The Third Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| July 7, 2019| Luke 15:1-10
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” St. Luke 15:1-10
The Pharisees and scribes see the same thing that the angels see. When the Pharisees and scribes see it, they complain. When the angels see it, they rejoice. They see the same thing. God’s grace wins over the heart of a sinner. For the self- righteous, God’s grace is cause for offense. For the genuinely righteous, God’s grace is cause for rejoicing.
There are two religions in this world. There is the religion of works and the religion of grace. The religion of works teaches that we find God, heaven, nirvana, paradise – whatever – by our works. You work your way to heaven. The road to heaven is paved by your good deeds. You climb up Jacob’s ladder. Many who call themselves Christians teach the religion of works. These people often say that there is little difference between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They say so because they believe in salvation by works.
Years ago, when I was serving as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Clear Lake, Minnesota, I visited a summer visitor to our congregation who belonged to a Lutheran congregation of another synod in the Twin Cities. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge. He was also a lifelong Lutheran. I explained to him why we did not permit membership in the Masons. They taught salvation by works. I was a bit young and naïve, I suppose, but I was shocked to learn that he saw nothing wrong with the teaching that we gained admittance to heaven by doing good. He was very disappointed that we would be so closed minded as to exclude Masons from our church. They believed in doing good. Isn’t that what religion is all about? The man sincerely believed that there was nothing contradictory between Christianity and Freemasonry. Was this because he didn’t believe that the Masons taught salvation by works? No, it was because he – a lifelong Lutheran – believed in salvation by works.
We call this the legal opinion. It’s the religion of fallen humanity. It’s not only the religion of Freemasonry, but also of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and various heretical versions of Christianity. It’s the religion of everyone who is not born from above. It was the religion of the Pharisees and scribes who were offended that Jesus would receive sinners and eat with them. They thought that Jesus, by expressing fellowship with sinners, was condoning their sin. That’s what they believed. It was unseemly for Jesus, who was considered to be a righteous man, to associate with tax collectors – known cheats – prostitutes, and other sinners. They deserved God’s judgment, not his acceptance. Those who adhere to the religion of works are scandalized by God’s grace.
The second religion in this world is the religion of grace. This is the true religion, the Christian religion, the religion taught by the prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible, the religion of Jesus Christ the Savior of sinners. The religion of grace is the opposite of the religion of works. The stories Jesus tells about the lost sheep and the lost coin clearly illustrate God’s grace. These stories show us how the religion of works is false. They show that if anyone is going to be forgiven of his sins, delivered from death, and rescued from hell, it is going to be by God’s grace alone. Nobody can do anything to save himself. The so-called good deeds of those who are trying to work their way to heaven are not good deeds at all, but mortal sins.
The sheep gets lost because he’s foolish. Let us understand the point of comparison. Jesus doesn’t choose the shepherd/sheep illustration to teach that simple people get lost while smart people don’t. It’s not a question of intelligence. It’s a question of spiritual discernment. Some of the smartest people in the whole world, the greatest intellectual giants, have no spiritual understanding at all.
They don’t understand sin. That’s why they foolishly think that they can work their way to heaven. The Pharisees and scribes sincerely believed that they were better than the tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and other sinners who came to Jesus for forgiveness. Spiritually, they were fools. They judged what a good deed was and what a bad deed was by what they could see about the deed that was done. Fools! Smart, educated, intellectually accomplished, brilliant fools! They were ignorant of what is clear to lost sheep and lost coins that have been found by Christ. It is the doer of the deed, not the deed done, that makes a deed good or bad. You must first become good before you can do good. God must forgive you all your sins and reckon to you the righteousness of Jesus. Only then are you good. Everybody is bad by nature. Everyone is spiritually blind, dead, and hostile to God.
