One thing that both of these parables have in common is that something is lost. Now being lost isn’t something we would consider to be a great attribute. It’s so important not to be lost, that whenever a man is behind the wheel of a car, he is never lost, just ask him. “I’m rather lost” isn’t something that you would write on your resume. Being lost is one of the worst things that can happen to you. Being lost is no good at all. Knowing where you are is what’s really important. There are a lot more books out there on getting to where you are going than there are books written on the virtues of standing alone, lost, and shell-shocked by life. And yet being a lost loser is really the only thing that’s going to count in the end.
And so if you’re not feeling a little bit lost this morning, look out. Scribes and Pharisees were confronting Jesus, and lost is the last word you’d choose to describe these guys. These guys were all winners; not a lost soul among them, just ask them. Now tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around Jesus to hear him, but the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, “This man receives sinners and eats with them. He welcomes lost losers.” It’s easy enough to sympathize with these Pharisees, though, so be careful. I mean, after all, you wouldn’t want your kids hanging around with the lost losers in the neighborhood would you? You’d put an end to that real quick. And it’s certainly not the way any son of God ought to be acting to either tax collectors and sinners, rubbing shoulders with them and talking with them.
That’s not the right way to do it, Jesus. Everybody knows that if you want to make it in the God business if you want to be a God who is worth worshiping, you had better rub shoulders with the big guys. The guys who can get you somewhere, the people that you want your picture taken with. This is the way the world works, and that’s true. But Jesus has news for us this morning. That’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. And to get his point across, Jesus tells a parable. “What man among you, Jesus says, “has a hundred sheep. And if he loses one of them, won’t leave the 99 alone in the open country and go and seek the stray one” (Luke 15:4). Risk losing all 99 to wolves in the open country to save just one lost sheep.
Now, do you know what you’re supposed to say to that question? You’re supposed to say, “Jesus, I would leave the 99 alone and go and find the lost one.” But you also know how the world works, and it is true. A burden hand is worth two in the bush. You never put all your eggs into one risky basket. Take my well-spread out, diversified mutual fund and cash it all in. Take all of that money and buy one lost loser of a stock. No way. But sheep aren’t stocks, you say, and that’s true enough. I mean, from what we know historically, Middle-Eastern shepherds often name their sheep. They knew their sheep. But Middle Eastern shepherds also knew that the most likely result of going off in pursuit of one lost sheep would only be 99 more lost sheep. See, Jesus didn’t tell this parable to give sheep ranchers a successful business paradigm to follow.
We have problems with being lost but give Jesus a world full of lost losers, and he’ll do just fine with it.
If the shepherd left the 99 sheep alone, and they all got lost, that would be a real problem. Imagine telling the owner, “You lost them all because you got myopically focused on chasing after one little lost sheep.” You’d lose your job. And it would be a real problem for the owner of the sheep, except for Jesus. With Jesus, it seems that if all 100 sheep should get themselves all good and lost, even dead and buried in graveyards everywhere, and even under the deepest of seas, it wouldn’t be a problem for the good shepherd because he is first and foremost in the business of finding lost sheep. He doesn’t really seem to be in the business of making a buck off of fleecing the unstrayed. In other words, we have problems with being lost but give Jesus a world full of lost losers, and he’ll do just fine with it.
And so if you are so good that you’ve never strayed, not even an inch, and you’ve kept all of the rules down to dotting all of the I’s and crossing all of the T’s, then sad to say, you are not where Jesus is looking this morning. But if, deep down, being lost and confused and unable to find your way back home tends to tell the story of your life, then there’s some good news this morning, indeed. The good shepherd is on his way. Now, whatever you do with this lost loser, the rest of the parable is simply about one thing. It’s about joy. When he finds the lost sheep, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says rejoice with me. I have found my loss to sheep. Jesus is pretty clear. In fact, the shepherd rejoices more over the one that was lost than the 99, who hadn’t strayed a single inch their whole lives.
Jesus says that in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one lost sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent. Although if you think about it, there aren’t, nor have there ever been, any such people anywhere. And to make the point, Jesus tells another parable just like it. What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she finds it. And when she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, throws a party, and says rejoice with me for I have found the coin that I lost. There is joy before the angels in heaven, over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:8-10).
