Sunday, September 12, 2004

Fifteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering, for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life.

I started reading this week’s passages with the Old Testament lesson as I usually do. My first impression was that the message for this week would be about intercession. After all, in this passage from Exodus, Moses convinces God to change His mind. But as I read the other scriptures, I realized that while this was about intercession, it was focused on the intercession of God in this world – seeking the lost and bringing them home.

As we look more deeply at this conversation between God and Moses, we see that Moses is not so much trying to convince God that He should spare the people His wrath. Instead, we see that Moses is reminding God of the work He had already done, causing Him to relent. Some versions of the Bible translate verse 14 with “the LORD changed his mind” or “the LORD repented.” While each of these versions have a measure of truth, I think the word relent fits more closely to the intent of the story.

In the verses that follow today’s passage, we see that many of the Israelites were slain for their sin. The next day, Moses went to the mountain to ask for God’s forgiveness. He offered himself as a sacrifice for the atonement of their sins, but God refused. Those that sinned against God by rejecting Him would be punished.

Yet, this story is filled with mercy. God was ready to destroy everyone but Moses. Through him, the LORD would build a great nation. It certainly was possible for him to do so through one man, He had already accomplished it once through Abraham, He could do it again. Moses would not let God reject His people. He retorted with the exact same words – “your people” – and he reminded the LORD of His promises. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.”

At that moment, the LORD had mercy and relented. His heart softened and His response to the people’s unfaithfulness became less severe. Some of the people did die at the foot of that mountain, but God did not destroy His people. They went on to become the great nation just as it had been promised to their forefathers. We look at this story and wonder – how could they turn away from God to bow down to a golden calf? What had the idols of Egypt done for them except hold them in bondage and slavery?

Yet, making an idol was the culturally acceptable way to act for these people who had so recently left one life to follow an unknown path. They had forgotten the God of their forefathers, they had no written record of His deeds, and they had only stories that under the yoke of the Egyptians did not make much sense. When Aaron agreed to make them the calf, they gave him everything they had of value. They were willing to sacrifice their future security for something they thought would be life-giving today. As far as they were concerned, Moses was lost forever on the mountain and the God that he followed had led them to die in the desert. Why shouldn’t they return to the only life they knew, even if it meant slavery in Egypt?

As we look at the Gospel lesson for today, the Pharisees are grumbling about the company Jesus is keeping. They see Him eating with sinners and tax collectors, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. The culturally acceptable thing to do was to stay away from such people. They were unclean and not worthy of the message or the fellowship that Jesus was willing to give them.

Jesus answered their grumbling with a question. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, and having lost one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” This is really a ridiculous question from their perspective. First of all, a man with a hundred sheep would have hired hands taking care of the sheep. That many sheep indicated a great deal of wealth. They certainly would not have left ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves while they went searching for one.

This was exactly Jesus’ point. The Pharisees were more interested in doing what is culturally acceptable – in this case very specifically related to their religion – than in having mercy on those who are lost. To them anyone who was interested in having a relationship with God would do so through obedience to the Law. They would come to God and not wander in the wilderness. I don’t think any of them would reject someone who sincerely sought forgiveness according to the ways of the Jews. They would have welcomed the sinner when there was evidence of repentance.

Jesus welcomed them without condition, and even went in search of those who needed Him most so that He could give them the kingdom of God. He went against the acceptable practices of the day for the sake of mercy – giving hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless, forgiveness to the unforgivable. Jesus finishes this parable with, “I say unto you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.”

I think it is interesting that Jesus, at this point, does not question their righteousness. However, He focuses on those that truly needs God’s mercy – the lost sheep in the wilderness. What good is it for Jesus to sit around in the Temple chatting with the religiously mature believers when there are children of God who think they are worthless? The Pharisees do not understand that God is the God of mercy not sacrifice. He is the God of forgiveness not wrath. He is like the sheep owner that would leave the comfort of his warm home to go out in the wilderness to find the one lost sheep, not because there is any material value to the animal but out of love.

