Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 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. 8 "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Norma Welker had already said her earthly goodbyes to her husband. One day while she was gardening, she lost her wedding ring. It was the one gift from her deceased husband that she treasured more than any other. She had taken the ring off while she was arranging some cut flowers from her garden. Then, having been interrupted by a phone call, she forgot to put it back on.
Only after her weeds and clippings had been hauled away did she realize the ring’s absence. She searched the compost pile, but there was no ring to be found.
Welker tried to console herself by saying, “It’s just a ring.” But she knew better … and you do, too.
Eight years passed since Norma had lost her ring. Since she had grown older and more frail, she gave up gardening and had grass planted where her flower and vegetable garden had once grown.
One day in the middle of summer, she was sitting outside on her newly planted lawn as she waited for her family to come over to celebrate her 80th birthday. It was a wonderful day, filled with friends and family and neighbors and memories and the occasional gift. The best present of all came from her grandson, Nick. He presented her with a small package. She opened it up and inside was her long-lost wedding ring.
Nick had found the ring while he was tilling his grandmother’s garden, getting it ready to be sodded. As Scripture (almost) says, “Grandma called her friends and said, ‘Rejoice with me for the ring that I had lost has been found.’”
Grandma Welker’s celebration gives us some insight into the rejoicing that goes on in heaven when the those who are lost are found.
In Luke chapter 15, Jesus tells a series of stories about the lost – the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost or Prodigal Son. These stories are about us. We are the lost. The greatest tragedy about being lost is that we don’t realize how lost we really are. We don’t go to church. We live like we are married without God’s blessing of marriage. We air our frustrations on social media and get others to join in our diatribe, all without dealing directly with the cause of our frustration. We make our children’s athletics and professional sports more of a priority than reading God’s Word at home, attending Bible studies at church, or sending our children to Sunday School. We hold a grudge against our brother. We won’t talk to our sister. We despise our neighbor.
And then with every breaking of God’s commandments we try to justify our actions. “I’m busy. I have to see if we are compatible. I’m just speaking my mind. Did I say how busy I am? I’ve been hurt before and I’m not going to be hurt again.”
You and I, we are the tax collectors, prostitutes, criminals, and other “sinners” to whom Jesus is ministering in the beginning of Luke 15. We are the hiding coin and the wandering sheep in Jesus’ parable. At least a woman’s lost coin or a grandmother’s lost ring get lost by accident. Our lostness is a direct result of our own stubbornness to our ways, our own indifference to God’s will, our own love of sin over holiness.
As coins, we hide in corners, not wanting to be seen, avoiding one another, trying to commit our sins in secret. We embrace the darkness and avoid the light. We are afraid that others will find out about our sinful behavior so we hide in the shadows. We remove ourselves from the assembly of believers because we know that God doesn’t approve and we are ashamed of what the other members will think. Fear torments our conscience. Unbelief binds us to the shadows. Our soul weeps on the inside as loneliness eats away at our hearts.
As sheep, we follow false shepherds – seeking greener pastures, wanting more than Jesus has to offer in His words of forgiveness, in His holy Word in our Bibles, and in His sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We don’t want the safety and security of the flock of the Christian Church. We covet the fun of this world’s depravity. We are like stupid sheep, not realizing how good we have it, but running aimlessly here and wandering there, feeding on this and drinking down that. We ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd and instead listen to the multitude of voices that stroke our egos and permit our sins. But eventually these pastures fade. The drink dries up. The fun really isn’t fun, just depravity, and it hurts … it hurts you and those around you. And the lost sheep find that they’re really not only lost, they are lonely and they are slowly dying away.
Such is the sad life of the lost. There is no life apart from the Shepherd. There is no joy outside of His light.
That’s because the wages of your wandering, the cost of your hiding, and the expense of your sin is death. If you remain in the shadows, you will die. If you continue to wander, you will die. If you abandon the Church and its Shepherd, you will die.
Jesus does not want you to die. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). We are of great value to the shepherd of the field and the lady of the house. Jesus is the shepherd and the woman in the parables. He leaves everything behind to go looking for you. He searches in the cracks and crevices, the nooks and crannies to find where you are hiding. He brings you back into His house, back into His flock. Then He and His saints throw a party. Then He and His angels rejoice over you when you repent. He wants you to live – today, tomorrow and forever. He has come that you may have life in Him and only Him.
