Sermon delivered on Sunday, September 15, 2013, Trinity 16C, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28; Psalm 14.1-7; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
How can we reconcile our OT lesson with our epistle and gospel lessons this morning? Which God are we talking about? The God who pronounces fearsome judgment on his people through his prophet or the God about whom Jesus and Paul speak? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
The root of the problem is found in our psalm lesson. We humans have become hopelessly corrupted by our sin to the point where we can no longer fix ourselves. As we saw last week, our sin and rebellion against God resulted in God’s curse upon us and his good creation (Genesis 3.1-19). This is why God called his people Israel into existence—to bring God’s healing love to his sin-sick world (cf. Genesis 12.1-3) and this is where our OT lesson comes into play. God’s people Israel had fallen hopelessly into idolatry, which had led to all kinds of corrupt practices on their part. Whenever folks chase after false gods, it always leads to bizarre and corrupt practices that ultimately dehumanize them and destroy God’s image in them. Don’t believe me? Take a look at what’s going on in our country and world today and note that Judeo-Christian values and practices are being increasingly dismantled and discredited in favor of new “enlightened” ones. In Israel’s case, God’s called-out (holy) people had failed to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with their God and apparently they had passed the point of no return where God saw in their hearts that there was no hope for repentance.
And this would force God to finally bring judgment on his proud, arrogant, and stubborn people. As Proverbs 1.7 reminds us, the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. But here God tells his prophet that his people are foolish and because they do not follow God’s ways, all kinds of evil is given the opportunity to be unleashed. It seems that human sin and rebellion against God lead to darkness and chaos, the very dismantling of God’s good creation itself (cf. Genesis 1.2 where the Spirit of God broods over the darkness and formless void to bring order and goodness out of chaos). How can God possibly use his people Israel to bring God’s blessings to the nations when they propagate evil instead of good? And just as the evil and innocent alike are caught up in fierce storms or nuclear fallout, so will the innocent have to suffer along with the wicked when God’s final judgment on his people comes because evil has become so pervasive and has affected everyone, not just a select few. This is not about a vindictive God. This is what evil inevitably does when left unchecked. This is why God must oppose evil and finally act to rid his good creation of it.
But even in the midst of God’s terrible judgment we find a ray of hope. Judgment will be thorough but God will relent from totally destroying his people. As God tells his prophet Hosea, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” From this we can see clearly that while God surely judges sin and evil, God does not give up on his creation or the people he calls to help in reclaiming his good creation and creatures (that would include us) from the terrible effects of sin and evil.
This helps us understand what we see in our gospel and epistle lessons this morning. God has no desire to destroy his image-bearing creatures (cf. Ezekiel 18.32). He created us to have a relationship with him, after all. In the parables of the lost sheep and coin, we note that Jesus told them in response to the gatekeepers of proper religion of Jesus’ day. They were grumbling over the fact that Jesus had the audacity (and probably in their minds was foolish enough) to consort with folks they considered to be lowlifes, outcasts, and sinners. We know the type. We avoid them like the plague all the time. Atheists, addicts, people we see who are hooked on porn, folks who listen to music and engage in lifestyles we detest, gamers, geeks, folks who have more tattoos and piercings on their bodies than not (insert your favorite group to avoid here). Jesus’ opponents rebuked him in effect for not being a good Jew but Jesus would have none of it and as a result we have some of the most treasured parables in all of Scripture.
Despite the human condition the psalmist laments over in our psalm lesson, despite God’s sorrow and anger toward his people’s steadfast foolishness in seeking after unreal gods that caused them to go astray and helped unleash all kinds of fresh evil and chaos on God’s good creation and his image-bearing creatures, here we see Jesus, the very embodiment of God, correcting the foolish ones of his day. He simultaneously reminds them that every human being is greatly loved by God and that it is hard to be a blessing to others by steadfastly avoiding and judging them out of a sense of haughty self-righteousness. This is no way to bring God’s saving and healing love and forgiveness to those who need it the most (that would be all of us). This is why Jesus hung out with the outcasts of his day, not to condone their sin that would dehumanize them and inevitably bring upon them God’s holy and righteous judgment (how loving is that?), but rather to call them to repentance so that they could receive God’s mercy and forgiveness that God so passionately wants each of us to experience so that we can be healed and equipped to be his kingdom builders.
And how do we know of God’s passion for us in this matter? Because as the parables of the lost sheep and coin suggest, it is God who pursues us relentlessly, not the other way around. We note in the parable of the lost sheep that the shepherd doesn’t go after the sheep who is the wooliest or the cutest or that bleats and acts in ways that capture the shepherd’s heart. The shepherd pursues the sheep because it is lost. There is no qualification except its disqualification. The sheep doesn’t display good sense. There is no structure to its life or obedience to the shepherd. No, the shepherd searches for the lost sheep out of sheer love for the sheep and completes his task with sheer joy in finding it. Did you catch the reversal in heaven when the lost sheep and coin are found? Instead of producing the mourning and darkness we see in our OT lesson, Jesus tells us that when the lost sheep and coin are found there is rejoicing in heaven over them and that the heavenly host sing for joy! Are we paying attention, St. Augustine’s, both as people who are lost sheep from time to time, perhaps more often than not, and as those whom God calls to bring his healing love to others?
