Luke 15:1-7 – Lost and Found

Tax collectors and sinners were all crowding around to listen to Jesus. So, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses started grumbling, “This man is friendly with sinners. He even eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this story:

If any of you has a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, what will you do? Won’t you leave the ninety-nine in the field and go look for the lost sheep until you find it? And when you find it, you will be so glad that you will put it on your shoulder and carry it home. Then you will call in your friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found my lost sheep.”

Jesus said, “In the same way there is more happiness in heaven because of one sinner who turns to God than over ninety-nine good people who don’t need to.” (Contemporary English Version)

Lost people matter to God… a lot!

From God’s perspective, it really doesn’t matter why a sheep has strayed from the flock. That stuff only matters to us. It seems many folks only believe a person is worth going out and looking for after we have properly deemed them worthy of pursuing.

“They made their bed; now they need to sleep in it,” “You reap what you sow,” and “They don’t want to be found,” are all human contrived justifications for letting a strayed sheep remain in the wilderness, vulnerable to the wolves.

The mercy of God makes no distinctions between a person who purposely leaves and squanders their resources, and one who accidentally wanders off because of hardship which wasn’t their fault. Lost is lost. Mercy is mercy, period.

Lost people matter so much to God that one lost soul is worth sending out the hounds of heaven to find them. And, once found, becomes the ground for a big celestial party! 

Please note this simple observation of today’s Gospel reading: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels in heaven over one sinner who repents, then who is doing the rejoicing?  God!  God is crazy giddy with joy over one lost person being found. 

Celebration is a spiritual discipline.

Yes, indeed, it is. Celebration is an important activity for the Church and for believers everywhere. Just as pursuing lost people is a spiritual practice and a skill to be developed, so celebration is a spiritual discipline which needs time, attention, and resources.

But the religious insider might doth protest, why care about this, especially the celebration? Aren’t we being faithful already, and properly focusing on Scripture, sacrament, worship, and prayer? Isn’t this just all a waste of our limited time, energy, and assets?

Short answer: We celebrate because God celebrates.

God throws the best parties, filled with plenty of joy and recognition of persons restored to fellowship.

As people created in the image and likeness of God, we are hardwired for celebration. If God can go uncorked with joy and celebration, I’m going to say with confidence that open unabashed blowouts rejoicing over people’s transformation and new life is welcome and expected.

Folks baptized in pickle juice can join the grumbling of all the high mucky-muck dudes who smugly look down on the marginal persons among us. Hopefully, the party-poopers won’t be heard because of all the noise at God’s party.

This parable of Jesus is meant to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart. 

God would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person to relational connection. God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage to find that one lost valuable person.

Why should reaching out to marginal people with the grace and love of Jesus Christ be a high priority? 

Because restoring lost people is a high priority for God. 

God has placed the highest of priorities on recovering those who are spiritually lost and wandering around life without a purpose or a place to call home. Such people matter so much that God sent the Son, Jesus, to this earth. 

Christ went to the greatest lengths possible through enduring a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the church – it was lonely and sad, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help. 

But God, with immense mercy, sent spiritual commandos to extract me from my captivity of the soul. So, my greatest desire is to live my life basking in the grace shown to me, grateful for new mercies which come every day, and giving that same grace to others – especially those considered as the lost, the least, and the lonely in society.

In leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost. So, because of this, I ask a sincere and probing question which I believe needs to be asked: Can you live with that? 

My own answer is: “I sure can, because I was once that lone lost sheep!”

Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd. Thank you for going after me when I was lost. Help me remember that you will often leave my pasture to go after others. I’ll be willing and happy to go with you when you do. Let’s also take the Spirit with us.  Amen.

Psalm 47 – Clap and Shout!

Sing, Clap, and Sound the Trumpets by Melani Pyke

Come, everyone! Clap your hands!
    Shout to God with joyful praise!
For the Lord Most High is awesome.
    He is the great King of all the earth.
He subdues the nations before us,
    putting our enemies beneath our feet.
He chose the Promised Land as our inheritance,
    the proud possession of Jacob’s descendants, whom he loves.

God has ascended with a mighty shout.
    The Lord has ascended with trumpets blaring.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King over all the earth.
    Praise him with a psalm.
God reigns above the nations,
    sitting on his holy throne.
The rulers of the world have gathered together
    with the people of the God of Abraham.
For all the kings of the earth belong to God.
    He is highly honored everywhere.
(New Living Translation)

God is King. In the Christian tradition specifically, Jesus is King. Christ is the One who gives shape, form, and substance to the reign of God over the earth. This is what the Lord’s ascension to heaven communicates – that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father, exercising a benevolent rule as the rightful Sovereign over all creation.

This redemptive reality of the Lord’s good reign is a cause for praise. And this is what today’s psalm is all about. We, as the subjects of God’s kingdom, are called to praise the Lord.

