For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about “Sharing Our Faith”. Because God never intended for the Christian life to merely be a matter of coming to this building once a week, sitting down for an hour or two, and then going back out into the world to make money, spend money and have fun. God intends for us to do what Jesus did while he was here on the earth, and that is to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
We’ve talked about the importance of sharing our faith with integrity, sharing our faith with grace, sharing our faith with intimacy, and last time sharing our faith with tolerance. This morning, we want to talk about sharing our faith with joy.
In his book Eats With Sinners, Arron Chambers makes a statement that really struck me. He said, “What we celebrate says a lot about us.” And that’s so true. You tell me what you celebrate and I can tell you what’s important to you. If you celebrate a touchdown or a hole in one, that tells me that sports is important to you. Celebrating a birth tells me that you love life. Celebrating an anniversary tells me that you love love. Celebrating the 4th of July tells me that you love freedom. Celebrating a grand opening at Walmart tells me that you love bargains.
What we celebrate reveals what we really love and who we really are. So, what is it that God celebrates? What is it that gives God joy? What makes God smile? Our text this morning is Luke 15 and we’re going to find out what it is that fills God’s heart with joy.
It seems strange to me that we don’t normally think about God being joyful. We talk about the fact that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (everywhere at the same time), omniscient (he knows everything), and eternal (he always has been and always will be).
We talk about God’s righteousness and holiness and wrath and judgment and, on the other side, his love and grace and mercy and compassion. But we don’t often talk about God’s joy. We tend to think of God as being very serious, with a stern look on his face.
But we see glimpses of God’s joy even in the Old Testament. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, God spent a lot of time telling the Israelites, “If you obey me when you enter the land of Canaan, I will bless you richly, but if you forsake me, there will be some bad things that will happen to you. But when that happens, you can still turn back to me, and if you do…”
“The LORD your God will make the labor of your hands abundantly successful and multiply your children, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the LORD your God will once more rejoice over you to make you prosperous just as he rejoiced over your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 30:8-9, NET)
What is it that causes God to rejoice? When people who have wandered away from him find their way back to him.
We see this several times in the Old Testament prophets. For example, in the book of Zephaniah, God warns the Jews that they are going to be punished because of their unfaithfulness and they will be carried away into captivity. But afterward, when they return, when they turn back to God, God says, “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV).
Isaiah says, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5). That’s a serious level of joy!
Now, I’m sure there are a lot of things that bring God joy. I’m confident that when our marriages reflect the love that Christ has for his church, that fills God with joy. When we raise our children to know and to love God, that surely brings him great joy. When God’s people live together in harmony and unity, that brings him joy.
But there is one thing that brings God more joy than anything else, and that’s when people who are lost find their way back to God. And while that may seem obvious to us, it wasn’t obvious at all to the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. In fact, the rabbis had a saying, “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God.” That’s what they honestly thought gave God the greatest amount of joy. They thought that God was never any happier than when sinners were condemned and punished.
But Jesus wants us to know that heaven’s greatest joy comes when lost people are found. Now, when I say someone is lost, I’m simply saying that someone is not where he or she is supposed to be. Because where we are supposed to be is with God. That’s why God created us, and that’s what God wants more than anything else, to be with us.
But there are a lot of lost people in this world, and many of them don’t even realize that they’re lost.
They’re like the five-year-old boy I heard about who was with his parents at the mall. Somehow, he and his parents got separated. His parents looked all over for him but couldn’t find him anywhere. Finally, a security guard found the boy. When the boy’s parents arrived at the security desk, they found their son smiling and having a wonderful time with a soft drink in his hands and his feet propped up on the desk. He was having a great time. But as soon as he saw his parents, he started to cry and he ran toward them. He didn’t realize he was lost until he was found.
And that describes so many people in this world who are comfortable and relaxed and don’t even realize they’re lost. It’s our responsibility to tell people that they’re lost. To help them to understand that God wants them back where they’re supposed to be. And there are a lot of people in this world who are not where they are supposed to be. Every single day, thousands of people die in this country without knowing Jesus Christ and they will spend an eternity apart from him as a result.
That’s why Jesus came to this earth. That’s why he died on a cross and rose again from the dead so that every one of those lost people would have the chance to be back where they’re supposed to be. That was Jesus’ goal in life, that was his obsession. And sinful people could tell that Jesus cared about them. They wanted to be around Jesus because Jesus wanted to be around them. They wanted to hear what Jesus had to say because what he had to say gave them hope.
And the people of this world are desperately looking for hope. Some people look for it in the pursuit of wealth, or in relationships, in their success at work, or their physical perfection. Others look for hope in the emotional escape of intoxication or a drug-induced high. But the world we live in does not offer much hope.
