September 15, 2019

FIRST READING: Exodus 32:7-14

The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!' " 9The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation." 11But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.' " 14And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

GOSPEL: Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."  3So 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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.' 7Just 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? 9When 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.' 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

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“Get lost!”  Most of us have probably been driven to saying that at one time or another.  You know, when you’ve just had it up to here with someone’s “act” right up in your face.  And, well, most of us have also heard that, and experienced such rejection at one time or another.  “Get lost!”  Not too pleasant, that.  But can you ever imagine God saying something like that to you or me?  …God, whirling around to face us in exasperated anger, and with disdain finally exclaiming to us: “Get lost!”

We live in a spiritual climate where that is all but unthinkable, that God would ever tell us to “get lost.”  How un-divine and un-godly that would be!  We hear in Jesus’ parables how much God wants to find the lost,     and to make sure that none of God’s own would ever remain lost.  And isn’t that the wonderful and comforting thing we would expect of God?  That’s how a God should be.  And the contemporary spirituality all around us is absolutely sure that God can’t help but care for us   because God somehow just really likes us.  Oh, we have our foibles and less than perfect side, but God understands.  Deep down we’re still good folks and deep down God likes us – because, hey, what’s not to like? It’s all such a nice, sweet picture of God and us.

But “Get lost!” is exactly what God in exasperated anger wants to tell the chosen people.  Such is what Moses hears in alarm.  The LORD God almighty has had it, and is quite ready to whirl around and tell the chosen people of the Lord to “get lost.”  God has just come to realize just what kind of people the Lord has chosen: perverse, stiff-necked, stubbornly idolatrous ingrates!  They’re already worshipping another god, and a dumb idol, to boot!  And God has had it, so painful and disgusting are the people’s vain acts, right in the face of God’s pure holiness.  Exodus presents us with a God who is quite different from the tolerant, sweet deity that our culture blithely assumes as its own.  And if you and I cannot hear or face this God of Exodus, then we will never understand the God who is revealed in Jesus’ parables.

Quite frankly, I’m tired of the sappy, shallow spirituality that is so popular in our culture – the spirituality built around this idea that God just has to like us so much.  This kind of spirituality is leaving people so grossly unprepared that, when unlikable things do happen, they quickly think God has let them down or is to blame.  “How could God let bad things happen to me? God’s supposed to like me and care for me!” And that same spirituality is also leaving people so grossly unprepared to deal with this age’s rampant idolatry of self, that they do not recognize the power of sin in their own lives, much less repent from it. 

The surprising and dark flip side to cherishing the god who just has to like us so much is the ease with which we can dislike “those others,” those who are different and therefore not as likeable as we are.  People would rather ram the high towers, burn the holy books of “the other,” or wall out the different, rather than deal with the lost and estranged.  What an irony!  The spirituality built around a god who just likes us so much leads to the mean and ruinous dislike of the different.  We see it all around us.

But “Get lost!” is what a holy, exasperated God is about say to God’s unlikable people.  And an alarmed Moses begins to plead with God to change His mind.  But notice: Moses does not tell God, “Hey, I know they have their faults and foibles, Lord, but basically they’re good people; they just need a little help.”  No, Moses does not defend the people at all. Instead, his argument is, “Lord, remember: you’ve got your reputation to think about.  What will others say about you and your intentions if this admittedly perverse people should still die out here where you have brought them?  They may deserve your wrath, Lord, but you’ve got to think about your reputation.”  And according to Exodus, that’s the argument God listens to!  God is not going to abandon his people! But it’s not because deep down he comes to like them, but rather because deep down God has decided to live up to the Lord’s reputation as a faithful God, as the One who honors promises made, regardless of however many reasons the people give God to regret having made them in the first place.  God has this reputation to think about – this reputation as faithful Lord, not sappy Sugar Daddy – this reputation and identity as the Keeper of the Promise, not the Liker of the perverse. 

