Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 09/15/2019

We’ve been through a series of tough gospel readings over the past few weeks. First there was Jesus announcing that he had come to bring about division rather than peace, then saying that when we have a dinner party we shouldn’t invite friends and relatives, instead we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and last week saying that to be a disciple we need to hate all the members of our family, to hate even life itself and get rid of all our possessions. The gospel of the Lord; Praise to you O Christ.

Today though, the tone shifts in a more hopeful direction and with that perhaps it’s a good time to be reminded of the fact that those who wrote the gospels had choices in how they organized the material. There’s no way of knowing for sure in what order Jesus said things or told parables; being on the move as he was he more than likely repeated things when the audience changed. Maybe the disciples who were with him all the time sometimes sighed and rolled their eyes and said, “Oh no; not the Good Samaritan…again.” With our recent readings then, Luke had choices, and it almost seems like he was setting us up as he moved from the “wish Jesus hadn’t said it” part of his gospel into the lost and found of chapter 15.

Probably the best known part of this chapter is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, maybe Jesus greatest parable, but that’s not part of today’s gospel as it showed up back in March, during Lent. Today we get the two short parables that precede the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. All three though, are lost and found stories that have a gracious God at the center of them. But…before giving us that image of a gracious God, it’s as if Luke wanted to set us up by illustrating the need for such grace, hence the difficult, even impossible nature of what was in the previous chapters. It may be that Luke was Lutheran and didn’t know it as it’s very much a Law/Gospel thing with Luther’s understanding of the Law being necessary in order to reveal our need for a gracious God.

Before we enter the lost and found though, let’s consider the context. This is part of Luke’s travel narrative that started back in chapter 9 when Jesus set his face to go toward Jerusalem. As he travelled, he attracted crowds, so this lost and found chapter begins first of all by saying that tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus and second, that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about this. The reason for their grumbling? It wasn’t just because tax collectors and sinners were there although that might have been part of it as such people were not looked upon favorably; their grumbling was more about the fact that Jesus welcomed them.

In typical fashion though, Jesus sizes up the situation and tells “them” these parables and I think we have to assume that “them” includes the whole crowd, the scribes and Pharisees along with the tax collectors and sinners. You could also say that we too are part of “them” and the task for all of us is to think about where we fit into these stories.

First we’re asked to imagine having a hundred sheep which at the time would have represented a good sized flock, an indication of at least a degree of wealth. In doing a head count though, the shepherd only counts 99; one is missing. So Jesus asks, “Which of you wouldn’t leave the 99 and go look for the one?” and note that the 99 are not left more or less safely in a pen, but in the wilderness where all kinds of predators might lurk.

The answer to Jesus’ question of course, is that no one would leave the 99 for the sake of trying to find one but in the parable that’s what happens and on finding the lost sheep the shepherd rejoices with all his friends. It’s only then that the lost sheep is called a sinner with joy in heaven over the lost sinner being found.

For the scribes and Pharisees when they hear “sinner” you know that they’re thinking about those in the crowd who they perceive as undesirable. The tax collectors and sinners aren’t stupid; they know how they’re perceived by the religious leaders, so it’s not hard for them to connect the dots either when they hear the word sinner. One wonders though, if either group heard a gracious God being hinted at here. Does either group hear that “God’s ways are not our ways” is being hinted at? That’s the real point that Jesus is getting at here, one which is good news for the tax collectors and sinners who perhaps recognize their failings, but one which upsets the order of things for those who think they are earning their way. The scribes and Pharisees think they’re the 99 and shouldn’t the shepherd be more concerned about protecting them? But they miss the point; the parable is about grace.

Again, we don’t know for sure if Jesus told these parables one after the other, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Prodigal Son, but let’s assume that in order to make his point he did. So next comes the Lost Coin. It’s similar to the Lost Sheep except this time it’s a woman who has lost one of ten silver coins. Each coin represented about a day’s wages so it’s not an insignificant amount; on a literal level, searching for the coin makes more sense than looking for one sheep out of a hundred. What doesn’t make sense is the woman throwing a party after finding the coin, a party that would probably cost her more than the value of the coin.

Jesus ends this parable the same way with joy over one sinner who repents, the joy of the lost being found and again with the party being thrown there’s evidence that God’s ways are not our ways. That point is further emphasized with the Prodigal Son parable but that’s another story for another time.

Jesus told “them” these parables but you still wonder what they heard. Did the tax collectors and sinners hear a word of hope in what Jesus said? Did the scribes and Pharisees figure out that Jesus was challenging their holier than thou grumbling or did both groups just leave scratching their heads? With us as part of “them” do we find ourselves standing with the tax collectors and sinners or are we with the scribes and the Pharisees or do we find ourselves as part of both groups, needing to hear a word of hope about a gracious God but also needing to be challenged for not realizing that the God being described by Jesus is for everyone, not just those we judge to be worthy?

For everyone who is part of the “them” addressed by Jesus in these short parables, there is Law and Gospel so maybe Jesus was Lutheran too; we’d like to think so anyway. Whether it’s the tax collectors and sinners, the scribes and the Pharisees or us, we all need to hear ourselves being convicted by the Law which makes us lost but also causes us to realize our need for the gracious God who rejoices in the repentance of those who are so convicted, the God who searches for us and rejoices when we are found.

Sometimes we get it; sometimes we don’t. As much as we hear about a gracious God we can still have trouble believing how gracious this God is, that it’s a God who searches for us even when we are at our worst, even when we are most lost and…a God who also searches for those we might just as soon leave lost. We have trouble believing it because we know that’s not the way the world works. But God’s ways are not our ways and thank God for that. We don’t get what we deserve.

It’s really the story of the entire Bible, Old Testament and New. We’re in the middle of several Old Testament readings from Jeremiah and today we get a pretty bad section as the word of the Lord comes to him and describes the undoing of creation. Because of the sin of the people, the earth was waste and void, the heavens had no light, the birds had fled, the fruitful land was a desert; the earth mourns and the heavens grow black. Today’s reading ends with what seems to be grim finality: “For I have spoken; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”

That does sound pretty final; it’s a “you get what you deserve” scenario and that is the last word from Jeremiah today, but it’s not the last word overall. That’s why you can’t read verses like this in isolation because…the Lord does relent; the Lord does turn back to look for this lost people because that is who the Lord is. Much later in chapter 31 Jeremiah there is the announcement of a new covenant and with that the stability and reliability of creation is renewed, the same creation that was threatened to be undone by sin. The Lord will, after all, provide sun for light by day and the moon and stars for light by night and its fixed order will never cease.

Once again, in a different way it’s Law and Gospel, Law in chapter 4, Gospel in chapter 31. We do need the Law; we do need to be made aware that we are sinners, that we are lost, that God has good reasons to give up on us. But…the good news of the gospel, the good news of God’s grace and faithfulness, the good news of this God who won’t give up but will search until we are found, is always the last word.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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