The Lost Need to be, Can be, ARE Found
There is a dizzying array of interpretation on these 2 parables. For example, are the 99 who don't need to repent self-righteous or already repentant? And what does leaving them in the open country or "desert" mean? Here's Luther's view, "The learned and idle may determine the meaning of the 99 in the desert. It is enough for us to learn the main thought of this Gospel." Elsewhere Luther gives the main thought: "This Gospel contains the teaching we hold and boast of as our chief doctrine, which is called the true Christian teaching, namely, the doctrine of grace and forgiveness of sins, and Christian liberty from the Law." A shorter summary would be: The lost ARE found by Jesus.
There are lost souls. These are pitied in literature, in lyrics, in legends, in life. But we aren't talking about those lost in loneliness, lost at love, lost by not winning. We're talking about those lost in unbelief, those not knowing the Savior or salvation, those at the mercy of Sin, Death, and the Devil, those living under the Law either having a perpetually guilty conscience or having self-righteous certainty that they do keep the Law. And they're lost whether they know it or not. A lost sheep bleats mournfully for its fold; a coin has no idea it's lost but still is.
It's easy to see that there are lost souls outside the fold of the Church. They aren't here hearing about grace, forgiveness of sins, and Christian liberty from the Law. They aren't here under the outstretched arms of the cross shielded from the wrath of God that is being revealed against all unrighteousness. They are out there at the mercy of the Sins that enslave them, the Death that stalks them, and the Devil that enflames them and then torments them with no satisfaction.
Lost souls outside the church's fold are easy to spot, but it's scarier to think of souls lost within the Father's house. That's the emphasis of Luke's 15th chapter. It starts with Pharisees and scribes who don't know they're lost grumbling that Jesus receives sinners and even eats with them. He responds with the sheep that's obviously lost, moves to the coin that doesn't know it's lost, and ends with 2 sons: the prodigal obviously lost in a far country, and the elder brother who is lost never having left the Father's house. Yes, you can be where grace, forgiveness, and Christian liberty are proclaimed, distributed, eaten and drank, and nevertheless be lost because you're just punching your ticket; church is just a habit; worship is just some motions you go through.
There are lost souls and Jesus is ever looking for them. My favorite image is that of the hound on the chase. If you've hunted behind baying dogs, it's exhilarating. They don't stop; they won't stop. On and on they go seeking their quarry. Their howling is exciting, yet haunting. This is Jesus. He Himself says, "The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost."
When a dog is in pursuit it goes through thistles, thorns, swamps, streams, and mud. A person can't follow directly. He has to go around thickets and tangles and deadfalls. On this journey after lost souls, Jesus went where we can't go and He started from where we can't get to without Him. From heaven's heights and from the timelessness of eternity, God the Son descended into our dust. He descended into the muscle and blood that a poor man is made out of. He descended underneath the Laws of God that obligate all men but by definition couldn't obligate God. He descended under our obligation to keep them and to pay for them when broken.
Through the colds and flus that are part of the fallen human condition He followed us. Through the Devil's enticements, Death's threats; and Sin's weight, Jesus followed us. Nothing could make Him stop. "Stop now," Satan whispered in the Great Temptation. "Stop now," Satan ordered through Peter who said that the cross would never happen to Jesus. "Stop now," Death pressed squeezing blood from His very pores in Gethsemane, but Jesus keep on after lost humanity till He found us, put us on His shoulders, and then went to the only place the lost can go.
Under God's wrath and refusing to let any of us go, Jesus died for every one of us. And then to proclaim to all lost souls everywhere that their sins had been paid for and they had been found, God the Father raised Jesus from the dead on Easter. All sins on Jesus were laid; all souls on Jesus were laid. As in the first Adam all died, so in the Second Adam all rise, so Jesus wants all lost souls everywhere outside and inside the church to be found.
But how does He go about seeking them? Some think Jesus seeks only with the Law. This is the Westboro Baptist Church and the Pharisees before them. The Westboro Baptist Church proclaims God's hatred of sinners, and preaches what their spiritual fathers before them did, "Reform, change, or be damned."
