a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, UCC
September 11, 2022
Luke 15: 1-10 NRSV
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.”
Have you ever lost something of incredible value? I don’t mean like a contact lens or a football game bet. I mean something of deep value? When I was pastor in Suffolk, Virginia our young adult group had an outing at one of the member’s homes – I think it was to watch the Super Bowl or something. Anyway, at one point in the festivities all the men went out to play a little touch football. The host had a field about the size of a football field beside their house. Before we started playing I was throwing the football around and catching it from others. We played for awhile and we went back in for more football watching and more tailgate food and drinks. It was only then that I realized my wedding ring was gone. I realized it had flown off my finger while I was throwing the football almost an hour before that.
We all went out to look but it was already dark and though we scoured that field we could not find it. I was not going to give up. The next day I went out and walked the field but did not find it. The day after that I arranged to borrow a metal detector and I covered that field but did not find it. I did not give up. The next day I bought several rolls of string and – I forget exactly what I used – but something to stake the string down. I literally staked out string about the width of the head of the metal detector and the length of that football field and proceeded to walk it foot by foot. Somewhere after about covering 85% of that field – Tada! Success! I got a hit on the metal detector’s screen, bent down and there, lying in the grass was the ring. I know the joy of finding something precious.
That is the sort of thing our Bible story is about this morning. People who lost something of great value and found it. But Jesus tells the stories primarily in response to criticism. The good religious people, leaders of his religion, are criticizing him for hanging out with the wrong crowd. They are surprised that Jesus is eating and drinking with “sinners.” They are upset that Jesus is not keeping up their standards, and which they believe are God’s. Jesus ties the stories up by saying both the shepherd who lost a sheep and the woman with ten cents to her name celebrate extravagantly when they find what was lost. In fact, you might say that both their efforts to find what was lost and their joyous celebrations were ridiculous.
Who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness, unprotected to find one lost sheep? That’s ridiculous! Who would risk everything for one small thing, is the question that the shepherd story suggests. And then, even more ridiculously, he throws a big “shindig,” a big party with his friends and neighbors when he gets back home. By the way, it doesn’t say that he gathered up the other 99 and brought them home too. Ridiculous! And the poor, old woman? Ten coins to her name? Maybe not too ridiculous that she went to all that trouble to find the coin but then she throws a party too. Invites all her family, friends, and neighbors too. Probably spends far more than the one coin to provide food and drink for the celebration. Ridiculous!
But Jesus says this is how God’s love is. This is how much God wants us to find what matters. And what Jesus is illustrating is the relationship God wants to have with every person. Those of us “good church folk,” who have pretty much always known God, never really strayed from God, or struggled with our relationship with God may not understand this. We may not think about God’s joy much. Have you ever thought about the joy God feels about you?
Most of the time we probably think about how God is judging us, disappointed with us, wants to punish us. We probably think about what God wants from us, because we want to be good people of faith, or good Christians. But since we are celebrating National Grandparents Day let me make some connections. Now, I am speaking as an observer of those who are grandparents, as I am not yet one. However, we are excited to say Tammy and I are “expecting!” No, not to be PARENTS again! To be grandparents for the first time. Our daughter in Jacksonville is due in February and we are anticipating the joys of grandparenthood, in spite of the fact neither of us feels we are, uh, “mature” enough to be called such.
And to be fully transparent, I don’t really have a lot of experience as a grandchild. The only grandparent I ever remember was my mother’s mother and she was quite elderly and very proper, so I don’t remember a lot of expressions of “joy” from her. But oh, well. I plan on being a completely “improper” granddaddy.
That said, I have watched all kinds of grandparents. I have heard many grandparents rave about being able to spend time with their grandchildren. I know all the cliches – how you can spoil them and then send them back to their parents when you are tired of them, that kind of thing. But from what I can tell, most grandparents pretty much dig on the whole grandparenting thing. They take a lot of joy from it. So let me invite you – if you have been a grandparent – to reflect on that and consider how much joy God takes in you! And if you are not a grandparent, perhaps you can remember a doting grandparent of your own, that can inform your imagination and memory, so that you can think about that in connection to your relationship with God. I really hope you have some beautiful memories and experiences to call up.
Even if you do not have such memories, let me assure you, Jesus is telling the “judgy” religious folks of his time, and us, that God takes a wild, even ridiculous amount of joy in loving you, and me. Imagine God dancing a jig, a silly, robe-lifting, hoot-n-hollering jig over the fact that you asked God to bless you, you asked God to help you, or, hey- here’s a thought – you asked God what you should do for someone else? Imagine how ridiculous God would look dancing because you talked to God, you acknowledged God, you acted as if you actually had a relationship with God?
Jesus tried to free up those stuffy religious leaders. They were worried about image and about propriety. Many of them had sold out to the Roman authorities to keep their positions of power and influence. They were scared of Governor Pilate, because you never knew who he was going to crucify next. They were scared of crazy King Herod – because you never knew what he was going to do next, who he would behead just to keep his vicious wife happy. They were afraid of the people revolting against them. They weren’t riding too high on the “joy” scale with God. They would readily criticize Jesus and anyone else not living up to their expectations on behalf of God. But they would forget the more important part of that relationship.
Let me share another thing about joy from the Bible. Believe it or not, I love the book of Nehemiah. You probably are thinking “the book of Who?” Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a man who had been dragged off into exile with the rest of the Jews. But he had worked his way up to become “cup-bearer” to the King of Persia. Some sources say that means he served as a Governor of parts of the King of Persia’s conquered lands. By the way, his name in Hebrew means, “YAH” – or God – “Comforts.” I like that. Nehemiah asked the King to let him go back to Jerusalem to help the returning exiles rebuild the walls of the city and restore the city. The King agreed and even helped provide resources to do so.
The process was difficult but at one point Nehemiah gathered the people for worship in the public square. They read the Book of the Law of Moses – “from daybreak to noon” – [don’t ever complain if I go over an hour by a few minutes, ya’ll]. The people “bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”
Listen to that: “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest something to us all. The passage we read from Luke ends with these words from Jesus: “10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” You’ve probably heard that the word repent in Greek can be translated as “to turn around,” or to “be redirected,” or even to “be transformed.” I think what Jesus may have been inviting those religious stuffed shirts, and those of us here today who may need it, to be transformed by God’s joy.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength,” Nehemiah said. Perhaps what Jesus is telling us goes something like this: “There is more joy in heaven over one person whose relationship with God is broken, who then discovers God’s joy and love for them, than all the people who go along never doubting God’s approval.”
We live in times when the clouds of fear, hatred, division, the stress of world events, the worries about the economy, the ecology, and a thousand other things can steal our joy and leave us feeling too weak to do anything about these things. But “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” Don’t let the problems beat you down. Christ comes to us to show us God’s commitment to love us, and to bless us. As ridiculous as it sounds, all God wants is to fill us with joy, with love, and with life. A life with nothing but clouds is not the life God wants for us. God wants us to find that unclouded day now, not after we are dead and buried. AMEN.