Repentance. What is this repenting? Usually, we think of repentance as being intensely remorseful, sad, and broken after reflecting on our sin. And usually, it’s a sin that we have been caught red-handed. The Bible does talk this way, doesn’t it? David, for instance, is caught in his sin with Bathsheba. But it doesn’t talk about it here like that. If you think about it, the lost sheep and especially the lost coin were not capable of any repentance at all. You see, coins don’t have a mind with which they can repent, and to put a bluntly sheep are just too plain dumb to repent. And so what’s the point, the entire cause of the rescue in both of these stories, the entire cause is the shepherd’s and the woman’s determination to find the lost. It’s not the desire and the will of the sheep. It’s not the desire and the will of this silver coin to be found. The lost sheep and the lost coin don’t do a blessed thing, but sit around being lost.
My point in this is that it is precisely in our sins, precisely in our lostness, and not in our goodness, that we find ourselves sought after by God. And that’s good news. It’s exactly what St. Paul said. When he wrote to the church at Rome, it is while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Not when we abandoned our sins and figured out how to find God, but while we were lost and dead, he found us while we were lost and dead. He chose us. Think about it. A lost sheep is for all practical purposes, a dead sheep or the sheep will soon be dead because of the wolves. A lost coin is a dead asset. And Jesus had other parables that we could play around with like this. There’s that dead duck of a debtor who’s about to get foreclosed on. And there is that deadbeat of a son who has blown his entire inheritance.
Precisely in our sins, precisely in our lostness, and not in our goodness, that we find ourselves sought after by God.
These parables aren’t so much about repenting in the ordinary common sense of the word; they’re about being dead lost. Jesus didn’t tell these stories to convince us that if only we will work in a determined way to clean up our acts, then God will forgive us. No, these are parables about God’s determination, not ours. God’s determination to find us and to save us before we do a blessed thing. In other words, these parables are about the grace of God, and the grace alone that saves us. And that puts repentance into a completely different light. What did we do just a few minutes ago when we confessed our sins? Our confession wasn’t our admitting that we made a mistake, which thank God in our better nature, we have finally realized and have corrected. Rather, our confession is nothing less than admitting to God and to ourselves that in fact, God has been right about us all along from the very beginning. We’re dead in our sins and lost, and we have no internal power either to save ourselves or to clean up our act or even to convince God that we are somehow worth saving.
Confession is a recognition that our whole life is finally over and forever out of our hands. And then, if we’re ever going to have a life again, that life is going to have to be something that is given to us from outside of us, from God himself, from Christ Jesus, our Lord. The only reason we’re ever going to get a life is because God raises us up from the dead. In fact, he already has done that. He did it to you in the waters of your baptism, where you were born again, even if you were a tiny little baby. And he’ll do it again, he promises at the end of time. And the absolution, what happens in the absolution? Last week, Dr. Nestingen made the point that the absolution isn’t God’s response to our worthy confession. Absolution isn’t God’s acceptance of our well-worded apology. To absolve means to dispose of, to finish, to get rid of.
Confession is a recognition that our whole life is finally over and forever out of our hands.
When God pardons us, he doesn’t say that he understands our weaknesses, and he’ll cut us some slack, and he’ll make some allowances for our errors. He doesn’t say, okay, I’ll make a deal with you for every sin that you remember to mention in confession. When I give you some silence to do that, I’ll give you a token that you can go and spend at the forgiveness bar. No, he disposes of them. All of them. He finishes them off. He drowns them in the waters of baptism. God doesn’t try to jerry-rig your broken life back together again. No, he takes us lock, stock, and barrel, and he drops us down the black hole of Jesus’ death on Calvary’s cross. And then he forgets! He forgets where he dropped our sins in the darkness of the tomb. In the death of his son, he remembers our sins no more. Not some of them but all of them. And that’s what the absolution is about.
That’s what the word of God has told pastors they are to stick in the ears of broken, lost sinners every single Sunday, in some way, shape or form. Because in the end, that’s all that matters. Confession and absolution isn’t a bilateral deal that you make with God: you say the right things, and he’ll respond in kind. No, confession is admitting that you are lost and dead, and no matter how hard you try to improve yourself, you are still nothing more than lost and dead. And the absolution is being told in the name and the stead of Jesus – whether that absolution is spoken to you by your pastor, or by your wife, or your husband, or your child, or a friend of yours – that the Father in heaven has dropped all of your sins into the darkness of the tomb and has quit looking for them for Christ’s sake; for Christ’s sake. And it’s there in Jesus’ death, right here in fact, that he finds us dead, lost sinners, and he picks us back up, and he puts us on his shoulders, and he carries us out of the tomb, rejoicing all the way to his father’s house. Your sins are forgiven you! Go in peace. And with that forgiveness, he really does raise us up to a new life every day of our lives until life everlasting in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.