I have a dog who really, really, really loves us. His name is Clay and he is a black lab. He loves to be at home. He loves to have his people by him. If he is out in our backyard and the backdoor, glass sliding door is closed – he won’t go play in the backyard. He will sit by that back door and whine like a Hyena until you let him in.
He always likes to be by his people.
He always likes to be home.
The other day we were coming home. I opened the front door and had my hands full. So, I went inside to put the bags on the front counter and left the front door open so that I could get out quick and get the rest of the bags from the back of the car. Clay, of course, stayed happily next to me, licking my knees, hopping up and down, slobbering everywhere.
That is until Clay saw something far more interesting than me.
Clay looked past me.
He looked to the front yard.
Clay saw…a SQUIRREL!
Clay ran out the door, he started down the block, he was running down the street away from me.
And I shouted after him:
“Clay! Come back!”
“Clay! Come Home!”
But it wasn’t working. Then, as Clay was running down the block out of sight - I had an idea:
I think he set the record for fastest 200-meter dash in history.
When dogs go away from home, they need to be reminded of a reason to return.
The same is true with people and God.
Whether you’ve been completely away from God or away from his Word or away from his people in a church, when people have been away for a while, we need to be reminded of a reason to return.
That’s theme for Back to Church Sunday.
That’s the theme for our RETURN sermon series.
God is calling you to return to Him.
But what kind of bone does God have?
What reasons does He give for us to return?
Our goal this morning is to look at a story that Jesus told about sheep to identify the first and most powerful reason to return to God. Before we begin, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Religious Climate
The text for today coming from Luke 15 beginning at verse 1. It says, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v.1-2)
A bit of background:
The Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious elite of the day. They were the type that always looked like they had it all together. There were the Boy Scouts. Do-gooders. They were like Wally Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. They were the model religious citizens. They wore fancy religious jewelry. They had fancy religious beards – cut at regulation length. If they would have Facebook, they were the type of people who would post every hour on the hour about all the awesome religious things that they have been doing. #WeArePerfectAndYou’reNot
To be fair Jesus was, too. He was kind. He was gentle. He didn’t do anything immoral. He knew his Scriptures well like a Pharisee. He knew the Old Testament well like a Pharisee. He knew the Jewish Ceremonial commands well like a Pharisee. In reality, Jesus was a dream candidate for being a Pharisee! He’s the kind of guy that the Pharisees would have loved to have in the group for no other reason than it would make them look good by association.
By all outward appearances, the Pharisees and Jesus should have gotten along.
But they didn’t.
To be fair – their teachings agreed to a certain point.
They both taught that God wants us to keep The Ten Commandments.
They both taught that God demands humans be perfect.
They both taught that humans are imperfect.
They both taught that this imperfection disqualified people from the perfect halls of heaven.
They both taught the same problem.
But they taught VERY different solutions:
The Pharisees taught: Try to be perfect “like us” and you might gain heaven.
Stop lusting so much.
Stop gossiping so much.
Wear religious jewelry like us.
Wear your regulation beard like us.
Always wash your hands before you eat, like us.
Try to be perfect “like us” and you might, maybe, possibly-ish, gain heaven…but probably not.
Jesus was one of the only common people in Israel who seemed to be able to do what the Pharisees did.
Jesus was one of the only common people who did what the Pharisees did BETTER than the Pharisees did.
But that’s not what he taught.
You can’t be perfect. Believe in me and you will gain heaven.
This is why Jesus had attracted a crowd very different from the Pharisees.
The Pharisees attracted those who liked to think that they had their life together.
Jesus attracted those who knew that they didn’t.
Like Tax Collectors. Tax Collectors were not very popular people in the first century because (1) they were collecting taxes (2) they worked for the Roman government that was enforcing their rule on the Jewish people (3) they cheated people. They told people who owed $10 that their tax was $20 and pocketed the extra $10. Tax collectors were shamed by Jewish society. Tax collectors were not welcomed with the religious leaders.
Jesus welcomed them.
Jesus promised them a friend.
Jesus promised them heaven.
“Sinners.” Which is such a strange phrase. Because the implication is not that the religious leaders were NOT sinners, they were; the implication was that some people were such sinners and doing such gross sins that the only word that could be used to describe them was: “Sinner.”
