17th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 15:1-10 Sermon
September 23, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
160 "Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven"
377 "Sinners Jesus Will Receive"
389 "O For A Heart To Praise My God"
441 "Give To Our God Immortal Praise"
MAKING THE ANGELS REJOICE
TEXT (vs. 2, 7, 10): “Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them….[Jesus said] ‘I tell you that…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent….In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”
You don’t have to think back too far to remember the bridge disaster in Minneapolis. That bridge on Interstate 35, which crossed the Mississippi River, was used by thousands of Twin Cities commuters each and every day.
There was no warning. There were no good reasons given for people to stay off that bridge. People had no idea that their lives were in jeopardy as they traveled that day. And so, those many people who started to cross that bridge never realized that they would be a statistic on that day’s news.
After the collapse, the response was almost instantaneous. Rescue workers began the feverish task of rescuing the survivors, and the daunting task of recovering the bodies of those who did not make it.
It was just earlier this month we were again reminded of the New York City disaster which happened on September 11, 2001, when the two towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan were leveled in an act of terrorism. And again, the rescue workers began the feverish task of rescuing the survivors, and the daunting task of recovering the bodies of those who did not make it.
Just last year, movie director Oliver Stone made a dramatic movie entitled, “World Trade Center” which starred Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña. It is the true story of two Port Authority Police Officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, who, while patrolling the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan, saw a plane fly low overhead, and were subsequently buried in the rubble.
Two United States Marines, Dave Karnes and Jason Thomas, who are searching for survivors of the tower collapse find Jimeno and McLoughlin and call for help to dig them out. In total, 2,749 people lost their lives in the World Trade Center incident. Only 20 people were rescued alive; Jimeno and McLoughlin were numbers 18 and 19. It is indeed quite a movie, and I would recommend that you see it if you have the chance.
If you consider any disaster, whether it be the Minneapolis bridge collapse, or the World Trade Center, or hurricane Katrina, or anything else for that matter, there is one thing that stands out. All of the victims have equal status. When the rescue workers are going about their task, they want to rescue the survivors. It doesn’t matter if the survivors are CEO’s of major corporations, or young mothers, or building custodians, or children. Those questions are never asked.
When that gruesome World Trade Center statistic of 2,749 lives lost is quoted, that number is never broken down according to age, race, sex, religion, net worth, or social status. The number simply stands by itself, and that’s it. In fact, if we were to even get wind of such a breakdown, we would find it rather upsetting. It would almost be like saying that someone’s life is worth more than another’s. It would be very offensive indeed to even imply that the loss of just some of the lives were significant, while the loss of the other lives just didn’t matter at all. That’s not the way we think, and that’s not what’s on the mind of the rescue teams who are risking their lives to save the lives of others. To them and to us as well, every life is equal, and every life is significant.
This is the message that God gives us in the Bible as well, and it is the main thrust of our Gospel lesson for today. In our text, Jesus is being sharply criticized by the Pharisees. They are saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In this sense, the Pharisees are guilty of doing what we would find detestable. They are placing a higher value on some lives, over against the lives of others. They could not grasp God’s idea of every soul being of equal importance.
Have you ever felt insignificant, something like the old metaphor of being a small fish in a huge pond? Have you ever wondered how God can keep track of you and love you as an individual when there are so many souls out there? I know that I’ve had that feeling. After all, there are over seven billion people living today on the face of this earth. How can God value just one soul out of so many?
In the Old Testament, God uses a great illustration with Abraham. In Exodus 32, 13 he refers the night sky and says, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance for ever.”
The night sky is not just one big mass of light, but it is collectively formed by the individual light of billions of stars. Can you imagine the night sky if there were only two stars in Orion’s belt, or if the big dipper were missing one of its stars? Or if you are in the southern hemisphere, what would the Southern Cross look like with one of its trademark stars missing? It just wouldn’t be the same.
Let’s see what Jesus says in the New Testament. In Matthew 10, 29-31 he says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father (meaning without God knowing about it). And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
According to this, how does God look at the likes of us? If he were to materialize right in front of us, we could ask him how many hairs we have on our head, and he could give us an accurate count. To him, we are a unique individual with a unique soul that is of great importance to him.
Another good example comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6, 25-34 Jesus is speaking specifically about worrying needlessly. Verse 26 gives us the essence of what he is saying: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus gives us two more illustrations. In the first instance, he uses a flock of a hundred sheep. If one of them gets lost or strays from the fold, wouldn’t we go searching for the one that is missing? And when we find it, wouldn’t we be overjoyed to reunite the missing member with the rest of the fold?
