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Hound of Heaven on Our Trail

September 15, 2013

The following is adapted from the sermon I preached today on Luke 15:1-10, covering the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.

Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear [Jesus].

The tax collectors and “sinners” in Luke 15 were about as despised as you could get. Tax collectors were sometimes mentioned in the same sentence as prostitutes.

Jesus has already been criticized several times in Luke, by this point, for communing with “tax collectors and sinners.” Not only is he talking with them, he’s eating with them, a sign of intimacy, of acceptance. He ignored the rules of clean and unclean, because he saw these scum of society as valuable human beings.

And they were kind of scummy. These tax collectors took in taxes levied by an imperial power (Rome) that was occupying Jewish land. The Romans used Jews as tax collectors, which meant that Jewish people were collecting taxes from Jewish people, but giving them to the Roman empire. They were traitors. And they were taking an extra cut for themselves, too.

Luke 15:2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

These religious leaders “muttered,” or “complained,” or “grumbled,” in some translations. That’s the same word used of the people of Israel in the Old Testament, when they complain against God and the leaders God has sent.

They don’t even refer to Jesus by name; he’s just “this man.” This guy, this guy over here….

But earlier in Luke, Jesus had said– “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Notice already the difference in posture to Jesus. The tax collectors and sinners–the ones that people would be ridiculing today on Facebook and Buzzfeed–draw near to hear Jesus. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, by contrast, mutter against him.

Parallel Parables

Luke 15:3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

The tension is mounting, so Jesus does what Jesus does so well–he tells a story. A parable. Three parables, actually. We see two of them today: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. The third parable is the parable of the lost son, or of the prodigal son.

The lost shepherd and lost coin parables really mirror each other. They both illustrate God’s heart for the wayward, the lost, the ones others have given up hoping for.

The structure of each parable is the same:

  • There’s the introduction of a character: a shepherd / a woman
  • They have something: 100 sheep / 10 coins
  • They lose something: 1 sheep / 1 coin
  • They do something about it, something drastic: he leaves the 99 for the 1 / she lights a lamp and sweeps the house, looking everywhere when she probably had other things she was supposed to be doing
  • They find the lost thing
  • They rejoice and call others to rejoice with them–in both cases, it’s a big party.

The shepherd finds the sheep and carries it on his shoulders, like how you hoist up the teammate who made the winning shot, against all odds.

“Rejoice with me, because I have found my lost sheep!”
“Rejoice with me, because I have found my lost coin!”

And in both cases, there is rejoicing in heaven, too. This is what happens in heaven “over one sinner who repents.”

Let’s look at each parable a little more closely.

The Lost Sheep

Good Shepherd

Luke 15:4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

Note how this verse seems to really nod to a passage in Ezekiel:

For thus says the LORD God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness … I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.

Shepherds often worked in teams, so it’s not like this shepherd is setting the banquet table for nearby wolves by leaving the 99. They’re probably with some other shepherds. But maybe not; we don’t really know for sure. Maybe it was a little more risky than that. That’s not really the concern of the parable, though, since it’s about the 1 and not the 99.

Just like this shepherd does, just like any of you would do in this situation, Jesus says, God does. He seeks after those who are lost.

One Jewish scholar notes that this passage shows something new of God in salvation history: The rabbis were on the same page that God would receive a repentant sinner coming to him. (Although these Pharisees and teacher have trouble with even that, it seems.) But that God would go out of his way to actively seek such sinners–that was a new and radical idea. (via)

Tax collectors and sinners were “drawing near” to Jesus, and that was bad enough for some. But he’s saying, not only do I let those people draw near to me, I seek after them. Because like that lost sheep and lost coin, they are valuable.

And it’s a persistent seeking, too! “Until he finds it”–the search isn’t over until the search is successful.

If you are on a road trip with your family and take a head count when you get back in the car after a pit stop, you don’t say, We’re missing one of the kids, but at least we have the other two! Two out of three ain’t bad!

Or those of you who are married: Have you ever lost your wedding ring? How did you feel when you lost it? And when you found it? Or your car keys–if you’re about to leave the house, you have to search for them until you find them, or else you’re not going anywhere. Such relief, even joy, when finding what has been lost.

When something is valuable to you, you look for it until you find it.

Luke 15:5 “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders…

He’s not angry or resentful at the sheep–he rejoices. That thing is heavy! But he joyfully hoists those 70 pounds of mindless flesh onto his shoulder. The sheep was not devoured by wolves, he was not stolen; he is found.

