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Sermon for Trinity III

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ July 11th, 2011

Sermon on St. Luke 15:1-32[Three Parables of the Lost]

Trinity III

+ In the Name of Jesus +

The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.

– St. Luke 19:10

They’re called “triptychs,” three-tiered panels, usually located over the altar, which allow artists to depict three aspects of the life and work of Christ and His church. In one popular triptych, the means of grace are depicted in three panels: one for Baptism, one for preaching, and one for the Lord’s Supper. In the spirit of these three-fold portraits, today’s sermon text presents three unique aspects of saving the lost: a wandering sheep, a lost coin, and, on the center panel, a rebellious son. We will be bold enough to explore all three parable in Luke 15 this morning, as we receive the good news that “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”

The first panel of our triptych shows the Son of Man as the Good Shepherd, seeking and saving the lost sheep. Suppose, Jesus says, that a shepherd has 100 sheep and he loses just one of them. What will he do? He will go and look for the lost sheep until he finds it. Experts in Middle Eastern culture suggest that a lost sheep will lie down, usually under the nearest shelter, and bleat and moan helplessly until it is killed by wolves or other wild animals. So the image here is a vivid portrait of lost sinners. They cannot rehabilitate themselves, make a decision to come to Jesus, or accept Jesus into their heart through a special prayer. Rather, they are entirely, completely, hopelessly lost, and a fitting image of our state according to original sin.

Moreover, the shepherd is willing to pay a big price to recover the lost sheep. He risks his life in the wilderness, far from the safety of the other shepherds and the local village. He must hoist a 70-pound sheep onto his shoulders, and carry it a long way back to the fold. So the shepherd will stop at nothing to recover just one sheep. And how does the shepherd respond, along with the other shepherds, when he returns to the fold with the lost sheep? “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Again, every sheep counted to this shepherd. Good shepherds knew their sheep by name. Faithful sheep, in turn, responded to the voice of their shepherd. The recovery of the lost sheep meant the difference between faithful or unfaithful shepherding, between an honest or dishonest business, yes, even between life and death itself. And so it is, Jesus says, in heaven over every sinner who repents. For the Son of Man came as the Good Shepherd to seek and to save that which was lost.

The second panel shows the Son of Man working through a very unique woman to seek and to save that which was lost. “What woman,” Jesus says, “having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?” The setting at the time was a small, Mediterranean home, probably built of black rock and about the size of a one-car garage. The windows were about six inches tall and placed about seven feet above ground. This allowed some light during the day, but kept out the thieves during the night. Floors at the time were often made of stone, filled in with earth, clay sherds and other residual filling the spaces. So the picture here is a rather dismal home, with poor light and a natural floor. Moreover, the coin this woman lost is of great personal value. The coin could have been part of a veil, a necklace, or a cash box. It might have been part of the wedding gift given to her by her husband. The number ten symbolizes completeness. To be left with nine meant she was not complete. The modern day parallel would be a woman who loses the central diamond of her wedding ring and meanders about with a $99 band, quite devoid of her wedding ring, and desperately searching for it in a dirty garage, wondering if it went down the drain. What to do?

This woman searches relentlessly, stopping at nothing to find the lost coin. And when she finds it, there is cause for a party. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Again, the story goes well beyond the face-value, monetary worth of the coin, which was maybe one day’s wage. The recovery of the coin means joy, completeness, and faithfulness. It means she can welcome home her husband (if she is married) and remain a faithful steward of the house. And so it is in heaven “over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus received tax collectors and sinners and ate with them. Jesus pictures the unrepentant Jewish leaders as lost coins, i.e., as those who need no repentance and have no place in Jesus’ kingdom. But repentant tax collectors and repentant sinners are found by Holy Mother Church, and therefore able to eat with Jesus in this great party of salvation.

The third and central panel of our triptych depicts the Son of Man as He works through a loving and gracious Father to seek and to save that which was lost. A rebellious son asked his father for his share of the inheritance while the father was still alive and well. One cannot number how many rules, both religious and secular, this son broke. He had no right to ask for his inheritance, to pre-empt his older brother, or to claim such an inheritance under Jewish law. It’s simply impossible to claim an inheritance until the patriarch is dead, or perhaps on his death bed. So the prodigal son, in effect, asked for his father’s death. As someone said, “[T]he father gives away his very life when he acquiesces to the heartless pressure from his younger son” (Bailey, Finding the Lost, 120). Yet the loving the father gave him the advance on his inheritance, acted out of unconditional love, and let the son go sow his wild oats in reckless living.

