Imagine with me for a moment something that is quite valuable to you. It does not necessarily have to be worth a lot monetarily. Indeed, many of our most valued possessions may not be worth much on the open market, but are quite irreplaceable to us. Establish a mental picture of that item in your mind and try and hold on to it there for a few seconds. Now, try to image losing it. What would you do to find it? To what lengths would you go? You’d upturn furniture and empty out drawers, wouldn’t you? Of course, because we know that the intensity of the search is related to the value of what has been lost. Jesus asks the same question of his listeners in Luke 15:1-10. To those gathered around him, he begins by asking “which of you?” thereby inviting them to make the same mental image as I have just invited you. He then expects that they will also envision for themselves exactly what they would do to find their lost valuable. Jesus goes on to describe his understanding of that search in three key ways.
First, the search for the lost valuable is intentional. In the first parable, we are told that the shepherd leaves nearly ninety-nine of his other sheep to find the one missing one. His resolve is such that he leaves much behind in the search. In the second parable, we are told that the woman takes considerable preparations. She lights a candle. She sweeps the whole house. She searches “carefully” Jesus tells us. You can almost imagine her ducking under furniture, moving lose items about, and diving head first into open cupboards and cabinets.
Second, the search for the lost valuable is long-suffering. Both parables make this point with their use of the word “until.” The search goes on “until” the item is found. But the first parable makes this point glaringly when we are told that the shepherd goes into the “open country” looking for his sheep. The Greek word here is the word for “desert” or “wilderness.” In first century Palestine, this would have meant putting oneself at risk of getting lost or stranded in a harsh desert, or worse, getting mauled by a wild animal. Indeed, this is the risk to the sheep, which is why the shepherd goes to such lengths to find it.
Third, the search for a lost valuable ends with joy. In both parables, the search continues, as we have said, until the object is found. In both cases, extreme jubilation results. I say extreme for a reason. The root for joy occurs five times in seven verses in these parables. The shepherd takes the sheep onto his shoulders “joyfully.” He then invites his friends over for a party. “Rejoice with me!” he exclaims. Likewise the woman. After finding her coin, in her excitement she also throws a party. “Rejoice with me!” she invites. Indeed, the objects excite more joyfulness in their having been found than they probably ever did before being lost in the first place.
What is the purpose of these descriptions? Is Jesus simply describing the lengths we go to when looking for a lost valuable? In both parables, he concludes with a glimpse into heaven, into the heart of God himself. He is thus describing the intensity of God’s own search for lost valuables. He is describing the intensity of God’s search for sinners. He is describing God’s search for us. We are God’s lost valuables! By talking about a shepherd looking for sheep, Jesus points us to Ezekiel 34. There God, describing himself as a shepherd, says “I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” In other words, God is the shepherd in the first parable. And in the ministry of Jesus, we see the intensity of God’s search in all the ways Jesus just described. God’s search is intentional. God came to our world with a very clear purpose. And the lengths to which he had to go to find us are manifested in the very humanity of Jesus. God for our sakes became a human being, and lived among us. He experienced our joys. He experienced our sorrows. Ultimately, God showed us in Jesus how long-suffering was his search for us. Jesus experienced our death. He was challenged and rejected by many of his own people. He was betrayed by one of his own friends. He died ingloriously as an outcast on a Roman cross. He didn’t even receive the dignity of being buried in his own tomb, but had to borrow someone else’s. But God’s search for sinners doesn’t end here does it? Because Jesus didn’t need to borrow that tomb, given to him in pity, for very long. God’s search ends in joy when Jesus got up on the third day and showed the world the powerful extent of God’s loving search. Indeed, no search ever cost so much. God died. Indeed, no search ever ended so well. God lives!
So what are we to do with this? What are we to do now that we know how intense, patient, and joyful is God’s search for lost sinners? By telling us these two stories, Jesus is doing more than showing us that God so intently searches for sinners that he rejoices when he finds them. He is inviting us into the action! As joy is shared in both parables, God invites us to share his joy. You see, Jesus tells these stories on the heels of another great passage. In the previous chapter, he invites his disciples to “bear their crosses” as he bears his. At the outset, it seems as though Jesus is telling his disciples to count the costs of discipleship. To be mindful of the burdens of following him in a fallen world. He calls us to reject friends and family. He calls us to never look back. Moreover, he calls us to take up death for his sake. What else could he have meant by asking us to take up a “cross” for his sake? Crosses were used for nothing else in Jesus’ time, and the Romans loved to demonstrate their usefulness. But chapter fifteen begins with the word “now.” It is a textual clue that what follows is connected to what precedes. Jesus told the crowds in chapter 14 the cost of discipleship. Hearing this, they “gathered around to hear him,” apparently hung on his very words. He then tells them the joys of discipleship. And that discipleship is to engage the world as God does, who intentionally, patiently, and joyfully seeks and saves the lost. We, likewise, are called to seek the lost with intentionality, dedicating our time and talents to the search. We are called to yearn as God yearns, patiently maintaining the search until the end. We are thus called to share also in God’s joy, with the very angels of heaven, when we find the lost for God’s sake. In these two parables, Jesus shows us God’s heart for the lost. Jesus invites us to share in this heart for the lost. Because God yearns to find the lost, we ought to yearn likewise.
But with the invitation, there is a warning. The one thing I have neglected to mention thus far is the glaring instigation of these parables. What prompts Jesus to say them at all is the grumbling of the Pharisees that Jesus is associating himself with sinners. They grumble, just as the Israelites grumbled about God’s search for them at the time of the Exodus. (Yes, the word used here is only ever used in the Old Testament to describe Israel’s grumbling against Moses in the desert.) Moreover, by alluding to Ezekiel 34, Jesus is doing more than just describing God’s search for his lost sheep. Ezekiel 34 begins with the prophet’s sharp rebuke of the “false shepherds,” the religious leaders of Ezekiel’s day who had so thoroughly led the people astray. Indeed, God only begins the search himself because the people he appointed to be shepherds had failed so miserably. Hence the emphatic tone, “I myself will search” says God. Jesus is therefore bringing Ezekiel’s rebuke home to the Pharisees, whose religion has no room for God’s yearning heart for lost sinners. They do not understand that God searches intently for sinners, so they do not understand why Jesus spends all his time with them. Hence they grumble, and hence Jesus asks them what they would do if they ever lost something valuable.
Today is an ember day, a day when the Church pays special attention to the formation of leaders in her midst. So those of us called to leadership in the church should pay head to these parables. We should be mindful of God’s heart for sinners. We should not be satisfied to circle the wagons of our own religiosity. We should not be satisfied to circle the chorale of our flocks as they currently stand. We should be out looking for more sheep! We should be looking intently for that lost coin! We should be willing to share in our Lord’s joy for the lost valuables of God all around us! But I should be careful, as this message is not just for leaders. In Jesus, all his people are called to be ministers of his joy for a lost and found world. We are all called to yearn for God’s lost valuables as Jesus does. And in sharing Jesus’ yearning, we will likewise share in his joy.
Sermon preached at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, MA during a mid-week Eucharist, Wednesday, September 15, 2010, with Father Brian Barry celebrating.
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