God sent His Son into this world for the express purpose of seeking and saving the lost. Not because you are so adorable, commendable or remarkable, but precisely because you are such a vile, wretched, miserable sinner. Jesus came for the purpose of calling people out of the darkness of sin into the wonderful light of the Lord’s love.
Though the Jewish religious leaders scoffed at Jesus for spending time with sinners, our Savior was willing to spend as much time as necessary with those who needed Him the most. Despite the gasps, glares, and rolling of eyes, Jesus spent His time with those whom others would say are worthless.
As a sinner, you had been shanghaied from the Triune God’s family of faith. As a transgressor, you had been lost to the Lord and destined to serve those who had stolen you away. In spite of what sin had made you, Jesus came and lived His entire life for the sole purpose of completing your promised rescue. So you might be saved, Jesus was rejected. So you might be loved, He was hated. So you might be accepted, He was persecuted. So you might be welcomed into the fellowship of the saints in heaven, Jesus was betrayed by a friends’ kiss and deserted by those closest to Him. So you might live, He had to die.
The very same Pharisees and teachers of the law who grumbled at Jesus’ eating with sinners, trumped up charges against Him and stirred up the crowd against Him. His government preferred political expediency over justice and His life was offered up as a ransom for yours. Jesus’ third-day resurrection from the dead proclaims to all who will hear Him that our ransom has been paid, our rescue is completed, and there is salvation and rejoicing for all sinners who repent and believe.
Jesus has done all this for you and me and for the whole world. It’s not for the good people. It’s not for those who try their best or work their hardest. This is the grace of God outpoured. No one is left out. No one is abandoned. No one is ignored. Jesus has come for sinners and tax collectors, for the wandering and the hiding, for the sinner and the loner.
Our Savior has entered our lives. He sees us as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). I pray that you are like the other “tax collectors and sinners” in Jesus’ day and gather around to hear Him. Jesus has come to help and save us. Not by approving of your sin. Not by justifying your lifestyle choices. Not by ignoring how you choose to live your life apart from His holy will. But by searching for you and bringing you into His flock. By shining the light on your life and giving you the opportunity to repent. By setting you free from your bondage to sin and giving you a new life in Him.
Jesus knows full well that we are worse than sheep that innocently wander off. We are the ones who deliberately turn our backs on the Good Shepherd, choosing instead to go where we should not go; to do what we should not do; to touch what we should not touch. We are worse than a coin that becomes lost through no fault of its own. We are the ones who leave our Savior willingly, following the sinful desires of our hearts, delighting in our sins, lovingly choosing evil over righteousness.
God has every right to be angry with us. We are ungrateful, disrespectful, sin-worshiping people.
And yet, where is God? He is right here among us, calling us back to Himself. He is here, surrounding Himself with sinners. He is here in mercy and forgiveness, giving us the blessings of His cross to the very same people who put Him on the cross with their sins. He is here, searching us out, not content to lose a single one. He is here in worship - whether we are in a church or a park – washing our sins away in Baptism, comforting and teaching us in His Word, feeding our starving souls in His Lord’s Supper, offering us forgiveness in His absolution, sending us home with His abiding peace in the Benediction.
Jesus wants you to be a part of this flock with us at Epiphany. It isn’t a flock of perfect people. It is most certainly a flock filled with tax collectors and sinners. We are all together a collection of lost sheep and lost coins. But by God’s grace, by the searching of the Good Shepherd, and the conversion by the Holy Spirit, we who were once lost have been found.
Now we invite you to join us in doing this hard work of seeing and searching. For once we have been found, we join with Christ in seeking and searching for more lost souls. Together we bear one another’s burdens. We share each other’s sorrows. We sing together, pray together, grieve together, and rejoice together. When one member hurts, we all hurt. When one sheep dies, we all mourn. When another soul is born again through water and the Spirit, we all rejoice with the angels above.
All because we have a Savior who finds the lost. Us. Amen.