Sunday, September 11, 2016

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 119:169-176
1 Timothy 1:(5-11) 12-17
Luke 15:1-10

When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

Ezekiel was commanded to give a warning to the shepherds of Israel. ďTell them that they are not taking care of my sheep.Ē (Ezekiel 34:1-10) The rulers of Israel were more concerned about their own well-being than that of those whom they were charged with leading. Their lack of care scattered the sheep of their fold, put them in danger of being devoured by the false teachers. The rulers were fat and well clothed but the people were hungry and lost. God said, ďBehold, I am against the shepherds.Ē

Every warning comes with a promise, and thatís what we hear in todayís Old Testament passage. God will care for His flock, searching for those who are missing, restoring them to the field where they will be fed, and giving them rest. There are always some in every group who are weak and those who are strong. Just as it was true in the days of Ezekiel, it was also true in Jesusí day. The priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had all the power and they put heavy burdens on the people. They talked the talk, but didnít walk the walk. They did what suited them and expected perfection from others. They didnít even see their own sinfulness.

It is still true today. Every congregation has people who have power and authority who place heavy burdens on the others. There are many within our congregations who are weak. They donít have a strong understanding of scripture. They have faith the size of a mustard seed, but canít seem to move mountains with it. They have listened and followed the words of men without knowing that those words are not Godís Word. They have been led astray, and then often left to fend for themselves. The church becomes the seat of power for some and a place of pain for others. God promises that He will take care of those who have been harmed by leaders who did not care for His sheep.

God promises to judge between sheep and sheep. ďDoes it seem a small thing to you to have fed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture? and to have drunk of the clear waters, but you must foul the residue with your feet?Ē The strong and powerful destroy everything good given to the flock by God so that they will get stronger and have more power. The strong do not care when a weak sheep disappears; that leaves all the more for them. But God promises that He will make things right for the weak ones.

This passage makes an even greater promise. ďI will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David prince among them; I, Yahweh, have spoken it.Ē The promise will be fulfilled by the Great Shepherd, the promised Davidic Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus came and He did search for the lost sheep. He did search for the lost coin. He did search for the people of His flock who had been outcast and forgotten because they werenít perfect. Jesus reminds us that He didnít come for the perfect that have no need for forgiveness; He came for the sinners who need to be saved.

There are many who have taken upon themselves the task of saving sinners by their own power. They think they are wise when they are sadly ignorant of Godís whole truth. Too many are so set in their understanding of scripture that they bash it over the heads of others. They use the Bible as a weapon to condemn sinners, forgetting that they deserve condemnation, too. There is a time and a place for speaking about judgment against sin, as long as we remember that we, too, are sinners in need of Godís grace.

Godís Word is more than a warning; there is always a promise. Paul was certainly clear to Timothy that the Law must be spoken to those who are lawless so that they would repent and turn to God. Paul did so from a heart that had been humbled, knowing Godís forgiveness for his own sinfulness. He was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent. Paul writes, ďThe saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.Ē

There was a man at a church we attended a long time ago. He was extremely adamant about a particular issue, and was sure to make passionate speeches every time he spoke. We didnít even have to be discussing that particular topic at the time: it was his sole concern in life and he was determined to convince everyone that he was right. Now, he was right to a point; it was important that we recognize the sin. However, his answer was always condemnation. Anyone who disagreed was surely going to hell. There was no room for grace or mercy in his passion. He spoke the Law to kill rather than to call for repentance, ignoring the promise of forgiveness. What made it worse was his lack of humility. He never recognized his own need for Godís mercy. He would never have described himself as the chief of sinners.

There was only one thing that mattered to that man; many people have the same passion only for different issues. Everything they do in Godís kingdom is focused solely on that one thing. They are never guilty of it and therefore think themselves more righteous, forgetting that the Gospel is necessary not only for those we deem worthy, but for everyone. The scriptures, Godís Word, is never meant to be used as a weapon to condemn and destroy but to invite those who are lost to see the Great Shepherd.

Bashing never saves anyone. All too often, the bashing is based on a misunderstanding of scripture: not necessarily the issues we face, but what God means for those who are lost in darkness. They think they are wise, but they are woefully ignorant of Godís Word.

Thank God that Jesus is the One who saves.

Ezekiel warned the leaders of Israel that God was unhappy with the way they were treating the sheep. ďYou are keeping all the good things for yourself, but I will make sure those you burden are lifted to new life.Ē God calls us to a life of humble service, not one in which we hit them over the head with our self-righteous interpretation of scripture. It is not up to us to save anyone from themselves or to condemn them to death. Our task is to share the warning and the promise. ďTurn and you will live.Ē God will do the work. His Word will find those who need to be saved.

