Imagine you’re a Pharisee in the first century. You know the religious requirements for being holy and you’ve spent your entire life following what Scripture defines as holiness and purity. You follow all 613 laws in the Torah. You don’t defile yourself by spending time with anyone “unclean.” You honor God by the company you keep and with the sacrifices you make. You’ve dedicated your life to following the Law, and you are pure and holy by the standards of your people. You work fervently to please and honor God with your fierce dedication to living the right way.
Now enters Jesus, the man people are calling the Holy One of God. Some of what he says sounds interesting. He talks a lot about the love of God, and of course you agree. But God is holy too, Jesus shouldn’t forget that. He talks a lot about the forgiveness of God, and of course you agree. But God is just too, Jesus shouldn’t forget that. He talks a lot about the mercy of God, and of course you agree. But God has rules too, Jesus shouldn’t forget that.
Then you see Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. What’s he doing? Doesn’t he know these people are unclean? Any rabbi worth his salt would recognize these are unholy people! These people don’t follow the rules like you and me. These people aren’t right with God. If Jesus is so wise how come he can’t see that!? If Jesus so holy why isn’t he concerned about maintaining ritual purity!? What’s wrong with him!?
It is in this context that Jesus tells the parables we just heard in the Gospel lesson this morning. In response to the Pharisees’ problem with the fact that he eats with tax collectors and sinners. These parables don’t necessarily say the holy rollers are living the wrong way. What’s wrong is their point of view. They don’t rejoice in the finding of the lost sheep. They don’t celebrate when the woman finds her coin. They don’t rejoice in God’s mercy for others. Instead, they grumble about it. Maybe they said, “These lost ones don’t deserve mercy. They wandered off to their own peril!” Just like the righteous elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son found next in Luke 15, the Pharisees Jesus is telling these parables to don’t like the idea of God going out of His way to rescue these unworthy lost ones.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin make it clear that the God Jesus knows is a God who searches relentlessly for those who are lost. Like the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep and ventures off to find the lost one, so God searches for those who are lost until He finds them. And like the woman who lost her coin, God searches relentlessly for Her children until She finds them. God loves all God’s children and doesn’t care what we’ve done or how far we’ve wandered off. God searches for us until God finds us.
Notice the emphasis Jesus placed on that phrase: the shepherd searches “until he finds it,” the woman searches “until she finds it.” It’s clear that God will not give up searching us—God searches until God finds us! All of us. No matter how lost we are. No matter how far we wander from God’s love and care. No matter what we do or how much we reject God. God will always keep searching for every last one of us. God will always keep loving us. God will always keep looking for and finding the lost ones. God searches until God finds!
(Pause) The point of life isn’t about following the rules. The point of life is being in relationship with the divine. A deep relationship with God heals us from our woundedness and eventually leads to our being mature and healthy human beings. Striving for holiness won’t get you closer to God, but getting closer to God will heal you and probably make you a little more holy too.
You see, God’s grace is transformative. Martin Luther liked to emphasize that it’ll lead to our doing good works. To bearing good fruit like a healthy tree. Jesus’ encounter here makes it clear that the good works probably don’t come first. When people try to make good works come first, they become judgmental like the Pharisees who think you’ve gotta be pure and holy to make God care about you. Doing good things or following the rules doesn’t earn us points with God. But as your relationship with God deepens and you become healed from your woundedness, you’ll naturally find yourself inspired to do more good in the world.
What comes first is God’s grace. God’s searching for us. God’s finding us. God’s loving us and encountering us wherever we are. God wooing us to love God back.
Today is Rally Day. It’s the first day of Sunday School. And we hope and pray that our children may learn to experience the God Jesus taught. This God who searches relentlessly for the lost ones. This God of overwhelming love and kindness. This God of joy, of mystery, of compassion. A God who’s exciting to get to know. A God who leaves the 99 sheep to find the lost one because of each of us is so precious. A God who cleans every nook and cranny of Her house to find Her lost coin, because each one is so precious.
To understand Jesus’ parables requires a real theological paradigm shift. From our mindset that we need to do things to please God, to an understanding that God will do absolutely anything to find us. The action is on God’s end, not ours. That’s grace. It’s an incredibly different understanding of the divine than the concept of needing to earn God’s love. It’s incredibly simple, but surprisingly hard to grasp. But this grace, this free forgiveness, this love we didn’t earn, is what the Good News of Jesus Christ is all about.
It’s so important we understand how countercultural this idea of God is. It’s important for kids in Sunday School, it’s important for teenagers in youth group, and it’s important for adults throughout their lives. To know the God of the lost who loves you absolutely unconditionally. This is a God you don’t have to be afraid of. This is a God you want to get to know. I mean think about it this way, who would want to get close to a God keeping track of every little thing little you do wrong? Who would want a close relationship with an almighty rule-keeper that you need to impress by being pure and holy? With such a religious mindset predominant in the world, (even in most churches) it’s no wonder so many people keep God at arm’s length.
The point of life isn’t about following the rules. The point of life is being in relationship with the divine. And the divine actually seeks to find us. That’s what these parables are saying. And so as we start a new Sunday School year, let us all keep in mind what life itself is truly about. Journeying with God. Deepening our relationship with the divine. Experiencing God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy. Recognizing the sacred mystery in our lives. Learning to see the divine presence all around us and in every person we meet.
And let us proclaim to the world that all people are beloved by God. That God searches relentlessly for every lost sheep and will stop at nothing to find every single one. Let us rejoice with the angels in heaven at this Good News!