Like Prostitutes. They sold their bodies. They sinned against God’s plan for marriage. They hung out in the red-light district, not the temple. They were welcomed by clients, not the religious elite. They were shunned by society, and to be honest, might be shunned by us today.
But Jesus didn’t shun them.
Jesus didn’t think of them as too dirty or too gross.
Jesus welcomed them.
He promised them heaven.
II. The One Who Really, Really, Really Loved His Sheep
This whole situation rubbed the religious leaders of the day. How could God want anything to do with those scum of society people? How could Jesus claimed to be from God if He hung out with those scum of society people?
Hence – their interruption; “Look at THIS GUY, why does he hang out with tax collectors and sinners?” (v.2)
Jesus overhears them.
Jesus gets the crowd to quiet down.
Jesus walks over towards the religious leaders.
Jesus gives them the answer:
Suppose there’s a man that has a hundred sheep. Which is a decent amount of sheep. It meant that man could produce wool. It means that he could make money. It meant that he had money. It means the man was quite wealthy.
But on this particular evening, as the sheep are herded into the sheep pen for the night…the servants count:
“97, 98, 99…” Hmm. Let me do that again. “97, 98, 99…Oh.”
He heads up the dirt road to the owner’s house, knocks on the door and tells the owner the bad news. “Sir, we’ve lost one of the sheep. We counted a few times and number 57 isn’t there. I counted. Bob counted. 99 is all we have. I don’t know. He must have gotten lost or wandered or maybe a wolf got him.”
Regardless, it’s only one. There are 99 others? We’ll recover.
The man listens.
He wipes away a tear.
And shakes his head.
“No. I must go after him.”
He pushes off of the table, runs over to the door and grabs his outer cloak.
“Don’t wait up for me! I’m not coming back until I bring that sheep back with me.”
He goes out into the dark.
He goes out through the rain.
He searches for hoof prints.
He shouts his call at the top of the lungs: “Come sheep! Come Sheep! Come Sheep!”
Then, tired. Wearied. Ready to give up. His flashlight catches a glimpse of something.
A patch of wool – it’s caught on a bramble bush.
He approaches the bush:
“Sheep! Is that you sheep?”
A low, pained bleat replies.
The man wastes no time. He shoves his arms through the brambles. He’s scratched; he’s bleeding.
He cuts the sheep loose and frees him.
He gives him a hug.
Then, he puts the sheep on his shoulders and sprints to his house. All the while shouting:
“I found him! I found him.”
Waking the neighbors:
“I found him! I found my sheep!”
He’s going to get a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct:
“I found that sheep that was lost. My sheep! He was lost; he is found. He is…home.”
A touching story, right?
Thanks for telling it Jesus. It might make a really good children’s book.
But look carefully at the very last verse:
“I tell you the truth: There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who don’t need to repent.” (v.7)
Do you get it?
This story isn’t about a shepherd. It’s about God.
And it isn’t about sheep.
It’s about the tax collectors.
It’s about the prostitutes.
It’s about the sinners.
It’s about the porn actress, the drug dealer and the felon.
It’s about the divorcee, the alcoholic, and the failure.
It’s about the lost.
It’s about YOU.
This story is not about some shepherd’s love for his sheep…
But God’s incredible love for you.
III. The One who Really, Really, Really Loves You
That’s important to remember.
Because it’s easy to think that God doesn’t really love you.
It’s easy to think that you’ve been gone too long.
it’s easy to think that you’ve done too much wrong.
It’s easy to think that you aren’t the religious elite and God could NEVER love you.
But the truth is HE DOES.
The truth is HE REALLY, REALLY, REALLY DOES.
And you don’t even have to take my word for it!
Look at the Jesus’ words:
1) Though He has a Large Flock, God NOTICES if YOU are Missing
Because look at the parable. The man had 100 sheep! That’s plenty of sheep, wouldn’t you say?
He could’ve spent some of the money he made from their wool and gotten a new one.
He could’ve mated a few of the 99, waited a few months and gotten a new one.
He could’ve ignored his lack of sheep, allowed nature to run its course and gotten a new one.
But that’s not what the man does.
