"A Welcoming Heart"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts November 13, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Luke 15:1-7
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.
What Would People Think?
One day while I was a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, a woman called the church and asked for help. Mary said it was an emergency, and she needed to see a pastor right away. Her call was routed to me. She explained that she was a prostitute, and had decided to get out. But she didn't know what to do, and she was afraid that her pimp might kill her if he found out. I suggested that she come to the church so we could talk, but she had no transportation, and was calling from a phone booth a few miles away. "Will you come and talk with me now?" was her urgent request.
I realized that there was no way I could help Mary over the phone, so I agreed to meet her in a coffee shop down on Hollywood Blvd. So I grabbed the biggest Bible I owned and told my secretary in detail exactly where I was going and why. I wanted to make sure my pastoral backside was well covered.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I didn't have any problem picking Mary out of the crowd because, well, she was dressed like a prostitute. I greeted her and we found a table where we could talk. I put that big Bible right in front of us because I wanted people to know why I was hanging out with a prostitute. You see, I was worried about what people might think of me. And I was especially concerned about how it would look if a member of the church happened to see me having a quiet conversation with a prostitute. I figured the huge Bible would protect my reputation.
Hollywood Blvd. See the stars along the "Walk of Fame."
Mary's story was sadly predictable. Growing up in an abusive family, she ran away from home and fell into prostitution because she needed the money. Now, after seven years, she was sick of her life and wanted a new start. She had called the church because she didn't know what else to do. "You folks help people, right?" she asked.
When our conversation was drawing to a close, I offered to drive Mary to a safe house for women trying to escape from prostitution. She accepted, so I drove her to the house and made sure she got in safely. That's the last I ever saw of Mary.
Now, with two decades of pastoral experience behind me, I would do things a little differently in a similar situation. I would tell Mary that I'd meet her, but that I need to bring someone else along. It would be better if I had had a woman colleague with me. Yet, twenty years ago, as much as I was afraid of how it might look if I were seen hanging out with a prostitute, I kept thinking about Jesus and what He would do. Should someone have asked why I met with Mary, my answer wouldn't be the classic Flip Wilson, "The devil made me do it," but rather "Jesus made me do it."
Jesus and Sinners
One of the most notable and provocative aspects of Jesus's ministry was his penchant for hanging out with the wrong people. That's the set-up for our Scripture reading today: "Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'" (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus welcomes sinners - there's our word again - and even eats with them. In the culture of first-century Palestine, eating with someone was an eloquent symbol of acceptance and intimacy. It meant opening your life to someone and sharing in that person's life as well. The fact that Jesus actually ate with "sinners" demonstrated His welcome and scandalized the proper religious folk.
Why did Jesus do this? Why did he include in his fellowship those who were notoriously sinful, people like tax collectors, who got rich by selling out their friends to Rome, and even prostitutes, whose violation of the Ten Commandments needed no explanation?
Once again, part of the answer has to do with the nature of the kingdom of God, the central reality of Jesus's ministry. In Matthew 21 Jesus explains to the chief priests in Jerusalem:
"Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him." (vv. 31b-32)
The kingdom of God, as promised by John and inaugurated by Jesus, was open to all people. But only those who put their full trust in God, who came to Him in humility and repentance - only they were able to enter the kingdom. This meant, in practice, that "sinners," even really obvious ones, were entering the kingdom before the "holiest" of religious leaders.
The Welcoming Heart of God
But there's another reason why Jesus hung out with sinners, compromising his ritual cleanliness and causing people to wonder about his own moral character. This reason emerges from the parables Jesus tells in Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy. Today I want to focus on the lost sheep.
Jesus begins, "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?" (v. 4). It's likely that Jesus envisions a situation in which the shepherd has an assistant who will keep watch over the ninety-nine. But it's striking that the chief shepherd goes himself to look for the lost sheep, and doesn't send the assistant. This illustrates the shepherd's extraordinary care for the single lost sheep.
Then, after the shepherd finds the lost sheep, Jesus continues,
. . . he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 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." (vv. 5-6)
We might miss the oddness of this scene. For one thing, sheep get lost, so the situation isn't especially a big deal. Moreover, the shepherd only lost and then found one-percent of his flock. So, while a measure of gladness would be appropriate, the shepherd's joy is way out of line with cultural expectations. It would be fitting for his friends and neighbors to respond by saying, "Well, that's just great. But why are you making such a big deal over this?"