The crowds following Jesus would not have really been able to identify with the story of the lost sheep, unless they themselves were the ones who were lost. Then it would be a comfort to know that God is willing to go out of His way to find them. I wonder how many people who call themselves Christian really think of themselves as lost sheep. I think most of us see ourselves and the righteous and this as a story of evangelism, a call for us to go out and find the unbelievers to bring them to church so that they might hear the Gospel. But we should never forget that we were once lost and we were found by the Great Shepherd who was willing to go out of His way to bring us home.

Jesus continues the conversation with another story – this time about a woman and a coin. The crowds probably found it much easier to identify with this story, as do we. Which of us has not lost something which we searched for hours to find? It seems like I spend more time looking for my car keys or my sunglasses. I can’t count the number of times I’ve left a credit card or identification card in a pants pocket and then worried until it was found.

There is a sense of panic that goes along with this type of loss. One coin might not seem like much, but for her it was a day’s wage. The loss of one coin in that day could mean the difference between a home and a filled belly or homelessness and hunger. There was a time when I was shopping in a department store with Vicki. She couldn’t have been more than three years old. I was wandering through the racks of clothes while Vicki was playing underneath. Suddenly I realized she was no longer with me. I panicked. There had been too many stories of child abduction on the news and I feared the worst. My fear almost got the most of me; I had difficulty keeping a straight head. Then I heard her crying – she had wandered into a changing room on the other side of the store. When I found her, she ran in my arms and would not let go.

I wanted to be mad; she had wandered off and made me worry. But how could I punish her when she had obviously suffered enough? I think perhaps God has the same sense of panic about His own children that have wandered. That panic can lead to anger, especially when the child has been disobedient. Yet, as I was searching for Vicki and thinking the worst, I wanted to be in her place so that she would not suffer. When I found her, I could not be angry. I loved her too much.

This is how God feels about each of us. He hurts when we hurt. He cries when we wander. He wants to hold us in His arms forever and give us everything we need. We are like the lost sheep and the lost coin – of such great value to Him that He is willing to go out of His way to find us. He will wander in the wilderness or clean the entire house. He takes the burden upon Himself. For Jesus, it meant going against the culturally accepted practices of the religious community, to eat with the sinners and tax collectors that they too might know God.

There are few Christians over the span of two thousand years of the Church who can truly identify with Paul’s story. He was the Pharisee of Pharisees. He was zealous for God and willing to do whatever was necessary to stop the spread of the Christian plague. He writes to Timothy, “…though I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: howbeit I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief…” Paul recognizes that when he thought he was most righteous, he was the most in need of God’s mercy. Jesus sought him, found him and saved him.

He writes, “Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Faithful, too, is God who does not forget the promises He has made to His people, even when they wander into the wilderness.

When I began reading the scriptures this week, I thought perhaps the lessons might lead to a message of intercession. Though we can see references to that in the story of Moses, the sheep owner and the woman’s coin, I think we need to think of it in a new way. We are the ones who need the intercession and God is the one who intercedes. He relents when we have disobeyed, remembering His promises despite our unfaithfulness. He goes to the wilderness and cleans the house so that we might be found. This is a message of God’s mercy, mercy that comes so freely to those whom He loves.

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; And my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.” These are not the words of someone who thinks they are righteous. This is the cry of a man who knows He has sinned against God.

We can put ourselves into each of the stories today. The Israelites gave everything of value so that an idol could be made. They sought comfort in what they knew rather than in God. The sheep wandered away from the flock, perhaps thinking that the grass was truly greener on the other side of the hill. The coin fell away and was covered with the dust. So, too, do we turn to idols, wander away and get covered with the dirt of life.

We find comfort in these words, knowing that God is always faithful and that He will come looking for us. As we recognize ourselves in these stories, we cry out to God and ask for His mercy knowing He is faithful to His promises. “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, And blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me.”

And we, like Paul, receive His mercy so that we might become witnesses of God’s grace. “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering, for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life.”

Thanks be to God.

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