The Searching God
The Searching God
What is the question?
In the very early hours of Monday morning, I was in the city, and I witnessed a group of people holding a man down. There was a struggle, some yelling, the man fought back. Only a few metres away, were a couple of police officers, and some security guards, who did, absolutely nothing.
Now, a terrible crime, you might say.
I was in the Emergency Department at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and this group of people was a group of doctors and nurses trying to hold down a patient in their care, as they gave him life-saving treatment.
What makes a physical, even violent struggle, not a matter of grave concern? The context.
Where it happened, Why it happened, What had occurred leading up to that moment.
The context is important. The context is what will enable us to make sense of what we see and hear, and therefore to respond appropriately.
As we approach chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, we’re given two clues as to the context of these parables.
And just as my location in the Emergency Department on Monday morning gave me a clue that the scuffle I was witnessing wasn’t just a mugging, and therefore stopped me rushing to the man’s defence and actually probably disrupting his treatment, so these 2 clues will help us understand what response we ought to make to Jesus’ teaching in this chapter.
The first clue actually comes towards the end of chapter 13, where somebody asks Jesus, Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?
Jesus, then, as he journeys to Jerusalem over the next few chapters, teaches over and over about how people come into right relationship with God
How people are saved,
How people get to heaven,
Whichever language you want to use to describe it.
And so by the time we get to chapter 15, Jesus has reframed the question;, Not are only a few people going to be saved?, The question Jesus wants to ask is, “Will you saved?”
Will you recognise your need, and come to Jesus for the help he offers?
The other context clue is here at the beginning of chapter 15, where we see that these 3 stories tell us that Jesus is good news for sinful people.
Jesus is good news for sinners
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Many of you know that I’m a fan of “air quotes”!
And I know, it’s not considered very sophisticated to use “air quotes”, and people tell me not to do it when I go to places like Melbourne that are “sophisticated”!
But this is one place where “air quotes” are entirely justified, even necessary; tax collectors and “sinners.” In fact, the Old NIV translation actually put the word sinners in quotation marks!
Now, Luke’s not saying this was a group of people who were morally inferior to everyone else,
That here was a group of people who needed a saviour more desperately than others.
That’s definitely how this group of people were thought of by others, but that’s not how God saw them.
In fact, we’re probably supposed to think of these people who just couldn’t get enough of Jesus, as the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame of chapter 14 verse 21, just a few lines up, where Jesus says these are the ones, who will actually come to God.
These people who society thinks are outcasts, they’ll actually receive all the blessings of relationship with God, because they recognise their need,
Because they come to Jesus, for the help he offers.
They’re not more sinful than others, they’re just as sinful as anybody else,
They have ignored God just as much,
They have pushed God to the edge of their lives just as much as anyone else,
The difference is, they know it!
They come to recognise that sinful people need help from Jesus, if they’re going to get right with God.
There was one ancient rabbi, a Jewish religious leader, who said to his followers, “Let not a man associate with the godless”, people like this, “even to bring him near to the law”
That is, you can’t even mix with people whose lives look like they’re far from God, even if your goal is to bring them to God!
Well, Jesus has no time for that kind of thinking, does he?
It’s like Jesus is saying to these religious leaders, “You think you’ve got God all stitched up?,
You reckon you’ve got God all figured out?
You haven’t got a clue, about how someone gets into right relationship with God, about the effort that God will go to, to find people who are lost, and draw them to himself,
So let me show you how my coming is good news for sinful people.
That’s the context for understanding these parables. Let’s take a look at these first 2 together.
A lost sheep and a lost coin
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.
Mount Margaret Station in Queensland is Australia’s largest sheep station, and when it went up for sale a few years ago, it was reported that up to 76,000 sheep were shorn in a season.
A first century Palestinian flock was quite different, somewhere between 20 and 300 sheep. So this flock is medium-sized, it’s average. It’s your garden variety flock of sheep!