In Japan, on the mountainsides along the ocean, there are stone markers, some of them over 600 years old. And on those markers, there are engraved warnings about tsunamis. Those markers tell the Japanese people not to build their homes or any other buildings below this part of the mountain, because if a tsunami comes, you’re going to be in big trouble.
But, as Japan progressed into a modern culture with its technology and wealth, people disregarded those warnings. They started building their homes and other buildings further down the mountainsides and closer to the ocean. They figured that their technology, the sea walls, the early warning systems would protect them.
But, of course, as we learned in 2011, that wasn’t the case at all. A terrible earthquake and the subsequent tsunami killed over 18,000 people in Japan. People disregarded the warning from their ancestors and were incredibly humbled by the power of the ocean that came in and just swept everything away.
That disaster reminds us that we live in a world that is filled with chaos and uncertainty. You never know when your world is going to be destroyed, when a wave is going to come in and wipe everything away—whether it’s a tsunami in Japan, a hurricane in the state of Florida, or something closer to home like an unemployment letter or a bad diagnosis or the end of a marriage. At some point, we all come to realize that this world is filled with uncertainty. And there is absolutely nothing in this world that offers us hope.
Which is why the suicide rate in this country continues to climb every year. More and more people find themselves saying, “I have no hope. I have nothing to live for.” But there is hope. Jesus came to give us hope. To give us hope that there is someone who loves us, someone who cares about us. To give us hope that there is something better in the future that God has prepared for us. To give us hope that evil and ungodliness and death will not prevail.
And I think that’s why sinners were so attracted to Jesus. He offered them a hope that they couldn’t find in the world. Jesus gave sinners hope because he welcomed them, he accepted them and he loved them. It wasn’t just an act to check something off his spiritual to-do list. No, Jesus truly loved lost people. He had a passion for them.
But, as we’ve seen in past weeks, the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t share Jesus’s passion for lost people. In fact, they couldn’t even understand his passion for the lost. Luke tells us in the first two verses of chapter 15, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)
That word “grumbled” is translated in the King James Version as “murmured”. Every time I hear that word, I think about the Israelites in the wilderness who murmured and complained that God wasn’t doing a good job taking care of them. Murmuring is the very opposite of joy. We’ve all known people who are murmurers and complainers. In the home, on the job and sometimes even in the church, they grumble, murmur and complain. They can’t see anything good. To them, everything is bad — their life is miserable and they seem to want to make it that way for everyone else.
So, there is a very sharp contrast in this chapter between the Jewish leaders who are miserable and murmuring, and the joy that Jesus had. Five times in this chapter, Jesus mention “joy” and “rejoicing”. And the exact same event that caused the scribes and the Pharisees to complain and murmur was reason for great joy in heaven. Which shows us just how far the religious leaders were from having the heart of God.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables, three stories, but really it’s just one story. It’s the story of how heaven reacts when those who are lost are found. The first story is the story about a lost sheep. The second is about a lost coin. And the third story is about a lost son. All three of these stories follow the same pattern: something is lost, someone goes looking for it, that which was lost is found and restored, and then there’s a celebration. That’s the outline for all three of these stories.
But there’s a subtle difference in each of these parables that tells us something about the different ways that people can become lost.
1. Some people get lost because of carelessness.
“So he told them this parable: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just 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.’” (Luke 15:3-7)
I’ve not been around sheep much, but from what I understand, sheep are not very smart. Sheep have a herd mentality. They will do whatever all the other sheep are doing. In 2015, there was a news report about a sheep that jumped off a cliff to its death in Turkey, followed by about 1500 more sheep that jumped off the cliff while their shepherds looked on in horror.
Sheep don’t think very well for themselves. And so, a shepherd who has a sheep wander off knows that he needs to act quickly or else that sheep may not survive.
In Jesus’s first parable, a shepherd loses a sheep – or perhaps, more accurately, we could say that a sheep loses his shepherd. With what we know about sheep, it seems safe to assume that the sheep in this story got lost because of its own carelessness. The sheep didn’t want to get lost. The sheep didn’t intend to get lost.
Maybe the sheep was captivated with a flower or nibbling a bit of grass or distracted in some other way, and just wandered off. And, as a result, the sheep ended up not being where he was supposed to be. But the shepherd was so intent on finding that lost sheep that he left the 99 other sheep to go and look for him.
Have you ever found yourself lost due to your own carelessness? You may have seen a news report this past week about five boys that were rescued from a sewer in New York City. They crawled into a storm drain tunnel and got lost in the sewer system after traveling about a quarter of a mile. Fortunately, one of them had a cell phone and called 911 and they were eventually rescued.
They didn’t want to get lost. They didn’t intend to get lost. It was simply a matter of carelessness. And when those five boys were rescued, it was a time for joyful celebration.