And what a different spirituality this presents us!  Ours is not the God who “likes” us all that much…any of us.  Can we handle that, or are we too wrapped up in ourselves to even contemplate it?  Ours is the God who speaks the awful truth about us, and yet finds a way to faithfully honor the wonderful promise made to us by the Word in our baptism, and from the Cross of His only Son crucified by the perverse and fickle idolatries of yours and mine.  This is not the God who “likes” us because deep down,   “hey, what’s not to like?”  This is the God who chooses to love us by remaining deep-down faithful to us even in the face of our unfaithfulness.  And this is the reputation of the Lord God of Israel, who chooses to honor love even when God doesn’t like the truth about you or me.  “But Lord, you’ve got your reputation to think about.”  That has become our only salvation – that God almighty lives up to God’s reputation as faithful and trustworthy, even and especially when we give the Lord every reason not to. 

And unless we understand the importance of reputation, we will miss the point of Jesus’ parables.  Do you think that shepherd “likes” the lost sheep, who’s been so mindlessly engrossed in satisfying its own appetites that it has strayed away and into danger?  Do you think that the shepherd, after a long and tiring enough day, “likes” that sheep   who’s keeping him from family, supper, and rest?  Do you think that shepherd likes the dirty stinking animal that he’s going to have to pick up and carry on his shoulders because, when separated from the flock, the dumb creature will only plop down, incessantly bleat, and won’t budge?  In Jesus’ day it was much clearer that the only reason the shepherd goes out to find the lost sheep is that he’s concerned to defend his reputation as a good shepherd.  And that alone is salvation for the sheep.

And the woman who finds the lost coin…  Okay, I will grant you that she liked the money.  But again in Jesus’ day it would have been clearer that one reason she’s frantically searching for that coin is that she doesn’t want to be known as a senile old biddy who can’t even keep track of her checkbook!  The relief and joy in her celebration of finding the coin are about her saving her reputation as a responsible person able to keep track of and to manage her own affairs; and that reputation was worth a lot more than just the one coin.

The joy in heaven over one sinner who repents is joy over God’s reputation as faithful Finder of the unfaithful lost, and as stubborn Keeper of God’s promise and God’s own.  God thinks about God’s reputation; it means something to the Lord.  And it has become our only salvation.  Forget about God liking us!    On this day, let us celebrate the God who chooses to love us anyway.  And in the coming months, let us learn together the spirituality that is built not on our being liked, but on God’s loving, on God’s reputation for tough truth and utter faithfulness.

“Get lost!”  I wonder how many of us are…lost.  Many of us may not look it, but I wonder how many of us really are…lost.  Lost in the shuffle;      lost in the confusion; lost in our idolatries.  Way lost; love lost; direction lost; health lost; spirit lost; hope lost.  I wonder how many are lost…in old hurts or new hates; lost in false freedoms, perverse idolatries, or pernicious addictions; lost to a broken heart, a blind vision, or a shattered dream; lost.

“Get…lost!”  In that wilderness, God did not abandon his people. But God did get them lost, didn’t He?  For 40 years God made them wander through a wilderness that should have taken no more than 4 weeks to cross.  In order to free his people from all the bondage they had come to crave, God got them lost.  Ever think about that?   God got ‘em lost because…only then can you really be found.  “Get…lost!”  I wonder if that doesn’t need to happen to you and me at some point in life.  I wonder if the great and mysterious hand of God    does not let us, if not make us, get lost…so that we can at last be found by God’s truth, promise, and love.  Sometimes you have to get lost in order to find the true way, in order to find your real self, in order to find the love of God right there keeping you in the night. 

“Get…lost!”  It’s scary to get lost.  And so this is a hard and scary faith that God demands of us.  Will God really search us out?  Will the Lord look hard and long enough for us?  Will God even miss us?  But sometimes you have to get real lost in order to be truly…found.  And in the fear and confusion – in the calamity of being lost – isn’t it grace to hear that you don’t have to be likeable; but that, instead, God is going to be faithful?   For the Lord will always think of God’s reputation as the Good Shepherd, as the Finder of the lost, as the Keeper of every one of his promised souls.  It’s not about our being likable enough to be prized; it’s about God being faithful enough to find!” And that’s amazing grace!

Pastor Chris Price

First English Lutheran Church

Richmond, VA

September 15, 2019

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