Luke 15:1-10 “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘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? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” 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. 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? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”
This chapter is perhaps the most well known and beloved chapter in the entire Bible, and my privilege is to help you to understand and love it even more.
TO WHOM DID THE LORD JESUS SPEAK THESE WORDS?
We are told of four groups; “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’” Jesus had been speaking very firmly about counting the cost of following him, and that one’s love for him must far exceed love for one’s nearest and dearest. It must be a heavenly inspired love, all loves excelling. Thus Jesus raised the bar of discipleship up and up, and you might have expected that his congregation became quite disheartened and discouraged – “Who then can become one of his disciples?” – so that they drifted off in despair. That did not happen, rather, we are told that people were all gathering around to hear him. No one reacted in any other way.
So who were these men and women? Very good and perfect people? No, the opposite; they were tax collectors and ‘sinners.’ Tax collectors were the most hated group of men of their day, Jews who worked for the occupying Roman authority at customs’ posts in markets, harbours and borders, charging fellow Jews excessive amounts of money and putting much of the tax in their pockets, giving the rest to Rome, backing their demands with a vicious private militia and the threat of prison. So many of these despicable men, corrupt thieves and quislings, came to hear Christ. Then another group simply referred to as ‘sinners’ were also present in abundance. They were immoral people who followed occupations that the religious regarded as being incompatible with the law, men like pig farmers (pigs were considered unclean), divorced people, drunkards and people unpersuaded by Pharisees to keep a hundred petty rules and regulations every day. So the Pharisees would have nothing to do with them. So this is the congregation, hated tax-collectors and sinners; they had all come together in order to hear our Lord.
Yet also standing apart from these two groups, and yet near enough to listen intently to Jesus, were another two groups, the Pharisees and the Scribes and they immediately found fault with Jesus for letting these notorious sinners come into his congregation. They began to grumble to one another loudly enough for Jesus to hear their complaints; “He welcomes sinners; he allows them to come right up to him; he even goes to their homes and has a meal with them; he recognizes them as individuals and human beings with personalities and needs. He knows where they live; he sees the circumstances of their daily living and he sits and eats with them. He doesn’t wait until they have changed and started to tithe herbs and ceremonially to wash themselves every time before they eat. Jesus went into their homes and talked with them while they were still immoral men. And we are told that the Pharisees and the scribes were muttering to one another like this about what a pathetic figure Jesus was, that he could have been a contender for leadership if he’d become a fully paid up Pharisee, but now he was a fearfully compromised, sad and dangerous figure.
Then it was, in the face of a congregation of two such opposing groups with their different problems and needs, that Jesus told them the three parables of this chapter. It was when our Lord was surrounded by immoral people, and when he had also become the focus of religious men’s criticism for going out to sinners, and rubbing shoulders with them, that was the time that our Lord told unrighteous sinners and self-righteous Pharisees these three parables. He was brilliantly speaking to these two warring groups (who also were divided amongst themselves) by the same parables, to the greedy thieving tax collectors, to the immoral unbelieving crowds, and also to this prejudiced, judgmental religious crowd who stood apart from them and opposed his allowing this crowd of sinners to sit at his feet and learn from him. That is the purpose of these familiar stories, to deal with big sins and also to deal with prejudice in the hearts and on the lips of moral and religious people. These parables were perfectly designed to touch the hearts and lives of all his hearers then, and also today.
HOW DID THE LORD JESUS APPROACH THESE CRITICS?
He didn’t say to the first group, “It’s simple! Repent, you sinners, for the kingdom of God is at hand! Turn!” He didn’t say that here. Jesus actually had begun his ministry a couple of years earlier by exhorting sinners to turn away from their sinning, and any preaching that ignores the fact that God commands all men everywhere to repent isn’t preaching like Christ, because even in this chapter repentance creeps in twice (vv. 7 & 10). But he didn’t choose to deal with this crowd of sinners by saying to them, “Your problem is that you haven’t repented.” Neither did he turn to that bunch of Pharisees on the fringe of the congregation and condemn them for their self-righteous judgmentalism; “That’s not the way to behave!” Jesus did not major in direct statements condemning their messed up lives, whoever he was talking to, not here.
