16th Sunday after Trinity September 15, 2002
1 Timothy 1:12-17
611, 42, 498, 648
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
We have been hearing much these days about “values” and the importance thereof. I cannot speak for you, but I have never in my life heard anyone deny that values are vitally important in nearly every aspect of human existence. Almost no one denies that. What is more, we have every reason to believe that this is a firmly held conviction on the part of those who profess it. The question is then, how did we get from an understanding of the value of values to the point we are today in our country where so few seem to have and practice consistently good values?
The problem, of course, is the demise of the universal standard by which all values used to be judged. When society butchered the Bible, values became subjective. Everyone now feels entitled to decide, all on his own, just what his values will be. For one, a proper value is to remain faithful to his or her spouse. To another, a value is cheating whenever you so desire, as long as your spouse A) never finds out, or B) also cheats. To one, all lying is wrong. To another, it is a viable means to get yourself out of trouble. You get the picture. The amazing part is that both sides claim to be people of values and in their minds it all makes perfect sense. One can always find someone whose behavior is worse then his own. The logic then becomes, “I’m not as bad as __________, therefore I am a person of values, whereas ___________ is not.”
This morning we are going to turn again to that one true source of values, the Word of God. What we hope to learn from this divine lesson is not only a set of values to guide us in our day to day activities and speech, but more importantly a renewed appreciation for the very means by which we are saved and are able to even desire anything good and pure. Our text will also, therefore, remind us of what we ought to value here in time with an eye toward the hereafter in eternity. That text is found in Luke’s Gospel, the Fifteenth Chapter:
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
So far the very words of God. May this Word of God ever prove our greatest joy and comfort, and our one and only standard in life. So also we pray, “Sanctify us through the Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself a question: When we began by talking about “certain people” who lie and cheat and commit adultery while still claiming to be “people of character,” about whom were you thinking? Who came to mind? Were you thinking about yourself or someone else? An ex-president maybe? We find it so natural to try to assume the moral high ground here, as though we sit at the top of the values chart and therefore have every right, indeed duty, to sit in judgment on those “below us.” The fact is, in order to preserve our illusion of moral superiority we have to do just that—we have to keep our gaze fixed downward at those we perceive to be inferior in moral character and values. Looking down, it seems like a long way to the bottom of the moral cesspool, and it gives us that sense of moral superiority we crave. What we never want to do is to look up; up to those who put us to shame by their self-discipline and impeccable values. We don’t really want to look up because in looking up the ladder of virtue we come face to face with how far we have fallen, how far off the mark we really are, and how profoundly inferior we are from what we should be.
By always comparing ourselves to those we perceive to be “below us,” it is a simple thing for us to imagine that we have achieved some sort of greatness. From such ignorance and arrogance we find it easy to both condemn and dismiss the masses who are “beneath us.” Herein lies the first danger outlined in our text. Arrogant superiority—even a faulty sense of superiority—leads inevitably to a loss of appreciation for the value that Jesus Christ has placed on every single human being. This is precisely the attitude adopted by the Pharisees and Scribes in our text. Their disdain for the common masses of “tax collectors and sinners” was obvious. Hear how they complained that Jesus would “dirty himself” with such refuse: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The great danger for us is that we, like the Scribes and Pharisees, are constantly tempted to write off “sinners” as worthless and unworthy of our time or attention.
Jesus recognized this problem in the Scribes and Pharisees. It remains to be seen if we will recognize the problem in ourselves. In an effort to bring them (and us) to a better understanding of this sinful arrogance and to learn a God pleasing set of values, our Lord spoke two parables.
A parable, you will recall, is a fictional story that is intended to teach one central lesson. Whenever Jesus speaks a parable we are to look for the central meaning and to carry that truth with us. We are not to try to make all aspects of the parable apply to reality. We are not, for example, to take the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus as proof that souls in hell will be pestering us in heaven for a drink of water in eternity. So also in our present lesson we are to find only the one intended meaning and to learn from it.