Most likely the shepherd wouldn’t leave the 99 sheep on their own. They often worked in a group, and you may be familiar with the story from much more recent history, when in 1946, a Bedouin shepherd boy left his flock of 55 sheep, with 2 other shepherds, his cousin and a friend, while he went exploring in a cave. What he found in the cave, was what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls!
So far, there’s nothing extraordinary in the story. The shepherd leaves his 99, and goes looking for the lost one.
Then, having found it, he carries it back on his shoulders to where it belongs.
The second parable is very similar, suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
We’re talking about roughly a day’s wage. It’s not a vast amount of money, but you don’t want to lose it.
So this woman turns on all the lights, gets out the broom, and works her way from one end of the house to the other, until she finds her lost coin.
And when she finds it, verse 9, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me;, I have found my lost coin.
Great effort is expended in finding what was lost
Two parables about searching for things that are lost.
And two things, I think, particularly worth noting.
The word parable means “to put side by side.”
So Jesus puts the things of the Kingdom of God, side by side with an experience, that really, we’re quite familiar with,
He puts the question, “How does someone get right with God?”, side by side with this, everyday experience,
He puts the question, “Why does Jesus hang out so much with sinful people?”, alongside the picture of someone searching diligently, and as he does, two things, stand out.
First, notice that great effort is expended in finding what was lost.
And what is it that’s lost?
Well, it’s a sheep and a coin, isn’t it?
But, putting side by side, the sheep and the coin point to something else.
And it’s not that we have to try and connect the dots between every element in the parable and some element in reality,
Here, Jesus tells us explicitly the point he’s trying to make!, what the point of connection is!
See verse 7, I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The story of the lost sheep is the story of a lost person.
The lost coin, is a lost person.
Someone who is far from God.
Someone who can’t do anything about their predicament.
But just as the shepherd goes looking for the sheep, and the woman goes looking for her coin, Jesus is in the business of seeking out lost people.
Now, Jesus talks here about a person who repents, clearly in the story, the sheep doesn’t repent!
“Baa, I’m sorry master for running away”,
And here’s where we see that trying to press the parable too far doesn’t work. The point is not that the sheep has seen the error of his ways and has turned back to the shepherd, the point is that the shepherd has put all his effort into finding that sheep, and bringing it back.
And it’s not that the sheep had so much intrinsic value, that the shepherd had no option but to leave the others and go out searching for it, and like I said, the coin wasn’t especially valuable,
What matters is that the sheep belonged to the shepherd,
The coin belonged to the woman.
That’s what makes the significant effort spent, all worthwhile.
And so just as the shepherd searches,
Just as the woman searches,
So Jesus wants us to understand God as one who searches for lost people.
I think I’ve spoken before about the time we came back from a family holiday, and somehow managed to leave Sprinkles, a little toy giraffe on the plane.
Sprinkles however, was not just any toy giraffe, he was the special toy, that our daughter Heidi had had since she was born!
He probably only cost $12 at Myer. The effort we went to, the frantic phone calls, the discussions of could we buy a new one, and if we could buy a new one, was there a way that we could quickly make him look like he’s endured 3 years worth of chewing and sucking, so we pass him off as the old one?!
We weren’t driven to that because of his material value, but because he belonged to Heidi.
He was hers.
When Jesus seeks out these “sinners”, these people who are far from God, it’s not because they’re the highly valued members of society.
It’s not that they could really do a lot for the Kingdom of God, and so it’s smart, it makes good sense for Jesus to seek them out, some kind of strategic partnership,
They have not got themselves into a position where they have gone most of the way, and so Jesus just kind of helps them over the line.
They can’t offer Jesus anything.
And in the case of these “sinners”, that is plainly obvious.
They know that.
Everybody else knows that.
There’s nothing that they can offer to God.
And yet, they are valuable to Jesus.
These are people with whom he longs to have a relationship.
That’s why he searches.
