Heaven’s Lost and Found
For the third straight week we hear our Lord teach us by means of a parable. Two weeks ago we heard the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Church—the community of Christians—lives by hearing the Word who is Jesus and trusting Him above all things. Last week we hear the Parable of the Great Supper. Despite our weak and rotten human excuses, God still wants to fill His banquet hall with people who enjoy His feast of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Today we get to hear parables on “heaven’s lost and found.” We all know what it’s like to lose something valuable. It might be the car keys, a wallet, or a precious family heirloom. When we lose it, we are beside ourselves. And since it’s something very valuable, we give our time and attention to searching for it. Today our Lord teaches us about something He has lost and by no fault of His own. Jesus also shows us how He seeks and finds that which is lost—us sinners. And in “heaven’s lost and found” there is much rejoicing!
Once again Jesus finds Himself standing toe-to-toe with His archrivals, the Pharisees. They were very religious. They wore the right clothes. They went to church every week. They kept all of the rules and lived stellar lives. They gave their whole lives to serving their church. So, it did not sit well at all that this Jesus would eat and drink with sinners. It just wasn’t right that Jesus would welcome tax collectors and prostitutes. You see, as the Pharisees looked at life, they were the found ones; the tax collectors and sinners were the lost ones.
Now before we condemn the Pharisees, let’s remember that there’s a “little Pharisee” in each of us. Each of us here today has that little voice inside that says, “I’m religious. I wear the right clothes. I go to church. I keep the rules. I live a good life.” In fact, when we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we are being Pharisees ourselves!
What’s even more deplorable is that we treat Jesus and His message of mercy the same way that the Pharisees did: we don’t want to hear it and learn it. We want to stay religious, but we don’t want Jesus to show us our sin. We want to look religious to other people around us, but we don’t want to admit that we are truly lost. We don’t want to rely on Jesus’ Gospel and Sacraments for the life of the Church. Instead, we want to implement our modern, man-made techniques and strategies to “grow the church.” We don’t want to rely on Jesus’ forgiveness to stay strong in faith; we want to rummage around in the moldy, musty attic of our hearts for some kind of spiritual high.
Yes, Jesus’ parables are for us today! The Pharisees had to learn how to be lost. We too must learn how to be lost—how to admit that we are lost. It’s much like the husband and wife driving in an unfamiliar part of town as they go to a friend’s house. You know how it goes. The husband is driving. They are lost. But he doesn’t want to admit it. And he certainly does not want to stop and ask for directions! ☺ Well, that’s each of us before God. We are lost, but we don’t want to admit it. Even as Christians, we don’t like to admit our “lostness” in sin. But we really must admit it. After all, when we admit we are lost, then we are truly found.
Jesus tells a trilogy of parables—Heaven’s Lost and Found Trilogy. First comes the Parable of the Lost Sheep. One sheep wanders away. When it is lost, no doubt fear seizes the sheep. Perhaps it gets caught in a bramble bush. Perhaps it just grazes in a strange pasture. But it’s lost and it cannot return on its own. The shepherd must leave the other 99 sheep. Sounds strange, if you’re a shepherd. Why leave the 99? In real life shepherding, there would have been a team of shepherds tending the flock. But in Jesus’ story, He makes another point. He, the Shepherd, does not come for those who think they have found themselves. No, Jesus comes for those who admit that they are lost.
Shepherd Jesus goes all out until He finds His lost sheep—certainly a reminder of sacrificing Himself on the cross. And when Shepherd Jesus finds His lone lost sheep, He rejoices. He tenderly and gently picks it up and puts it on His shoulders and carries it home. He does all the work.
The sheep does not find itself, not does it wander back to the fold either by choice or by accident. And Shepherd Jesus does not rejoice by Himself. He gathers a whole community—in heaven and on earth—to rejoice with Him. After all, rejoicing is best done with others! And that rejoicing is a heavenly reality even when it happens here on earth. There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Then comes part 2 of Jesus’ Lost and Found Trilogy—the Parable of the Lost Coin. A woman has ten valuable coins. She loses one. Now, a coin cannot find itself. A coin cannot even call out and say, “Here I am!” Yet that one coin is so valuable to the woman that she lights a lamp and scours the house. When she finds the coin, she rejoices. And she rejoices with other people—community rejoicing. Who’s the woman? One writer suggests that the woman may refer to the Church. After all, the Church does the same thing Shepherd Jesus does. As the Bride of Christ, the Church seeks and finds the lost ones. She also rejoices with the heavenly angels over one sinner who repents.
But let’s be clear about how the Church finds the lost. The woman lights a lamp. The Church must light a lamp too. She is not called to use modern marketing strategies, nor the ways of pop-culture entertainment. No, she is called to use the light of God’s Word. As Psalm 119(:105) says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” After all, the best way to find something is to turn on the light. Jesus knew this too. That’s why He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).
It’s also no coincidence that once Jesus identifies Himself as the Light of the world, He immediately starts talking about going to His death on the cross. As the darkness covered the earth, and as Jesus went to the darkness of death, He shines brightly for you, giving you life with God. As Jesus Himself was lost and forsaken by God on the cross, He found you and brings you out of your “lostness.” That’s heaven’s lost and found. That’s the Shepherd’s joy. That’s the Church’s joy.
And then comes part three of Jesus’ Lost and Found Trilogy—the Lost Son and the Merciful Father. You know this one. A son demands his share of the inheritance. He goes off to squander it in loose living. But when he returns in true repentance—that is, admitting that he is in fact lost—his father welcomes him. And rejoices! And restores him. And throws a party with lots of people in attendance. Community rejoicing!
What’s the point of Jesus’ Lost and Found Trilogy? What does all this mean for the Church and for us? We are the lost ones. We get to spend all our lives learning to admit it. “Yes, Lord, I am lost in my sin. I keep trying to find myself without You.” But it also means that we get to spend all our life being found by Shepherd Jesus. We get to spend all our life rejoicing in Jesus’ Church. Here we are taught and comforted by His never-ending love and mercy. Here, in the Church, our Lord lifts us up and puts us on His shoulders. And here, when we admit our “lostness,” when we confess our sins and live by His forgiveness, all of heaven goes crazy. All the angels whoop it up. Even God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—does a dance of joy over us. He finds us in forgiving us.
Here’s one more thing that Jesus tells us. In His eyes, one sinner is valuable. Too often we get fixated on grand, massive numbers and quick fixes that suddenly fill pews. But Jesus turns our eyes to the one sinner who repents. It may be a family member—a mom, a dad, or a child. It may be a co-worker or friend. Whoever it is, let’s learn to search for and find our fellow lost ones one sinner at a time. That’s what heaven rejoices in: not massive numbers, but sinners who repent and are found by Shepherd Jesus.
Here’s how Dr. Arthur Just summed up these parables: “Jesus the shepherd restores the sheep back to the fold, where there is rejoicing that the lost sheep has been found. But after restoration to the church has taken place, the church must continue to catechize so that Christ continues to be found in the ongoing life of the church” (Luke 9:51-24:33, p. 591). Amen.