OCCASIONS FOR JOY
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on September 15, 2013 (Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” – Luke 15:1-10
We are reading passages from the prophet Jeremiah for a few weeks in our worship services. This one is pretty grim – a prediction of coming defeat and destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area – a prediction that came true. The way I understand Jeremiah and the other biblical prophets is that they were not so much folks who could foresee the distant future by reading some crystal ball, as they were people who could read the signs of the times. Babylon was the rising world power in the sixth century B.C.E., and they had already conquered several other kingdoms in the ancient near east. It was probably pretty clear that they were going to attack Jerusalem as well.
What was shocking was that Jeremiah believed they would succeed. Many other people in Jerusalem believed they were an exceptional kingdom — that God would protect them from defeat. But Jeremiah accused the leaders and people of Jerusalem of being “skilled in doing evil,” and of having no understanding of the Lord God. So Jeremiah prophesied that God was actually going to use the Babylonians to punish Jerusalem and Judah.
Something that is interesting about the text is that the destruction described by Jeremiah is similar to the story of how God created the earth in the book of Genesis – only in reverse. Humans would disappear, and animals, vegetation, dry land, and finally light. The earth would return to a state of chaos, through the hot wind of judgment from God. Pretty grim. Jeremiah paints a powerful, frightening image – not one of his more “uplifting” oracles.
That is a difficult idea for us to accept in our mainline Protestant Christian tradition – that God would use violence and warfare to punish God’s own people for their sins. There are some Christian traditions that seem to be big on God’s judgment and punishment. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans eight years ago, there were many Christian preachers who declared it was God’s punishment for some of the things that supposedly happen in New Orleans. But the problem is that disasters also hit cities that are supposed to have a lot of good, Christian believers – like the terrible tornadoes that struck near Oklahoma City earlier this year. Not many folks were claiming that was God’s punishment!
But Jeremiah believed the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s doing – because he believed that everything that happened was under God’s control. That makes God seem like an angry, violent, abusive deity – not a particularly endearing or helpful image! But this was no sudden temper tantrum. Instead, God had been warning the people for centuries through various prophets that their worship of other gods, their reliance on their own power and cleverness, their failure to care for one another, and their ingratitude would eventually lead to their destruction. I believe what happened to Jerusalem was a consequence of their own foolishness and faithlessness, rather than as a deliberate act of punishment by God – although clearly God did nothing to stop the destruction.
Still, as much as we prefer to think about how loving God is, our Christian faith affirms that we will all stand before God’s judgment and face God’s punishment someday. God, who created us, has every right to judge us and hold us accountable for the way we live.
But our gospel lesson for this morning presents to us another side of the same God – God’s mercy. The God that Jesus reveals to us goes out of her way to seek us out when we get lost.
In the events of the past few weeks, President Obama has been criticized by some for being indecisive in his dealings with the regime of President Assad of Syria. For a few days, we seemed poised for a military attack against Syria for their supposed use of chemical weapons. But then, the President waited for congress to authorize a military strike, and now even that is on hold as diplomatic efforts go forward.
If you think that is being indecisive, that is nothing compared to the way God deals with us. Even though we are fully deserving of being cut off from God and left on our own, God instead seeks us out, time and again, like a shepherd going after a lost sheep; like a woman searching for a lost coin. We mean that much. We are that precious.
We live in that tension between God’s righteous judgment and God’s mercy.
But these parables – when we look at them carefully – make God’s mercy much richer. They raise some interesting questions for me. For one, what happens if a lost sheep doesn’t want to be found? There are many people who want nothing to do with God – believing that God is cruel, or restricts our freedom too much. Or maybe they believe there really is no God, like a sheep that decides that the shepherd doesn’t exist.
Maybe that’s where the people of Jerusalem were in Jeremiah’s time. As much as they may have claimed that they were the sheep of God’s pasture, deep down many of them wanted their freedom and didn’t want to be found. But as they found out, it’s dangerous for a sheep to be alone, without a shepherd.
Sometimes we hide from the Shepherd as well. And the Shepherd may leave us where we are until we are ready to return home.
And a lost coin, without belonging to someone who treasures it, has no value – it is just a hunk of metal in the dirt or in a hidden corner. Perhaps in the same way, we find we have value when we live in service to God.
Another interesting question is who, in the parable of the lost sheep, is really lost? The lost sheep may think the 99 all wandered off and got lost! The Pharisees and scribes probably thought they were among the 99, and the tax collectors and sinners were the ones who lost. But maybe those who think they are in the right are the ones who are truly lost. We in the church may believe that we are in right relationship with God and those who don’t come to church are lost; but maybe we’ve got it wrong – that God is really at work out there in the world, and we have gotten lost here in the church! At some point in our life we all wander away from the shepherd and need to be found again.
The other puzzling part of these parables is the comparison between a shepherd rejoicing over finding a lost sheep, or a woman throwing a party because she found a lost coin, with the joy of God when a sinner repents. But in the parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin never did anything like “repenting” – they just got found and returned where they belonged.
A lot of people usually think of “repenting” as giving up some vice that we enjoy. But perhaps we don’t have to be perfect. Perhaps we just have to be willing to be found by God, and to entrust ourselves to God’s care.
That’s the great thing about the parables of Jesus – just when you think you know what they are about, they surprise you by making you look at the world and at faith differently.
The life of faith is to belong to a God who is both righteous, and merciful. A false god is one that doesn’t care what people do, or will punish us quickly for any failure. But the God of Jeremiah and Jesus is often described in the Bible as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. “ (Psalm 103:8 and others). Praise be to this paradoxical God!
Robert J. von Trebra