The psalm tells us exactly how to praise the Lord because of powerful and compassionate authority: clap your hands and shout! For worshipers who believe acknowledgment of God is most appropriate with silence and contemplation, even a cursory reading of the psalms will inform them differently. Although it seems to me most worship experiences need more familiarity with silence, I also passionately believe they could use a whole lot more enthusiasm with clapping and shouting.

Depending upon where you fit in the spectrum of Christianity’s tradition of worship, high church or low church, very liturgical, or not, it behooves all churches to incorporate the full range of human expression to God – including both silence and shout, hands clasped reverently in prayer as well as exuberantly clapping in praise.

“Let all the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether.”

Psalm 98:8, CEB

It is biblical to applaud God! And it’s healthy, too – both spiritually and physically. Whenever we fail to pause in our feelings of happiness and enjoy the moment, it is more than a missed opportunity. Unacknowledged and unexpressed joy trains us to depress our feelings, eventually leading to depression itself. Yet, whenever we stop to outwardly demonstrate gratitude through the exuberance of shouting and clapping, it benefits everyone – God, others, and self.

Physically clapping and shouting helps keep the heart and lungs healthy, even playing a curative role with pulmonary problems. It gives relief to joint pain, gout, headaches, insomnia, and digestion. Shouting and clapping even sharpens the intellect and increases the brain’s ability. And, of course, applause is a social phenomenon which binds folks together in community.

For the psalmist, applause to the Lord is the appropriate response to God’s power and victory in the world. Since divine presence is everywhere – and that presence is merciful, just, and kind – we ought to pause long enough to acknowledge and celebrate a loving God watching over us with tender care and concern.

No matter the circumstance, God is with us. That reality alone is enough cause for exuberance and celebration. Even though evil still resides in this old fallen world, God is King, and still sits on the throne. The pastor and hymnwriter, Maltbie Davenport Babcock (1858-1901), had it right:

This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad! 

It is not the attempt to gin-up human and personal confidence which enables us to face the foulness and degradation of this world. Rather, it’s the spiritual awareness of God’s presence and power which resides around us and within us. This is the basis of our confidence. It is the ground of our peace. It’s the reason for the believer’s joy, even amidst awful circumstances.

Our connection with one another as worshipers is the common acknowledgment of God’s rule and reign over all creation. And our link as followers of Jesus is the collective conviction that Christ is King, we are his subjects, and all things belong to God, including us.

Whenever we connect with this basic theology, spontaneous and joyous praise is the result. So, if we lack the joy of the Lord in our lives, the place to go is to use today’s psalm. Read it several times over, out loud. Shout the psalm! Clap while shouting the psalm! Sing the psalm aloud! Praise the risen and ascended Lord!

May it be so to the glory of God.

This Is My Father’s World, sung by Amy Grant.

Psalm 95 – Worship and Whining

Psalm 95 verse 4, by Cecelia Nedlin

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
    let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
    and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship,
    let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
    as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
    they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
(New International Version)

Revelation and Response

Praise and thanksgiving. Complaining and grumbling. These two sets of words are antithetical to each other. Yet, out of the same mouth can come both worship and whining. Maybe the psalmist was trying to teach us a thing or two by inviting us to sing and bow to the Lord, as well as hear God’s voice.

Worship and listening are meant to go hand in hand. Revelation and response are to be the spiritual rhythm of the believer. True worship is a divine conversation between us and God. The Lord speaks. We listen and answer. Back and forth we go together. God and God’s people are in dialogue.

When the worship rhythm is off, then our response will be off. And that is what happened to the ancient Israelites. They were miraculously delivered from their cruel bondage in Egypt. You can imagine the kind of praise and worship service the people had in the desert! After four-hundred years of slavery, freedom!

The Rhythm is Off

Before you know it, the thanksgiving turned sour into grumbling. At the first instance of adversity, when there was no water to drink, it was as if the people had some sort of collective dementia set in. Suddenly, hardness of heart. Talk about fickle! One minute hands are raised in praise, the next minute, those same hands clench into fists shaking at God.

The people forgot that this was an ongoing dialogue – not a one and done conversation of revelation and response. God acted by delivering the people. The people responded with praise and thanksgiving. And they didn’t want it to stop. Yet, all of life is a rhythm. What goes up, comes down. Good times eventually fade into tough times. The real muster of any person or group is the response when the hardship comes.

God knew exactly what he was doing. The Lord purposely brought the Israelites out into the desert to face a difficult circumstance. God was teaching them to trust. The Lord wanted a response of faith and prayer to the adverse situation. But the people weren’t looking for a dialogue. They were looking for water. And when they didn’t have it, their hearts hardened through murmuring, bellyaching, and dissatisfaction.