Luke 15:6 “…and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

Luke 15:7 “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Who are these “ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”? Who does “not need to repent”?

Well, I think the Pharisees and teachers of the law might have thought it was they themselves, but nobody fits into this category. Everybody needs to repent. That’s why “sinners” is in quotation marks early in the passage–it’s not a distinct group of people, like the Pharisees might have thought–it’s everyone.

The Lost Coin

Parable of the Lost Drachma, by Domenico Fetti (1588–1623)

Parable of the Lost Drachma, by Domenico Fetti (1588–1623)

Luke 15:8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

One commentary points out the progression of these parables and that, “The relative value of the lost item increases in each parable.”

First, 1/100–sheep. Then 1/10–coins. Then, the reading that comes after our section today, 1/2–sons.

Luke is painting a picture of a poor woman in the second parable. But this silver coin in question was worth about a day’s wages, so it’s not nothing.

The women searches carefully and, like the shepherd, “until she finds it.”

“And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’”–same reaction as above, in verse 6: “Then [the shepherd] calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This is the key section–”rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” a phrase also used regarding the found sheep: “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.”

It’s interesting–the sheep never seemed to repent in this parable. A coin can’t repent; it’s a coin.

Is the focus on the action of the sinner now? Isn’t it the “lost” one who has to repent?

God the Seeker, Hound of Heaven

Well, yes, of course. This passage still calls “sinners” sinners. And “sinners” are called to repentance. It’s that old adage or cliché you’ve maybe heard: Jesus loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way. These “sinners” that God finds still repent. The lost sheep becomes un-lost. The lost coin returns to the rest of the group.

But the emphasis in these parables, which comes out even more in the Parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son, is that the one who is lost can only come to God, because God has first gone searching. And God goes searching because he loves. Because he values even those who are lost, long gone, who otherwise would have no shot at grace.

God is a seeking shepherd, who searches until he finds. God is the poor woman who gets down on hands and knees and looks under every nook and cranny to find what was lost. God is the Father who welcomes back the wayward son and daughter.

Thomas R. Kelly, a writer about the spiritual life, wrote:

In this humanistic age we suppose [the human] is the initiator and God is the responder. But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us.

“All our apparent initiative is already a response.”

God is the Great Seeker, who seeks after those who are lost until he finds them.

Ever since a poem by that name became popular in the early 20th century, Christians have been talking about this seeking God as “the hound of heaven.”

The author of that poem, Francis Thompson, describes God’s pursuit of him as an “unhurrying chase, / And unperturbèd pace, / Deliberate speed, majestic instancy.”

John Stott once wrote:

[My faith is] due to Jesus Christ himself, who pursued me relentlessly even when I was running away from him in order to go my own way. And if it were not for the gracious pursuit of the hound of heaven I would today be on the scrap-heap of wasted and discarded lives.

Another great poet, Bill Mallonee of the rock band Vigilantes of Love, sings that even when “hiding out becomes career,” there is a:

Hound of heaven on your trail
Keen sense of direction and smell
Knows your need before you do

This “hound of heaven” imagery has given language to what so many of us have experienced, poets or otherwise. God comes for us; he comes after us.

As much as we would like to identify with the 99 sheep, even those of us who follow Jesus resemble that 1 straying sheep all too often. We are “prone to wander,” as the hymn says. We go down roads we shouldn’t. We need rescuing.

And implicit in the parable is the idea that we who have been sought and found by Jesus should also be seekers of others.

The shepherd and the poor woman model for us how we are to think about the ones who are lost. We’re not to be like the religious leaders of this passage who scoff, dismiss, ignore, marginalize.

God is the Great Seeker, and he calls us to join us in his redemptive work of seeking those who need to be sought.

As we try to follow God’s seeking example, in pursuing the lost and lonely with love, we see that we are not the first on the scene.

Sharing the good news of Jesus with others is not like bushwhacking in the woods, where you’re making the trail as you go. It’s a lot more like following an actual trail, which has been smoothed out already, as God works among even resistant human hearts.

God is breaking trail for us. We’re not cross-country skiers or snowshoers plodding our way through untouched snow–we’re following a trail that’s already been marked out.

That makes those loaded words like “evangelism” and “witness” and “outreach” a lot easier for us. Finding sheep and coins and people is first of all God’s work. And it’s a work that he calls on us to join him in.

And so, all heaven rejoices in our great, Seeking God, the hound of heaven, who searches deliberately, persistently, and lovingly…until he finds.

All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984). See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

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