A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
September 15, 2013.
Lost and Found. We’ve all experienced losing and finding things in our lives. Yes? Allow me to do a little audience participation exercise this morning. I’m going to give some scenarios that my family has faced or that I’ve heard about, and you raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced something similar. OK?
- You’re about to leave the house for an appointment, but you can’t find your purse. (We found the purse inside the washing machine.)
- Your child has a soccer game in 10 minutes, but he has lost his socks and shin guards. (We found them under the sofa.)
- You can’t find the remote control to your TV. (We found it later . . . in the bathroom . . . on top of the toilet tank. I put it there. There’s no TV in our bathroom.)
- You can’t find your reading glasses. (Our friend found them later . . . on his own forehead.)
- You can’t find your car and house keys as you leave church on Sunday. (Happened to me last Sunday. I left them hanging on the door knob but it was covered by my robe.)
For those of you who have experienced something similar, how did you feel when you lost those things? How did you feel when you found those things?
Since we’ve all lost and found things, I think that’s why our Gospel Lesson on the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are some of the most well-known and famous parables of Jesus. Anyone who has been to church has surely heard at least one sermon about the shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep in order to rescue the one lost sheep, and about the woman who lost one of her ten silver coins and dropped everything in order to clean her house so that she could recover her lost coin. Preachers through the ages have encouraged and challenged congregations to be like the faithful shepherd and the persistent woman to seek out and find the lost. And through these efforts, we get beautiful hymns like “Amazing Grace,” in which John Newton, the author of that hymn writes, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” What a joyous picture this is! Well, this morning, I want us to revisit these two familiar parables, in order to be reminded of some enduring truths, but also, I hope, to gain some fresh insights.
Jesus begins the parable of the lost sheep by asking: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” Well, there aren’t too many shepherds in our culture today, so perhaps I can update Jesus’ question to fit our contemporary situation. “Suppose one of you has a hundred students in your class, but one of them is failing. Do you not leave the ninety-nine to learn for themselves while you go after the failing student by spending all your time tutoring him in class and at home?” What do you think? Any hands? OK, maybe that was a bad example. “Suppose you have a hundred clients, and all but one are ready to buy a product from you right now. Do you not leave the ninety-nine buyers and go after the one reluctant client, wining and dining her until you’ve won her over? What do you think? Any hands? No?
Forget the adults for a moment. Maybe the kids will help me. Kids, what if you have one hundred baseball cards and you take them outside to play by yourself, and the wind blows one of them away. Do you not leave the ninety-nine cards on the picnic table in the wind and go after the one that is flying away? Years ago, when I asked Wesley this question, he said, he would hold on to his pack of cards, and then chase after the one blowing away. Smart kid!
Imagine yourself a shepherd in Jesus’ day. Would you leave ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves while chasing after a lost sheep? Sheep don’t usually wander away from the flock unless they are about to give birth or if they are sick. But without a shepherd, even the best of sheep will start wandering away in groups. So even if the shepherd found the lost sheep, when he returned to where the flock was, he would probably find that forty other sheep have now wandered away! Therefore, to Jesus’ question: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” the proper, sensible answer is “No!”
To Jesus’ other question: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” The sensible answer here is probably also “No,” but I must admit that it is not so clear-cut in this case. If I have ten hundred dollar bills, and I lose one, I’d look for it. But would I stop everything, turn on all the lights, clean the whole house, sweep the whole floor, and not stop until I’ve found it? Maybe, maybe not, depending on how desperately I need the hundred dollars right now.
The point is that Jesus was highlighting the crazy, drastic measures that the shepherd and the woman took to find the lost sheep and the lost coin. Here, you may be thinking, “But the lost are worth it. Their eternal destinies are at stake. We should do all that we can to seek and find the lost.” You would be right. Now, let’s see just how much the shepherd and the woman thought about their lost sheep and coin. The shepherd put such value on the lost sheep that when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes back . . . to the waiting flock? No! There are ninety-nine sheep faithfully waiting out in the open country, baa-ing and bleeping with no one to look after them, exposed to the elements and to predators, and this shepherd leaves those ninety-nine out there and he goes home with the one sheep! Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” But what about those poor ninety-nine sheep, you might ask? And what about the woman? She literally cleans house and finds the one lost coin. What does she do? Does she put it back into her purse and say “Great! Now I’ve got all ten?” We don’t know, for the Bible doesn’t say. What is mentioned is that this woman calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.”
But what about the other nine? It’s as if they no longer exist! I don’t know about you, but if I were one of those ninety-nine sheep or one of those nine coins, I’d be pretty hurt right now. I’d think, “All the shepherd cares about is that one stinking lost sheep and all that woman cares about is that one sorry lost coin! I’m here all the time, not causing any trouble, and do I get any recognition and appreciation? No! But here they are, SO happy that they found the lost that they are calling neighbors and friends and throwing a party!” But that’s exactly what the shepherd and the woman do when they found their lost possession. And it seems like none of the other sheep or coins matter anymore. Surely, that’s not what Jesus is saying, is he?
