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He Welcomes Sinners

Sermon: Prodigal God series.

Week 2, Sunday August 5th, 2012. St Petri

He welcomes sinners.

Have you ever had a couple of people “mutter” against you? You say something that they don’t agree with and you sense that they are muttering their disapproval of your words or you, under their breath…. 

I remember doing this a bit when I was a kid. You’re driving along on a family holiday all squeezed in with your two sisters and you know it is lunch time and you are all wondering whether Mum and Dad are going to pull in at  the service station and buy the all-time favourite holiday food – hot chips and burgers! 

Dad says we are going to stop up here in this beautiful truck bay and make sandwiches and enjoy the serenity! ……..The muttering goes on between us kids in the back seat!

Unwilling listeners

The Pharisees are muttering against Jesus. They are unwilling listeners.  What’s the “muttering about” at the beginning of Luke 15?

The legal and religious people have noticed something about this popular rabbi from the North. He seems to be building a community that is different to theirs. He seems to be gathering people into a new community who they have spent their whole life excluding. 

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So, there are two groups of people around Jesus: Tax collectors and sinners, and the morally right and acceptable Pharisees and Law teachers. The morally right people are offended and angry about what Jesus is doing – what kind of community he seems to be gathering. They are particularly angry about Jesus eating with these outsiders. 

Eating together in our culture still has that sense of hospitality. Eating together for us is an invitation to friendship and a sharing of life and happiness (unless it’s a sandwich by the side of the road when you are a kid!). 

But for this ancient Jewish culture – eating together is a badge of honour, a mark of inclusion or exclusion. There are many rules about who can share food with who and Pharisees and Law Keepers do not under any circumstances eat with gentiles – especially sinner types and tax collectors – people ripping off their own country to keep the Roman occupiers well fed!

“Doesn’t he realise that they are the real trouble makers of our society? Why doesn’t he tell them to straighten up” they mutter. Jesus must just be telling them what they want to hear and not calling them to account for their obvious sin against us and our God. Either that or he is a drunk and a glutton………. 

To top it all off, Jesus and his motley community seem to be happy! They eat together, they laugh together! There is an openness and an honesty to them. So, the muttering is in full swing. Jesus does not respond with a compact answer, but tells three parables.

They are all about lostness: lost sheep, lost coin and then lost sons. Jesus will now challenge these unwilling listeners by 1) confronting their categories of sin and 2) redefine their categories about salvation. 

Lost Things

The first parable is about a lost sheep. One sheep out of a mob of 100 gets lost and a shepherd goes out and brings the sheep home to safety. 

For us this has become a picture of love and safety where we feel all warm inside. For the ancient hearers it is offensive. Sheep are stupid. Everyone knows that. Even the nice sheep in the Middle East will get themselves into very dangerous territory in the one tracked and mindless search to eat grass. They will eat themselves into some rocky crag or some precarious hillside track and put themselves in harm’s way and not even know it – until it is too late – and they are lost. 

But what is worse, unlike a dog, they will not be able to find their own way home. And even when the Shepherd finds them, they can’t even follow him. He has to tie them up and put them on his own shoulders and carry them home. Being called a sheep is not warm and fuzzy – it is being called incapable of anything except eating yourself into lostness. 

Let’s think about our life in sheep terms. Where are you feeding and getting yourself lost?

Dating someone: feeding your soul by dating a person to the point that you are placing your entire sense of well-being and even spiritual growth and life on the shoulders of this person. 

Work: feeding on the achievement and fulfilling expectations so much that you whole soul is resting on these things.

Family: feeding your soul by feeding mouths and educating kids and looking after parents so much so that your whole reason for living has become the nurture of your family. So much so that you have no identity as a person in your own right with the Lord – you’ve lost yourself somewhere……

The bible says we are all stray sheep very capable and active in consuming our way to lostness from the Lord….

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.                             Isaiah 53:6

The thing about utterly lost sheep, is that they are also utterly loved!

Jesus is a searcher of lost sheep. He leaves the 99 that are already safe and at home to go out into dangerous places where we are feeding ourselves to death to find us. We are his treasure! We are the lost coin that could not find itself but has to be found by another. 

He has to be because we cannot find our way home and even when we are found, we don’t know how to follow! God did not just send a teacher or role model for us to follow – that would never have worked – because we will not be OK with a bit of learning or following or reflecting. 

We will not figure life and death out. So he does. He does it all. He lives the life we should have lived and dies the death we should have died and searches for us and finds us and places us in his new community of lost and found utterly lost but now utterly found and loved community. 

See how comprehensive Jesus knows sin to be. Our view of sin is often so one dimensional…..

Most people think that religion is humanity’s search to find God. We like to think of ourselves and spiritual seekers. We look at the various religions of the world and even though they say different things on how we find God, we often think they all pretty much say that if we all earnestly and honestly search for God we will find him. 

There is a big problem with this popular view: Anyone who feels they have done the hard work of searching for God and found him will automatically disdain those who don’t seem to be making any effort to find God.  They will look at non-searchers of God and call them “sinners’, slackers”, and blame them for their lack of belonging and place with those who have searched and found God. 

Every other religion says that if we search for God hard enough we will find him. Only Christianity says, no. God had to come into the world to seek and find us. Our life in God ‘s joy and fullness together is all by his doing and all by his loving – it is sheer grace. 

Because the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law do not see themselves as sinners saved by God’s grace, they disdain and condemn sinners. They feel superior to them. But Jesus rejoices with sinners when they are sought out and found. 

What kind of community are we – people believing they are worthy of God’s approval because we searched and found him? If we are then we will have a real problem. We will blame the sinners instead of seeking them. We will hold them in disdain at their lack of searching and their sin rather than leave the 99 to go and find the lost one. We will be Pharisees; unwilling listeners. We will be smug and self-righteous. 

But as we openly acknowledge our lostness and rejoice in our foundness – all by God’s grace by faith in Jesus, we will be a the new community Jesus is building. We will welcome the sinners and search for the lost ones. We will not need to be superior or smug. We will be a community of unified difference.

We will be a community in which sin does not have to be concealed but one in which sin can be shared and forgiven and its effects healed. 

This is what we want. This is what the world needs. This is what this Valley needs. This is what we need.

I am praying that through these next weeks, all sense of superiority we may have disappears even more and the joy we share that includes other lost people like us and invites them into being found by Jesus increases.

I am praying that we all move from unwilling listeners to joyful seekers who know our identity and worth rests on the love and hope of Jesus, not on family, work, wealth, achievement or even a partner – but in God. 


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