When my friend Paul Yeulett, the minister of the Shrewsbury Evangelical Church, was a school teacher in a Christian school speaking to his class about the gospel one of the children raised his hand and asked him, “Why didn’t Jesus simply tell us what were the things we ought to believe in a short list instead of giving us psalms, and poetry, and parables, and signs, and so on?” What a wonderful question! If you go to Google and type in the word, ‘Humanism’ then you will be given ten short sentences, ten basic principles of what a humanist believes. A humanist is an atheist who rejects any thoughts of the supernatural, of a Creator, of the life of God entering our souls, and of life after death. You can get in ten short statements, simply set out, the beliefs of humanism. “Why didn’t Jesus give us a list like that?” asked this 12 year old boy, a very thoughtful lad, to be asking a deep question like that.
The answer would lie in the nature of God, that he is both Creator and creative, in the most extraordinary ways. He designed the atom, and created the whole universe by his word. He made colours, and light, and language, and a sense of beauty, and mystery, and sex, and joy, and music, and love, and creativity. When he made man he made him in his image and likeness; made by God, made like God, made for God. We are greater than the stars. We know that they are up there, but they don’t know that we are down here. When God sent his spokesmen to address us, his prophets, then they were people of extraordinary personalities, men of character and conviction, heroic men, creative and dynamic men, leaders like Moses and David and Elijah and Daniel and Peter and Paul and Augustine and Luther and Knox and Bunyan and Whitefield and Spurgeon and Machen and Jim Elliot and Lloyd-Jones, not bureaucrats, not men in grey suits who wrote out ten rules for us to keep.
Then when God made himself known to us he did it through the mighty cosmos he had made; the heavens declare the glory of God. He also spoke by our consciences, and by his apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and Peter who spoke in metaphor and autobiography and poetry and symbols and laws and sermons. He sent his Son who became a man and was exposed to all the things men say and speak about. His Son sang with his disciples, and rejoiced, and also wept; he experienced terrible pain, and he tasted death. It would be incredible if he merely gave us a mere ten basic sentences as to what men and women are to believe. How could that reflect in any way the Almighty God? Would Beethoven give us the tune to Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, and Mahler give us the tune to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and Mozart give us the tune to Happy Birthday to You, and then they and their fellow composers be considered immense creative geniuses? Of if Shakespeare wrote those words to those tunes would he be considered the greatest of all authors? Of course not!
Then multiply by infinity. God the Creator of the rolling spheres is going to address us in language, and he is going to tell us of our plight and what he has planned and accomplished to save the universe from the groaning burden of sin. He is not going to give us ten cerebral statements, focused on our brains. He is going to move us and stir us to the depths of our being. He is going to address our emotions, and our souls, and our sense of beauty, and our intellects, and our moral discernment, and our very bodies. He is going to speak to the people he made in his image and likeness. He is going to challenge every part of us to reach out to every part of God to love him and become utterly passionate about him, the God who is glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders. So when he addresses the immorality and greed and prejudice and hostility of the men standing before him – the blinkered wickedness of these men – then how will the incarnate God speak? One day he will tell them these three fascinating stories – one in particular being the greatest story ever told, and that will bring their emotions to the truth. It will make them grieve and detest their sins and also overwhelm them that the mighty God is one who searches for them and saves them. So this chapter will move us to see how mean-spirited and cold and cruel we fallen sinners have become. How have the mighty seed of Adam fallen! But also how wonderful is the grace of God in sending his own Son to be the Good Shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life for his sheep.
So the Lord told them these parables. Parables are wise sayings of a pictorial kind, taken from real life, from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn. The purpose of speaking in parables was to make his words completely memorable, while still disguising their message from unregenerate men who wanted to kill him. The man in the street couldn’t forget these three parables, but the truth had come to them in a veiled way. It was not until Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit that those who were converted could understand what the parables were saying. If they had ears to hear then the parables were saying to the tax-collectors and sinners that they were lost men, but Jesus had come to seek and save that which was lost. The parable said, “You Pharisees are just like the older brother, unable to rejoice that your sinning brother has come home.” So Jesus approached his mixed congregation by speaking to them by three parables. Lastly let’s briefly look at the first two parables by asking a third question.
WHAT DID THE LORD JESUS ACTUALLY TELL THEM?
i] They were lost men. A shepherd had a hundred sheep but one wandered and got lost. A woman had ten silver coins and she lost one. There are some obvious differences; he is a man and she, in that male-dominated society of the day, a mere woman, but Jesus cares as much for women as for men. He is speaking to an audience which was predominantly men, tax-collectors, scribes and Pharisees, but as Jesus spoke to them he set the story of the woman alongside the man; they had both lost something precious to them. Jesus never ignored the women in his congregation; he was no chauvinist; his ministry, his gospel, his teaching and his theology are as much for women as for men.
