Sunday, September 15, 2019

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

I have gone astray like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I donít forget your commandments.

I spent a few years in retail management. I was with Woolworthís, working as an assistant manager under a great guy at a store in New Jersey. Another store nearby had an assistant manager that seemed to be doing a great job. He arrived at work extremely early; the district managers assumed he was doing so to get more work accomplished. They thought he was working to prove his worth to the company. One day they discovered that his early arrivals had nothing to do with his career. He was a baseball card collector. He purchased hundreds of dollars of cases of baseball cards. He also stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise by walking it out the back door during those early hours. He was fired and charged with theft, and I was moved into his position.

Unfortunately, he also managed to get some of the employees involved in his scheme. We had to find out which employees were involved and let them go. That assistant manager was hired to lead the employees, to teach them how to do their jobs, and to ensure the success of the store. He not only stole merchandise, he destroyed the spirit of that store. Those who lead others have a responsibility to make sure that they do their best to protect not only their own jobs, but they must care for the people and the institutions for which they were liable.

Ancient Israel ran into a similar situation, something God warned them would happen. In the beginning, they had God as their King and He provided prophets and judges to lead them. There were also priests, whose job was to minister to the Lord and administer the sacrifices. Eventually they wanted to be like everyone else; they wanted to be a kingdom with an earthly ruler who would guide their lives. God warned them that earthly kings demand much from the people; some would be cruel and lay heavy burdens on their lives.

He granted their request. Over the years, some of the kings were cruel and the people were led from the path of righteousness. Israel lost their independence, the line of kings ended and they were left desolate. By the time that Jesus was born, puppet kings controlled by the Romans, ruled over the people. Even the priests and temple leaders were more interested in their own welfare and position than that of the people they were called to lead.

The LORD knew what was going to happen to His people, so He promised that He would search for them when they were lost. He was their Shepherd King from the beginning and He would continue to do so even when they forgot about Him. He promised that though the priests would abandon them for their own selfish desires, He would never let them go. He promised that He would bring them home, give them all they need and tend them as a shepherd tends his sheep. He would not allow any to be lost and all those who suffer would be healed.

He did this by sending Jesus who is our Shepherd, our Savior. Jesus came to fulfill the promises, to fire the bad leaders, to make things right and to return the hearts of Godís people to Him again. It was not an easy task, for only through the cross of humiliation could Godís people be reconciled to Him once again. But Jesus did it; He died for you and for me. Today, we still face human leaders that will lead us astray and put heavy burdens on our lives. There are even such leaders within the church, those who care only for their own welfare and position and who care nothing for the sheep they are called to lead. But God will never abandon His sheep.

Paul has a most extraordinary story to tell. He was passionate for God without even knowing Him, willingly accosting any who stood for the Way, the Christian faith. One day Jesus appeared before him in a powerful and frightening way; he was changed forever. Few of us can tell a similar story. Most of us come to know about God and to have faith in Christ with the patient and persistent witness of those who come before us. I wonder how many times Paul heard the Gospel before that day on the road to Damascus. I wonder how many people he rejected and harmed out of his zealousness for the old way. He was a leader of Godís people, but he was lost. I wonder how many people like Ananias thought Paul was beyond hope, choosing to give up on him rather than risk his wrath. But Jesus sought him out and revealed Himself to Paul.

In this letter to Timothy, Paul recognized his sinfulness, admitting to having been ignorant while he thought himself to be wise. We often see Paul as being strong, arrogant, self-centered because he talks about himself so much, even in letters of encouragement to others. In todayís epistle 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 a sample 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, not because he thought himself greater than others but because he recognized how he never deserved Godís grace because he had rejected God.

It is good to emulate the work of Paul, to share the Gospel as we are able and to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ in whatever manner and gift we have been given, but that is not the example he wants us to follow. In this passage we are called to see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, to recognize Godís grace in the world around us and to share it with others so that they too might come to faith. It takes time. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. However no one is outside of hope. We shouldnít give up on any, no matter how much we are rejected. God did not give up on Paul. He never gave up on us. He hasnít given up on those who are still lost and suffering in the darkness. He searches for the sheep that is lost.