That’s why such a significant cost is incurred, in lost people being brought back to God. It cost Jesus his life!
And yet that effort, that cost, is not too great.
That is the price that Jesus himself is willing to pay.
Well, Jesus says, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
And verse 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
God rejoices when the lost are found
And this is the 2nd big point we’re supposed to take away from these parables;, the rejoicing in heaven, that accompanies someone turning from their old way of life, serving themselves, and turning to Jesus, and serving him.
It may be that in using the future tense in verse 10, there will be more rejoicing in heaven, Jesus is deliberately casting his hearers minds forward to the last judgment. On that day, there will be much rejoicing.
When it is declared before all of creation, that here was someone who deserved to be punished because of their life lived in rejection of God, but that they have been turned around and trusted in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection for reconciliation with God,
Well that scene before the judgment seat of God, will be a place of much rejoicing.
It may just be more stylistic. The present tense is used in the next parable. Either way, the point is that eternity echoes with the sound of rejoicing that accompanies repentance and trust in Jesus.
So momentous, on the scale of eternity, is someone far from God being brought near to God through trusting in the death of Jesus, that heaven is filled with the sound of rejoicing.
And if that line in verse 10, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God, sounds like a round-a-bout sort of description, it is! It was a typically Jewish way of speaking, not to attribute, outlandish displays of emotion directly to God.
Do you remember at the London Olympics, when the “queen”, parachuted into the stadium at the opening ceremony?
Can you imagine the person whose job it was to suggest that to the Queen, “We’ll get a stunt double and dress him up to look like you and jump out of a helicopter!”
It’s just so far from what we expect the Queen to be a part of. And that was how the Jewish people thought about God, they didn’t’ want to make it sound like he was prone to extremes, so they’d talk about things happening near God, rather than saying God was doing them.
But who is the one in the presence of the angels of God?
God himself is in the presence of the angels of God!
As Jesus calls sinful, rebellious people to repentance, he brings joy to his heavenly father.
Sometimes when young people, high schoolers, or uni students who have connected with our church becomes Christians, I get a chance to meet their parents.
Sometimes the parents just want to find out a little about us as a church,
Sometimes the parents have been challenged by the obvious change that has come over their child, and so they want to find out about Christian things also,
But sometimes I get shall we say summoned, to the family home, so that, well really, so that the young person in question and I can both receive a lecture!
And in these situations, the parent painstakingly explains for us, what they think Christianity is all about, and then they say to their child something like, “Well this decision you’ve made to become a Christian, it’s just a stage,
You’ll grow out of it,
It won’t really make much difference in the long-run.”
But Jesus’ parables here tell us that that perspective couldn’t be more wrong, could it?
What we do in life, echoes in eternity.
That sounds like it comes from the Bible. It actually comes from the movie Gladiator! But it’s true!
Heaven rings, with the sound of rejoicing, when one person turns to Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation. And the consequences are not just short-term, temporal, a passing phase,
They are eternal, and far reaching, and the applause for Christ, will resound, when that one person walks into his presence on that last day.
Remember the context?
How can you be saved?
Why does Jesus spend so much time with sinners?
Well Jesus tells these parables to say to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, “You wonder why I spend my time with these “sinners”, these people who are far from God?, Well it’s because God is in the business of seeking out the lost.
And it’s the possibility, the hope, the expectation, of this reversal, of someone far from God, realising their need for God, that’s why Jesus came,
That’s why he loves to spend time, with people who are far from God.
The next parable is a bit different isn’t it?
We won’t read the whole story, but let me highlight 3 things that I think are especially worth noting.
People who separate themselves from God are lost
First of all, lost people are really lost.
There was really no more self-centred, hateful thing, that a son could say to his father in the ancient world than, give me my share of the estate
It is to say, “I wish you were dead.” In fact, I so much can’t wait for you to be dead, that I want my inheritance now. “I want to live, with all your good stuff, but I want to live without you.”
