Sermon for Trinity 3
Micah 7:18-20 + 1 Peter 5:6-1 + Luke 15:1-10
You can’t get around it: God loves the lost. Every Scripture that you’ve heard today, from the Introit to the Gradual to the Verse to the Readings themselves all cry out in unison: God loves the lost. He seeks them. He calls them to repentance and forgives the one who repents. Not just a little bit. Not grudgingly or half-heartedly. But eagerly. God is eager to seek out lost sinners and eager to bring them back into His house by forgiving them their sins. The prophet Micah stands back in awe at this God, with his jaw on the floor: Who is a God like You, Pardoning iniquity And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?
That’s what Jesus was doing in the Gospel today, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage. That “remnant”—the leftovers of Israel—was the tax collectors and the public, professional sinners. They had long ago wandered away from God’s kingdom. They had chosen a life of dishonesty, of carnal pleasure, of earthly gain. They had turned away from God and His Word, turned away from faith and toward the sin that so easily entangles. And they were lost.
But then Jesus came, looking for them. God had sent Jesus to find just these very people—sinful people, rebellious people, lost people. God Himself, in the Person of Jesus, had come looking for them. More than that, God’s Son was going to pay for their sins, suffer for their sins, die for their sins, because He wanted them back—back in His kingdom, back in His house. He called them to repent of their sin and to trust in Him—that He would forgive them, for everything, and bring them back into God’s house, for free.
And lo and behold, they believed Him. Our Gospel says that all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. Their dead hearts were stirred to life by Jesus’ Word of repentance and forgiveness, and they were drawn to Him and His Gospel. And Jesus was overjoyed to have found them.
But the Pharisees and scribes were not. The Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” You can picture the look of disgust on their faces. Disgust toward the sinners, and disdain for Jesus, who dared to dirty Himself by associating with such great sinners, who dared to soil God’s holy name by preaching about God’s kingdom to people such as these, who were obviously unworthy to sit at the table with God.
But these men who thought they were such wonderful keepers of God’s law demonstrated with their complaining just how dirty they were, too. “White-washed tombs” Jesus once called them, and rightly so. Because while the cheating tax collectors and sinners were filthy inside and out, the Pharisees kept the outside clean enough, while they just rotted away on the inside, and still imagined that they were righteous. That’s called hypocrisy.
It’s true, God’s Law commanded the tax collectors not to steal and commanded the prostitutes not to commit adultery, but they didn’t listen, so God’s Law condemned them. But God’s Law also commands us to love our neighbor, to seek the good and the wellbeing of our neighbor, to have a compassionate, loving heart even toward our enemies, to yearn for their repentance and salvation, and to sacrifice our possessions or our good name to help our neighbor in need. God’s Law damns the arrogant eyebrows and the dirty looks at those we think of as being beneath us. His Law condemns the sharp tongue, and the loveless words, and the heart that would be just as glad not to have to share the kingdom of God with people who, in our opinion, don’t deserve to be there.
The Pharisees stood condemned by Jesus, as does the Pharisee who dwells in us, not because the Pharisees’ sins were greater than the sins of the tax collectors and public sinners, but because the Pharisees hated the tax collectors and public sinners, and they hated the forgiveness Jesus was giving to the tax collectors and sinners. And if you hate God’s forgiveness for others, then there is no forgiveness left for you, because it’s the same God who gave Jesus as a sacrifice for you as for them. If you want to cheapen His sacrifice for them, then don’t imagine that it will be worth enough to cover you, either. You can’t play around with Jesus’ blood that way.
So, whom does God want to forgive? We see very clearly in our Gospel: He wants to forgive everyone. He sent Jesus to die for everyone. He calls everyone, through the Gospel, to repent—to acknowledge their sins and to mourn over them, and to trust in Christ for forgiveness. God wants to forgive everyone.
Now, whom does God forgive? Who receives forgiveness from God? Jesus illustrates it in the parables He told. Jesus is the shepherd who saw that one sheep out of a hundred had wandered away. And he left everything to go searching for it. Jesus is the woman in the parable who noticed that one coin had gone missing. And she lit the lamp and swept the house and searched and searched for it until she found it. Jesus, too, lights the lamp of His Gospel and goes out with it, leaving everything behind—His heavenly glory, His comfort, His own wellbeing—to go searching for the sinner. The sinner who acknowledges his sin and looks to Jesus for forgiveness is the one sinner who repents. He or she is the one whom God forgives. He or she is the one whom Jesus scoops up from the thicket and places on His shoulders. He or she is the one who rides back home with Jesus and for whom Jesus throws a party, so that He can celebrate with the angels and with all of heaven: This one was lost, but see! I found him!
And whom doesn’t God forgive? Jesus says to the Pharisees, I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. Jesus viewed the tax collectors and the sinners as treasures, and as cause for rejoicing. But heaven does not rejoice at all in “just persons—self-righteous people—who need no repentance.” God does not forgive them. Why? Because to be self-righteous is to attempt to cover yourself before God in your own righteousness. To be self-righteous is to stand before God and point to your history, your behavior, your attitude, your heart. And that is nothing else than to plead to be judged by God’s law. But God’s law demands more than you can give. God’s law demands perfect obedience and a perfectly loving, compassionate, selfless heart. And no one can give that.
On the other hand, the one who repents is the one who stops relying on his own deeds and flees for refuge to Christ. Now, there is righteousness. There is goodness. The one who repents, fleeing in faith to Christ, is covered in Jesus’ righteousness. And the Scriptures declare about that one, “Blessed is he whose lawless deeds are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”
So blessed are the tax collectors and the sinners who repent! God has found them and forgiven them and rejoices over them! And that isn’t just a one-time thing. It’s true, there was a time when you were lost in unbelief, and Jesus found you with His Gospel and converted you to faith and baptized you into His family. But He wasn’t done bringing you home yet at that time. It’s not as if Jesus goes looking for the lost, finds them and then moves on to others. Repenting of sin and fleeing in faith to Christ is to be a daily activity for the Christian. As Luther said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’, He meant for the whole life of believers to be one of repentance.” That’s why Jesus continues to send His Gospel to your ears, and His body and blood to your mouth, to keep forgiving your sins, to keep you steadfast in the faith, to keep you riding on His shoulders until He delivers you at last to your heavenly home.
The one whom God forgives is the one who flees in faith to Jesus for forgiveness. There will never be a day in your life when you don’t need repentance, when you don’t need to flee in faith to Jesus for forgiveness. The warning in our Gospel, is this: Let the day never come when you think you don’t need repentance. Let the day never come, as it did for the Pharisees, when you think you don’t need to flee in faith to Jesus for forgiveness. You’ll never be safe on your own. You’ll always be safe riding on the shoulders of the Shepherd. Amen.