We lived in England when my son was in Kindergarten. The children were not allowed in the school before a specific time so that the teachers could prepare without having to watch them. Most of the students just gathered willy nilly around the school, but the kindergarteners were assigned a very specific place to wait. They lined up according to classroom and patiently waited for the teachers to come lead them in to school. The parents hovered nearby until they left, keeping their eyes on their children until they were under the care of a responsible adult.

Sometimes the kids were not so patient. It is hard to be five and to stand in line for five or ten minutes, or longer. Since I love interacting with the kids, and often helped in the classroom, I spent that time chatting with Zack and the other children, listening to them tell me about their lives. It didnít take very long for the children to expect to get a high five or a hug from me along with a listening ear. Some days I nearly fell over when the whole class attacked me.

There was one boy who was very shy. At first he did not want hugs and high fives; he did not want to talk about anything. Each day, however, I said ďhelloĒ and offered him my hand. It took a long time - months - before he eventually opened up to me. At first it was just a shy smile or a brief word, but by the end of the school year his smile was bright and his hugs were long. I could have ignored him after the first couple of rejections, but I did not let it go. Though I gave time to every child, I specifically searched out that little boy so that he would know that he was loved. Zackís teacher told me that those brief moments made a difference to the way the boy performed in school; a little bit of confidence goes a long way.

In todayís Gospel lesson, the sinners and tax collectors were drawing near to Jesus. We normally expect that the faithful will flock to a preacher and teacher, but in Jesusí case the righteous (the self-righteous) people were offended by Him. They saw Him as a threat. They saw Him as opposite of everything they expected in a Savior. He did not appear more righteous than others because He did things that seemed counter to the Law of Moses. He had mercy on sinners. He ate with tax collectors. He touched the unclean and offered forgiveness to all who sought Him. They came to Him because He had something to offer them, something they could not find anywhere else. The righteous, the self-righteous, did not need mercy or forgiveness. They did not need Godís grace.

The stories in our lesson almost seem contradictory to what was happening. Jesus told of a shepherd and woman looking for something of value. In those stories, God is the shepherd and the woman. Specifically, Jesus was telling stories about Himself. He had come to find the lost sheep and the lost coin. The people who came to hear Him, to receive His grace were the ones He came to find. The religious leaders grumbled about how this supposed rabbi welcomed sinners and tax collectors and ate with them. The sinners and tax collectors are seen as coming to Jesus, but we know that Jesus actually came looking for them. The lost sheep heard the voice of their Master and came running for deliverance. The Pharisees and the scribes did not hear that voice. They did not recognize the voice. They did not know Jesus. The tax collectors and sinners did know Him and they knew they needed what He had to give.

The scribes and Pharisees had not turned to Roman gods but they were drawn away from God by a much less obvious god: themselves. They relied on their self-righteousness, their obedience to a set of laws and their own interpretation of them. They looked down on Jesus because He willingly ate with sinners and tax collectors; to them, this was the sin. They had forgotten that God is the God of mercy and grace, that He loves all who seek Him and that He seeks those who are lost. They missed that Jesus was the one whom God had sent to bring His people home. To them the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin had no meaning because to them it was more important to conform than to seek God. After all, they were the examples of how the people should live.

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 which words are truly Godís Word. They have been led astray, and then left to fend for themselves. The church can be 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.

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. There was truth in what he said; 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 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.

ďI will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them, even my servant David. He will feed them, and he will be their shepherd. I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David prince among them. I, Yahweh, have spoken it.Ē The promise was ultimately 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. He came for you and me.

There was only one thing that mattered to that man in our former congregation; many people have a similar passion for whatever is their issue. Everything they do in Godís kingdom is focused solely on that one thing. They are never guilty of it and therefore think they are more righteous. They forget 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. Those who bash never really understand what God means when He says we 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.

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 was repeated later in Luke (chapter 19) as Jesus met 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.

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.

So, let us live in the mercy of God, praising Him for His promises and for His faithfulness. We will fail, one way or another. We might be among the strong who take advantage of the weak or we might be among the weak who are led astray. But God will make things right. He doesn't think any of us are disposable, and He will always bless those who turn to Him.

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