Instead, he immediately leaves his other sheep behind, heads out into the world and searches for his lost sheep.
The sheep was more than just number 57 to him; it was his sheep.
You are more than just a number to God; you are His child.
Maybe you are thinking – God doesn’t care about me.
He’s got plenty of people in his family.
He’s got plenty of people in his kingdom.
I imagine that all these other people here this morning are a part of his kingdom.
And there’s plenty of them.
And what would he care if he doesn’t have me.
Because “yep” there are a lot of Christians in this world.
And a church might even be big enough that they don’t notice if you are there or you aren’t.
But God notices.
God notices because he doesn’t just want a number in his kingdom.
He wants YOU in his kingdom.
2) God has Eternal Searching Stamina
It’s kinda like a missing kids’ toy. Has YOUR kid ever lost a toy? Maybe a Lego? Maybe a Shopkin? And when it’s missing, and you’ve searched under the cushion and behind the pillow, and you can’t find it – and your kid’s lips start quivering and eyes get teary and you say: “Don’t worry honey. I’m sure we’ll find that 1 inch high, grimy, piece of 1 cent plastic.”
Then you hope on Amazon, order the toy and voila! Three days later: “Oh Look! I found your Shopkin. It’s been right here in this envelope.”
It’s easy to think God acts like this.
He doesn’t need to find us, because he’s got other, newer, better people to be a part of his kingdom.
He doesn’t need me.
I’ve been gone for too long!
I went away from God way back in college.
I been lost in some very dark places.
Places that would make you blush.
Places that would you cringe.
Places that would make God say – “NOPE! You are too far gone. And I’m too tired.”
But that’s not how God works.
Notice in the parable – the man doesn’t plan on coming home until his sheep is found. The implication? God doesn’t quit searching for you – as long as you are alive – God will continue to come after you.
No matter how long you’ve been away.
No matter how long you’ve been gone.
God keeps coming!
3) God’s Greatest Joy is Having You Back Home
He lifts the sheep on his shoulders. He runs home. He tells all of his neighbors about the sheep he found. He has a celebration!
UNDERSTAND: That is God’s response to your return.
It isn’t “I told you so.”
It isn’t “Get out of here. I don’t have room for you.”
It isn’t “Here’s a list of things to do in order to get back in my good graces.”
God’s response to the one who returns to him is PURE JOY!
As verse 7 says: “There is more joy in heaven over the 1 who repents than the 99 who don’t need to repent!”
Think about that.
There’s a party in heaven when you return to him.
When you throw away your sin and return to Him, they’re throwing confetti!
When you get back into His Word, they’re serving ice cream with hot fudge– and the ice cream doesn’t even melt.
When you return to him after years of being away, they’re having a dance party – and look! In the corner, one of the angels is doing the Floss!
The point is that your returning to Him fills God with joy.
It filled Him with joy when you made your way into this church today.
And His heart will remain filled with joy as you continue to return to Him.
IV. What Now?
Return to the One Who Really, Really, Really Loves you!
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away; God has forever planned for you.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing that sin; God brings eternal blessings that sin cannot bring.
It doesn’t matter how deeply you’ve been engrossed in it; God’s love is deeper.
God’s love is strong enough to overcome whatever you have undergone.
That’s really the story of Jesus!
He came into this world to find those who were lost.
He found the tax collector.
He found the prostitute.
He found the sinners.
He found those lost in the dregs of society.
He found them even when the religious elite hated him for it…
And plotted against him for it…
They killed him for it.
Historically speaking, a few months after this parable, that’s what happened:
They arrested Jesus.
They falsely convicted him.
They bullied their way to the governor’s approval.
They nailed Jesus to two giant crisscrossing pieces of wood by his hands and feet.
And those “Sinners” …
Those who had found a friend.
Those who had turned their lives around.
Those who had seen a love from Jesus unlike anyone else in society.
Watched as his life slipped away.
As blood dropped from his forehead.
As his lungs took in one more breath…and stopped.
They had been lost.
He had found them.
Now…He was lost.
Three days later…
From the one place that no one in history has ever returned from.
Three days later…
From the one place that will keep you away from family and friends forever.
Three days later…
From death itself.
Return to him.
And even when you die, you’ll be home…