Those sinners and tax collectors with whom Jesus was having dinner were probably not outsiders or foreigners. They were probably Jews who had lost their way; they were getting through life they best that they could, even though it did not fit the expectations of the religious leaders. They arenít any different than the rest of us; we all find a way of living that sometimes goes against the expectations of our faith. As a matter of fact, we understand that the Law is impossible for us to keep perfectly, which is why Jesus came in the first place.

Being a tax collector was so offensive to the Jews because they were traitors, puppets of the Romans, and they often took advantage of their position by taking more than they should. The tax collector received his pay by taking more than the actual taxes. The Romans didnít care as long as they got the amount they expected, and some of the tax collectors were greedy. They were all rejected and condemned because they were seen as making themselves better at the expense of their fellow Jews.

Jesus loved even the tax collectors and the sinners, so much so that He was willing to set aside societal expectations to have dinner with them. The lesson in todayís Gospel is repeated later in Luke (chapter 19) as Jesus meets with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. Despite the grumbling of the Jewish leaders, Jesus visited with Zacchaeus and his friends. In the encounter in todayís passage, Jesus reflected on the promise in Ezekiel using a parable, reminding them that God would find the lost sheep and carry them home. Thatís what Jesus did with Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus responded with humility and repentance. He answered Jesusí invitation with a promise to restore those he had wronged. Jesus answered, ďToday, salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.Ē Jesus seeks out those who need to be saved; He seeks the lost sheep that need to be found. He doesnít do it by bashing them with Godís Word, but by shining the light of truth into their lives. Zacchaeus heard Jesus and followed Him. The truth, given in mercy and grace, changed him.

There is a time and a place for warning, for speaking the Law, for calling people to repentance. We must remember, however, that we are not more righteous than others because we are not guilty of their sins. We are still guilty. We need Godís grace as much as they. We need to repent, to receive Godís forgiveness through Jesus Christ, to be changed by His Word.

In the texts for this week, we are encouraged to see ourselves as God might see us: the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus didnít tell the Pharisees that the tax collectors and sinners were good, only that they were in need and that they were willing to listen. It was their willingness that Jesus commended: they had been lost and now they were found. He was rejoicing with them that they saw the reality of their sinfulness and had turned to the only one who could grant them true forgiveness.

Paul, who was once a Pharisee, realized his failure when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his letters, he repeatedly tells us about his sinfulness and the mercy received from Jesus. In todayís letter to Timothy, Paul says, ďI am thankful that Jesus has given me so much despite my sinfulness.Ē He openly admits his failure and embraces Godís grace. God does not desert His people; He does not reject us. He forgives. He teaches. He sometimes rebukes and corrects us, but He does so that we will be all we can be. He draws us into His heart where we will find peace and joy.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul recognized his sinfulness, admitting that He had been ignorant while he thought he was wise. We often see Paul as being strong, arrogant, and self-centered. In todayís passage he wrote, ďHowever, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life.Ē Paul was not holding himself up as an example of Christ-like living to follow, but as an example of a humble, repentant sinner receiving Godís amazing grace. Paul didnít become the great evangelist by any power of his own, but by the power of Godís love and mercy. He called himself the foremost sinner because he recognized that he never deserved Godís grace. He was the greatest sinner because he rejected Christ and harmed Godís people.

It is good to emulate the work of Paul, to share the Gospel as we are able and to serve in whatever manner and gifts we have been given. But Paul is calling us to follow in the most important way. We are called to see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, to recognize Godís grace in the world around us and to be transformed by His forgiveness. It takes time. It sometimes takes a lifetime, but no one is outside of hope. God did not give up on Paul. Jesus sought after Zacchaeus. Jesus even continued to preach in the hearing of the Jewish leaders in the hope that they too might hear and believe. He came looking for each of us. He hasnít given up on those who are still lost and suffering in the darkness. He came to find the lost and will celebrate every sinner who repents.

The psalmist writes, ďI have gone astray like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I donít forget your commandments.Ē Godís Word is both Law and Promise. The Law calls us to repent, to turn to God. The Gospel assures us that He has provided for our forgiveness. We were like lost sheep, but Jesus found us, saved us, and restored us to a relationship with our God. The Great Shepherd will continue searching for those who are missing, restoring them to the field where they will be fed, and giving them rest. When He finds them, He will carry them on his shoulders, rejoicing just as He did for us.

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