Coming tomorrow to an LCMS pulpit in the City of St. Louis: this sermon on Luke 15:1-10, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin...Sinners and tax collectors came to hear Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes complained, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” In those days, that was a nasty charge. It meant, “He’s looking after the wrong sort of people.” The mind of the flesh always holds this against Jesus. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been those who asked: “What does God have to do with really bad sinners?” For example, theologian Joseph Canfield ridiculed the idea that God would make an everlasting and unconditional covenant. Canfield calls this “the blasphemy of binding God who is Holy to unconditional relationships with sinful man.” In other words, Canfield denies that God’s forgiveness is unconditional. People like Canfield cannot bear to see Jesus receiving sinners.
Church Growth gurus tell us to witness only to “receptive” types, people who will most likely be open to the message of Christ. They say we should not waste our time or resources on others. We must not make the mistake Jesus made. We must not seek every lost lamb, because they’re just the wrong sort of people. And perhaps the devil whispers in your heart that you are “better than those sinners” and deserve to be saved; and so Satan would use your spiritual pride to separate you from Christ. Or perhaps he whispers that you are beneath God’s mercy, that such a bad sinner cannot be saved; and so you lose hope. Satan wants you to agree that Jesus should not receive sinners, especially the really bad ones.
But our Lord does not reckon the “badness” of a sinner. We like having a yardstick to compare ourselves with others. Usually we get the better of the comparison, otherwise we wouldn’t do this. The Pharisees were scandalized to see Jesus talking and eating with tax-collectors. It’s like when Queen Victoria of England became furious at William Gladstone when he hired prostitutes, took them home, gave them Bibles, and begged them to stay off the streets. Some would call this saintly behavior, but Her Majesty could not bear the scandal of her Prime Minister associating with such low people. No one could believe it when red-baiting Richard Nixon opened talks with China. And no one wants to believe that goodness and holiness can have anything to do with sin and filth, that God can dwell among sinners.
The reason this seems impossible is that we do not understand God’s purpose in visiting mankind. We do not understand the need for His incarnation in Christ, coming to live among sinners. And we do not appreciate being numbered among those sinners. To call others worse makes us feel better about ourselves, but it means nothing to God. We all have been caught red-handed. We all are without excuse. We all have sinned and fall short of the grace of God. We all, like sheep, have gone astray from His way. In breaking the smallest part of God’s Law, we become guilty of all. Before God, sin is not reckoned as to great or small. It is all or nothing. Every one of us is a sinner, and the prophet Ezekiel declares: “The soul that sins shall die.”
Every one of us, from the upright Pharisee to the conniving tax-collector, is equally a sinner before God. Were He to judge us on our works, the same verdict would hang over us all. Only the Virgin’s Son, born by the power and mystery of God, is without sin. Yet He chose to live among sinners and to seek the lost. His mission, thank God, was to redeem and save us. He took the yoke of the Law off our necks. He established an eternal and unconditional covenant, a bond of grace with all mankind. He cut us out of the nets of sin that were pulling us down to the depths. He made atonement for our sin by His agony on the cross. He died without sin to cancel out the death sentence that hung over all sinners. He gives us for free what only a sinless man could earn. Only Jesus has earned God’s favor, but He passes that to us through Word and Sacrament. In these He stands by us, embraces us, dwells among us and in us, feasts with us. And so, through faith in Him, we are counted righteous by association with Jesus.
That is why he came, that is His mission. He came to seek the lost, and that means you.
That is hard for us to understand. Why? Because we don’t like to acknowledge that we are sinners. Nevertheless Scripture rubs our noses in it. Maybe that is why hearing the whole counsel of God has become so unpopular. More and more churches are moving away from preaching the full Law-Gospel message because they’ve found another message that draws a crowd—a message that we’re all basically good, and if you follow a few simple steps you can be even better. More and more self-professed Christians object to being called sinners. This is true for preachers as well as laymen. I once preached at the seminary chapel in Fort Wayne. Faithfully following the Biblical text, I warned all my hearers, especially future preachers, that they were going to sin. After the service, a serious young man came to me and complained that he did not believe what I had said applied to him. You see? The flesh never gives up looking for merit in itself. The Pharisee never wants to be classed with the tax collector.
Becoming a Christian is not the end of it. Singing “Jesus loves me” does not dispel the demon of self-righteousness. In Christ we are redeemed and righteous in God’s sight, but in this life we also remain sinners. It is not that sin is destroyed or taken away; being justified in Christ only means that God does not reckon our sin to be sin. Yet our flesh remains polluted; our will remains divided. We suffer and are tempted and often go astray. Every Christian lives by God’s forgiveness, but many of us have trouble forgiving our own family members. We are saved because Jesus was faithful until death; but far less than a threat of death can lead us to sin. We long for the coming of the kingdom of God, yet we wallow daily in the lusts of the flesh. We are saints in God’s sight, yet at the same time sinners. The crookedness within us is not yet straightened out. We live by God’s grace. We hope for the day when the rottenness of sin will be over with, when our bodies will rise from the grave without the least spot of sin.