In the second instance, he uses a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one. The woman sweeps and searches every square inch of her house to find the coin she lost. To fully appreciate this illustration, we need to remember that the houses of that day were rather poorly lit. The floors were made of cobblestones or loose planks. There were literally hundreds of places into which a coin could roll and hide. So to find a lost coin was the fruit of a lot of intensive labor. Wouldn’t that be the cause of great rejoicing?
So let’s add it all up: in God’s eyes, we’re like an individual star in the night sky; we have a God who can even keep track of the sparrows keeping track of us; we have a God who knows us so well that he even knows the number of hairs on our head; we have a God who provides for us more abundantly than the birds of the air; we have a God who loves us so much that he seeks us like a shepherd seeks a lost sheep; we have a God who values us so highly that he searches for us like a poor woman searches for a lost coin. When we look at this picture of human souls and human worth that God paints for us, we need to see ourselves as a key and integral part of it.
In our text for today, Jesus is criticized for associating and even cavorting with the tax collectors and other sinners. Jesus loved them. He wanted to be with them. They entertained Jesus in their homes and he had supper with them often. He found that they made the best disciples because they knew how much they needed him.
When the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Jesus, we are awakened to see life differently. We are taught to see ourselves properly. We are taken to the mirror of his Word and we see our image reflected there.
And what we see there isn’t at all flattering. We see how often we have sinned and gone astray. We have tried to remove ourselves from God’s picture. We have wandered from the fold. We have tried to hide ourselves amongst the cracks and crevices of this world.
When we come to see how lost we really are, Jesus shows us something else. He tells us how he found us and leads us to the place we belong. He demonstrates his love for us by taking up the cross for us. He takes away our sin. And this is ours by faith alone.
When the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Jesus, it causes us to think differently about life. We see the picture of heaven on the horizon. We see ourselves as an important part of God’s glorious picture.
And then, our values begin to change. Things that used to make us feel important and give us worldly status just aren't so important any more. Taking their place are the things that God values: honor, holiness, goodness, compassion, and love for others. It's a beautiful transition that transpires within the heart of every believer. Our hearts are changed forever.
Every soul is valuable. Our heavenly Father grieves for lost sinners, so he goes in after them, and even carries them back to the fold on his own shoulders. He is concerned about every one of the seven billion plus people living on the earth. He wants everybody to repent and come back to him. That is why he would leave the ninety-nine sheep in safe pastures and go out after the one sheep that was lost. One percent may be an acceptable loss rate for us, but not for Jesus.
When someone is carried into the kingdom of God in the arms of Jesus, there is much rejoicing in heaven. The angels sing for joy as one more soul is added to complete God’s picture. A soul that was crushed under the weight of sin has been hauled out of the rubble and revived, never to die again. What was lost is found. What was worthless has now become priceless. What was scorned is now praised.
The movie entitled “World Trade Center” gave the account of two United States Marines, Dave Karnes and Jason Thomas, who risked life and limb to go searching through the wreckage and rubble of the demolished twin towers in New York City looking for survivors. Due to their efforts, two Port Authority Police Officers by the name of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno were rescued and saved.
In every disaster situation, it makes no difference whether a person is a high ranking official, a soccer mom, a blue collar worker, or a child. It makes no difference if a person is Caucasian or black or from some other ethnic background. A person’s wealth or social status is immaterial. To a rescue worker, every person is equal, and every life is a precious find.
As Christians, God sends us forth into the world like rescue workers looking for his lost sheep. And so we search diligently for them. When we find them, we bring them to Jesus, the Great Physician of the soul for healing and restoration. By the power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, lost and dead souls are made alive again. God rejoices over the repentant sinner that has been led back to his flock by the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.
The message of the Bible is an individual one. Through it, God speaks to each and every soul on a one-to-one basis. Our Gospel lesson for today assures us that we aren’t just some insignificant and meaningless part of some abstract picture, but rather an important and integral part of the divine masterpiece of God. Every life is precious, and every soul is worth saving.
When somebody realizes their sin and comes back to God, we can choose to either gloat over it, or welcome them back into the fold with open arms. Welcoming them back means that we are seeing things God's way. It also means that we have an accurate picture of who we really are ourselves—lost and condemned sinners who have been redeemed, restored, and forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we rejoice with the angels in heaven that God's precious person has been found and rescued, and has brought back from the dead.
This is why the proclaiming of God's Holy Word and the Sacraments are so important to us. This is where God the Holy Spirit is working in our world, rescuing and saving individual people one soul at a time. The most important part of living is being an active part of God's saving work. That's why we are a congregation of believers, and members of the family of God.