“Pictures of God”
Luke 15:1-10 (NRSV)
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I asked Google how many religions there are in the world. What kind of reply do you think the internet gave me? Well, good old Wikipedia reports that there is an estimate of 10,000 distinct religions worldwide. The largest of these religions is Christianity; followed closely by Islam, and Islam is growing faster than Christianity. Psychology today states that: Anthropologists estimate that at least 18,000 different gods, goddesses, and various animals or objects have been worshipped by humans since our species first appeared. I do not know how anyone would count that number, but it raises an important point. How do we really know who God is, or what God is like? Your answer to this question is likely to affect how you live and the decisions that you make. Do you see God as: judgmental or forgiving, active or distant, loving or indifferent, demanding or giving? Surely, not everyone sees God the same way, and even Christians do not always see God in the same way. With 10,000 religions and even 18,000 gods in our world they are not alike.
Who is God, and who does God want you to be? Now I think that there really is a right answer to this question because I believe this is the truth that Jesus came into the world to reveal. As Colossians 1:15 states, “15 He is the image of the invisible God” In Christ we have the image of God made clear. To understand Jesus words and will is to understand the true nature of God. Jesus’ parables often draw for us word pictures of who God is and what God is like. If we listen, we indeed can discover the hidden mystery of God’s nature and being.
Jesus shared today’s parables because the scribes and Pharisees were criticizing him for welcoming and eating with sinners. They believed God is holy, righteous, and not easily approachable. To be right with God a person had to live with a strict adherence to the law and follow all the rituals and rules of their faith. A person also needed to separate themself from those who were not living this righteous life. Basically, if you are going to give up alcohol then you can not have a drinking buddy.
The pharisees were not completely wrong. God is holy and righteous, and a person must live differently than the world around them. You cannot hang out in the dens of iniquity and expect to have a clean life, but they were mistaken when they assumed that God did not care about those who had perhaps given up trying, or who had been left behind because they were not considered good enough. They were wrong in thinking that God would forget about the lost.
In our scriptures, Jesus gives us two parables that reveal how deep and intense the love of God is for all people. In the first word picture Jesus says God is like a person with a sheep that is lost. Would not anyone leave the 99 and seek out the one that was lost, and when the shepherd has found lost sheep, he returns home and calls his neighbors saying, “Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Not only is Jesus saying that common sense dictates that the lost should be found, but he is pointing out that this is the nature of God.
And again, Jesus does the same thing with a woman and a Coin. Does not a woman who has ten coins seek diligently if one becomes lost, and is there not much celebration when it is found? Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers once offered an interesting perspective on this story. Remember that Jesus begins the story by saying, “What woman having TEN silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” What’s the significance of the number ten? Rogers suggests that these ten silver coins Jesus referred to were valuable because of the sentiment attached to them. When a man took a bride, he would give her a ribbon on which would be strung ten coins. She would wear this token of love on her head even as women do in the Middle East today. Like a wedding band these coins represented the marital relationship. Often on each piece of silver the name of the husband would be engraved. If a woman was caught in adultery, if she were unfaithful to her husband, one of the coins would be taken out leaving a gap to show that she had disgraced her marriage vows. Now we can clearly see why this woman was so frantically searching for the lost coin. It wasn’t as though she only lost a few dollars; her reputation and marriage were at stake. She did not want it to be lost, and fortunately, the woman did find the coin. And when she found it, she called together her friends and neighbors and said, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” The lost coin was precious and rare to the woman. This too is God’s opinion of you.
Have you ever lost something and then found it? I know you probably have. In college my undergraduate degree was in Geology. As part of my studies, I spent a summer in the hills of West Virginia in Geology field camp. We spent our days walking over mountainous terrain mapping out various rock units and creating maps. One day I discovered that my rock hammer was missing. I had lost it on a hillside somewhere. I sort of really needed that hammer. This was not good. Well as it turned out I got the opportunity to go back to where I had been the day before and with a limited opportunity, I was able to retrace my steps and lo and behold I found that hammer on a hillside where it had fallen. Now I did not want to embarrass myself by telling anyone I lost it to begin with, but I figure finding a small object lost in a wilderness like that after walking miles a day was really amazing. Seriously, I thanked God because I am not so sure finding it wasn’t an answer to prayer. It just made my day and put my little world back together again.
