Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As we’ve seen in our Gospel texts over the past few weeks, the Pharisees are not shown in a flattering light. Once again this week, we encounter the Pharisees as they stand opposed to Jesus. Luke tells us that the Pharisees and scribes complained to each other about Jesus by saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” It didn’t sit well with these pillars of Jewish society that Jesus, a man who was supposed to have so much in common with them as an upstanding citizen and faithful son of Abraham, would choose to associate with those of little or no moral fiber. If this Jesus was truly a teacher with authority, He would surely recognize that tax collectors and other sinners were barely better than the unclean. He would stand as far as He could from the weak and the lowly, the desolate and afflicted; He would stand with the Pharisees.
We hear in this account the echo of the tale of Jonah, the prophet who was sent to the wicked city of Ninevah to call its people to repentance, lest they be destroyed. Jonah wanted no part of this message. He ran away once; and when that failed, he reluctantly went and preached the message the Lord sent him to proclaim. And the people of Ninevah repented. When he saw their repentance, Jonah was angry, and he said to the Lord, “I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” What a wonderful confession; but Jonah didn’t say it happily. Jonah was angry that God showed mercy to sinners who repented.
Like the Pharisees and like Jonah, we are a people who appreciate justice, especially from God. We like it when we see people “get what’s coming to them” from our heavenly Father. There is an old Jewish proverb which says, “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish.” You have to admit that there’s a certain part of you that finds such a sentiment appealing. Of course, that’s also the part of you that can’t look away from a train wreck as it’s happening; but when it comes to God’s enemies—and we do not consider ourselves enemies of God—we feel fully justified in expecting the justice of God to be swift and terrible. Once again we encounter in ourselves the Pharisees, and this is not a flattering picture. It’s as well that we’re not flattered by this picture. Like the Pharisees, we are by nature sinners, and thus we are God’s enemies.
To the Pharisees and to us, Jesus speaks parables about the kind of justice which God pursues. He tells us about a man who leaves ninety-nine sheep to seek after one who has become lost. The man finds the sheep, carries it upon his shoulders, and brings it home with him, celebrating with his neighbors that the lost sheep has been found. Jesus asks, “Which of you does not do the same?” And then He gives the real kicker. He says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
Pharisees feel they have no need to be found. They gather around Jesus because they see someone who has their kind of status and prestige; and when He acts in a way which puzzles them, they back away from Him, lest His questionable taste be associated with them. They are disgusted because He eats with sinners. That’s ironic, because He eats with the Pharisees, too; they just don’t recognize that they are no less sinners than the tax collectors. On the other hand, the tax collectors and sinners gather around Jesus to hear what He has to say. They gather around Jesus because they know they need to hear what He has to say. They know that He has the power to give them what they need: the forgiveness of sins. Jesus sees them as the sheep He has come to seek and bring home; and these sheep know the voice of their Shepherd. The sheep cannot find himself; but when the Shepherd comes, the sheep knows His voice.
Let me say it plainly: you are a sheep that was lost. You are a sheep who has been found. You were lost in sin, an enemy of God, worthy of nothing but the death which comes from being apart from God while Satan prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour. Lest you become complacent in your faith, lest you begin to seethe in righteous indignation that God doesn’t strike down Islamic extremists or the ACLU or other enemies of the Gospel, you must recall that you, too, are an enemy of the Gospel, apart from faith given to you in the waters of Holy Baptism, faith won for you through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But you have been found! Thanks be to God! With that in mind, do not begrudge the Lord His search for other lost sheep. If God can find you, He certainly can find other lost sinners.
In our Psalm this morning we prayed, “Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted. Look on my affliction and my pain, and forgive all my sins.” Jesus has graciously answered that prayer for us. That’s what keeps you coming back to this place where Christ first brought you—not some funny story your pastor tells you, but the gifts which Jesus gives to you in the place. Like the tax collectors, you gather here because this is where you hear Jesus. He speaks the Word of Holy Absolution through the mouth of your pastor, and you are returned to the waters of Holy Baptism, washed and cleansed.
Do not doubt for a moment that Jesus has found you! You are a redeemed child of God, washed in the waters of Holy Baptism. Christ has carried you here on His shoulders to where He makes His dwelling place among us, just as He carried the burden of your sin to the cross. And not only does He eat with sinners; He hosts the heavenly banquet, and He gives you His own body and blood as food for the feast, a feast which strengthens your faith and forgives your sins. Every time you sin, every time you get lost, the Holy Spirit works repentance in your heart, and Jesus finds you and returns you to this fold, where you may rest in comfort and peace in His presence forever.
This morning we were privileged to be witnesses as Jesus found another sheep who was lost. Heaven is rejoicing along with us. The angels and archangels, along with all the saints, are singing praise to God that He has brought Aliviah into His heavenly fold. They rejoice every time a sheep that has been lost is brought home in the waters of Holy Baptism—even as they rejoiced when you were brought home. Rejoice, for the sheep that was lost is now found! In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen. s