If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.
20 November. Luke chapters 14-16
The first ten verses of chapter 15 comprise the two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. They go together, two ways of making the same point, which is: “there is joy in heaven over one person who repents”. Why does Jesus make this point about joy? Because the “scribes and Pharisees” – those full-time theologians who became the bane of his life – were grumbling again. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.
What was the motivation of the Pharisees for their grumbling? I think it was jealousy, for they saw people coming to Jesus, finding forgiveness, and responding joyfully. They themselves, caught up as they were in their own detailed commentaries and interpretations of Jewish law, had no time for joy. Joy, in the sense that Christians use the term, is not physical pleasure but the deep contentment and happiness of a fulfilled life, something that God always intended for us. It’s easy to lose that sense of joy in the busyness and troubles of this life. Sin, self-centredness and materialism (all of which characterised the Pharisees) work against a joy-filled life. But Jesus saw it as part of his mission to restore it. In John’s Gospel he says, “I speak these things so they may have my joy made complete in themselves” [John 17:13].
There’s nothing like a sense of guilt for making people joyless, and nothing like having that guilt removed for restoring joy. That is why repentance is more than merely praying for forgiveness. Saint Paul experienced this, as he writes to Timothy. He may not be using the word “joy”, but “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:14) surely describes such joy. This “joy in the Lord” comes when someone experiences, as Paul did, the assurance of forgiveness and being made at one with God.
Looking again at the second of Jesus’ short parables, the lost coin, he is describing the joy, the relief, of finding something that we knew all along was missing. The coin was not additional income, but something that already belonged to the woman. In the same way, repenting and finding peace with God through Christ is restoring a relationship that we all should have had in the first place.
For that reason, it’s more than just a matter for the individual. Christianity is never a closed shop, our mission is always to help people see what they are missing and find it. The shepherd, or the housewife, in the parables represents not only Jesus, but each one of us. Jesus says there is “joy in heaven”, or “joy in the presence of the angels of God”, over one sinner who repents. It is a matter of rejoicing for the whole Christian community when another person understands what Christ has done for him or her, and turns to him.
How might we express joy when we see someone coming to faith? The charity “Christians Against Poverty” work with churches throughout the country to offer debt counselling. Each local church is encouraged to celebrate when someone is set free from debt, after the counsellor has negotiated cancellation of some of their debts and a repayment plan for the rest that they can afford. But more than that, along with debt counselling, CAP advisers take any opportunity they can to share their faith and tell people of Jesus who can set them free from sin as well as financial debt. In CAP head office in Bradford there is a bell, and that bell is rung whenever it is reported by a local church that one of their clients has decided to become a Christian.
Have you found a lost sheep recently? Helped another person along the way back to God? Or experienced joy when he found you? Then meet up with with other Christians and rejoice together.
Extracts from a sermon for Holy Trinity, North Greenwich, 15 September 2013