In the first parable there is a found/lost ratio of 100 to 1. The shepherd has suffered a relatively minor loss. He still has ninety-nine that are safe. He hasn’t had a cataclysmic loss of half his flock, not even ten. One lost sheep, but the ratio of loss for the woman has dropped to 10 to 1, much greater than that of the shepherd. Left unrecovered, the loss of the coin would be considerably more severe. It might have been her dowry, and so to have lost a tenth of it was heart-breaking. “I have lost one of my silver coins!”
The sheep was lost and the silver was lost. Jesus is talking to people he knows are lost; tax collectors, lost; sinners, lost; Pharisees, lost; teachers of the law, lost. Think of being lost; it is a state of ignorance. Where do you go, north, south, east or west? You don’t know; you are lost. You might trust in your own hunch and set out in one direction but it is the wrong way. Millions do. They see others on a broad path and they join them, but they are equally lost. As you go you can joke with your fellow travelers, and chat, and listen to your I-pod. It will help to deaden the pain, but you are still lost people. What is man’s chief end? You do not know. Why is the world is in the condition it’s in with murder, rape, theft, corruption everywhere? You don’t know. What must I do to be saved? You don’t know. Is there one who can tell me, “I am the way”? Is there a guide who says, “Learn of me” who is prepared to deliver me from my ignorance? You don’t know. You are lost and you must find the way home.
Think of being lost; it is a state of concern. No one enjoys being lost. A daughter of ours lost us in an Urdd Eisteddfod and when we finally found her it was because a public announcement had been made. We went to a tent of the lost and found where we found her with a policeman’s hat on her head. She was grateful to be found. It was no fun to know no one in a place that she’d never been before. Ignorant and weepy, a lost little girl. Think of being lost; it is a state of danger. You are vulnerable. You have to approach people and ask them for help. Can you trust them? They offer help, but are they genuine? You are weak and helpless and lost – what danger you are in. What resistance did a sheep have against a wolf? What could a lost coin do? Absolutely nothing. Think of being lost; it is also a state of uselessness. What can you do if you are lost? If you move off you might make things worse. You cannot create and plan because you are obsessed with the fact that you don’t know where you are. That is the state of men without God. They don’t know who they are because they don’t know the God who made them in his image. They don’t know abiding standards and values. They don’t know the purpose of life. They are as lost as this lost sheep or as this lost coin.
ii] They were being searched for. The shepherd left the ninety-nine in the open country and he went after the lost sheep. The woman lit a lamp and swept the house and searched carefully for the lost coin. Neither of them shrugged their shoulders and thought, “Only one . . . we can live without one.” No. They searched for what they had lost. There was a husband and wife in Portugal who were enjoying a meal in the grounds of their hotel, but when they popped back to their room to check on their wee daughter Madeleine they found that she was missing from her bed. They didn’t think, “Just a tiny girl. We’ll conceive another one. . .” They began a search which four years later they are still continuing. “We’ll never stop looking for our daughter,” they say. They were moved to search by love and compassion and fear, and they followed every lead searching for the one they’d lost. They called in the police of two countries, and private investigators, and the British government, and even the Pope. They spoke to the media and did everything in their power to find the one they had lost. They are still searching as I speak; they will never give up.
Men and women are lost, but God seeks for the lost. That is the elementary but glorious message of these parables. We are lost people but Jesus hasn’t given up on us. Why did he come into the world? He tells us very clearly, “To seek and to save that which is lost.” So let me make this fact very clear, uncomfortably clear to some of you who tell me that you are the ones who are “seeking for God.” I have often told you that the New Testament language is quite the opposite, that it doesn’t show us people who are seeking Christ, in fact it says quite categorically there is none seeking God. The sheep has deliberately gone off from the flock. The coin has no ability to search for its owner. Neither lost sheep nor lost coin have been searching for their owners. What we find in the Bible is this, the Lord God Almighty is actually seeking men and women. I find that the theme of these first two parables is of God seeking for us, and the condemnation within the third parable of the prodigal son is that his older brother did not set off urgently seeking for him in the distant city. He was not a godlike man. I find Jesus saying here, “God is seeking you.” That is why you could not keep away from this congregation and this preaching today as on other Sundays. He is seeking you here and in the testimony of your friends, in their encouraging you to believe in the Lord, in the preaching of the gospel, in the offer of pardon and forgiveness through Christ, in the prayers of your parents and friends, in the Bible that you read and the Christian books you’ve been given and in a host of providences that have made this world less and less satisfying, and in your satisfaction at being in the presence of other Christians. In all of this God is showing evidence that he is seeking you.