When the shepherd in Jesus’s parable was reunited with his sheep, he didn’t punish the sheep for making a bad choice. No, this was a time for celebration, so the shepherd joyfully put the sheep on his shoulders and carried it home.
But that’s not all! This shepherd was so happy that when he got home, he called his friends and his neighbors together and said, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” (Luke 15:6).
It’s just a sheep. Why was this shepherd so joyful? He was joyful because this story isn’t really about a shepherd, it’s about Jesus. And it’s not just about a sheep — it’s about us. All Jesus cares about is getting us back and when he finds us, he throws a party.
2. Some people get lost because of other people’s carelessness.
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
The coin in this parable was a silver coin that was worth about a dollar. It wouldn’t be difficult to lose a coin in a Jewish home, and it might take a long time to find it. Houses typically only had one small window. The floor was dirt covered with dried reeds, and to look for a coin on a floor like that was very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. This woman diligently swept the floor hoping that she might see it or hear it.
There are a couple of reasons why this woman may have been so eager to find the coin. A dollar doesn’t sound all like much, but this was about a days’ wage for a working man. Many people lived on the edge of poverty, and losing one coin could mean the difference between hunger and starvation.
But William Barclay suggests there might be another reason why she was so frantic. In Palestine, a married woman would wear a headdress made of ten silver coins linked together by a silver chain. That headdress was their equivalent of a wedding ring. If that’s the case, then we understand why she was so upset. Imagine losing your wedding ring, how eagerly you would try to find it.
In either case, it’s easy to imagine the joy and the excitement of this woman when she finally found that coin. She was so happy that she called her friends and neighbors together and said, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ (Luke 15:9)
Why was she so excited? It was just a coin. But it’s not just a woman — it’s Jesus. And it’s not just a coin — it’s us. Jesus desperately wants us back where we belong, and when he finds us, he throws a party.
But I want you to notice the difference between the lost sheep and the lost coin. The sheep was lost because it wandered off. But the coin didn’t do anything wrong at all. That coin was lost because somebody else wasn’t being careful.
And I think there are a lot of lost people around us like that. I hear stories all the time about people who used to go to church or who used to follow Jesus, but somebody else did something that pushed them away. Somebody acted in a hateful manner. Somebody just wanted them around for their money. Somebody failed to love them like Jesus would. And so, they ended up leaving the church and saying, “I don’t anything to do with the church anymore.” Not because of their own carelessness, but because of the carelessness of others. Which means that we’ve all got to be more careful. And we all need to be searching for those who are lost because of the carelessness of others.
3. Some people get lost because they choose to willfully turn away from God.
Did anyone here ever run away from home when you were a child? I heard about a little boy who ran away from home. A police officer noticed him walking around the block and carrying a suitcase. The boy circled the block twice, so the police officer asked the boy what he was doing.
He said, “I’m running away.”
“Why do you keep walking in circles?”
The boy said, “Because my mom told me I’m not allowed to cross the street without her permission.”
It would be nice if people would choose to stay close to God instead of trying to run away from him, but too many of us are like the rebellious son in the last parable Jesus told in Luke 15.
I won’t read the entire parable. It should be familiar to you. It’s a story about a father who had two sons. The older son was loyal and faithful. His younger brother wanted the father dead. That’s basically what it amounted to when this son asked for his inheritance while his father was still living.
Instead of being insulted, the father agreed to give his younger son his inheritance. So, he took his portion and went off and squandered his wealth in wild living. When it was all gone and he was broke, this hungry young man turned to feeding pigs, the absolute lowest work a Jew could do.
But, eventually, this wayward son came to his senses and headed for home with a penitent heart. He knew that he had sinned in rebelling against his father and he was ready to be back home where he belonged even if only as one of his father’s servants.
While he was still far off, his father saw him which tells us that his father had been watching for him all along. He was filled with compassion for his son and Jesus tells us he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
This father was so overjoyed that he threw a party, which upset the older brother, but that’s another story for another day. The father in this story was so filled with joy that he called his servants, his friends, and neighbors together and said, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Why was this father so excited? He was filled with joy because his precious son was back where he belonged, and that’s always cause for celebration. Jesus doesn’t care that our own rebellion made us lost. All he cares about is getting us back and when he finds us, he throws a party.
Remember, I said at the beginning of this lesson — what we celebrate says a lot about us. It tells other people what’s really important to us. So what is it that gets you excited? Most of the churches I’ve been a part of, whenever someone is baptized into Christ, everyone celebrates by clapping. But sadly, there are sometimes a few folks who grumble and complain that it’s not appropriate.
But I believe that a person’s conversion is always cause for celebration and I pray that we will always react with the same joy that takes place in heaven. May we have the heart of God that finds exhilaration and joy and delight and pleasure in the knowledge that someone who is lost has been found and restored? That should be what brings us our greatest joy.