Philip Casmer

He Welcomes Sinners

by Philip Casmer on September 11th, 2022
Luke 15:1-10

Yesterday was the last funeral in this sanctuary – the funeral for Jim Larson. During it, Pastor Kolander read Psalm 23. Happens just about every time, if you didn’t know. Why do you think that is? Is it simply a tradition thing – that’s what you do at funerals; you’ve seen it in movies or heard it at so-and-so’s and so it must be? Most likely not. If that, one might just as well have read lines from Kipling or Frost, but no… Most likely, it’s like this: we read the 23rd Psalm because it tells us exactly what we need to hear in our distress – The Lord is my shepherd and, under his care, I have no lack, even in trial – it tells us the simple truth we know

That’s what’s going on in Luke 15. It’s three very familiar parables, ones you’ve heard before, ones of which you know the ending. Three parables addressed to two groups. Here’s the setup: Luke said, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law [were muttering about it].” Two groups…

First, the religious leaders. What are they grumbling about? Jesus is opening the door to tax collectors and sinners, bringing them into the community, if you will. But these folks are not the kind that should be “in”… To put it in the best light, the religious leaders grumble because “sinners” like these make the gathering unclean, and for people concerned with ritual cleanliness, this is annoying and inconveniencing! To put it in the worst light, they just didn’t believe “sinners” of such a bad sort belonged at all among holy people like themselves. In fact, there was probably nothing those “sinners” could ever do to make themselves acceptable…

Surely we’ve shared that grumbling voice at times. Perhaps in that one way where we begrudge the latecomer to faith the same reward you should receive after a life of the same – unfair! But we most often rejoice over that kind of thing, actually. Rather, it’s usually “unfair” when it’s personal – when someone’s sins have hurt us or shamed us or scare us and we’re tempted to “make them pay”, to keep them out, to withhold forgiveness because they’re “terrible sinners” – you know, of a kind different than me. Or, actually, that may be the simplest version and most common of our struggles: it isn’t that we don’t want “sinners” to be on the inside, we do! But we’re afraid to engage them because it’ll be messy or complicated or beyond our abilities…

And that’s not a bad assessment of that other group. They are a hot mess! The tax collectors were probably most often not Jews and so weren’t part of the “God’s people” and they served the Romans and they often cheated people. And the “sinners” were those with openly sinful lives – prostitutes, liars, thieves – ones who had sinned and been cast out. And they’re gathering to hear something from Jesus, something to turn things around…

And, perhaps, you identify with them most… Some sin you have done burdens your conscience, marks you as “outside” and “unworthy” – whether actually or just in your own mind. And you fear or you hear the grumblings of others about you. You don’t belong. You won’t be received. You’re a “sinner” and you know it. And you might even believe there’s no hope of you changing that status at all.

So, Jesus tells three stories. Today we have the first two: they present one thing people in either group need to know…

So there’s a shepherd – 100 sheep – he loses one. Here’s what’s not important: Are you like a sheep? Are you dumb? Do you stray into deadly places? Do you need to be corrected and kept? I don’t know – that’s not the point. Here it is: the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine – a lot of capital there – must be an important decision; goes after the lost sheep until he finds it – not a quick 30 minutes search up the next ridge, but for however long; when he finds it, no grumbling tugging it along by a leash with a lecture – he joyfully carries it home; then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ Let’s party!

In case it wasn’t clear… So there’s a woman. She’s got coins. She loses one. Here’s what’s not important: Are you like a coin? A little too round? You’re liable to roll away at a whim, can get caught in cracks and crevices of sin – really stuck? Your value? Is it like a day’s wage – a lot? I don’t know – who cares? That’s not the point. Here it is: she lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches carefully until she finds that coin – however long; when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ Let’s party!

Do you see how for those who might judge others or might judge themselves, Jesus isn’t talking primarily about what we are like. He wants us to think about what God is like. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus summarizes His mission as, “to seek and to save the lost” (19:10). In these parables, then, we are at the heart of Jesus’ mission. Like a shepherd who leaves all else to find the one who is lost or like a woman who goes to great lengths to find one coin… God seeks the lost, whether it is you or your neighbor. 

Like the shepherd or the woman, God takes up the responsibility for those lost in sin. Sinners cannot “unlost” themselves, they must be found. God seeks us out. Jesus takes the burden of the search upon himself. 

And he does without counting the cost – at great length, expending energy and resources – Jesus seeks out sinners, willingly enduring even suffering and death – the full payment of everyone’s guilt. 

And he rejoices in restoring them. He doesn’t tsk tsk until you’re better. No, God’s Holy Spirit reaches us in our lostness and he forgives our sins in Jesus’ death and clothes us in the actual holiness of Jesus’ life and fills our hearts with the capability in faith to turn away from sin and to follow him. 

And so important is this work – about you or someone else – it’s like when you throw a wedding reception or a retirement party: that’s joy you can’t keep for yourself! It’s not just joy enough for Jesus, but joy that must be shared. God rejoices over those who are turned away from sin to salvation. When one sinner repents, it’s enough that the angels of God positively get down in heaven.

Now, I understand that you’ve heard that… I guess I’d like you to think of it like your favorite novel or movie. Don’t you have that story – some classic movie that you go back to; some book whose author draws you in no matter how many times you read it? You know the story – the lines of the plot – can recite the words the characters speak – you know the jokes and how they break… But that old, familiar story fills you with comfort and encouragement and joy…

How much more here? Jesus calls us to go back and enjoy, to hear again and again: God seeks the lost… Or, if you want to put it another way, the Pharisees accidentally said it well: “He welcomes sinners…” Like, with open arms and full embrace…

Which is the most blessed thing to know… For you in his flock plagued with guilt from sins long gone or ones that reappear – Jesus welcomes sinners – when you turn in repentance, he rejoices. And as you think of anyone “other”, for those who are on the path to repentance, perhaps coming out of the worst of this world’s twisted paths and seeing for the first time God’s perspectives on life – Jesus welcomes sinners – about people of any kind who repent, heaven’s angels sing. And for us as we think about how to minister to them, whether it’ll work, how it will go – Jesus welcomes sinners – by his own life and work, through his seeking and power, knowing exactly who he’s looking for, and also by using our words and ways – as Martin Luther said, “[Jesus’ holy people] are to stoop down and take the sinners upon their shoulders, [and] with their [own] righteousness and piety, they are help to others out of their sins,” – either way, by his work through you and others, he brings those sinners home – and we, his friends rejoice and sing over every single one that repents. Because, Jesus welcomes sinners, ones just like you and me – ones once lost he finds.

No matter what group you belong to, no matter how you might think of yourself or anyone else, and for whatever you and I plan to do – this is exactly what we need to hear again and again…

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