What do the following things have in common: a stuffed puffer fish; a case full of dentures; a human skull; hundreds of umbrellas; and a pound coin. All have been lost on the London underground! These are just some of the thousands of items that pass through the Lost Property Office of Transport for London. Every so often a newspaper or a website will have a few photos or a report from there, and some of the ridiculous things that have been left behind on the tube.
Compared to those lost items, the two that Sylvia read about earlier - the lost sheep and the lost coin - may have seemed rather tame. It may be that you’ve heard these parables of Jesus many times, that you think you know what they’re all about, and that you can have a nice snooze for a few minutes.
Actually, far from being nice little comforting stories, as Jesus told them, they were shocking for their original hearers. In order to hear the fully scandalous nature of the stories, we need to see them in context, which is our first point today: Grumbling.
Look at verse 1. Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. The crowds have been flocking to hear his teaching, to see him, and among the crowds, there was a certain group of people. The tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors were those Jews who had signed up to work for the Roman state. They were working for the enemy, and making money off it too - so long as they gave the Romans what they expected, the tax collectors could demand more, which they kept for themselves. Not very popular among the Jews, for obvious reasons.
The sinners, well, that’s a term used by the so-called ‘good people’, the ‘religious people’, for those who were on the outside. So people like prostitutes, and others who were seen as unclean, as the sinners. Do you see the contrast between the sinners and verse 2, the Pharisees and scribes? These were the holy people, the so-called righteous people, very religious. And they see all these sinners coming to Jesus to hear him teach, and they don’t like it. Verse 2 again - they grumbled. They complained. They whinged. You know, the crowd following Jesus used to be so good, but then they turned up. He’s just not bringing in the right class of people any more. Isn’t it terrible how things are now?
As a church family - do we ever grumble? Or do you ever grumble within the church family? Are we happy with church as it is (or as it used to be?)? All the good people coming - but please don’t reach out into the community and bring in different people, people who maybe don’t know how to behave in church, or, perish the thought, sinners! Or we look at SET on Sunday nights and think - why can’t it just be the nice church kids, and not those horrible non-Christian kids. I know they come along every week and hear a Bible talk and see Christians in action, but look at the way they get on, and look at their lives, and...
The Pharisees and scribes are grumbling, and that’s the context for the parables in this chapter (we’ll look at the lost son next week). They were grumbling (verse 3) so he told them this parable... And then we get two for the price of one. Two stories, two parables which are basically the same - as Sylvia read, you may have noticed the same words or phrases came up in both. The lost sheep, and the lost coin, but look how Jesus introduces them: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them...’ (4) ‘Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin...’ (8).
Our second point is seeking - and Jesus makes the very obvious point that if a man in the crowd had lost one of his sheep, he would go and look for it; or if a woman had lost a coin, she would go and look for it. This wasn’t just a pound coin down the back of the sofa - it was equivalent of a day’s wages, a precious coin, perhaps even strung together with other coins as a headdress, or just as a tenth of her savings. It’s precious to her, so she’ll naturally look for it, carefully sweeping the dust and dirt on the ground until she finds it. Likewise the sheep is precious to the man, so he’ll go and look for it.
Jesus is saying if we would make a point of looking for something lost that is precious to us - then how much more will the Lord Jesus, God himself, search for his lost ones, precious to him? The Pharisees looked at these undesirables and called them sinners. The Lord Jesus looks at them and calls them his lost ones. As the prophet Isaiah says ‘all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way.’ (Is 53:6) As Jesus says later in Luke’s Gospel ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:10)
How do we see those on the outside of church? As foul sinners, undesirables, unclean people? Or as lost people needing to be found, to be reached, to be brought back to God? We need to see people as Jesus sees them - in only one of two possible categories - lost or found. When we see as Jesus sees, and realise that our friends and neighbours are lost, then we’ll want to help them be found.
So far we’ve looked at grumbling and seeking. Our final point this morning is rejoicing. Two years ago, not long after we were married, Lynsey and I went to London for a wee holiday. One particular day, we bought the sightseeing bus tour ticket and went off on one of the red buses. In the afternoon, we were in the Tower of London, looking at the crown jewels, when suddenly I realised that I had lost the tickets. They weren’t in my pockets/wallet/bag. These were expensive tickets - and without them we couldn’t get all the way back across London to the hotel. We would have to buy new tickets. We retraced our steps round the castle, but it was pointless. Lost. Gone. As we walked out through the gates, Lynsey noticed a bit of paper flapping on the ground. We looked - and it was our tickets! Talk about relief!
In the parables, the same thing happens - the man or woman calls together friends and neighbours, and they have a party: ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found [my sheep/the coin] that was lost.’ If we rejoice over lost things being found, then how much more is there a party in heaven when a lost sinner is found.
As before, though, there’s a shock. Look at 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.’ The lost being found is described by Jesus as them repenting - to turn from sin and towards God. You see, so often we think of repentance in a bad way - all the things we can no longer do. But Jesus describes the party in heaven when we turn towards God!
And there’s more joy over one sinner repenting than those ninety-nine righteous people not needing repentance. These aren’t already good - rather, Jesus is describing the Pharisees and scribes, those who are ‘self-righteous’, those who think they’re right with God and so don’t need to repent themselves. In fact, they’re more lost, because they don’t even recognise their lostness. As Jesus says earlier in Luke: ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:32)
We thought a wee bit earlier about how we see others, those on the outside. Do we label them as sinners or as lost people. But now the focus turns on us. Are we self-righteous, thinking that we’re all right? Are you a Pharisee, convinced of your own goodness? Or do we see ourselves as sinners who also needed to be found by Jesus. Who have been changed by him - not that we deserve it any more than those outside.
Or perhaps you’re still lost. You have wandered away and are out on your own. The Lord Jesus is still the good shepherd, and is still in the business of finding the lost. Listen to his voice.
The Pharisees grumbled ‘This man receives sinners.’ In criticising, they were speaking the truth, and giving a great testimony of the Lord Jesus. He still receives sinners, he will not turn us away when we come to him. He is the seeking saviour, the rejoicing redeemer. We celebrate this truth, this grace, as we gather round the Lord’s Table.
This sermon was preached at St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 11th July 2010.