way. The Pharisees and scribes who wished to be holy were greatly offended by this, but they were going about finding that holiness in the altogether wrong way, because they were hoping to find it in themselves. You see, those scribes and Pharisees had a very rosy and optimistic picture of displaying a holiness before God by their own merit – by their own works. This fundamental error is exactly what led to the Lutheran Reformation, and a return to the clear witness of the Scriptures, that we are justified, that is, declared righteous, by faith alone.
In order that this may be clearly understood our Lord teaches by means of parables. He gives us the lesson of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. It’s about salvation, folks. It’s about God’s willingness, His fanaticism, to seek out and to save the lost sinner. To snatch them out of darkness and death and to bring them into the way of eternal life, into light, and blessedness in the kingdom of Christ.
Now, in order for today’s Gospel to become sweet and comforting to us all, we need to deal honestly with this question. Who exactly is the lost sheep? Who is the lost coin? And who is the lost son?
First let’s be honest, because the truth is you’ve become something of an expert at identifying who is lost and who is found. You have an uncanny ability to make the determination when it comes to figuring out who is in and who is out. Who belongs and who doesn’t. Who is approved and who doesn’t cut it.
When you sipped expensive wine with your friends on vacation, and staggered off drunk to bed, you thought nothing of that. You considered yourself fortunate, blessed even, to enjoy that pleasure and excess. In fact, you deserved it, so you thought!
But what about when you the saw that homeless man, drunk on the very same pleasure, lying in the gutter? How was that anything different from your little foray? How sad, you thought. How he was to be pitied! But pitied for the wrong reasons. Pitied because you thought, that’s where my taxes are going. That’s why our city is so messed up.
Yes, you’re certain of who belongs. Who’s in and who’s out. You can manage other people’s lives better than they can. You’ve got the right outlook. You’ve got the right philosophy on life. You’ve got the better theology, the perfect liturgy, the right church even. Your education is better. You’re more refined. You’re more polished.
You, you’re the expert. You know who to pity. You know who to feel sorry for. You know the deserving and the undeserving. In short, you know the big sinners from the little ones. The big ones are those who haven’t done as well as you. Things have not gone as well for them. The smaller sinners, perhaps like yourself, are those who have lived honorably in the eyes of the world and kept up good appearances.
Even well-meaning Christians here can make a deadly mistake when they imagine that the lost refer only to those who are non-Christians or outside the fellowship of Christ’s church. Or only those to whom we send out missionaries to the far reaches of the world. But no!
It is at this point that God’s Word must strike us all like a thunderbolt, like a hammer that breaks and shatters our self-righteousness in pieces. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
Jesus calls the self-righteous “whitewashed tombs.” Beautiful on the outside. But ugly and putrid within. You see, we make distinctions among sinners from outward appearances. But according to God’s Word the complete opposite is actually true! Because God looks above all at the heart. And that’s where the most serious sins take place, the vilest, the most disgusting - pride and self-righteousness, lust and coveting. To live that way is to live distant, alienated, and far away from God, even if, to all appearances, you walk with God in the eyes of the world. The veneer of worldly respectability, which you place such great stock in, is worth absolutely nothing in God’s eyes! Because God looks upon the heart.
So what does He find when He looks on your heart? Yes. He DOES see how far you’ve wandered, how you’ve strayed. He does see your pathetic prayer life. He does see that your heart is so far from Him.
Who are the lost? It’s you! It’s me! It’s each and every one of us. You see, all people are by nature utterly lost, for everyone comes into the world without true love, fear, and trust in God. No one by nature lives in communion with God. We distinguish sharply between different kinds of sinners, but all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The distinctions aren’t as great as we imagine them to be, indeed they are nothing at all. All have wandered equally far from God. All have fallen away. One lives in greed and money, the other burning in lust and sexual immorality, others deluded by pride.
Know that God distinguishes between sinners too. But it’s a far different thing. Of course, He seeks them all, each and every one. But He is most tender and kindhearted to those who perceive their sins, become frightened because of them, despair of themselves, and desire to hear a kind and gentle word from Him. These are the ones who are drawing near to Jesus this morning in our Gospel. Christ does not push them away. It’s His great joy and pleasure to take pity on them.
Christ says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Our Lord also says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of Christ this very way. Ezekiel 34: “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep…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.”
For that very reason the eternally begotten Son of God determined to become man and sink right down into our misery. To save us and reconcile us all with God through His blood and death on the cross. By this atoning sacrifice He brought us all back into the arms of His heavenly Father.
Our sins had removed us from God. We had become utterly lost. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ says this: “Be comforted, you straying lamb, you are not yet lost. I am your shepherd, standing beside you. I will bring you into my flock, and lead you on the green pastures of My grace. I will protect you from all danger, and will finally lead you to My heavenly flock through the gate of death.”
He works faith in us that He may live with Him forever. And for this reason, Christ sends us sadness, crosses, sicknesses, and pains, in order that we would seek Him continually. He takes from us and treats us so harshly at times that this world becomes bitter, so that we would seek His face alone. And know Him and His comfort in eternity.
You see, Christ has always sought you. From your childhood on. He sought you when you were baptized. Whenever the Gospel was proclaimed by your sainted parents or your pastor. Jesus receives sinners. He seeks the lost. He seeks you.
The Pharisees this morning accuse Christ of precisely this: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees’ statement of judgment against Jesus is in fact a proclamation of sweet Gospel truth! “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Those who refuse to be counted as sinners also refuse Jesus, who came only for sinners.
Those like the older son in the account of the prodigal, who think they are righteous in themselves, will not join in the heavenly celebration over the sinner who repents. They remain outside of the Father’s house. Let us therefore, each and every one of us, be on guard against all self-righteousness, repent, and seek Christ, because there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Above all, rejoice that Jesus gladly receives you at the table of His Holy Supper. Rejoice that He is not ashamed of you. Rejoice that He forgives you, loves you, and will not turn you away. Pray, believe, and cheerfully confess this blessed Gospel, that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them, even now. In the name of Jesus. Amen.