However, God was still in the conversation. The generation who saw the incredible deliverance from bondage would die in the desert, never setting eyes on the Promised Land. And it all began because of grumbling.

Complaining is Unhealthy

We need to take complaining seriously. Why? Because it rots the soul, like Mr. Grinch who incessantly complained every year about Christmas. Grumbling makes one into a Grinch-like creature, like the song says:

You’re as cuddly as a cactus
You’re as charming as an eel…

You got termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile…

Your heart’s an empty hole
You got garlic in your soul.

It was only when the Grinch forsook his isolation of complaining and began connecting in conversation with the folks in Whoville, that he had his rhythm restored.

The Need for Encouragement

When our rhythm is off kilter, what will it take to get it back? The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews helps us here. After quoting our psalm lesson for today, the writer responded to the biblical revelation by saying:

Be careful, brothers and sisters, that none of you ever develop a wicked, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage each other every day while you have the opportunity. If you do this, none of you will be deceived by sin and become stubborn. After all, we will remain Christ’s partners only if we continue to hold on to our original confidence until the end. Scripture says, “If you hear God speak today, don’t be stubborn. Don’t be stubborn like those who rebelled.”

Hebrews 3:12-15, God’s Word Translation

Revelation and response are the rhythmic dynamism of the Christian community. Lone Ranger Christians are an oxymoron, as well as moronic. We are hard-wired by God for community. All of us need to encourage one another – every day. Without the communal connections of encouraging conversations, it will be difficult to sustain a divine dialogue of God speaking, with people listening and responding in obedient faith.

Celebration is wonderful. We need times and experiences of celebrating deliverance from bondage. Eventually, when Christ returns, there will be unending worship in the form of jubilation. That time is not yet here. This side of heaven, we must learn to engage God in ways which address our hardships and difficulties. Otherwise, our hearts will become stubborn and hard.

Let your heart become open enough to receive encouragement. And let it also be brave enough to encourage others.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you caused earthly pain to be holy. And you gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will. Be near me in my time of weakness and pain. Sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to you will. Help me always believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.

1 Corinthians 15:50-58 – Keep the Easter(tide) Coming

He Is Not Here by He Qi

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (NRSV)

Throughout my years of conducting Easter Sunday services, I inevitably have someone mention to me after the glorious resurrection celebration how much they enjoy Easter music and cantatas. Then, the conversation oftentimes ends with some sort of statement on how it is too bad we only sing such songs once a year.

Here is my proposal: Then don’t just sing them once a year. Instead, rejoice with resurrection singing and gusto to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the next several weeks.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” – Jesus

John 11:25-26, NRSV

The hopes and expectations of Christians are realized in Christ’s resurrection. The good news of Easter cannot be contained or limited to a single day (Easter Sunday). That is why, according to the Christian Calendar, Easter is only the first of fifty days of celebration called “Eastertide” which leads to the day of Pentecost. Eastertide is a season designed especially for exploring the new life we have in Jesus and the joyful Christian life we can all experience.

Just as we would likely not think of taking only one vacation day in the year for renewal, so it is necessary to take more than one day to enjoy Easter. If nothing else, Eastertide gives believers an opportunity to let Christ’s resurrection percolate in our hearts so that we end up becoming people in real life who exhibit an alive spirit.  And, God knows, we could use much more of that in our congregations and our world!

“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”

N. T. Wright

If life, eternal life, and the necessity of being alive are all needs for us, then it only makes sense that we would want to take advantage of what Eastertide has to offer: A deliberate look at Christ’s resurrection, exploring its implications and impact for us. Simply assuming we all know about resurrection will not do, any more than my wife simply assuming I love her without looking her straight in the eye and telling her so. 

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). Without an Eastertide, there’s a sin-as-usual kind of approach to life with a sort of shoulder shrug that says, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?”  Instead, we have the hope of life everlasting because Christ has risen from death. We have the hope of individual renewal, corporate revitalization, and worldwide revival because there is a risen Savior.

Spring is the time of year which can give shape to the rest of our seasons. Christ’s resurrection gives us a reason to rejoice, hope, persevere, and serve gladly, knowing that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. 

Easter is not over. It is just beginning. 

Therefore, throwing parties for Jesus is in order. Celebrating life, new life, is not only fun but biblical. Maybe some people outside the church look at Christians as uptight and repressed because we are not throwing the best parties and celebrations. 

After all, we have the highest reason possible to celebrate loudly with great passion and joy. Our joy can lead us to paint the town red, whoop it up, raise the roof; splurge, and be effusive with our worship. Christians, full of redemption and reconciliation, break out of their staid existence to hail King Jesus not just today but all through Eastertide because Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

Almighty God, who through your only begotten son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Thank you for giving me a reason to celebrate with joy my Lord’s resurrection. May I be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit and give the best party in the neighborhood; through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.