This is not how Jesus seeks the lost, and some churches react against it by not using the Law. They either accept the sins of all by saying, "As long as you say, I'm sorry' you can and may live in, embrace, and defend your sins because after all we're all sinners." Or they seek the lost one through his felt needs. He may not be aware that He is a damned sinner on the way to hell, but he's aware that he needs childcare; he needs English as a second language; he needs a 12 step program; he needs friendship. Or he might only need a $20 restaurant gift card. That's how The Exchange Church in Round Rock sought the lost last Sunday.
Most churches aren't that crass, but rather than seek the lost with the Law at all they use friendly small groups to schmooze the lost into the fold. They use what is called side-door evangelism. People don't want to enter the church through the sanctuary's front door but the side-door of the gym through athletics, the side-door of the school through education. The best that can be said for these is at some point, if they are going to really find the lost, they have to switch to the Law and eventually bring in the Gospel. In business, that's called "bait and switch," and when it happens to most people they are offended and rightly so.
The switch has to be made because the only way Jesus finds the lost is by His Words of Law and Gospel. In the verse before our text Jesus says, "The one who has ears to hear must hear." Our text opens with, "Now the tax collectors and sinners' were all gathering around to hear Jesus." This has always been the Lord's only way to find and gather lost souls. He sent the prophets and the apostles with His Word to proclaim publicly. As long as the Word is proclaimed here for anyone and everyone to hear, the lost are being sought. By Bible class, Sunday School, hymnody, liturgy, and sermon, the Word is seeking the lost; the Good Shepherd is out finding the missing sheep; the Lord is lighting the lamp and sweeping His house for any lost souls that might be here.
The Hound of Heaven is released each Sunday on the trail of the lost wherever Law and Gospel are used. His message isn't reform or be damned, but your sins, any and all of them, not just the sexual ones, not just the shameful ones, but even the ones you're proud of will damn you. You can't go to heaven with your sins. 1 Cor. 6 says, "Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." And just as plainly Gal. 5 says, "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."
Here the Lord lights a lamp and sweeps His house with the Law exposing that the coin that doesn't know it's lost still is. The Westboro Baptist kind of Law exposes the sin and then says decide to change or else. The felt needs evangelism says, "Let's be friends and we may or may not talk about your sins later." The Hound of Heaven shows you your sins, and says, "You don't have to live or die in them."
The Good Shepherd goes in search of lost souls proclaiming, "I came into your world to do what you are unable to do: To keep the holy Law of God that accuses you, exposes you, and damns you. Whatever Law of God you can think of and all that you can't, I kept. And then in your place I went to the cross carrying those sins that shame you, tame you, enslave you. I bore their punishment, so you don't have to. I died with your sins on My conscience, so you can die without them on yours. Sin, Death, and the Devil are lying to you when they say you are at their mercy, that you're so lost there is no way you can be found. I've found you now in the preaching of this Word of Gospel. Come home with Me."
Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, is supposed to have said that Allah has divided mercy and pity into 100 parts. He has kept 99 for himself and sent 1 part to earth (Trench, Parables, 375, fn. 1). Contrast this with Scripture that says the true God's mercy endures forever; that as a father pities his children so He pities us; that He takes pleasure in those that hope in His mercy. Contrast the mercilessness and pitilessness of Allah with the Good Shepherd of the Scriptures who eagerly seeks the lost as a hound does prey.
The early church's favorite picture was the Good Shepherd carrying home a lost sheep. That doesn't surprise me; what does surprise me is that Jesus is most often shown holding the 7-reed pipe of the god Pan as a symbol of the sweet allure of divine love (Ibid. 381). So badly did the early church want to convey the love with which the Good Shepherd sought the lost that they weren't afraid to use an image from paganism. So hear the relentless baying of heaven's Hound and the sweet love song of the ever seeking Shepherd, and ask not for whom the Hound bays or the Shepherd plays. It's for you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (20130915); Luke 15: 1-10