A God Who Welcomes Sinners – Who Would Have Thought?

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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity

Luke 15:1-10  +  Micah 7:18-20  +  1 Peter 5:6-11

God and good people go together – don’t they?  We normally picture God surrounded by saints and angels, with people who are, at least mostly honest, decent, hard-working, charitable, moral people – and with good reason.  The Bible spells out for us in Psalm 15 who may dwell in the Lord’s presence: LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the LORD, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.

It’s no wonder, then, that people figure that God and sinners just don’t mix.  A couple of times in the last month people have said to me, “Pastor, it’s a wonder the church didn’t burn down when so-and-so came to church.” Or, “Pastor, if I show up at your church, I’m gonna burst into flames as soon as I walk through the door.” Why? Because God and sinners are like fire and gasoline. Everybody knows that.

Of course, if that’s true, then what are you doing here?  Not a one of you is blameless.  Not a one of you would be measured as a good person if God took out the measuring stick of his law, and neither would I.  Oh, no. God’s law calls you a damned sinner – you in the front row and you in the back and everyone in between.  Like fire and gasoline – that’s what an encounter would be like between any of you and the holy and righteous God.

So what is this in our Gospel?  What is this where the worst sinners in society were gathering around the Son of God – gathering around him to listen to him?  And they don’t burn up, and Jesus doesn’t send them away. Instead, he receives them, spends time with them, sits down to dinner with them.  A God who welcomes sinners – who would have thought?

Certainly not the Pharisees and not the teachers of the law. They were mad when they saw Jesus associating with the dregs of society, precisely because he claimed to have been sent by God. And God, they knew, would burn up those thieving tax collectors and sinners if God showed up on the scene.  If God showed up on the scene, he would know how righteous and decent and moral these Pharisees and teachers of the law were.  He would come and stand next to them and tell them what a good job they were doing – even as the sinners burned in their presence.  But not Jesus.  Oh, no.  “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Humph!

Now, you can bet these Pharisees and teachers of the law knew their Old Testament Scriptures.  They knew Psalm 15 which I read to you a moment ago.  But they also knew some very different passages.  Like, when the people of Israel made a golden calf and began bowing down to it and worshiping it.  And God threatened to burn them up, but Moses interceded for them and God forgave them and stayed with them all the way to the Promised Land.  They knew of David’s adulteries and murders, but also of God’s forgiveness.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law also knew of this prophet named Jonah. You remember Jonah?  After the part about the storm at sea and the big fish that swallowed him, he preached repentance and destruction to the wicked sinners in Nineveh.  And God turned back his anger and had compassion on those sinners and didn’t destroy them.  But that made Jonah angry.  He complained to God, “This is why I fled from you in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

So God taught him a little lesson.  Jonah went to a place outside the city to sulk.  And it was blazing hot in that desert, but God made a vine grow up very quickly to cover Jonah and give him some shade.  That made Jonah happy.  But the next day God caused a worm to eat up the vine, and then he sent a scorching wind right into Jonah’s face, and he got angry again.

And God said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

You see, God did for Jonah exactly what Jesus did for the Pharisees and teachers of the law in the Gospel.  They were so angry that Jesus would welcome sinners. And so he showed them what it was all about.  He showed them from their own experience so that they would be ashamed of their anger and their sinful, disgusting pride.  He showed them so that they would know how far they themselves had fallen from grace, that they no longer even recognized what the love and compassion of God looked like.

“Which one of you, if he had a hundred sheep and lost one, wouldn’t leave the 99 in the desert to search for the one that was lost?  He’d search until he found it, and then he’d scoop it up in his arms, wrap it around his shoulders and head back home and celebrate.  ‘Look what I found!  My lost sheep!’”  If you would do that over a single sheep, Jesus taught them, shouldn’t God do it for the many sinners who have wandered away from his loving care?

“Or what woman, if she lost one coin out of ten, wouldn’t light a lamp and sweep the house until she found it, and the call her friends over to celebrate with her –  ‘Look what I found!  My lost coin!’”?  If a woman would get that excited over a single lost coin, Jesus taught them, shouldn’t God get that excited about finding a lost soul?

And the good news is, God does get that excited about finding sinners who have run away from him; he does search for them and he does find them and he does celebrate with all of heaven when he finds them and brings them home.  “Look what I found!”

And this is where all the world’s wisdom falls to pieces, and all the false saints are revealed for the hypocrites they are:  I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. You want to count yourself among the righteous persons who do not need to repent, like the Pharisees counted themselves among the righteous, righteous, decent, good, moral, fitting company for God, because you haven’t done too much bad stuff in your life, or because you’ve done at least your fair share of good?  Then woe to you, because Jesus will not help you. He will not welcome you or eat with you or invite you into his kingdom.  Do you want to see the sinners of the world burned up and given what’s coming to ‘em?  Do you want to keep them away from our nice, pretty church, or at least, not associate with them yourself if they do come?  Then woe to you!  You have no Savior.  You’re on your own.  The shepherd leaves the 99 “righteous” behind.  God is a God who welcomes and rejoices over sinners who repent; he has no time for anyone else.

God’s law calls each of you a damned sinner.  But rather than deny it or run away from it, embrace it, because that means you are the one for whom Jesus has come looking.  He calls you to repentance – to see and to mourn over your sin and to trust in him for the forgiveness of sins, not a forgiveness that he pulls out of thin air, but a forgiveness that he purchased for you with his own blood when, on the cross, Jesus became a sinner like you. More than that, it was your sins that he bore and that he paid for with his suffering and death.  That’s where God and The Sinner met to settle accounts once and for all.  Fire and gasoline came together, and the Sinner was incinerated.

That’s how God can welcome sinners, not because sin is acceptable to him, but because sin has already been dealt with. That’s how Jesus could welcome sinners, because he threw in his lot with them – not committing their sins, but bearing their sins on the cross and burying their sins in the tomb.  Through his Word he now calls sinners to repentance and covers sinners with baptismal clothing and comforts sinners with his Absolution and feeds sinners with his body and blood.

So, you see, the picture of the shepherd finding his lost sheep and the woman finding her lost coin isn’t a picture of a one-time event in your life when Jesus first called you to repentance and then rejoiced over you – and then moved on to other people.  I’m afraid that’s how too many people misunderstand these verses of our Gospel, as if believing Christians were the 99 sheep whom Jesus is always leaving to go after other people. But no, the 99 righteous persons who do not need repentance – that’s not you.  You sin every day. Even your best works are still accompanied by sin.  Every day the devil still prowls around, looking for someone to devour, someone like you.

No, as the first of Luther’s famous 95 Theses says, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said, ‘Repent!’, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”  When Jesus first came to you with his Gospel and you believed and were baptized, you might say that’s when Jesus found you, and justified you, and began turning you into the saint that his Gospel already declares you to be.  But he isn’t done bringing you home yet. He hasn’t tossed you into his big flock of sheep to move on to other more needy people.  He hasn’t finished rejoicing over you yet.  The whole life of a believer is a riding on the shoulders of the shepherd as he brings you home to his heavenly Father and to the holy angels.  That’s when the heavenly celebration will really get going, when God welcomes sinners – forgiven sinners – into his kingdom of glory.

A God who welcomes sinners – who would have thought?  We join with the prophet Micah in marveling at God’s amazing grace, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”  Let this be known in all the world, and let it be known to all the people you know.  They will not burst into flames if they visit our church. On the contrary, this is where the flames are put out. Our God is a God who loves sinners, who seeks sinners, who gave his Son for sinners, and who welcomes into his presence every sinner who believes in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  For his sake.  Amen.

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