Imagine saying to your parents, I want your money,
I want your investments,
I want your superannuation,
But I don’t want anything to do with you, ever again.
That’s the younger son in the story, and that’s, what every single one of us, has said to God.
I’ll take the blessings from your hand, thanks very much, but I don’t want you, and I don’t want relationship.
You just stay over there, and let me get on with my life, in the good world you’ve made for me.
What a terrible picture of broken relationship.
These religious leaders, and lots of people today, think that sin is about doing wrong things, that there’s a list of behaviours that if we do them, God is displeased, but if we can avoid them, we’re OK with God.
This parable of Jesus, perhaps for some of us, like for the religious leaders, redefines sin.
See, the offence of this younger son, is not his wild living, verse 13, that’s not the crisis in the story.
His terrible offence is the rejection of, and separation from his father.
That’s what sin is. Rejection and separation.
Saying to God, “I’ll have all the good things, but I’ll have nothing to do with you,
I’ll take all the blessings of life, but I don’t want you in my life.
And so, having wasted all his wealth, on fast women, and fast cars, or fast camels, whatever it is, that’s where we get the word prodigal from, it means extravagantly wasteful, verse 15, he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
If saying “I want my inheritance” was the worst thing you could say to your dad, then working for a foreigner, feeding his pigs was the worst thing a Jewish boy could do for a job.
You know how people say things like, “just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom and you can’t go any lower, you find a new bottom”!
Well this guy has hit all the bottoms!
There is really nothing more that Jesus could say, that would make his situation sound worse, that would make people realise the terrible predicament, that rejection and separation leads to.
And so let’s not miss the parallel.
The lost son here is “put alongside”, lost people,
People who are estranged from God,
People who area living in God’s world, without any reference to God.
To reject God,
To separate ourselves from God,
To live as is God is dead or does not exist,
Is to be lost,
Is to have hit all the bottoms.
People who have separated themselves from God, are lost.
Oh, it might not look like they’re lost,
While the son still had money in his pocket, he didn’t look lost.
He was lost the moment he walked out the door, even when it still looked like things were going well for him, it just becomes more obvious as time goes on.
When you look at your friends who don’t know Jesus, is that what you see?
When you see people involved in other religions, do you think “oh well, I guess some sense of spirituality is good”, or do you see them as lost, and far from their father in heaven, who gives them every good gift that they enjoy?
If you’re not a Christian, we’re really pleased you’re here with us, and this is a great place to find out what Christians believe, what God has done for us.
If that’s you, do you hear where Jesus says you are?
Lost! Out of relationship with the Father who gives you every good gift that you enjoy.
See, it’s not that God is lost, and we’re diligently searching for him,
People who separate themselves from God, are lost.
God is a gracious searching, forgiving, rejoicing, celebrating father
But, this parable is sometimes called “The gospel within the gospel”, and, not without reason.
Yes, people who have turned their backs on God are really lost, but look at how God responds to repentance. The father in the story is supposed to teach us something of what God is like, and here we see that God is a gracious searching, forgiving, rejoicing, celebrating father.
Of course, the sheep and the coin didn’t repent, but this prodigal son does, he comes to his senses, realises there is no point living as if his father doesn’t exist, when he clearly does, when he clearly offers him a much better life than this.
And so even though he has treated his dad so shamefully, Verse 18, I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
This is repentance, turning around
A change of mind, that leads to a change of behaviour. And look at what coming to God in repentance reveals about God.
I meet so many people who think of God as some kind of hard task master, just waiting for us to mess up, so he can whack us with a big stick.
I know people, whose experience of the hardships of life have led them to conclude that God is like some kind of twisted schoolboy, using his magnifying glass to burn ants with the light of the sun, God sitting on high, toying with us for his enjoyment.
Still others, and maybe some of us here, think God must be kind of stand-offish. Maybe years of religious practice has kept God at arms’ length. We can’t imagine God responding to us, moved by us at all.