And if we are having a hard time wrapping our minds around this kind of wondrous love, grace, and mercy, we must remember that God practiced what he preaches. As Jesus, God suffered and died for us to spare us from the awful consequences of his holy and just wrath on human sin. The cross serves as a living enactment of the parables of the lost sheep and coin. God takes the initiative and seeks us out so that we might have life and have it abundantly.
Of course, our parables are not telling us that God simply accepts everyone as they stand. The sheep and the coin are found, after all. Sinners must repent. God can forgive every sin under the sun (except the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). But God cannot forgive those who might desire his forgiveness but who want to remain in their sin. To allow this would mean that God accommodates and approves of evil, the very thing that is the antithesis of real love. And sadly, there are those who would refuse to allow the shepherd to bring them home. But that is not what these parables are about. They are about the God of this universe who loves his image-bearing creatures so much that he seeks us out to deliver us from the ravages of evil, sin, and death and there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love and salvation.
Paul, of course, was the living embodiment of our parables as he talks about the effects of his encounter with Jesus in our epistle lesson. We note several things of interest. First, we see that while repentance is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness and mercy, it does not preclude God from searching us out in the first place. Paul did not repent of his wicked pursuit of Jesus’ people until after he encountered Jesus. True to his parable, Jesus sought out Paul because he was, well, lost. And Paul gives us the impression that he didn’t even know he was lost!
Second, and related to this last point, we notice that despite Paul’s great training in the Scriptures and Jewish tradition, he acted foolishly in a way Jeremiah surely would have understood. Paul thought he was acting wisely in persecuting the Church. But after his encounter with Jesus, Paul realized just how foolish he actually had been. This reminds us that knowledge of Scripture, while vitally important, is no guarantee that we will act in faithful obedience to our Lord Jesus. The only way we are ever going to know the mind and heart of God is to keep our eyes firmly on Jesus. Doing so, in part, reminds us that while doctrine is important, in the final analysis the most important thing is the quality of our relationship with God. And like any other relationship, the quality of our relationship with God will depend on how well we know God. If we do not keep our eyes on Jesus there is no way we can ever hope to know God fully. And if we do not know God fully (at least as fully as we can), we can never hope to obey God fully.
Last, we note why Jesus claimed Paul on the road to Damascus—to make Paul an example to others, i.e., to make him an apostle to the Gentiles, to equip him in the power of the Spirit to embody the love of Jesus to others that Paul experienced so powerfully so that they too would have the chance to know the one true living God and be forever changed by him. This reminds us why we are saved. We aren’t saved so that we get to go to heaven when we die. We are saved so that God can use us as kingdom builders to help bring God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. To be certain, God brings in the kingdom and Jesus’ death and resurrection are the foundations of the kingdom. But God calls us as followers of Jesus to imitate our Lord in his self-giving love and in his suffering and death so that we can have the privilege of being builders for the kingdom by embodying God’s gracious love that we have received to others.
Here then is Good News for our broken hearts and spirits. Who among us has never wondered if we were really lovable in God’s sight? Who among us, if we are in any way sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings, has never despaired over how God could possibly forgive us, given our sins and waywardness? Who among us has never wondered if the bad things that happen in our life is not God punishing us? But the parables of the lost sheep and coin remind us in very powerful ways not to despair or succumb to hopelessness, despite who we can be or what happens to us at times. God our Creator made us for relationship with him and has done all that is necessary on the cross of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to seek us out when we were lost, even when we might not have known we were lost! As Paul reminds us in Romans 8.31-39, there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. God has done this, not because we are deserving or worthy of his love, but because he loves us and wants us to live life the way God intends us to live so that he can use us to bring his healing love to the nations, thus helping restore God’s good but fallen creation.
To whom is God calling you to reach out? Are you one of Jesus’ lost sheep? If you are, dare to believe that the audacious and scandalous love Jesus has for you is far greater than your sins and brokenness or the power of evil. Let your Lord put you on his shoulders and carry you back to the flock so that you can be restored to him and know that there is great rejoicing in heaven over you as he does. Over you! Ponder this until it finally sinks in. Then after you have allowed Jesus to save (heal) you in the power of the Spirit, share his scandalous love with others, the very love of God himself, knowing that this will produce even more rejoicing in heaven and on earth. In doing so, you will demonstrate to all concerned that you really do know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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