I continue to believe that the hardest doctrine to come to grips with is not so much something like predestination or the doctrines pertaining to God’s wrath or hell. I truly believe that the hardest doctrine to wrap our minds around is the doctrine of God’s love.
That might strike you as something odd to say.
But as you look at our passage today, I believe we see something of the truth of this claim. The parables that are before us were told so as to help those who were present understand the depth and the reach of the love of the Lord.
On the one hand, you have people who are like the Pharisees and the religious elite. These are people who put some pretty hard restraints on God’s love. They were people who were looking at Jesus and saying, “What is the deal here? He eats with sinners!” They were appalled at what they were witnessing. They simply could not believe that such a thing was right. But what really was it that prompted their offense? It was that Jesus was showing love to these people. (I mean, don’t you know that they are Democrats?)
Then, on the other hand, you have people who are the sinners. They have basically the same question, “Can Jesus really love and accept me?”
The passage starts out by saying that sinners were drawing near to Jesus. They see how Jesus accepts them, and they love it. But you can imagine what’s going on in their minds. Once the Pharisees let their troubles be known, and voice how scandalous this seems, they immediately ice over. They get unsettled because what the Pharisees say is true! They have to think, “Yeah, why would Jesus love me? Being that I am who I am and have done what I have done, would Jesus really want anything to do with me?”
And just as there were such people before Jesus, there may very well be such people here today. And all of us need to learn the same lesson and understand that Jesus loves lost people.
That’s exactly what Jesus wants to affirm. And he does so by these parables. In both parables there is a search that is made and a joy that is expressed. And both the search and the joy illustrate the depths of Christ’s compassion.
I. The search that he makes
Each of these parables has a figure who pursues that which is lost. In the first parable it is the shepherd. In the second it is this woman who has lost her coin. Both of these illustrate the immense love that Christ has for lost people. And both of them do that in their own unique way.
When it comes to the shepherd, you have to understand that going after a sheep was not like you were just walking through the park on a Sunday afternoon. It was extremely risky. For one, you had a terrain that very well was not easy to navigate. Sheep don’t take the precaution to stay on the paths and use the buddy system. They are rather stupid little animals. They see a patch of green, and they walk over to it, and they start munching away. Then they see another patch and they walk over to it and chomp away. They are not thinking though where they are going. So they could easily get into areas where there was a nasty cliff or down by a river.
Of course, there is always the danger of wild animals too. You remember what David said to Saul regarding his days as a shepherd. “I fended off the lion and the bear.” So if you leave the safety of the other shepherds who are with your flock, you are risking your life. You very well might have rough terrain and wild beasts with which to contend.
There are reports that whole towns or villages could be set on edge waiting for a shepherd to come home. If the others came back, the family would be no doubt on edge for fear of having lost not just a sheep, but their loved one too.
So the shepherd’s going after that sheep was more than just an act of duty. It was an act of self sacrifice. It was love that would drive him out there in the wild.
Certainly that illustrates something of Christ’s love. Because that is exactly what happened to him. He left the safety of heaven and ventured out into the wild of this world. And when he did he faced all the terrors that are associated it. He was torn by men and put upon terrain that was not in the least bit hospitable. In his coming to earth he demonstrated a selfless love and he gave the ultimate sacrifice in his dying on behalf of a sinner.
This love though is not just illustrated by the shepherd. It is also seen in the woman. In this parable you see something of the intensity of the search. This woman loses a coin, which some scholars suggest was her dowry. Now you ladies may be able to understand this. The only way you are going to get a man back in those days is if you have a dowry. If you don’t have all ten of these coins, then no man—no marriage. And one of these coins amounts to a pretty hefty sum of money. So it’s quite likely you’ve worked and worked to earn these coins.
Now, if you dropped $100, you’d probably be a little frantic. You’d probably turn your house upside-down in order to find it. You’d be tearing seat cushions out and rummaging through the trashcan. Imagine now that if that money made the difference as to whether or not you got to marry your husband! Now how important is that coin to you?
So have in mind how frantic this woman probably was. She was a highly motivated looker. And the text brings out how meticulous she is. She lights a lamp and sweeps the house. She looks in every nook and cranny until she finds that coin. This woman was on a mission and nothing was going to stop her.
Some of you guys probably know what this is like. There are some women who, when they get in a cleaning mode, you gotta watch out. I mean, children need to be carefully watched for fear that they may end up in a washing machine or on the curb with the rest of the stuff that’s being thrown out.
But this woman’s search illustrates something of the intensity of God’s love. He is a pursuing God. The one who is his child is incredibly valuable to Him and He will not stop pursuing him or her until they are at last found.
One wonders if these two parables were in the mind of Francis Thompson when he wrote his famous poem “The Hound of Heaven.” The poem is not particularly easy to navigate. It is rather difficult. But it is still a classic. It presents a man who is running from God.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears, I hid from Him
But as he pursues his own pleasures and seeks to make distance between him and God, the Lord is recognized to be the hound who continues a steady and unrelenting pursuit. Thompson says of this Hound:
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
Francis Thompson no doubt wrote that him from his own experience. He was something of a tortured man. He had set out to gain an education to enter the ministry, but he ended up leaving it. He then sought schooling to be a physician, but that too was left off. He contracted a serious medical condition which led him to become addicted to opium. You can imagine his groggy pursuit of drugs. But he could not shake the Lord’s deliberate pursuit of him.
What causes one to keep the trail? Especially of someone who is intent on running away? What causes one to relentlessly pursue that which was lost? It can only be the inflamed passion of a loving God.
There is no doubt that this would have been the word that the sinners who were gathering around Jesus needed to hear. The question was voiced, “This Jesus guy receives sinners?” And the tax collectors and sinners would no doubt be thinking, “Yeah. Why would Jesus receive me?”