In these two parables Jesus leaves no doubt as to his one intended meaning. The two stories (one of a man and one of a woman who had lost a sheep and a coin respectively, and who spared no effort in finding them) of these parables are intended to rekindle in us a sense of value for each sinner; and they teach us to spare no effort in bringing the Gospel of salvation to even just one sinner.
We know well the facts of these parables, and we wholeheartedly agree with the truth Jesus here teaches, but how quickly we set this truth aside in favor of the “they get what they deserve” attitude. When we, for example, happen to see convicts milling about in a prison yard is our first thought “How can I share the gospel with those souls” or “They are getting what they deserve” and “If you ask me I say they’ve got it too easy.” Such thoughts are a clear indication of a poor set of values on our part. We certainly did not learn these values from our Lord Jesus. Jesus stated his own values quite succinctly when he said in our text, “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Do you find yourself developing a sort of a hierarchy of human worth? It sounds reasonable to us that Jesus came to suffer and die for people like us. We are, after all, rather fond of ourselves. On the other hand, it often puzzles us how Jesus could have come to die for some of these other folks we see running around. To really understand sin and grace is to understand that we are all utterly sinful and that each one of us is in no way worthy of the least of God’s mercies.
We all exhibit the same sinful arrogance as King David, who raged in such righteousness indignation when the prophet Nathan told the story of the theft of a little ewe lamb! He raged until he realized that he himself was the villain. Why doesn’t God just rid the world of the filthy sinners who are ruining it? Thank God that he does not, for there is no difference apart from Jesus Christ. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23). Nathan could just as well point at us and say, “Thou art the man!”
Think for just a moment about what Jesus said in our text—the summary explanation of his parables: “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Did you ever stop to think of what this means to you personally? It means that the angels rejoiced when you repented and came to faith! Think of all that this means! It means that the heavenly servants of God Most High shouted for joy when you were brought into the fold of the Lamb. It also means that you are known in heaven. You are therefore important to both the angels and to our Lord. They know you by name! It means that you are not only known, you are valued, highly. Why else would the angels rejoice?
Now consider for a moment whether or not any one of us deserves such divine attention and grace. We do not. By nature no one does. Why then do we generally think and act as though we do? What is more, why do we imagine that someone else might not be as worthy as we are? It is precisely this sinful attitude of our proud human hearts that Jesus addressed in our text for this morning. If the angels in heaven—and indeed the Son of God himself—value each and every sinner who repents and comes to faith, how could any of us think any differently?
Time after time we need to be reminded of the relative value that God has placed on all the things that we see around us. Do you remember that we began by observing that only the Bible can serve to keep our values from getting all out of kilter? Even so we want to return time and again to what God has said. We want to let God determine what our values should be. What has God said? “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19ff). “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul. Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). God makes it perfectly clear in his Word that the human soul alone has lasting value, for only the human soul will survive the fires of Judgment Day. All things made by man will be destroyed. Only human beings will be left—left to face an eternity in either heaven or hell. Absolutely nothing else in all creation is eternal.
With this fact in mind, how are we supposed to determine our values? It becomes obvious that there is no amount of money in the world worth comparing to even one human being. Not all the gold, silver, platinum and all the precious gems combined could begin to compare with a single human being in real value. There is no rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who earns a million dollars. There is no rejoicing over one sinner who gets that big promotion. There is no rejoicing over one sinner who wins the lottery. There is rejoicing when a sinner repents and is born again of water and of the Spirit.
Our dear Lord Jesus died not just for all sinners, he shed his blood for each individual sinner. If our Lord loved each sinner that much, how dare we value each one less?
Finally, if you still find yourself a bit cold and timid, imagine that the neighbor who does not yet know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is not just some stranger. Imagine it is your own son, your own daughter, your mother, father, or your beloved spouse. Perhaps only in such a light can we dull sinners begin to appreciate the value Jesus has placed on even just one sinner—and begin to truly imitate and act upon such values. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.