Joy in Heaven – March 27, 2011

Exodus 18:1-12, Luke 15:1-10

March 27, 2011

So it’s very interesting the way Luke has things happening here. He starts off with Jesus at this dinner with the Pharisees at the beginning of Chapter 14. There, he heals a man on the Sabbath, and then tells them a couple of parables – parables about places of honor at feasts, and about the “wedding banquet. Next, he turns to the crowds who are always nearby, and he talks to them about the cost of discipleship. And he tells them a couple of parables, one about the building of a tower, and the other about a king going to war.

Now we come to chapter 15. And here we find that he has turned back to the Pharisees again. And there seems to be no movement in any of this. This is all part of one big scene at this Pharisee’s home. In our scripture for today, Luke says this. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near him.” Does that mean the crowds who he turned to just before this contained these tax collectors? Did they then begin to move toward him in the crowd – enough to be associated with him in some way? Or has he now started to leave the house, and these tax collectors were starting to move with him?

Either way, this was a disturbing thing, and not just to the Pharisees! Their murmuring was probably only echoing the murmur of the people. Because all of them hated the tax collectors! They saw them as traitors, because they collected taxes for Rome! And they had no problem with them being spoken of along with the word “sinners!” And this was probably not Jesus’ first encounter with them. There are other stories about tax collectors, which Luke does not include in his gospel, at least not up til this point. For instance, when Jesus called the tax collector Levi to be his disciple, Levi invited him to dinner, and he invited his tax collector buddies over, too! And Jesus was there!

So this “murmuring” was not without foundation! Jesus had already begun to “hang around” with the wrong people! And that raised concern in these Pharisees, some of which were probably legal concerns! We’d have to do some digging, but there were probably laws in their scriptures about associating with traitors and other sinners. And remember, the Pharisees were also the legal authorities in that world! So they may have had some thoughts of “should we arrest this guy?”

Jesus hears all this, of course, and what’s his reaction? You guessed it! He tells them(?) parables! So this whole next series of parables are told to the Pharisees. (Though of course, the crowds were still there.) By the way, this would go back and forth until half way through chapter 17!

Well, the parables he told the Pharisees at that moment are about his outreach to the lost. They are the parables of “The Lost Sheep” and “The Lost Coin.” He starts by asking them, “What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?”

As I think about that, I wonder where the emphasis lies in that sentence. He’s speaking to the Pharisees, and he’s telling about the seeking of the lost, but is he also emphasizing the “leaving of the ninety-nine?” And is there significance in the part about leaving them “in the wilderness?” Did the Pharisees understand that he was talking about them? Did they think he meant that they were able to take care of themselves “in that wilderness,” or was there a hint of “abandonment” there? Was he saying he was “stepping away” from them in order to find the lost?

Those are interesting questions to me, and I don’t know that I can tell you exactly what he meant, And even though it’s only a little part of the parable. I’m sure the Pharisees picked up on what he was saying, both about the lost and about them! But then, the main emphasis here is still about the joy over the lost being found! And there is great joy over that. He paints that picture in detail! And I’ve even seen that picture done in stained glass! When I stood in the pulpit at Neshaminy church, that was the picture behind me in that window! There the shepherd has the sheep laid on his shoulders, and he’s carrying it back rejoicing. That’s how Jesus describes this. There is great joy! And as the parable concludes, the man calls together his friends and asks them to rejoice, too!

So then, rapid fire, he tells them a second parable. In this one, a woman has lost one of ten coins. And she sweeps the house until she finds it. And Jesus says it’s a silver coin, so it’s a coin of value. One author suggests that this set of ten coins may have had something to do with the symbolism in marriage. It was sort of like a ring, or a dowry. Whatever it was, in this case Jesus is saying that this is a loss and search for something valuable. Compare that to the first parable, were something common – one sheep in a hundred – is being treated as valuable by the shepherd! So in both these parables, his message to the Pharisees is about “who is of value?” In both these parables, there is “great joy in heaven” over the lost being found!

So I ask you, “Do you know that you are of great value to God?” That’s another important thing for us to see during Lent. And I know that’s something that’s not easy to “get our minds around.” Too many of us, too often, think of God only as a supreme, infinite being of immense power and magnitude, who moves the world and manages astronomical forces. And that’s true. But it’s the other part that it’s hard for us to imagine. We have to be reminded of it constantly! I have to be reminded of it constantly!! God is infinite, but he is also intimate with each one of us. God values each one of us! To me, the magnitude of that thought is almost greater than all that “creation of the universe jazz!”

Folks, I think that’s another important reason Jesus came. As I said a few weeks ago, he came to experience what we experience, from our point of view. But he also came to make the part about God being “intimate with his creations” more manageable to us. It was very hard for the people then to get that, and understandably so. “King of the Universe” was the expression used in so many of their prayers. “Barouche hattau Adonai, Elohenu, Melech hallom.” “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe.” That’s how they began. Can we even imagine their shock and horror when this man started equating himself with that King of the Universe?? I doubt their concept of the Messiah included the possibility that he would be God incarnate!!

So here was this Jesus! And how dare he say he was God?! That was blasphemy – of the highest level! That reminds me of when we were kids, and one of us would say, “I’m the king!” Then another would say, “Well, I’m the king of the World.” Then “Yeah? Well I’m the king of the Solar System.” And finally, “Yeah? Well, I’m the King of the Universe!!!” But Jesus claimed he actually was!

So God, the King of the Universe, became one like us to tell us that we are of great value! You are of great value to God! I know it’s hard to feel like that sometimes, but it’s true! And when you return to him, when you are with him, there is great joy! You are valuable to God. You may not know him very well, but he knows you!!

Have you ever had a friend, with whom you’ve lost contact over the years, either because of distance or maybe some sort of falling out? And then you found that person again? Isn’t that an amazing feeling? I’ve shared with you before how the internet, and especially Facebook, has been amazing to me in that way! I’ve found and become reacquainted with friends I never dreamed I’d find again!! And it has become a great joy to me. And I think that’s just a hint of what it’s like for God! Know that God feels that way about those he has lost, in whatever way that has happened. He loves them. He knows them! (Amazingly!!) He values them! And there is great joy when they return to him.

Maybe that’s you. Maybe you need this Lenten season to return to him. Maybe you’ve been lost to him out there in the world somehow, and you need to come home. Maybe you’ve just drifted away a bit. You’re not sure what happened to your faith. You know it’s there, but you don’t feel it, and you just aren’t sure what to do about it.

Well, this chapter ends with that great story of the Prodigal. And remember how he does the right thing. He realizes his estrangement with his father. And he does something about it. Even his elder brother (Who I think is the real focus of the story!) did something, too. He, as least, confronted his father. He laid out his argument. And I believe God wants us to do that. If you have a beef with God, take it to him. God can take it!

So if that’s you, if you feel estranged from God, do something about it! Realize your situation. Go to God. Tell him you know you’ve been away, ask him to draw you back. And remember how Jesus told the story of the boy’s return. Again, he’s making this story up, so he can make it happen any way he wants. And he tells how the father runs to the boy, how he falls on his neck, weeping tears of joy. He clothes him in the finest robes. He puts a ring on his finger – quite possibly a ring of family connection. And he holds a great celebration!

That’s the God we worship. He is infinite. He is indeed King of the Universe! But he is also intimate. He has become one like us to show us how valuable we are to him, and how much he loves us! So, if you are away, come back to him.

Prayer

Eternal and ever present God, your love for us is amazing! We can hardly fathom its depths. We ask that you would help us to know it! We ask that where we may have strayed you would draw us back to you. Help us to know the joy in heaven over each one of us. For these things we pray in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen!

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