The sheep is lost. He cannot find his way back to the fold. He’s alone, frightened, trapped, and easy prey for the wolves. The shepherd searches for the sheep. His voice cries out. The sheep recognizes the voice. When the shepherd finds the sheep, what does he do? He lays it on his shoulders. He carries the sheep to safety. The wolves won’t attack the sheep that is in the shepherd’s arms.
The voice of the shepherd is the gospel that is preached. Jesus is the good shepherd. He preaches. The voice of the gospel elicits faith in the heart of the sinner who is trapped in his sins and in the devil’s lies. The gospel is the message of forgiveness. It’s not a forgiveness that you get if you do this or that, fulfilling certain requirements. It’s a forgiveness that the shepherd himself has purchased for you by his blood, as we sing in the words of that Lenten hymn:
What punishment so strange is suffered yonder:
The shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander.
The shepherd rejoices when he finds his lost sheep. There is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and finds forgiveness of his sins in the words of the good shepherd.
On July 3, as I was writing this sermon, an old friend of mine called me on the phone, disgusted with a church service that was being advertised by some mega church in Wisconsin. It’s a patriotic service featuring a confession of sins written by Abraham Lincoln, with no absolution, no mention of the cross, no talk of Jesus, and nothing particularly Christian about it. It was boilerplate God and country patriotism.
The man who called me is not a college graduate. He never went to a seminary. He’s a working man. You don’t have to be seminary educated to know whether you have heard the gospel. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them eternal life.” The lost sheep recognizes a voice that promises safety and security. Lost sinners, by the grace of God, by the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, learn to recognize the gospel of Christ as the voice of God calling them to rest in the wounds of Jesus.
The gospel sounds forth and the sheep hear it. The gospel is the light of God’s grace. It’s what the woman lit as she swept her house, searching for the little piece of silver that she had lost. By the light of the gospel, God finds the lost coin. When he does, the angels in heaven rejoice. A sinner was lost and is found.
The Christian faith we confess is being attacked on all sides. God’s commandments are denounced. Men and women who claim to be Christians publicly defend the most unchristian perversions. We see brazen assaults on our Christian religion. We must reaffirm, without equivocation, what God’s law teaches even if it sets us in opposition to the prevailing social standards.
But do not think that when we reaffirm Christian morality, decency, and the authority of the Ten Commandments we have said all that needs to be said. What needs to be said is that God loves the lost and the erring. He loves the out of the closet unrepentant homosexual. God loves the abortionist who kills babies for profit. God loves the hard-drinking, wife-beating, profane womanizer. God loves the college kid who quit going to church because he didn’t want to repent of his sins. God loves the bully in the neighborhood who takes delight in evoking fear in others. God loves the cheater, the liar, the thief, the druggie, and all their friends. God wants these sinners to repent.
We were saved when Jesus died for us. The sins that the Pharisees and scribes see are only on the outside. We have more serious sins than that! Every sin we commit is idolatry. We do it because we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. All of this sin was laid on Jesus. He bore in his holy body the sins of the whole world. Jesus paid the debt we owed. The angels in heaven rejoiced to see Christ destroy the power of the devil, taking away his power to accuse, and ridding death of its sting by dying our death and rising again. It was the angels who first announced the resurrection of Jesus. They rejoiced.
The joy didn’t stop when Jesus died and rose. The rejoicing among the angels and all the company of heaven continues to the end of time, every time a sinner repents of his sin and believes the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. The religion of works traps people in the demonic lie that they can make up for whatever wrong they have done. The religion of grace brings Christ, the sin-bearer, to lost sinners. The gospel shows them that Jesus is the only One who can give them forgiveness of sins and new life.
The religion of grace produces the fruit of good works. These works aren’t done to win God’s favor. They are done by those who already have it. They saw their helplessness and unworthiness. They acknowledged their sin to God. They heard and believed the gospel that proclaims complete forgiveness for Christ’s sake. God found them in the darkness and brought them into the light of God’s truth. The angels in heaven rejoice. The whole church on earth rejoices with them.