Luke 15: 1-10
A little boy needed $100 for a school field trip, so his mother told him to ask God for it. He prayed for two weeks, but nothing turned up. So, he decided to ask God for the money in a letter. At the post office, the postmaster opened the letter to God and decided to forward it to the President of the United States. The President was charmed, so he told his secretary to send the boy $5. After receiving the money, the boy wrote a thank-you letter to God. “Dear God, thank you very much for sending the money. I noticed that you had to send it through Washington. As usual, those guys deducted $95. Thanks anyway!”
One of the legends surrounding John Wesley was he would open his Bible randomly and glance at a page and thrust his index finger onto the page to find a verse that might address an issue in ministry or personally affecting him at that moment. I’ve sought to train myself to be attentive to listening and hearing for the voice of God in my spirit. One way of training has been to ask the Lord for a verse of scripture that might pertain to a person, place or thing for which I’ve been praying. In the mornings and evenings I’ve prayed I’ve asked for a verse to come to me to guide my praying. On two occasions a couple years ago, separated by weeks and some forgetfulness, when in praying and asking for such a verse, I received the same verse. The verse’s location, not the actual text, came to me. I prayed for a verse a couple weeks later and, forgetting I received that same verse weeks before, I read it and recognized it. The same verse on two occasions; this was a confirmation, I believed.
The verse I received was the moral of the parable I read from Luke 15, verse 7, “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.” Twice, this verse came to me in prayer. Three men were discussing the proper position and attitude for prayer. One said, “You should be on your knees with your head bowed in reverence to the Almighty!” The second man said, “Remember that you were created in God’s image. We should stand up to pray, looking into the heavens into the face of God and talk to Him as a child to a father.” The third man spoke up and said, “I know nothing about those positions, but the finest praying I ever did was upside down in a well.”
There are some things to bear in mind about Luke 15. The whole chapter consists of three parables. All three illustrate the theme of the lost being found. The crescendo of the chapter is the third parable, The Parable of the Prodigal Son/Child and His Brother. The first two verses of the chapter set the scene of telling all the stories. “Now, all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees viewed the sinners mentioned in Luke 15:1 as those who were People of the Land, those who willfully wouldn’t or circumstantially couldn’t fulfill the Law as the Pharisees and the scribes prescribed it. Such people were socially, religiously, economically ostracized from the ‘law abiding,’ temple attending, sacrifice making, covenant people, the Jews. The upstanding rabbis/teachers of Jesus’ day would have kept their distance from such sinners. William Barkley wrote in his Daily Study Bible Series, “We will understand these parables more fully if we remember that the strict Jews said they looked sadistically forward not to the saving but to the destruction of the sinner.” Jesus’ efforts to socialize and eat with such people put him at odds in the most serious of terms with the religious leaders of his day. He was viewed as a lawbreaker and fellow sinner and deserved destruction.
Was it Jesus’ intention to lead the sinner back to a faithful life under the pastoral and rabbinic cover of the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the Law? Matthew 23:15 answers this question: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” It was Jesus’ intention to teach and display what his Father’s kingdom valued and looked like by Jesus and his learners crossing boundaries, healing the sick, forgiving the sinner, finding the lost and bringing them home.
That being the biblical understanding of Luke 15, we’re still left with verse seven. My interpretation of Luke 15: 7 from a couple years ago had to do with the church I pastored then. I share it today because, I believe, it’s applicable to St Mark too. So, church, your faithfulness is recognized and appreciated, but there’ll be more rejoicing in heaven over one lost soul being found than over the 99 who are not lost at all. The sound of applause from a full auditorium verses the deafening roar from a sold-out Bryant-Denny or Jordan-Hare is the comparison of a content heaven observing our faithfulness verses the lost being sought and found in the name of Christ. There is an agenda set in this verse. Are we prepared to pursue it?
Passion in living and, particularly, passion for God and the things God is passionate about shapes our attitudes in life as a whole. Back in the Middle Ages, a dispatcher went out to determine how laborers felt about their work. He went to a building site in France. He approached the first worker and asked, “What are you doing?” The worker snapped back, “I’m cutting these enormous boulders with blunt tools and putting them together the way the boss tells me. I’m sweating under this blazing sun. It’s back breaking work, and it’s boring me to death.” The dispatcher quickly backed off and retreated to a second worker. He asked the same question. The worker responded, ” “I’m shaping these boulders into usable forms which are then assembled according to the plans. It’s hard work and sometimes it gets repetitive, but I earn five francs a week and that feeds my family. It’s a job. It could be worse.” Somewhat encouraged, the dispatcher went on to a third worker. “And what are you doing?” he asked. “Why, can’t you see?” said the worker as he lifted his arm to the sky. “I’m building a cathedral!”
I love to hear the sound of applause at a concert I attend or the cheers in the stadium where my favorite team just won the championship. A golf clap is fine. Thousands standing and cheering is an emotional experience. I sensed in my spirit Luke 15:7 twice when I prayed for a particular church I pastored years ago. It’s translatable to this and practically any church. Its going to be through prayer we begin to witness the finding of those who need the grace of God in Jesus. It will be in prayer we begin to love the lost, and it will begin in prayer where we cry out as a church for those we love to be found.
The two parables in our lesson, first of all, point to a person in each parable that is passionate about what each possesses or for which each is responsible, a hundred sheep and ten coins. They are passionate for what they have or for what they are responsible. How can you tell? The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind. The woman sweeps the house and searches carefully. Nothing else matters than what was lost. We in the church assume what was lost will come back to the church on its own. We do little searching and a lot matters more than what is lost. So often, our passion is elsewhere.
“It will turn up eventually” is a failed response to those who remain lost in our community, in our world. Again, it’s worth referencing Luke 15: 1 and 2 – Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Jesus was and remains passionate to share grace and true with the sinner. That’s how we got here. Jesus was passionate for you, and it was probably expressed through a friend or family member, preacher or teacher, a book or a movie. The Lord’s passion is contagious. If allowed, it spreads. It leads many to their knees to seek and experience grace. It leads many others to their knees or devotion time or prayer closets to pray, intercede, beseech for the Lord to do glorious work through the miraculous or through the willing, through the passionate who want the lost found. There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
(Preached at St Mark UMC in Anniston, AL, September 11, 2022)