The value of each sinner who repents

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Sermon for Trinity 3

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

Today is a day for rejoicing. It happens to be Father’s Day, and it may be that some of you are rejoicing because of that. If you had or have or are a loving a father, that’s good reason to rejoice and give thanks to God for such a gift. It’s a gift that, because of the sin that infects our fallen human race, not all people have. But regardless, today is a day for rejoicing, if for no other reason than this: sinners have come near to Jesus to hear Him. Jesus assures us that, through this preaching of the Gospel, through this ministry of the Word, He Himself is present among us. And you’ve come to hear Him, haven’t you? You’ve come because you know you have sinned against the holy God, but that He is willing to receive you for the sake of His holy Son Jesus.

It’s not the first time sinners have drawn near to hear Jesus, of course. Our Gospel describes the scene as dishonest tax collectors and public, well-known sinners came to Jesus to hear Him. It also describes how the Pharisees and scribes complained when they saw it, complained that Jesus was welcoming such people and even sitting down at the table with them to eat with them.

What we have before us in the Gospel are two specific groups of people. Group #1 is made up of open sinners who know they are sinners and who are turning to God in repentance. Group #2 is made up of secret sinners who think they have no need to repent, who don’t think of themselves as sinners at all. And then we have Jesus, who is the only one in this story who isn’t a sinner, but who has come to seek and to save sinners, to call them to repentance and to bring them safely into His Father’s house.

There are three parables in Luke 15; the first two are included in our Gospel, the parable of the lost sheep, and of the lost coin. The parable of the lost son—the prodigal son—follows. In each parable, someone or something is lost. One out of a hundred sheep goes astray. One out of ten coins is lost. One out of two brothers demands an early inheritance from his father, and then leaves his father’s house and goes and leads a careless, sinful life. In each parable, the lost thing is loved and highly valued by the one who lost it. You can see that as the shepherd leaves the other 99 sheep behind and goes out searching for his lost sheep; as the woman drops everything and sweeps the house thoroughly in search of her lost coin; as the father goes running out to welcome his son at the first sight of his return. And in each parable, when the lost thing is found, the finder and everyone who loves the finder rejoice and celebrate. But, as we see at the end of the parable of the lost son, those who do not love the Father, those who think they have no need of the Father’s mercy, who think they have earned a place in the Father’s house by their hard work do not rejoice when the lost one is found, but instead grind their teeth in anger.

So these parables are told, first, as a warning to those people, to Group #2, to those who think they have no need to repent. It’s like you have one group of people who are covered head to toe in sewage. The other group of people are covered neck to toe in sewage. The head looks clean enough, but the rest of the body is disgustingly filthy. The first group comes to Jesus to be washed clean, while the second group can’t believe Jesus would ever associate with such dirty people as the first group. That’s the situation we’re talking about here. That’s what the Pharisees were doing when the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear Jesus: denying their own filthiness, while despising the other sinners for their filthiness and despising Jesus for offering to wash them clean.

All have sinned. None are clean, by nature. The sins of some people are obvious. The sins of others are less obvious. But all are obvious to God, which is why He calls all men alike to repent, to acknowledge that they deserve His wrath and punishment, to be sorrowful over their sins, and to look to Him, not for praise, not for “acceptance” of their sins, but for mercy, for pardon for their sins, for cleansing.

For them, for those sinners who repent of their sins and of their sinfulness, there is great comfort in these parables, not just for sinners in general, but for each one, for one sinner who repents. Jesus has come to find each one, because He loves and values each one, just like the shepherd who lost one sheep, just like the woman who lost one coin, just like the father who lost one son. It’s the only reason Christ has come. He hasn’t come to set up a glorious kingdom on earth made up of good and righteous people who get to rule the world. He leaves those who think they’re good and righteous behind, in fact, and spends all of His time seeking and saving that which was lost.

How does He do that? He sends out His Word and convicts people of their sin. Then He presents Himself to us as the good and merciful Savior who loved and valued all of us, each of us, took all sin upon Himself and suffered for it on the cross. By means of this Gospel, His Holy Spirit brings us to trust in Christ, like a shepherd hoisting a sheep up onto his shoulders and carrying it home. And then, always, every time, for each one individually, there is rejoicing in heaven. The Father rejoices. The Son rejoices. The Holy Spirit rejoices. And all the company of heaven rejoices together with our Triune God, because those who love God love the things God loves. Those who love God love to see the precious blood of Christ covering yet another sinner. They love to welcome penitent sinners into their Father’s house.

That’s what the Church is all about: proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the world and welcoming the penitent into the Church, into the Father’s house, with gladness and with rejoicing.

But it’s never as if we in the Church become like those “just persons” who need no repentance, not as long as we live on this earth. Our goal here on earth isn’t to become like the 99 sheep whom the shepherd left behind; it was a stinging rebuke when Jesus said to the Pharisees that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just persons who need no repentance. May we never become “just persons” like that, just in our own minds, who consider ourselves more righteous than other people. By faith in Christ, God does indeed count us as perfectly righteous, just people, saints, holy ones. And, as believers in Christ, we do strive to drown our sinful flesh by daily repentance and to live new lives of obedience and service to God. But we are always sinner-saints on this earth. Saints before God by faith in Christ, but still sinners who always need to repent, and who always need to be where Jesus is.

If you recognize that, then you won’t despise open sinners as they hear the Word of Christ and are brought to repentance. And you won’t view the Church as an elite club for clean people, but as a hospital where sinners are always being treated, always being cleansed, where Christ is present in Word and Sacrament, still seeking, still saving, still forgiving, still healing.

That’s why today is a day for rejoicing. Whether or not we have new sinners coming to hear the Word of Jesus with us, each one who came here this morning in repentance, each one who comes over and over again to hear Jesus and to receive Jesus’ body and blood is that one sinner who repents, deeply loved and highly valued by God. And so we rejoice with our Father on this Father’s Day, because He is getting what He desires the most. He has sought and He has found many lost sheep, and He is bringing them even now safely into His house. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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