Well, one of the reasons that he tells this parable is to say, “Yes, I do receive sinners! I am more than happy to receive a sinner. As a matter of fact, that is the whole reason I’ve come! I’m searching for them so that I might save them!
This parable was told to assure those sinners that they should come to Christ and help them understand that they will be received. And that is the same consolation you should have if you have an interest in gaining eternal life and having a new relationship with the Lord.
The Lord knows that some people can be afraid. They are so ashamed of what they’ve done or they fear that the Lord would not accept them. Perhaps you’ve witnessed this with your children. Perhaps they’ve done something wrong and they’ve gone and hid in their room because they feel they you would just prefer they’d go away.
If you were a good parent, you went to them. You sought them out and you showed them that you loved them, and that there was nothing more that you wanted than to have them come and express that they were sorry for what they had done.
That’s the kind of thing we see going on in this text. Jesus is affirming his love. He’s showing that he wants sinners to come to him. He wants you to understand that if you come to him in repentance, he will not turn you away. Even now he is pursuing you and assuring you that once you look to him he will forgive all your sins.
But the love Christ has for sinners is not just illustrated in the search that is made. You also see it in the joy that is exuded.
II. The joy that Christ exudes
Both of these parables have that in common too. Both of them talk about the immense joy that comes as a result of finding the object that was lost. In verse 6 it says that the shepherd called his friends together. And he says, “Rejoice with me!” It sounds like he’s so happy that he throws a party. Then it goes on to say that he has more joy over that one that was found than the 99 that was safely at home.
The same is said in verse 9 about the woman who finds this coin. But you’ll also note that Jesus adds a little commentary on his parable. In verse 7 he says that there is more join in heaven over one sinner who repents than 99 righteous persons. Then in verse 10 he says that “There is joy before the angels over one sinner who repents.”
Now, who is it who has the joy here? Is it the angels? No. The angels are the ones witnessing the joy. They are standing there beholding the one who has the joy. It is the Lord who has the joy, isn’t it? If I can take some liberties with the text, God does his happy dance right there in front of all the angels.
In a couple of weeks my family is going on a trip and my mother has been making plans for it. She’s been talking with the travel agent and getting all the details worked out with our flight. But two weeks ago we got a notice that the airport had changed the time of our flight. We had signed up for a morning flight. But they told us that we wouldn’t be leaving until 5 or 6 in the evening. Which meant that we wouldn’t get to our destination until 11 pm! Now, being in a closed in plane with a 2 year old at 10:00 at night might not be a problem for some people. But it was not something we were looking forward to. You can imagine that this was a little more than disconcerting to us.
So my mother and my wife talked and talked about this. Finally they said, “Let’s just call them and see if they can change it back.” Well, that afternoon my mother came barging in our front door screaming with delight. I’ve never heard her yell like that before. She was just running through my house squealing with all her might.
My wife and children just stood there watching her. They kind of thought Grandma had lost it. She was just erratic with joy.
Now, think of the Lord expressing that kind of jubilation. Think of him dancing around in front of the angels and imagine the angels’ watching him, trying to take it all in.
I understand that some of you might not think that such words should be applied to God. You’re used to thinking “Joy is an inward disposition of the heart.” And you’ll say things like, “We can have joy in the midst of sorrow.” Or “Even at the graveside we can have joy while the tears roll down our eyes.”
For some people, that’s how they think of joy. It is like those old soda pop bottles. You can have fiz on the inside, but the outside of the bottle is very dark. That’s how joy should be. It should be something that’s inward.
And I’ll say, okay to that. But let’s get real here. How can you have “joy before the angels” if your joy is so morose looking on the outside?
You have to understand what is being said here. The joy that is spoken of here is a joy that is used in connection with festivals. It was a joy that involved merriment and dancing and song and great outward displays of elation. This is fiz that could not be corked. It is like the Champaign bottle that blows the cork right off and it all comes spraying out all over the place. That’s the kind of joy being spoken of here.
You hopefully understand what I’m trying to communicate here. I’m trying to help you see how exuberant the Lord is. And in seeing how boisterous his joy is, you will understand something of how lively his love for lost people is.
And as you begin to understand the temperament of God, you will understand the point Jesus is making. You have to understand that this parable wasn’t just told to comfort sinners and get them to realize that Jesus will receive them. It was also designed to be a rebuke to the Pharisees. What Jesus says here is a real a smack in the face to them.
This is a real stinger! He says, “This is how much rejoicing there is in heaven. God rejoices with exuberant joy!” And the implicit question is, “So, what’s with you? Why are you such a stick in the mud? If this is the way the Lord reacts when sinners repent, what does it mean if you don’t?”
Their inability to have compassion on these people and their inability to rejoice in that which God himself rejoices in says something about their own spiritual state.
We often talk about the exclusivity of the gospel. We believe that Christ is the only way of salvation. That’s a real scandal in our modern society. In a day where there is said to be many roads to heaven, people can get a little exercised about such a narrow-minded claim.
But we often fail to realize that the inclusivity of the gospel can be just as scandalous, if not more. The love of God is often greater than our own. It can extend to people we don’t necessarily think should have it.
We like to say that the love of God can go this far, but it certainly cannot go that far! I mean, he’s been a homosexual! She’s been a wild advocate of progressive causes and has been on the forefront every left-winged campaign that has ever come along.
This is the gauge that we need to use to measure just how self-righteous we are. We got to ask ourselves if we are delighting in the same things that God himself delights in. If we want to give a stiff arm to someone who is bowing in repentance, then we’ve become more righteous than Christ.
The point of this parable is that that kind of attitude is just as wicked as the sin we are offended at. And if that is our attitude, we need to repent of it.
The good news is that there is forgiveness for even that sin.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.