I am afraid that a great deal of what you refer to as your ‘seeking’ is the seeking of a better invitation than you’ve had so far. You are wanting to hear the gospel with more excitement. That is what you are seeking. You are wanting to feel it more deeply. You desire to hear it more persuasively so that you won’t have to make that painful, lonely, personal decision all by yourself of entrusting yourself to Jesus Christ for ever. You are demanding the tingle factor – goose pimples, and shedding a few tears, and something like an electric current running up and down your spine, and the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, and a handsome charismatic preacher smiling at you, and you are half falling in love with him and he is telling you that you have become a Christian – and then, when a combination of those factors occurs, then you think you’ll know that your search is over and you have found God. “Ah! I’ve found him,” you say. But have you? Is it God whom you have found or the tingle factor? Don’t trust those who tell you that tingle is God. There is one way to hell and it is the tingle way just as there is alsothe intellectual and cerebral way to hell. The devils are going that way.
I am saying to you that you have no need to search for Christ. He is here. Your search is over. The Lord Jesus Christ today is not an object that you have to search for as if he were somehow lost and buried away in some mysterious place, in a cave in the Himalayas that requires a trip to Nepal, or on a distant island in the south seas, or off in some lonely cell behind granite walls in Scotland, or some such inaccessible and forbidding spot. It is not true for a single moment that the Saviour or the Holy Spirit is so far from you that you’ve got to seek him, because where two or three are gathered together in his name there he is. In the preaching of the Bible he is near you, in the word of faith which we preach, that word is nigh you. Your task, your obligation and your privilege is not to be seeking him, and shaking your head sadly that it is so difficult to find Jesus Christ. No, he is the one seeking, and he is so near that as you hear these words you are hearing his words to you. He is seeking you now.
You don’t need to go away from where you now are to find him; you don’t need to say you will seek for him somewhere else, in your bedroom, or in the garden, or in a corner of a great cathedral with the choir singing softly in the background and the smell of incense in the air. There is no need to leave this very spot without him. He is not the one to be sought for; he is the one seeking you at this moment. He has made you willing to accept the invitation of your friends to come with them to church. He has created in your heart an interest in him. He has enabled you to tolerate the thought that you are a guilty sinner who needs a Saviour. His words to non-Christians are not, “Seek!” He is not saying, “Search within yourself. Go in and in and in and in, into the depths of your own experience and emotions.” No. He says, “I am here; I am ontologically distinct from you. I am a living being outside of you, and so you come to me now.” He is here because he is seeking for you. He is not seeking your seeking, or your more intense seeking or deeply emotional seeking, weepy seeking or sighing seeking. He is not waiting and waiting until you have sought enough! ‘Enough’ – that damnable word! Take him now just as you are! Obey him when he says, “You come to me.” He is watching if you are receiving him as your prophet, priest and king. The voice you are hearing is his voice. The light that is shining on you is from the lamp that he has lit. The brush that brushes away all the wrong ideas of a lifetime is his brush. The energy that is working on you is his. That hand upon you is his hand, and he is saying to you to come to him, and to enter the kingdom of God by the door, and he is the door which he sets before you. Enter! He is not saying keep seeking for the door. No, he is saying here is the door, right before you. I am that door and you must enter through it. So, they were lost but one went and searched for them . . .
iii] They were found. The shepherd knows the land surrounding the open country. He knows the gullies and caves, the precipices and the rivers. He knows where a sheep might go and get stuck. He is skilful and powerful; he has resources of energy; he is focused on finding this sheep. The woman is also determined to find her silver coin. The floor of her little room is beaten earth covered with rushes and dried reeds. There is one window 18 inches across, but she lights a lamp and starts to look methodically and carefully in every nook and cranny. She sweeps the floor and searches relentlessly until she finds it. They both are successful. It is no thanks to the sheep that it is finally found. It is no thanks to the coin that it is found. It is all because of the ones searching diligently. They have made up their minds that they are going to find what was lost.