Jesus adds, “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents; even more so then over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Jesus calls the act of finding joy, and a cause for celebration. Jesus says, this is God. Yes, God is holy and righteous. Yes, a person needs to do their best to live as they think God would have them to live, but beyond this God cares about all who are not making it. God cares about all who are lost and falling short of the mark. God cares about all who have not figured out that they are loved. And when even one comes around to understanding the reality of God’s love for them and is brought back into the fold, or reconnected to complete the chain, there is reason for celebration and joy.
This is the real image of who God is. God is like that shepherd who went in search for the lost sheep. God is like the woman who swept her house diligently looking for the lost coin. God is the searcher. God is the one who deeply desires for us to be found. God’s world is mended when we can find our place of life next to Him. For this Jesus even died before we are even able to understand our own lost situation. That deep love, desire and wish for us is at the heart of God. This is the truth of who God is. God cares about you, singly, uniquely, and personally. A lot of times people cannot believe this. The possibility of a personal experience with God defies human concepts, but there is the thing. God nature is not defined by human understandings, or limitations. God really does care for you. So now we may know the image of God better, but what can we learn about what God wants from us?
Well, I believe that God would have us to join the celebration, and the joy of finding the lost. God would not have us cloistered in our own little comfortable group like the scribes and pharisees, but rather God would have us doing our best to share his love that is outreaching and transforming. The lost did not decrease in value because they were lost. The sheep was worth just as much, the coin kept its value. The value to God for every person without Christ is not less. Our task is to call everyone to the celebration of the angels; to be the reason why the angels celebrate.
Evangelist Roy Fish once emphasized the difference between “Come and hear” and “Go and Tell” ministries. “People often say, ‘Come and hear the gospel taught in our church’ or ‘Come and Hear our minister preach the gospel. ‘This ‘come and hear’ kind of religion constitutes a reversal of the Great Commission of Jesus. His instructions to his church were not to invite people to ‘come and hear,’ but for believers to ‘go and tell.’ The main responsibility is not to bring the lost to the gospel, but to take the gospel to the lost.
In Chicken Soup for the soul, a man tells the story of having grown up with his grandfather during the 1940’s. His grandfather always wanted to be a farmer but was unable to raise enough money to buy a farm of his own. Wanting to get married he eventually got a job making Pullman railway cars, in Chicago. When World War II came times were difficult and the man had to move to Chicago to live with the grandparents.
He says , “Food was rationed, and a lot of people were just getting by. Pop mulled it over and decided what to do. There was no land to farm on the South side of Chicago, but there were plenty of vacant lots. So, without bothering to ask anybody’s permission, Pop started planting. The man writes we were a strange pair, the toddler, and the old man, with our hoes and shovels. Every day we went from one vacant lot garden to the next until all four or five had been tended. We planted potatoes, corn, cabbage, squash, and carrots: food to eat fresh and for my grandmother to can. Every day, as we worked in the gardens people came by, and Pop shared with all who were hungry and had need. Families of all sizes and backgrounds, men who didn’t speak English, old people. They all got fed from those vacant lots. For years, until the war was over, and rationing ended, Pop fed everyone who came.
Pop passed away in 1972 at the age of 93. My grandmother had passed away and Pop had been living with us in another area, but we knew Pop was old fashion and would want a wake, so we held one. But we never thought anyone would come. It had been years since he had lived in the old neighborhood and all of his friends had died. Who would still remember him? That evening of his wake was one I will never forget. People came and kept coming and the family didn’t know any of them. Over two hundred people came, of all races, religions and backgrounds. As we stood stunned in the receiving line, every person who shook our hands said the same thing, “I saw his name in the paper and I just had to come and pay my respects. All the people that Pop had fed during those difficult war years had never forgotten. On that night I realized that the man who wanted his whole life to be a farmer had finally fulfilled his dream.
A go and tell ministry will see the needs of people, find the vacant lots of life, and plant the good seeds of salvation, hope, and human kindness that God has ordained. If we intentionally put the good seed out in the world where the people are, lives will be changed. Where are the places where human need and the message of life intersect? Join together in the celebration of what God is doing and speak of God’s grace to all. Then we m ay truly discover who God truly is. Amen.