Then Jesus brings the point home: "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" (v. 7). We mustn't think that Jesus actually believes there are sinless people. He's using language that reveals the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees. Yet, more importantly, He's revealing the heart of God. God rejoices when one lost sinner repents. In fact, God cares so much about even one who is lost, that when that one is found, the rejoicing in heaven is extreme, far beyond what we might expect, and certainly far more than the religious leaders would think.
This is what God's heart is like, Jesus says. And this explains why Jesus Himself hangs out with so many "lost" people. His desire that they be "found" is fervent, just like His Heavenly Father's. And His joy when even one lost soul comes to God is extravagant.
Having the Heart of God for the Lost
Do you have a heart like Jesus? Like God? Do you share His passion for the lost to be found, and His elation when they are?
Sometimes our reactions fall far short of God's when it comes to the lost. I'm reminded of what happened to me when I was a teenager. It began when I went with some friends to ride motorcycles in the Mojave Desert. This was way before there were lots of regulations, so we just picked a spot in the middle of nowhere and rode recklessly amid the sage and creosote bushes. Somewhere out there my wallet fell out of my back pocket. When I finally realized it was lost, it made no sense whatsoever to try and find it, so I didn't even try.
Three years later I got a fat envelope in the mail. Tearing it open, lo and behold, I found my wallet, now badly worn from being left out in the sun, rain, wind, and snow. The leather was bleached and brittle. Inside my wallet I found my junior high student body card, some old school pictures of my friends, and twelve very weathered bucks. The note accompanying the wallet was from a woman who had been hiking the Mojave. She found my wallet in a secluded wash and sent it to me with all the contents intact.
How did I feel about getting my wallet back? Surprised, followed by amazed. I told some of my friends what happened because it was interesting, but not because I was especially joyful. To tell you the truth, I had long since forgotten about that wallet, and its return didn't really mean that much to me.
Question: When you hear about somebody coming to Christ, is your emotional response rather like mine over the wallet? Are you glad, perhaps interested, but mostly unmoved?
I want to share with you another story of lost and found. This happened more than forty years ago when I was about five. Back then I had a little white fluffy bear whom I called "Teddy." Teddy was my best pal. He slept with me every night. He went with my on my adventures. He meant more to me than just about anything.
One summer my family and I were camping in the redwoods of Northern California. We went on a hike in the afternoon, and, of course, Teddy came along. That evening as I was getting ready for bed, I discovered to my horror that Teddy was gone. My parents figured out that I must have lost him somewhere on our hike in the redwoods. I was desperately worried, so my dad said he'd go look for Teddy. Taking a flashlight, he left our campsite and walked out into the inky blackness of the forest.
Once my dad had gone, my mom explained that he'd do his best to look for Teddy, but that it would be very hard to find him at night. She promised that we'd all go looking early the next morning when it was light. I was scared and sad, and cried myself to sleep that night.
Sometime in the middle of the night my dad woke me up. With a big smile, he presented Teddy to me, safe and sound. He said he'd found my little pal under a plant way out in the redwood grove. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. My joy in having Teddy back was enormous. I gave my dad the biggest hug in the world and went to back to bed, promising to myself that I'd never lose Teddy again. (And you know what, I haven't yet!)
Why was I so ecstatic? Because I loved Teddy more than just about anything else in the world, besides my family. I would have done almost anything a five-year-old boy could do to find my Teddy, and I can't imagine what I would have done without him. I was so joyful over his return because I had desperately wanted him back.
Now let's be clear about something. I cared for Teddy that much. But my dad, who went to all the trouble to find him, didn't. My dad never slept with Teddy and didn't think of him as a best friend. Yet, as I look back on this incident from a grown-up perspective, I'll bet my dad spent at least a couple of hours out in the darkness looking for my little Teddy, maybe more.
Why did he go to such an extraordinary effort in the middle of the night? Not because he loved Teddy, but because he loved me. He cared for me so much that he ended up sharing my passion for the lost Teddy.
