“The Joy of Repentance” (Luke 15:1-10)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. And today we begin a series of six midweek services under the theme, “A Little Lenten Lukan Joy.” Let me explain.
This year in the church’s three-year lectionary is “The Year of St. Luke.” That means for most of the services in this current church year the Holy Gospel will be one appointed from Luke’s gospel. And so we’re really focusing in on this particular book this year. In our Bible class, we’re doing an in-depth study of the Gospel of Luke. Most our sermons are based on readings from Luke. And so it goes.
Now one of the distinctive features of Luke’s gospel is its emphasis on joy. Not that joy is not present in Matthew, Mark, or John–it is–it’s just that the note of joy rings out especially clearly in Luke. So that’s one factor. The other factor is that for some time now I’ve wanted to have the members of our church read a little devotional book called “A Little Book on Joy,” written by our synod president, Matt Harrison. And in the back of the book there is a daily prayer guide that takes us through the seasons of Lent and Easter, and therefore the prayer guide starts today, on Ash Wednesday. So we’ve supplied every household of the congregation with a copy of the book, so we all can be reading it together. I hope you’re starting that today.
Thus the convergence that led to this Lenten series: Luke’s emphasis on joy, combined with “A Little Book on Joy,” led me to pick this theme, “A Little Lenten Lukan Joy.” I went through Luke’s gospel and found every passage where the word “rejoice” or “joy” occurs, and I discovered it could work very well for a series of six sermons. And so here we are.
We lead off this series with a message tonight that combines the Lukan theme of joy with the Lenten emphasis on repentance. Lent is a penitential season, after all, and Ash Wednesday, above all, is the day for somber repentance.
So our sermon title tonight may seem a bit odd. I’m calling it “The Joy of Repentance.” And, yes, it seemed a bit odd to me, too, when I first thought of doing this. How can we combine joy with Lent? I mean, aren’t these two different moods? Well, yes, in a way. We associate Lent, and especially Ash Wednesday, with sad, sorrowful, mournful faces, marked with the dust of ashes. And there is definitely a place for that. But at the same time, it is not too far afield to associate repentance with joy. Repentance leads to joy–as we shall see in our lesson tonight.
Our text is the reading from Luke 15, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. This is the same chapter where Jesus then goes on to tell the parable of the lost son, the prodigal son, but we will get to that on a Sunday in March. For now, it’s the lost sheep and the lost coin, and they serve very well to bring out this theme of “The Joy of Repentance.”
What’s going on that prompts Jesus to tell these stories? Well, Jesus has been hanging around with a bunch of sinners, lowlifes, people that polite society back then would look down upon. “Tax collectors and sinners,” it says. Tax collectors back then were notorious for being crooked, as well as for working for the enemy, the hated Romans. And the term “sinners” here would refer to open, blatant sinners, people who were known for not living very moral lives. But Jesus was reaching out to these folks, calling sinners to repentance, seeking out the lost, bringing them back home, so to speak, to receive God’s forgiveness and to come back into the fold of God’s people.
Now you would think everybody would be happy about that. But no. The pious, respectable, religious folk, those who had never fallen off the morality wagon–some of them were looking a little sideways at Jesus for hanging out with those dirty people. “The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
So Jesus tells them, and us, these stories–the lost sheep, the lost coin, and later, the lost son–in order to bring out the joy of repentance. There is–or there ought to be–great joy over sinners who repent. So, Jesus is saying, how come you guys aren’t rejoicing?
Here’s how the story goes. A man has a hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. He goes and searches for that one sheep that is lost. He finds it. And when he does, “he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” So the first one to rejoice is the man who does the searching and the finding.
But he doesn’t keep the joy to himself. You know how it is. When you have good news that’s just happened, you naturally want to share it with others. Joy is contagious. So the man tells his friends and neighbors his good news about finding his lost sheep. And he wants them to rejoice with him. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” More joy. The circle expands.
That leads Jesus to the punchline of this story: “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.” All of heaven rejoices when one sinner is brought to repentance. Will you rejoice in what heaven is rejoicing in? Or will you be a grumbling, self-righteous grouch who thinks you yourself have no need for repentance? That’s what this story is about.
Likewise, the story of the lost coin. Woman loses coin. Woman searches for coin. Woman finds coin. She rejoices. She invites her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. “Just so, I tell you,” Jesus says, “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The lost sheep and the lost coin. But how do they represent a sinner who repents? I mean, the lost sheep doesn’t do anything to make himself unlost, does he? No. Much less, the lost coin. The coin doesn’t say, “Well, I seem to be lost. I think I’ll go and find the lady who lost me and do her a favor and let her find me.” No, that’s not it. The point of the story is not how the lost sheep and the lost coin make themselves unlost. Rather, it’s about the diligent searching and seeking that the man and the woman in the story do to find their lost possession. And then their rejoicing when they find what they’ve been looking for.
This gives us a picture of what repentance is like. Our repentance. The repentance we do on Ash Wednesday and during Lent, and throughout our whole lives, really–our sorrow over sin, our confessing that sin, our intent to do better–it may feel like we are the ones doing something when we repent. But really, it’s a matter of Jesus finding us and bringing us back home. And then his rejoicing, heaven’s rejoicing, a joy that we get to join in on. Repentance leads to joy. It’s a wonderful thing to be found by Jesus, isn’t it?
Think of the lost sheep. A lost sheep, off on its own, is in a dangerous place. The sheep is very vulnerable. Will it be able to find green pasture without the shepherd’s guidance? Will it be able to keep from getting caught in a thicket without the shepherd’s rescue? Will it be safe from wolves and predators without the shepherd’s protection? Not for very long. The lost sheep needs someone to come and find him, or else it will be truly lost.
This is you and me, my friends. We are like that lost sheep. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way.” That’s what sin is: turning aside from God’s way, and going it our own way. Like a sheep that gets itself lost. We became separated from God’s tender care by our own foolishness and sin. This puts us in a very dangerous place. We were lost, and we couldn’t make ourselves unlost. Nothing we can do brings us back to the fold.
But Jesus comes and finds us. He seeks us out, he searches for us. That’s why he came, the Son of God did, to rescue us sinners and bring us home. He carries us back home to God, and he does so rejoicing. Repentance is being found by Jesus, being rescued and carried back home by him. You and I may experience repentance as something we do, but really it’s Jesus who does the heavy lifting.
Jesus does the heavy lifting. Just as he lifted up the load of our sins and carried them to the cross for us. And because Christ, the Son of God, carried our sins to the cross, and there bled and died for them, removing their curse, this is how and why he wants to bring us back home. The lostness is forgiven. Jesus takes it all on him. He wins us our eternal home.
And then he goes and seeks us out, wherever we are, whatever bramble we’re caught in, whatever dry, desolate, pastureless place we’ve gotten ourselves into. The gospel is the searchlight. It’s like that lamp that was lit. That’s how Jesus finds us. And he rejoices–oh, how he rejoices–to bring us back home. That’s what repentance is like. It’s being found by Jesus and being brought back home on his shoulders. And that is a joyful thing.
Whenever I hear this story of the lost sheep, I think of the hymn we sang a few minutes ago, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” This stanza, especially, says it so well:
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me
And on his shoulder gently laid
And home rejoicing brought me.
My friends, this is the joy of repentance. When one sinner repents, Jesus rejoices, all of heaven rejoices, the angels of God rejoice. And Jesus says, “Rejoice with me.” You know, I suppose even that little old rescued sheep would do some rejoicing, too. It’s kind of nice to be brought back home, safe and sound, on the shoulders of your Savior. And that is what repentance is like.