What is it telling us? What are we to understand? That if today we’ve been found, then it is all a result of the sovereign, gracious search of God. What are we to understand? What great lengths the Lord has gone to in order to find us. He was in the beginning with God and was in fact God and yet he chose to come into our world by being made in the likeness of sinful flesh. What a journey he made to save us from the glories of heaven. He was born in a stable and lived in a carpenter’s home for thirty years. Then he was opposed by men, misunderstood by his family and friends, despised and rejected. They finally lashed him and beat him up and crucified him and killed him and buried him so that he, the Lord of life, even tasted death. He did all this seeking us and saving us. What a seeking was his, going to the people who had known him in his local assembly in Nazareth who wanted to kill him when he preached in that synagogue to them, going to a proud Pharisee’s home to eat while stared at with their cold disdain, going to the well in a Samaritan village who hated Jews like him, going to hard defiant Jerusalem who killed all the prophets God had sent there before Jesus, yet there too our Lord went, seeking to protect and save them all. I would have found you all but you refused to be found by me
Today sinners grumble that it is all so hard, that church people don’t love them, the sermons are too long and they don’t understand them. The truth is they don’t want Jesus to find them. They remain oblivious and impervious, but what grace, he’s pursuing them still. He has brought circumstances to bear upon them, – an affliction, a broken heart, the loss of a loved one, a time in prison, the break up of our marriage. Or perhaps he has brought blessing and obedience, the recognition of his vast kindness to us and that has led us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). He has brought people and opportunities into our lives. He has put a book or a leaflet into our hands, and thoughts and desires into our hearts. We have been placed in just the right place at just the right time to hear what we needed to hear.
Like the man in the parable he came seeking for his lost sheep. Like the woman in the next parable, Jesus has lit a lamp, and he has swept the house and searched carefully. He has persisted until he’s found little, insignificant, sinning . . . you! If I am a believer today it is because God went on the hunt for an inconspicuous dirty person like me. He’d made up his mind. I chose him, yes, but because he first chose me. I love him because he first loved me. I found him because he first found me. I believe in him because he first gave faith to me. As John Newton said, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” We can paraphrase the words of Paul to the Corinthians, that not many wise by human standards are found, not many influential, not many of noble birth, but God found the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God found the weak things of the world to shame the strong; God found the lowly things of the world and the despised things, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before God, “I am a Christian because I found you, and I found the truth, and I found heaven.” No. We are what we are by the grace of a searching God. He found me – blessed be his name!
“I sought the Lord and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Saviour true, No, I was found by Thee.”
iv] Finding a repentant sinner gives God great joy. That is what we told, that the shepherd returned home rejoicing. He didn’t curse the sheep for giving him trouble, “Stupid sheep!” All that thrilled him was that finally the lost one was found! It was worth all the weary search, every step of the way, and the burden on his shoulders as he carried it safely home. The woman also rejoiced when she found the coin, and she told all her neighbours the good news, “I’ve found it!” And so Jesus discloses an astonishing fact, “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.” All the angels have been looking down from heaven saying, “Will he find the lost sheep? Look at that wolf listening to the bleating. He is getting nearer and nearer. Who will find the sheep first, the shepherd or the wolf? Hallelujah. Our Master has found him. He has him safe.” But who is rejoicing in heaven? It is the living God, not the angels, though they rejoice too. God is there in the presence of his angels, and as this sheep is found by Christ, and then that sheep, and another sheep, and still another then God is exhilarated. That dying thief had lived a thoroughly wasteful life, and only hours before he died the great Shepherd of the sheep who was dying alongside him found him. God grieved for his Son’s agony on Calvary but rejoiced that alongside him a lost sheep was found. What must that sight be, of the Triune God rejoicing with a joy that is infinite, eternal and measureless! The Father rejoicing, the Son rejoicing, the Spirit rejoicing and the innumerable host of angels, rank after rank, all filled with the same contagious joy. What bursts of glory in heaven, what acclamation, what fireworks, what tsunamis of heavenly joy run all across Zion! No part of the immense heaven free from joy, and the reason for this delight in God is that someone has been found by the Lord, a peasant woman in China, a street child in Rio, a prisoner in the chapel in the jail, a boy in camp in Wales, and their simple repentance for past sins and the reception of Jesus Christ as their prophet, priest and king results in the Ancient of Days, who is pavilioned in splendour and girded with praise, rejoicing in the centre of all the angels. God is quite unashamed in letting all the angels of heaven see his joy and share in his rejoicing.
22nd May 2011 GEOFF THOMAS