Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Where do you place yourself in the story? Which character can you relate to today?
Perhaps you can relate to the lost sheep… wandering alone and scared?… hoping for some help, some hope, for a strong and faithful shepherd to find you and carry you home to safety?
Do you feel like the lost coin?… obviously useful and valuable, but forgotten, hidden, over-looked, being passed by over and over?
Or do you relate most easily to the tax collectors and sinners who were coming near to listen to Jesus? You know that you’ve made some mistakes in your life. You’ve been far from perfect, and those close to you know it too… but you’ve been invited to listen to Jesus, to eat with him, and to learn from him. You feel accepted in his presence, and your history disappears into the background. You have discovered that to Jesus your life is as precious as a lost sheep to a shepherd or a lost silver coin to a woman who needs it.
If you can place yourself in the role of the lost sheep, or the lost coin, or the sinner at Jesus’ feet, then I trust that you will hear the good news of the Gospel today. In Jesus Christ, God has shown us that God cares for each one of us enough that he came searching for us… searching the hills, sweeping out the house, inviting us into a relationship of acceptance and love and support and challenge.
Instead of rejecting us for our mistakes and the way we ignored God and God’s commandments, God just worked even harder to draw us back into loving relationship. Instead of giving up on us, God stepped up the search, and kept it up until we were found and the celebration could begin.
In today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, we heard God’s frustration with a People who refused to be found – who refused to come back to God. The prophet writes: “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
And the psalmist echoes a similar refrain: “[The people] are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
It seems that the prophet and the psalmist are describing a flock of sheep that have ALL become lost! We’re no longer talking about 99 good, orderly sheep that are accounted for, and just one that is lost. We’re talking about a flock that is no longer a flock… sheep that are wandering aimlessly without even the idea in their heads that there might be a shepherd who could help them, who could gather them, who could lead them to green pastures and beside still waters. All of them have gone astray! “All of them have failed to live by the commandments of God,” I can imagine the Pharisees saying.
I asked you to think about which character in the Gospel text you could relate to today, and perhaps some of you might have chosen the Pharisees and the scribes. They were the ones who stood by as Jesus welcomed the sinners and ate with them.
Sometimes you may find yourself relating to the Pharisees as well. You are among the ones in the church, after all. You’re among the ones who have done your best, who have at least tried to follow God. You may not be perfect, but it’s hard to stand by as Jesus celebrates with those who have hardly even tried. Where is the celebration for your faithfulness, for your efforts, for all you have done and tried to do for God and the church?
It reminds me of the role of the older brother in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the son who was lost came home, his father welcomed him and threw a party for him. But the older brother refused to join in. It didn’t seem fair to him, and so he stayed outside… grumbling and complaining about the too-forgiving nature of his father.
I think that when we are feeling like the Pharisees or the older brother we have a choice to make. We can stay outside the party, stewing in our own misery… or we can choose to jump into a different role.
One option, of course, is to admit our spiritual pride, our grumbling and complaining, and to become the lost sheep, the lost coin, or the sinner coming home. When we turn our hearts and our lives towards God once again, the celebration in heaven is for us.
There will be times when we need to do this, and to receive God’s welcome, God’s forgiveness, God’s acceptance and love. But we are called to take a new role as well, as we move our focus away from ourselves and towards our neighbours.
After all, Jesus said, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
And Jesus said, “What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”
I wonder if any of you placed yourself in the role of the shepherd or in the role of the woman.
We may normally think of those roles as God’s roles, as Jesus’ roles. But, in fact, as God’s people, as followers of Jesus and members of the church, we are called to do the things that Jesus did. We are called to be the hands and feet and voice of Jesus in the world today.
And so we are invited to become the shepherds searching for the lost sheep. We are invited to become the women looking for the precious coins that have been misplaced. Together, we are invited to become the body of Christ, welcoming all the lost ones, accepting all the ones who have made mistakes, and eating with all the ones who are hungry for the goodness of God in Jesus Christ.
And we get to be the ones to throw the party… to celebrate over even one person who opens their heart to God and turns their life towards following the way of Jesus.
The apostle Paul knew what it was like to change roles like that. He went from a Pharisee, to a sinner who persecuted the followers of Jesus, to a shepherd gathering sheep in the name of Jesus the Lord.
Paul wrote: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only god, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
As Paul changed roles in the story… from Pharisee to sinner, from redeemed sinner to shepherd of the lost sheep… by God’s grace, may we have the courage and power to change as well. May we become not only rescued sheep, but shepherds for the Lord. May we become not only precious and useful coins, but women who are ready to sweep the house and search tirelessly to find each one that is lost. And may we join in the celebration with God and all the angels over one person who was lost, and who is found. Amen.