And this, my friends, is what happens with us - or should happen with us, at any rate. In our natural state, we aren't especially passionate about those who are lost and without hope apart from God. Even as Christians, we may care a little, but it's so much easier to focus mainly on ourselves, our families, our needs, our desires. That's why we need Jesus. He both exemplifies and reveals the heart of God for the lost, yes, even for the worst of sinners. And Jesus shows us just how much God rejoices when one who was lost is found.
The more we love God, the more we will go and look for the lost sheep, because they mean so much to the Lord. And the more we grow in relationship with God, the more we will share His passion for them. Yet even if our own hearts have yet to be formed like God's heart, even if we ourselves don't have much concern for the lost, the more we know and love God, the more we'll be on the forefront of the search. In time, as we grow in the Lord, our passions will become more like His, and we'll feel a deep, powerful desire to reach out to those who are lost and bring them home to Christ. And whenever this happens, we'll know some of the greatest joy in life as we share in the rejoicing of heaven.
A Passion for the Lost and Stewardship
Today we began as a church family to present our financial pledges to IPC's ministry budget for next year. I explained last week one of main reasons why we need, as a church family, to grow in our financial commitments. It's all about welcome and IPC's ability to "open the doors" for our community. Our ministry growth reflects our convictions about our calling as a church to welcome our neighbors, and to help extend the welcome of Christ throughout the world.
If you've been around this church for a while, you know that I haven't always approached pledging and giving with much joy. I know God loves a cheerful giver. I'm just glad he loves people like me too. But, over time, God has been working on my heart in such things. And He's also been helping me to make a heart connection between my financial stewardship and a passion for the lost.
God has been working on my heart in this regard ever since I came to be your pastor fourteen and a half years ago. When I first got here, I found it pretty easy to care for you folks. I wanted the best for you and worked hard to discern what that was so I could lead our church in that direction. But I didn't have much passion for our neighbors, for the lost in our city and throughout the world.
If you were around then, you may remember that I talked a lot about outreach, and that I began to lead our church to open the doors much wider to our community. You may also remember that I got into a heap of trouble for this, as so many in our congregation didn't want guitars in worship, and didn't want a more informal dress code, and didn't want a service on Saturday evening, and didn't want to add new ministries to reach our neighbors, and so forth. Yet we did all of these things and many more out of conviction that they were right more than out of a passion for the lost. I'm glad we did, of course. We're all called to do what honors the Lord whether we feel like we want to do it or not.
Yet for fourteen and a half years God has been working on my heart, helping me share more of His passion for the lost, and giving me greater joy when the lost are found. I've had the privilege of praying with many of you for people in your life who weren't Christians, and then rejoicing with you when Christ found them. I've also known the joy of praying for some of you when you didn't know Christ, and then rejoicing when you came home to the Lord. Truly, these have been some of my happiest moments as a pastor.
When I first got here in 1991, I thought of the high schoolers across the street as a ministry opportunity, but I experienced them more as a nuisance. Their blasting music interrupted my study. Their obscene language irritated my ears. And their blatant materialism offended my conscience. Yet as I got to know some of these folks, as I began to sense their lostness, as I listened to the testimonies of high schoolers who had become Christians here, my heart began to soften and to be stretched. Now, when I hang out at Pizza lunch and watch hundreds of high schoolers invade our campus, I often feel a deep compassion for them, an intense desire for so many who are lost to be found by Jesus. Yet I'm only beginning to feel the passion of God for these high schoolers, and for the rest of the lost sheep around us. God has much more to do in my heart to make it like His.
My friends, as God has been working on my heart, so may He work on yours. Some of you are way head of me in this process, of course. Others of you are just getting started. But the fact is that God is in the business of changing hearts - our hearts - so that they might be more like His. Part of this change will involve giving us His passion for the lost. It will move us out to welcome those whose lives are empty apart from Christ.
How glad I am that our church is doing more and more to reach out to our neighbors, whether they're across the street or across the world! Yet I pray that God will continue to transform our church and our hearts, so that we might feel His passion for the lost, and so that we might extend ourselves even further to find them. May we come to share more and more in the riotous and uproarious joy of heaven as the lost are found! May this happen in our church and in your life more and more, until our joy never stops.