This morning we heard just a part of the great “Lost and Found” parable. Jesus combined three parables together to make one grand parable in order to drive home the main point. We heard the first two of those parables today. The third parable is commonly called the parable of the Prodigal Son.
All three of these parables illustrate the fact that Jesus calls all people to Himself. He came to save all people in all places and in all times. As the Apostle John wrote, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
Jesus had been serving the tax collectors and sinners with his teaching from the Holy Scriptures. The scribes and Pharisees thought that this was a blasphemous use of those Holy Scriptures. After all, were not the Holy Scriptures primarily for people who at least tried to be holy? Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1–2) Jesus was actually drawing the most dishonorable members of society to Himself. The scribes and Pharisees were livid that Jesus would do such a thing. So Jesus told this great three-parable parable to illustrate that receiving sinners and eating with them was the main reason that He took on human flesh and lived among us. Jesus wanted the scribes and Pharisees to see that they were also sinners who needed a savior.
Jesus began with a parable about a shepherd with one hundred sheep. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4) There is incredible comfort in these words. Once you understand that you are the lost sheep and Jesus is the shepherd, you begin to understand that even if you were the only sinner on the planet, Jesus would still search for you. He would still become human so that He could die on the cross for you. He would still endure the wrath of God for you. He would still suffer all even if you were the only sinner on earth.
Jesus continued, “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:5–6) At this point in the parable, ask yourself, “What has the sheep done?” The shepherd searched for the sheep. The shepherd found the sheep. The shepherd carried the sheep. The shepherd rejoiced as he carried the sheep home. The shepherd invited his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him because he had found the sheep. In this entire parable, the only thing the sheep did was get lost.
Then Jesus gave the meaning to the parable: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7) With these words, Jesus revealed that the sheep in the parable represented a sinner, and the associates of the shepherd represent the community of heaven. This means that the shepherd represented the sinner’s savior.
But what about that repentance? Well, the sheep did nothing in the parable. If the sheep represents the sinner, then the sinner does nothing. That means that the repentance that causes joy in heaven is not a work that the sinner does, but a work that God does in the sinner. Just as the shepherd does everything for the sheep, God does everything for you. He even produces repentance in you.
But what about the ninety-nine sheep? Did those sheep return to the fold or are they still out in the open country? What happened to them?
These ninety-nine refer to the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees insisted that they were already virtuous in themselves and had no need to repent. Therefore, Jesus ironically referred to them as ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7) The scribes and the Pharisees would hear the irony in Jesus description of the ninety-nine and know that He was talking about them. Jesus was calling them to repent. Jesus wanted to rescue them. He wanted to carry them into the eternal celebration of His kingdom. He wanted them to rejoice with all the company of heaven including the tax collectors and sinners who also received the gift of repentance. On the other hand, if the scribes and Pharisees insisted that they had no need to repent, then their own stubbornness condemned them to an eternity outside the Kingdom of God.
Jesus re-enforced the teaching of the parable of the lost sheep in the second parable that He told. In the second parable, Jesus compared God to a woman searching for a coin. In those days, most people lived in one-room houses with packed dirt and pebble floors. The only light would be the light of an open door and perhaps one small window. So the image is the image of a woman on her elbows and knees holding a lamp near the floor with one hand while gently sweeping and searching through the cracks between the pebbles in the floor with the other.
The themes are the same. Something is lost. The owner searches for it and finds it. The owner invites the community to celebrate the restoration of the lost possession. The meaning of both parables is this: When God rescues sinners by bringing them to repentance, there is a celebration in heaven. On the other hand, sinners who reject the rescue remain condemned in their sin.
Jesus talked about repentance a lot. Repentance is so important that after Jesus rose from the dead, He said that the mission of the church was to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His name. (Luke 24:47)
The Augsburg confession says: Repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven. (Augsburg Confession, Article XII) We don’t like that first part of repentance … the part that includes the knowledge of sin. It means that we must admit that we are by nature bad people. We don’t like that. We would prefer to think that we are good people. That was the problem that the Pharisees and scribes had. This is still our problem today. Jesus told this grand ‘Lost and Found’ parable in order to teach the Pharisees, scribes and us what John wrote in his first epistle: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us … If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8, 10)
God’s search for lost sinners is much more profound than could be told in any one parable. Jesus began His search for sinners long ago. The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” (Ephesians 1:4) With these words, Paul tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, began His search for us before He even created the world. Today’s reading from the Old Testament contains the same promise: “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezekiel 34:11–12) In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us that He fulfilled this promise that He made in the days of the Prophet Ezekiel.
When the time was right the Son of God continued His search by taking on our human flesh. As He searched for us, He humbled Himself under the Law even though He is the master of the Law. As He searched for us in His perfect life, He encountered the great predator, death itself. As Jesus died on the cross, it seemed as though death had ended the search, but that was not the case. What death did not know was that Jesus intended to conquer death with His death. Jesus suffered on the cross for us, but in His suffering, He did not suffer defeat. Instead, He conquered sin, death, and the power of the devil.
The victory Jesus won on the cross became evident when He burst forth from the tomb on the third day. His resurrection assures us that His victory on the cross earned our salvation for us. We are forgiven. Jesus Christ has adopted us into His family.
The whole point of the ninety-nine sheep and the nine coins is that people who insist that they are not sinners also insist that they do not need Jesus. Those who insist that they are not bad also insist that they do not need Jesus. Those who insist that they are not lost are the most lost of all. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep. The woman leaves the nine coins. The search is for the one that is lost. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15)
This morning, God found and rescued another sinner through the wet Gospel of Holy Baptism. Jesus searched for Noah and found him. Because it is God who works repentance in us, Noah does not even need to know what the word means. It is God who now works repentance in him. What joy there is before the angels in heaven over one sinner who repents! What joy there is on earth among those sinners who are forgiven! Amen
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