In this chapter, Jesus tells us three stories.
The first is about a shepherd who goes to search for a lost sheep. He finds the sheep and rejoices.
The second is about a woman who searches for a lost coin. She finds the coin and she rejoices.
The third (which we didn’t have read today, but is known as the story of the Prodigal son) is about a father who does not go to search for his lost son, but he does wait for his son to return. And when his son returns, he rejoices.
But in this story there is also an older son. This older son has stayed at home. He has played by the rules. And when he sees his father welcoming back his younger brother – after all that his younger brother has done, he is furious. It seems that all his work at home has been pointless. And now the Father does go searching. He goes outside to his older son; he pleads with him; and he begs him to come in.
[There is, as elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, a hint of Trinity here. The Father, the Son (the shepherd), and the lady with the lamp, the Holy Spirit]
But these three stories are about the God who comes to save those who are lost, and about the joy that there is in heaven when someone who is lost is found, when someone repents.
Luke 15:7, “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”.
Luke 15:10, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
In the two stories we heard read today, the word ‘joy’ or ‘rejoice’ is repeated 5 times.
The shepherd rejoices when the sheep is found. The woman rejoices when the coin is found. Heaven delights when someone – who was created to be a child of heaven – is found.
What do these stories tell us?
1. They tell us that each one of us is unique for Jesus: that we are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. That if we were the only person lost he would still have come for us.
And of course that is true. They tell us that each one of us is uniquely and personally precious to Jesus.
This is not a business for him. I mean losing only 1 is not bad. You are still left with 99 sheep. But God is not prepared to settle with 99. He wants them all, every single one. The 100th matters. And so here is a shepherd who has a 100 sheep. He counts them. He counts them again. He looks around. ‘It’s Sian. Where’s Sian?’ So he leaves the 99 and goes off to look for Sian. He searches everywhere. He is really worried. And he finds Sian. And he picks Sian up, and he goes into the village.
You really do matter to God. And you are lost. Some people know that they are lost. Others think that they have life sussed, but they too are lost. And at great cost, God sent his Son into this world to seek for you. And when you do respond to that love of God, God delights. When you say ‘yes’ to him, when you receive Jesus, everything becomes worth it for God.
In Hebrews we are told that ‘Jesus endured the shame of the cross, for the joy set before him’.
What was that joy? The joy of being with his Father in heaven? Yes.
But also the joy of knowing you, of having a relationship with you, of having you with him now and in heaven. That is why, when a single sinner repents, heaven parties. Because each person counts. Because you really do matter.
2. But these stories are also a rebuke.
Look at why Jesus tells them: Luke 15:1-2: “Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." And the passage continues, ‘So, he told them a parable’.
Jesus tells these stories to challenge the muttering of the Pharisees.
People can be divided into two types.
There is the majority. These are the Pharisees, the older brother, what Tim Keller calls the older sibling type. I would put myself solidly in this category. We are the 99 righteous people, the sensible ones, the conformists, who play by the rules. We are the decent, hard-working, responsible, moral citizens. We’ve discovered that keeping the rules helps us get on. By following the rules we gain acceptance and status and identity in this world.
And then there is the minority. The younger sibling types. These are the ones who reject the rules, who reject authority and who look for acceptance, status and identity through radical non-conformism. For them, life is about self-exploration, the discovery of complete personal freedom. Why should I do what someone else tells me to do? What really matters in this world is me, and I am going to be different and do what I choose to do.
Of course, there is a bit of both type in each of us, and over time we change. Conformists become non-conformists; and more often than not non-conformists become conformists.
Jesus tells these stories to challenge the conformists (there are plenty of places in scripture where the non conformists are challenged).
Conformists think that salvation is gained by what we do; that it is all about following rules and keeping standards; that it is all about the quality of our good works, the correctness of our thinking, the discipline of our spiritual life and the intensity of our acts of devotion. We think that basically we get what we deserve.
So Pharisees get dreadfully upset when they see people who have break the rules being rewarded. We say, ‘it is not fair’. Why should they know intimacy with Jesus, discover a joy in him, and have such a sense of forgiveness and assurance. And we dismiss them as shallow or glib
But we have got it wrong. In fact our good works, our right thinking, our disciplined spiritual life, our acts of devotion do not in themselves give us a relationship with God. They can, in fact, take us away from God. They can make us rely on ourselves and not on him.
I remember a man telling me quite proudly about all the prayers that he said every evening. He said, I can't go to sleep until I have said them'. I could not but think that he had imposed onto himself a dreadful burden, and that he had not actually met the God to whom the prayers he recited were addressed.
When we put our trust in ourselves, in what we do, and not in God, we are actually in as significant act of rebellion against God as someone who rebels against society and who breaks all the rules.
And Jesus, by welcoming and eating with sinners, with non-conformists, with people who have chosen to rebel against the norms of society, shows us that living Christianity is not about us and what we do. It is not a reward for good behaviour.
And through the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus tells us it is not about us and what we do. Salvation, friendship with God, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, heaven is not a reward for good behaviour.
Instead he is saying that it is all about God’s love for us, and what he has done.
As conformists, all through our life we have heard that if we are good we will be worthy; if we follow the rules we will be loved.
Jesus comes to us with the radical message that we are beloved already; that he has come to find us; that he has died for us. All we have to do is to believe him, to receive that truth and to trust him.
The lost sheep does absolutely nothing in this story apart from get lost. The coin does even less!
Please listen because this is so important. In order to allow God to find you, you do not need to do, or try to do, all the ‘right’ things – or even religious things. All you have to do to allow yourself to be found by Jesus, is to recognise that you are lost. All you have to do is to stop trying to earn God's pleasure and delight, and to rest on him and what he has done.
The French Reformed Church use this statement at the baptism of a child:
‘Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry 'it is finished.' For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, "We love him because he first loved us."’
This is what grace is.
I remember talking with one lady and she just couldn’t get it. She kept on saying, ‘I’m trying to live a ‘Christian’ (by which she meant ‘moral’) life, but I don’t think I’m good enough for God’.
The Christian life is not about – not in the first place - morality. It is not about putting our trust in what we have done, but in putting our trust in what God has done. It is about a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and through him, with our Father God in heaven.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we all become self-centred hedonists who care for nobody but ourselves. In fact when we begin to understand that it is all about God, and what God has done, and that it is not about what I do; when I begin to understand that it is all about putting my trust in God, and receiving from him; when I repent of my self-reliance – then I will begin to live in a third way, the way of Jesus Christ.
It is not the way of the moralist older sibling, of conforming to the rules of society in order to make people like me and to get on;
It is not the way of the self-centred rebellious younger sibling, rejecting everything that society says;
It is the way of intimate relationship with God, led by the Spirit, dependent on divine mercy, on the forgiveness that is offered to each one of us by Jesus from the cross, beginning to learn how much God loves us and how much he loves each person.
And because of that, when a person lives this way, we delight, and I mean delight, when people come into that relationship with Jesus, whoever they are (tax collector or Pharisee, ‘sinner’ or ‘righteous’, older sibling or younger sibling, conformist or rebel) whatever they have been or done.
We may disagree with them politically, we may still be embarrassed by them socially, but they - like us - were lost, they were outside, they were strangers; now they have been brought inside, they have been found, they are family.