Christ has re-created us in preparation for that day. He has refashioned us, re-formed us, “reborned” us through Baptism into His death and resurrection. But till we die and rise again, we remain sinners in the flesh, though in the Spirit we are righteous. As a popular Lutheran youth band explains, we are always in this life “Lost and Found.” God came down to earth to seek the lost. In Christ, He has found us; yet lostness clings to us like a burr to a sheep’s coat. So we still need to hear God’s Word of Law, wrath and condemnation. We must still lead lives of daily repentance and constant fear. Faith and love have come through Jesus Christ, but they are not yet perfected in us. Through the preaching of repentance our Good Shepherd seeks us out. And through the Gospel of salvation He carries us home. This happens not just once, but life-long, as long as we continue to be simul justus et peccator, at the same time righteous and a sinner.
Jesus’ two parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, fit together and interpret each other. We like to interpret “finding the lost sheep” as doing mission work and adding new souls to the God’s kingdom. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. Those are good things to do, but “finding the lost” means us. The lost lamb is part of the Shepherd’s flock. When you go astray, He leaves the other ninety-nine sheep and searches until He finds you. The lost coin is already in the woman’s possession, but when it loses itself, she pokes her broom into every nook and cranny until she finds it. In the explanation of the two parables, Jesus says: “There will be more joy in heaven, amid the angels of God, over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” He’s not just saying, you should seek the lost. Rather, He is calling you to repent. He is not asking you to live such a holy life that you never need anything from God. Rather, He is offering to give you all that you need, like a Shepherd rescuing His lost lamb and carrying it home with joy. His not saying you should do all that you can to make yourself pleasing to God. Rather, He is saying, God is best pleased when you repent of your sin, and when you receive His free, unconditional forgiveness through faith.
The parable makes simple what is really very complicated. For the reality is not that one in a hundred Christians sins and needs to repent. Rather, one hundred percent of us do. There are no ninety-nine who need no repentance, though the Pharisees and scribes, then and now, may think they need nothing. Self-righteousness is no cause for celebration amid the angels of heaven. A sinner who repents is a straying sheep Jesus has found and rescued. And Isaiah says we all like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way. So finding the lost is a rescue mission Jesus constantly undertakes for each of us. And He delights in finding us and rescuing us from sin.
Jesus is personally the one who seeks and finds the lost. He does it by talking to sinners and dining with them. He talks to them through His Law and Gospel: a Word that strikes fear and sorrow into the heart, and a Word that gives comfort and forgiveness through the cross. Jesus feeds His lost-and-found lambs at the feast of His body and blood, given and shed for sinners. At His Holy Supper Jesus gathers His sheep and dines with them. And in the Word proclaimed today, you hear the living voice of Jesus speaking words both of warning and of comfort, repentance and hope. When Jesus seeks the lost, He does it through Word and Sacrament and in no other way. He seeks not some unknown people out there, but you.
Jesus once brought you to Him when you became His through Baptism and the Gospel. But He keeps bringing you to Him, because you are weak, foolish and apt to stray. You like to have your own way. But it’s not just that His way is best, as if you could choose your own perhaps harder way. There is no other way. Sheep are very stupid. Perhaps that is why Jesus chooses sheep to represent us. Silver coins are only a little dumber. We cannot find ourselves. However difficult “our way” may be, it does not lead to the stars. Jesus must find you through Word and Sacrament. For in these He freely gives you what He bought for you on the cross. A sinner you are, and a sinner you remain even while in Christ you are a saint. You cannot add a jot to the grace that is yours in Christ. Much less can you get to it by any other way. “I,” says Christ, “am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.”
Now certainly we should seek the lost, but know always that it is Jesus who finds them. And therefore it is not up to us to choose the ways and means in which we gather them in. The lost are not found by making them feel good about themselves, by letting them believe whatever they choose, or even by getting them excited about what’s happening at the church. High-impact music, barnstorming speeches, and a spectacular sound and light show may draw an audience, but only Jesus’ Word and Sacrament will find the lost. Only the harsh Law will reveal their sin and turn proud Pharisees into miserable Tax-Collectors. Only the good news of forgiveness in preaching, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper can bring Christ’s lost sheep home.
Jesus commanded His followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.” But He did not mean you must first make disciples and then teach and baptize them. Rather, you make disciples by baptizing and teaching. And it is disciples Jesus wants; He could care less about “blue ribbon members” with fat pocketbooks or pull in the community. Such things might not hurt, but there is one thing that is sure to make the angels of heaven dance and sing. That is when a sinner repents, a lost sheep is found, the true coin of the realm is offered to God: the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart, a heart that trusts and depends on Jesus alone. As we errant and foolish sheep listen to our Shepherd’s voice, and as we prepare to graze in the lush pastures He has prepared, let the complaint of the Pharisees be our theme of joy and hope: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”