But take a look at this gracious searching, forgiving, rejoicing, celebrating father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him
Again, if you can’t imagine the Queen parachuting into the Olympic stadium, that’s how hard it was to imagine a wealthy, middle eastern patriarch running down the road.
No doubt the fact that Jesus pictures the father seeing his son, while he was still a long way off is meant to tell us that the father was looking, waiting for his son to return. It certainly fits with the searching that goes in the earlier parables.
The boy starts his speech. No doubt he’s been rehearsing it all the way home, but dad cuts him off, “no need for that.”
And although the son knows he has no claim on his father’s kindness, he experiences a welcome and an embrace more generous than anything he could have possibly imagined.
The best robe,
And a feast.
When you put on your best spread, slave for hours in the kitchen, who do you invite?
Would you invite, someone who has put all their energies into ignoring you, rejecting you, wishing you were dead, but still demanding things from you?
We might, we would, I hope, extend forgiveness, offer reconciliation, but that’s hard work.
And someone who’s treated us like that tends not to be the recipient of our most extreme displays of generosity, do they?
But what’s the picture of God that Jesus presents here?
God is only too pleased, to have repentant sinners at his table.
The very best that God has to offer, he offers to people who have spent a lifetime ignoring him,
Thinking they’re better off without him,
Accepting blessing from his hand, without any acknowledgment of him.
Anyone, who lives like that, can repent, simply turn to God, and they will be welcomed in, with the very best that God has to offer:
They receive God himself.
They receive relationship with God, for eternity.
Maybe you don’t call yourself a Christian,
Maybe you’d like to be, but, you can’t quite imagine how God might respond.
You may have been polite in your rejection of God, or you may have been more like this son,
But Jesus says, this is the welcome that anyone will receive, if they turn to God and say, “I’m sorry, I have sinned against you.”
God is a gracious, searching, forgiving, rejoicing, celebrating father.
Jesus condemns those who despise God’s gracious response.
The 3rd really important lesson from this story, is a warning to those who despise God’s gracious response to sinful people.
In this story, the part of the religious leaders, getting all hot under the collar at who Jesus spends his time with, they’re played by the older brother.
He’s been good boy.
Followed the rules,
He finds out that his brother has come back, been welcomed graciously, by their father, and, verse 28 he became angry, and refused to go in.
This older brother, he had been, on the inside, but now he’s on the outside, left out of the celebrations thrown by his searching, forgiving, rejoicing, celebrating father.
He’s not left out because he’s done something wrong, but because he objects to his father’s lavish and generous behaviour.
He complains to his dad, you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends,
But his father says it’s not about fairness, “every single goat, and sheep, and donkey I own is yours, you’re not missing out.
But you should be in there with us, celebrating with us, but now you have, separated yourself.
Do you see how the tables have turned?
Now the older son is rejecting his father’s relationship and presence, because he objects to the gracious and generous conduct.
The first two parables picture for us, the great joy in heaven, when people who have separated themselves from God come into relationship with God through Jesus.
This parable adds a new dimension, those who see God’s great generosity, should share in that rejoicing.
Do you know, I wish there was a verse 33. “And the elder son, said, “Yes, dad, what an idiot I’ve been, the lost has been found, and your generous response shows the depths of your love. Of course I’ll come in.
I want to see my brother.”
That’s not there, in case you were wondering! But maybe that’s because Jesus wanted his hearers, including us, to work out how the story finishes for us.
It leaves us with a question, doesn’t it?
What is our response, to the overwhelmingly generous action of God, towards those who turn to him in repentance?
Have we tried so hard, to impress God with our supposed goodness, with our efforts, that we despise his welcome of those who clearly come to him with nothing?
Does someone coming to faith in Jesus bring this kind of joy and celebration?
Or have we forgotten that we too, were once those who came back to God,
Who were sought out by the one the English Poet Francis Thompson called “the hound of heaven”,
We were the lost, brought near by the searching God.