One sinner who repents.
A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity
June 25, 2023 at Holy Communion
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
I learned early that lost things are precious to God. When I was about nine years old, I attended a Sunday school class at the end of which the teacher asked whether we had any prayer requests. I asked that the teacher would pray that God would help us find the lost remote to our television at home. I actually didn’t care about watching the TV, but I think that the previous evening my parents had got into a minor disagreement about who had lost the remote, which I found stressful. I told the teacher that the missing remote was making us angry, so I asked that we pray that it would be found.
And it was found, without any trouble, shortly after we got back from church. Since that day, although in general I don’t pray for God’s special intervention in the small details of life, I have continued to pray when I misplace things. And I believe that God still hears. I cannot recall anything of importance which I have misplaced and has not been found after prayer. But what that experience taught me is more important: God loves finding little lost things.
That’s one message from the Gospel reading, of course. God’s love for us is humble, and delights in finding a single lost coin, delights in going after a foolish wayward lamb.
But ultimately God is not concerned about coins or lambs or television remotes. He wants us. And we want to be wanted by him. So how do we get included in God’s love for lost things?
God’s special concern for the lost can actually be alienating for us, can’t it? Few of us really think of ourselves as lost, wayward, errant. We are the ninety-nine sheep. We are the people who still go to church when many don’t. We’re the stable people who welcome and serve the lost; we are not ourselves lost. We’re the first to offer help when someone needs support, but God forbid that we should ever ask for help ourselves!
Perhaps I over-play this. The point is that if we want to experience the pleasure of being found by God, the joy of being God’s special delight, we need a way to access our own sense of lost-ness. If God loves little things, we need to understand how little we are. If God loves errant lambs, we need to know how we have gone astray.
Our readings give us two words to describe what we need: humility and repentance.
Jesus is eating with sinners, and the scribes and Pharisees grumble about it. The scribes and Pharisees, throughout the gospels, are the embodiment of pride, and specifically the pride which does not see one’s own need for mercy and renewal from God. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are for them. They first need the humility to see themselves as little and lost, then they need the repentance which invites God to find and restore them. Both parables end with this message from Jesus: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7), or more simply, “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
Repentance is a practice which positions us to become the beloved of the God who delights in finding the small and the wayward. The point of the Gospel is not that the ninety-nine sheep are outside of God’s love and there’s nothing that they can do about—not at all! The point is to learn where God’s love rests so we, so that anyone, can seek out that place. God’s love rests upon those who are humble and repentant.
In a succinct phrase we have this in our Epistle reading: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). And Peter applies the lesson: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).
What does repentance mean for us? We have to do some work cutting through stereotypes. Repentance is not only for the Mary Magdalenes of this world. Repentance is not only for the promiscuous, the addicted, the malicious. Nor is repentance for people who are giving their hearts to Jesus for the first time; repentance is for a life, not for a moment.
Repentance is for everyone who understands that God’s work in the secret chambers of our hearts is not done yet. Repentance is a quiet affair. Repentance seeks out order where where we have allowed chaos to reign. It seeks clarity and honesty in our relationships where there has been confusion, secrecy, and hurt. Repentance dives deep into our motivations, and humbly acknowledges the ways in which we are more motivated by pleasure and reputation than we typically admit even to ourselves. Repentance acknowledges brokenness, and seeks wholeness. It which always begins with the humble acknowledgement of how far there still is to go; repentance is our daily seeking, in the sight of God, for health of body and soul.
The Gospel message is addressed to those who repent. Jesus himself began his ministry by preaching, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The Gospel, the good news, is that God seeks out those who know that they have wandered. He embraces them, and blesses them with a deeper and more joyful welcome into the kingdom of God than was ever possible before they found the way to repentance.
The Gospel passage immediately after the one we read today is the parable of the prodigal son. The father runs to embrace a son who repents and returns. If you want to know what it is like for the heavenly Father to run to you and lift you up, then make your life about humbly acknowledging your distance, and returning. God loves nothing more than a lost child coming home.