The Joy of Being Found / Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 15:1-10

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

We all know that enthusiasm is contagious, isn’t it? When you’re around someone who is enthusiastic, you feel more energized and excited. Of course, if enthusiasm is contagious, then lack of enthusiasm must be contagious too, right?

I was watching a famous country singer perform a live concert. Her band gave a technically perfect performance. They were polished and professional, and they didn’t miss a beat. But as I watched her, I got the impression that, she’s not only tired, but she’s also bored out of her mind. There was no enthusiasm to her performance. No evidence that she felt any of her songs deeply.

That concert made me feel uncomfortable. And because of that it caused me to question my own preaching. As I study and write sermons each week, I started asking myself the question, do I believe this message will make a difference? The other question I asked was, has this sermon made a difference in MY life this week? If I could spend hours studying and praying over and writing about a Bible passage and not be convicted to change something in my own life, then I knew I wouldn’t preach it with enthusiasm. You can fake sincerity, but contrived passion is ugly to watch.

As we read our lesson for today, we should consider the huge difference between fake sincerity and real, passionate enthusiasm. Our lesson for today begins with the words, now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Why? Why did the tax collectors and sinners gather around to hear Jesus? Wasn’t He a rabbi? And as such, He would’ve been considered a member of the religious elite. And these people were considered unclean in the eyes of God. Religious outcasts. Some rabbis were so concerned about protecting the holiness of God’s Word that they refused to teach unclean folks. But not Jesus. I think the reason the religious and social outcasts were so attracted to Jesus is because they saw His enthusiasm, His passion for God.

As John Wesley, who started the movement that became the Methodist Church, used to tell his followers, “Catch on fire for God and people will come and watch you burn!” That’s what Jesus did! He caught on fire for God, and people came to watch Him burn. At least, some people did. But while the tax collectors and sinners were listening to Jesus, the religious leaders and teachers of the law were grumbling about Him. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Let that sink in for a minute: Jesus, God in the flesh, welcomed sinners and ate with them.

Can you imagine the loneliness of the tax collectors and sinners? They just wanted to reach out and connect with somebody. So, our Bible passage says Jesus tolerated them. No, I read that wrong. It says Jesus confronted them with their sin. Nope, that’s wrong too. Our Bible passage says that Jesus welcomed them and ate with them. And this offended the religious leaders.

It’s easy to read this Bible passage and feel smug and self-righteous. We all think we’re on Jesus’ side, don’t we? But what kind of people offend you? Who do you tolerate, but find it difficult to welcome? Who would you resist inviting to dinner?

When Jesus wants to get an important point across, He usually tells one, maybe two stories. Our chapter for this morning, Luke 15, is unique in that Jesus tells three stories on the same theme: God loves us unconditionally. And not just us inside these church walls. God loves those of us who will never walk in the doors of a church. God loves us who have wandered away from Him. God loves us who aren’t even looking for Him. God loves us unconditionally. And if God loves us unconditionally, we can learn to love ourselves and others unconditionally too.

God doesn’t love us for anything He can gain from His loving; it isn’t based on some kind of exchange system. In no way does He love us because we’re deserving or even earned it. He loves us and reaches out to us in grace simply because it’s the nature of love to reach out. God is love. And it’s the nature of love to reach out.

So, after the religious leaders grumbled about Jesus, we read, Then Jesus told them this parable: suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he 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 neighbors 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. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors 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.

I just read eight verses. And in those eight verses, there were five mentions of either “joy” or “rejoicing.” Do you see a theme here? God takes joy in having a relationship with us. That’s the whole reason for Jesus’ coming into the world. God came looking for us when we were lost, separated from Him. Jesus came to show us God’s love and to restore us to God by taking away the penalty of sin and death that separates us from God.

A pastor announced that a boy named Crockett had come to faith and wanted to become a member of the church. A four-year-old boy suddenly stood up in his pew, pumped his fist in the air and shouted, yeah, Crockett! Isn’t that what we all should do when someone comes to faith? Shouldn’t we stand up in the pew and cheer? But the little boy’s mother made him sit down again. It may be all right to rejoice in Heaven over the lost sheep that has come home, but you’re in church, now. You need to show a little more decorum.

God takes joy in having a relationship with us. And having a relationship with God is the pathway to joy for us. It’s what we were made for. So, what’s standing in the way of us coming to God?

That brings me to the final thing we get from Jesus’ stories today: God is looking for you. The question is, do you want to be found? Jesus uses the word “repent” two times in these verses. “. . . there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents . . .” That word, repents, literally means “to change one’s mind” or “to transform one’s mind.”

When I was in basic training, the drill sergeant told us that he would inspect our uniforms after we put on our gear. Someone ran up to the drill instructor and held out his helmet liner. Sir, my helmet liner does not fit my head, sir. Annoyed that the private had forgotten his instructions on how to adjust the helmet liner, said, Okay, private. This is what I want you to do. Go into the gear locker, find a new head to fit your helmet liner and use that one!

Jesus isn’t telling us we need a new head. But maybe we need a new way of thinking about God. If we really understood God’s nature and God’s purpose for our lives, would we let anything stand between us and God? All it takes is believing that Jesus is God.

In 1997, a two-year-old Chinese boy was kidnapped from his parent’s front yard and sold to another family. Since the Chinese government instituted their one-child policy in 1980, officials estimate that nearly 20,000 Chinese children are kidnapped each year and sold to adoptive families.

Naturally, his parents were heartbroken when their son disappeared. So, for twenty-four years, the father traveled 310,000 miles across China searching for his son. He has traveled all these miles by motorbike, spreading flyers with his son’s picture and information all over the country. In the process of searching for his son, he has suffered accidents, broken bones, even being attacked by robbers. He spent all his family’s life savings and slept under bridges and begged for money. In his travels, he helped 100 other families find their own kidnapped children. But he never stopped looking for his own beloved son.

In July 2021, with the help of DNA test results, the father finally found him. He was working as a teacher in Henan province, over 400 miles away from his family’s home. TV crews were there the moment the boy and his weeping parents were finally reunited.

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: every story Jesus tells is a glimpse into the heart of God. If you want to know God’s character, God’s nature, God’s priorities, listen to Jesus’ stories. It’s not hard to see the primary theme in these two stories: God loves us unconditionally. God takes joy in having a relationship with us. God is looking for us. Do you want to be found?