After he came to his senses, the prodigal resolved to return to his father. However, he was not returning as a son per se, but as a hired servant, perhaps even as a beggar. But how did the loving father respond? See how the father was waiting for his son! He saw his son coming from a long way off, felt compassion for him, and ran out to embrace him. After hearing his son’s confession, he ordered three special gifts: a robe, a ring, and shoes. The robe was the robe of sonship and righteousness. It said that he was a forgiven son, whose debts were covered by his loving father. The ring said authority. Think about it: you wear a ring to indicate anything from an academic degree to a marriage to membership in a special society. The ring said he was connected to his father and had all the rights of a son. And the shoes were the clothing of a free man. Slaves did not need to travel, for they worked in a location-bound setting. But free men needed shoes to travel. And hear how the father proclaims, “[My son] was dead, and is alive.” He was not literally dead, of course; but he was dead before his father when he renounced his sonship. But now, in repentance, he was alive and well before his father, able to feast with his father in love and forgiveness.

Taken together, all three parables offer a vivid portrait of our state as lost and condemned sinners. The lost sheep pictures us, according to our sinful nature, as lost and dying. It is echoed in Luther’s catechism, where he says we are “lost and condemned.” Jesus did not choose sheep as an image for the elect of God because of their intelligence, but because of their dependance on the shepherd–complete and total dependance on God. Without our Good Shepherd, we die. In His presence, we live. The coin is also a fitting image of our sin because the coin can do nothing to find its way back to the lady. It’s an inanimate object, with no will of its own. Again, from the Small Catechism: “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” We are as spiritually powerless as the coin is powerless to jump out of the slits of the stone floor and re-attach itself to the lady of the house. Finally, the prodigal is a fitting image of our sin, for we have forsaken our sonship with God. To be a son is to be made in the image of God. Prodigals and sinners, however, are in competition with God, seeking to be their own gods, to govern their own lives, and to set their own standards. Having gone on our own way and forsaken God by being our own gods, we are alienated from God, strangers to His holy house, and spiritually dead before God. What to do?

However, on the Gospel side, this triptych of saving the lost preaches the work of the Trinity to seek and to save lost and condemned sheep, coins, and prodigals like you and me. As our Good Shepherd, Christ became man, like us in every way, except without sin. Some interpreters see in the journey of the shepherd into the wilderness the journey of the Son of God from heaven to earth in His incarnation. Fair enough. He seeks us. He dies for us. He rises from the dead for us. Our Good Shepherd does it all for us, that He might carry us back to His churchly sheepfold and feed us in the green pastures of the right Gospel. The woman recalls Holy Mother Church, whose priority is to seek and to save the lost. She cares about every soul on this planet, and wants all men to come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. She invites her unchurched family and friends to church, sits with them to help them through the service, and invites them to meet with the pastor for instruction in the Small Catechism. She leads the unbaptized to baptism and leads the baptized to the Lord’s Supper. And the loving Father is a striking image of God, our heavenly Father. I ask you: Can you ask God the Father to die in exchange for your own selfish pleasure and still be forgiven? Yes! Even the complaint Psalms sometimes show their impatience with God, but always come to repentance and faith before the end of the Psalm. The message is clear: No matter how far we have strayed or how how much we have sinned, the door is always open for confession and absolution, where repentant sinners receive the robe of Christ’s own righteousness.

And there is a unique aspect to the story of the Prodigal Son, which is one reason I have added it to our meditation this morning. The restoration of the lost sheep and the lost coin led to unbridled joy, with only the Pharisees and the scribes to grumble. But the older son in the story of the Prodigal son objected to his father’s unconditional love for the younger son. The repentant prodigal got the fattened calf, a feast for about 200 people, which says something about the size of the father’s estate and the joy he felt for his son. The older son, however, never even received a young goat to party with his friends (15:29). The resentment of the older brother casts a note of law over these parables, inviting us to consider how we welcome repentant sinners. I am reminded here of one dynamic among older parishes in changing demographics, where long-time members moan and groan that their friends have left the church and the “good old days” are gone, but they cannot rejoice with the new members who have been received by our loving Father. “Oh, I’m not going to welcome those new people, because I don’t know them. But why did so-and-so leave back in 19__?” Repent! While you stand on the sidelines and complain, God the Father is welcoming every repentant sinner. At this font, pulpit, and altar, the Holy Trinity, along with the angels and all the faithful, are rejoicing over just one sinner who repents.

Finally, as long as everything is coming in three’s on this, the Third Sunday after Trinity, it is worth mentioning that this triptych of saving the lost in Luke 15 is Trinitarian. The Good Shepherd is the Son of God. This obsessive-compulsive woman, frantically looking for her lost coin, is Holy Mother Church. And the loving father, enduring rejected love by his younger son, is God the Father. However, did you notice the order of the parables? Instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it proceeds from the Son to the Church to the Father. Why this unique order? I would suggest that, according to the Jewish mind, everything proceeded from and led to the Father. So the Father is placed last for emphasis, which is why I have called this parable the “center panel” of our triptych. The Son/Shepherd has come to die for us. The woman/church has come to find us. And it’s all so we can join the repentant prodigal, receive our heavenly Father’s embrace, and sit with Him at the banquet of salvation, even His true body and blood. It’s all ours by faith in Him who came to seek and to save that which was lost. + INJ + Amen.

Nota Bene: I am indebted to

Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15

by Kenneth E. Bailey for some of the insights in this sermon.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

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