|Luke #56 God's Most Prized Possession
Godís Most Prized Possession
Reading: Luke 15:1-10
ďHappy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.Ē (Psalm 1)
ďHear, my child, your fatherís instruction, and do not reject your motherís teaching; they are a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck. My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, ĎCome with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent; like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty. Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purseíómy child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood. (Proverbs 1:8-16)
It is striking that both Psalms and Proverbs begin with such strong warnings against associations with evil among the people of God. Those who would be righteous ought to stay clear of people who are evil. God loves the righteous; he hates those who participate in evil. Evil people entice good people to do evil with them. Wisdom says stay away from bad people if you donít want to become bad yourself, if you donít want your reputation, if not you moral character, to be ruined. The risks of becoming tainted are just too great. If you read through the Old Testament, it is clear that Israel was well acquainted with the problems that arose from getting too close to pagan people in the land of Canaan. They were very susceptible to following after other gods practicing evil with the evildoers. By the time they came out of exile, it is little wonder that those who would be righteous among them had very strict beliefs about staying away from evil, not being corrupted by sinners.
As we return to the story of Jesus recorded by Luke this morning, we also return to the great scandal of Jesus and his ministry in the yes of his contemporaries. It appears to the righteous people of his time that Jesus has never heard the warnings of Psalm 1 or Proverbs 1. Rather than avoiding every appearance of evil--rather than keeping a safe distance from the corruption of sinóJesus and his disciples repeatedly associate with evil people. Since the early days of Jesusí ministry when he called Peter (the sinner) and Levi (the tax collector) to be his disciples, the righteous people (the religious good guys) have been horrified by the kind of company that Jesus keeps. Sooner or later, Wisdom says that if you spend your time with those people you will fall.
As much as the Pharisees and scribes might be amazed by the miraculous deeds of Jesus, or awed by his teaching, this business of receiving tax collectors and sinnersóopen fellowship with such peopleówas scandalous. They could not risk bringing their children (their students) out to see a man who hangs around with those kinds of people. They will think itís legal for them too! Yes, they have heard the line about the physician being sent to sick people, not well people. They know that he said, ďI have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.Ē But the risks of losing oneís own soul are too great. The bad example set for their children is too much. Jesus tarnished his own reputation every time he hung out with those people.
If we had been there then, I wonder what we would have thought? Isnít their thinking our wisdom as well? ďAvoid even the appearance of evil.Ē ďBad company corrupts good morals.Ē Thatís Bible, isnít it? Wisdom in our time says, donít leave the vice cops in that line of work too long. Garbage in means garbage out. The concern of the Pharisees is justified, it seems to me. It makes sense to stay away from corrupting influences. It is the wisdom of God himself. Thatís why all of the Canaanite peoples were to be exterminated when Israel first went into the landóto keep Godís people from being corrupted. But when the Son of God appears, he hangs out with those people. Why?
Jesus responds to the objections of the religious leaders with three parables, the first two of which we will look at this morning. We are quite familiar with these parables. One is about a shepherd who canít find a sheep. One is about a woman who canít find a coin. One story features a male; the other is about a female. Both stories are about the great joy that results when that which was lost is found. Both stories are about the tremendous determination on the part of the shepherd and woman to find what is missing. It is a determination in the first parable that leads the shepherd to leave 99 sheep unprotected in the wilderness for the sake of tracking down the one that is lost. It would be one thing to leave the 99 safely in a barn or fixed pasture some place. It the 99 are safe, the search for the lost is an act of frugality, an effort to keep oneís assets in tact. It is foolish not to go after the lost if there is only the possibility of gain with no opportunity for loss. But the pursuit of one stray demands risking the other 99, leaving them to deal with the wilderness and all that could go wrong while he seeks the sheep already strayed. Either the shepherd is incredibly foolish or he loves that sheep very much and is willing to risk everything to find it. When he finds that sheep, he does not beat on it for straying, or butcher it because itís a bad influence, or sell it lest it corrupt the rest of the sheep. He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
The woman will not stop looking until she finds that lost coin. When she has turned the house upside down with search until she finds the coin, she too rejoices. It is curious that in the first story, the original language indicates a celebration with male friends of the shepherd. In the second story, the woman celebrates with her female friends. The obvious effort to include both men and women in of the lost is shown again the heavenly celebration that Jesus says is the point of these stories. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 righteous who need no repentance. The angels share in the celebration and joy every time a sinner repents.
Remember the different attitudes that separated Jesus from the religious leaders. The Pharisees strongly believed that repentance ought to be seen in a personís life before there could be any acceptance, any fellowship. Jesus, on the other hand, offered acceptance as a means of calling people to repentance.
With whom do we identify in these stories this morning? Shall we stand alongside Jesus as people who critique the critics? As people who have such love for God and for people that we are those who eat with the tax collectors and sinners? Are we the shepherds who love the lost and will risk everything to save them, gently restoring them to the fold and celebrating often when the lost are found? Are we like the woman, with such determination to seek out and find the prized possession that is missing? Or are some of us here this morning as lost sheep that already have been foundópeople who know what it is like to be rescued and restored?
Shall we admit to being Pharisees? People most concerned to protect ourselves and make sure that those bad influences donít corrupt our own lives? The great irony of such protectionism is that it never works. Over-protected people, those supposedly sheltered completely from evil, often end up being more enticed by it than people exposed to the risks. If you remember the rest of the story about the religious leaders, Jesus accused all of them of being corrupt. They were all hypocrites, full of self-righteousness but not the righteousness of God.
Evangelism comes with great risks to the community that is already gathered. Going outside the gate, leaving the safety of the church to go after straying lost people is risky business. Only those people who share the heart of Jesus for people will take that risk. Godís most prized possession is not 99 safely in the fold, but the one who has strayed. Jesus placed that kind of value on calling sinners to repentance by going to them, eating with them, loving them. Yes, there was great risk involved. If he had only been human, he surely would have failed. Bu Godís great love for his people is anything but simply human. None of us is called to love sinners and take risks by ourselves. God himself is with us. Godís most loved possession is the stray, wherever he or she is found. Some of the most difficult strays to recover are those that think they were never lost. As we will see next week, Godsí love for the self-righteous is the same as it is for the worst heathen.
Brentwood Hills is a risky place to be these days. Nothing seems safe anymore, have you noticed that? Vulnerability runs high when youíre not sure who the members are who the visitors are. Itís risky business; it feels out of control. There ought to be limits, donít you think? We ought to have some restrictions on who can come and who canít. How about an orthodoxy questionnaire for the visitors? Letís be like many governments and restrict the immigration from other churches. Only people just like you and me can come. Otherwise, you just donít know what will happen. Next week you could walk in and your seat could be taken!
Itís risky business being the church of Godís design. Itís also the greatest joy in heaven and in this world to be Godís community of redeemed peopleóto be loved so much by Creator God himself that he would risk everything and everyone else just for you, just for me. It he would risk it all for you and me to save us, he will risk us again to save others. And so we are a high-risk community called to be like Jesus in our world, calling sinners to repentance.
God calls you and me this morning to be like Jesus. To go after Godís most prized possession and restore him or her to relationship with God. To you who are lost this morning, no one is more important to God than you. He longs for you to come home and find acceptance and forgiveness and repentance. He longs for the Pharisee to come home just as he longs for the tax collector and sinner to come home.
Delivered at Brentwood Hills, September 3, 1995 a.m.
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