Look in verse seven. After the shepherd finds the lost sheep and calls out for a celebration, Jesus says: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And in the case of the lost coin, Jesus says in verse ten: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” It seems like Jesus is going out of his way to welcome the repentant sinner to the absolute neglect of the faithful ninety-nine righteous sheep or persons. The Greek word here for “repent” is metanoia, which literally means “to change one’s mind.” And so I ask you, have you ever known a sheep to repent? How about a coin? Do they feel sorry for the wrong things they’ve done and turn around in their way of thinking? You’d think the Son of God would do a better job of choosing his analogies and not compare sheep and coins to repentant sinners.
But what if, just what if, the Son of God knew exactly what He was doing when comparing sheep and coins to repentant sinners? In that case, then, we need to broaden our understanding of repentance. Yes, repentance means to feel sorry for the wrong things we’ve done and to turn back to God in order to follow God’s will for our lives. But in this story, Jesus is trying to teach us that repentance also occurs when we simply accept the fact that we have been found. This idea corresponds with what the apostle Paul taught in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Repentance, then, is our acceptance of Christ dying for us. But in order for such a repentance to take place in our lives, we must first accept the fact that we are sinners and we are lost, just like the lost sheep and the lost coin.
Too many times, when we hear these two parables, we identify ourselves with the shepherd, the woman, or the ninety-nine sheep and the nine coins. But as we’ve already noticed, we ourselves do not tend to behave like the shepherd or the woman in these stories. What about the ninety-nine sheep and the nine coins that never get lost – is that where we fit in here? Well for that, I have one final audience participation question for you. Jesus said: “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” My question to you is this: “How many people here are the righteous persons that Jesus describes as having absolutely no need to repent?” Raise your hand. Anyone?
In these two parables, we are not the shepherd or the woman seeking the lost. We are not even the ninety-nine sheep or the nine coins. We—you, me, and every person who has ever lived and who will ever live—are the lost sheep and the lost coin. When we understand that, then these two parables make perfect sense.
God is the shepherd and the woman, so crazy about us, that God would go to drastic lengths to seek and find us. God the Son would leave the angelic hosts in heaven—who need no repentance—in order to come to earth to seek not the healthy or the righteous, but the sick and the sinner. That’s why the shepherd, the woman, and God pay no attention to the sheep or the coins who do not need to repent. In fact, there has never been any mere human being who did not need to repent. That’s why heaven and the angels do not rejoice over them, because simply, they do not exist! We are all lost, all sinners. But when God finds us, and when we accept that fact, then watch out! Because there’ll be a lot of rejoicing, a lot of celebrating, a lot of partying going down in heaven!
But do you think everyone is happy? Unfortunately, no. It seems like with every party, there are party-poopers. The party poopers in our Gospel passage were the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. In Luke 15 verses one and two, they muttered against Jesus: “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus found the lost and was welcoming them and celebrating with them, and these religious insiders were not happy. They were the establishment, the keeper of the traditions, the faithful churchgoers of their day who probably felt that Jesus was paying more attention to sinners than he was to them. Those who thought they were righteous wanted sinners to repent. In this parable, Jesus was also inviting those who thought they were righteous to repent, to change their minds about just how righteous they thought they were. If they too can see themselves as the lost sheep, then they too will be sought out by the Good Shepherd. They too will be the recipient of rejoicing and the celebration. Scholar and priest Robert Farrar Capon says that, in these two parables, what drives the way God treats us is not our sins or our problems. What drives God’s behavior is His own need to find us.
The film Finding Nemo is an animated story of a father’s search for his son. The father, a fish named Marlin, teams up with another fish named Dory to find little Nemo. While diving off the coast of Sydney, Australia, a dentist captured Nemo and placed him in a fish tank in his office. Nemo thinks his father has forgotten about him and that he’ll never see him again. But one day a pelican named Nigel lands in the window of the dentist office and begins to tell Nemo an amazing story.
“Nemo! Your father’s been fighting the entire ocean looking for you!” reports Nigel.
“My father?” Nemo incredulously asks.
“Oh, yeah! He’s been battling sharks and jellyfish,” Nigel recounts.
“It’s my dad! He took on a shark!” proudly exclaims Nemo.
Nigel says, “I heard he took on three.”
Nemo is dumbfounded, “Three?”
Nigel explains, “You see, kid. After you were taken, your dad started swimming like a maniac. He took on three sharks. He battled an entire jellyfish forest. Now he’s riding a bunch of sea turtles on the east Australian current, and the word is he’s headed this way right now to Sydney.”
“What a great daddy!” Nemo says.
In God, we too have a great parent who is looking for us. In these two parables, God gives us a portrait of a love that seeks us out. In response, we are simply invited to acknowledge that we are lost, to accept the fact that we have been found, to join in the Lost and Found Party. Will we accept the invitation? Amen.