The true nature of the Triune God is opened up to us by the Son of God himself: God is a loving, merciful God who relentlessly searches for all who are lost, and who will not rest until all have been brought home in joy.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 24, year C; texts: Luke 15:1-10; Exodus 32:7-14
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The glimpse we see of God in our first reading is terrible to consider. In reaction to the idolatry of the people of Israel, God’s anger is as hot as the blast of a furnace. “Get out of my way,” God says to Moses, “so I can burn with anger against these people and destroy them.” It’s only by the intervention of Moses that God is deterred from executing this judgment.
The Pharisees and scribes who witnessed Jesus in today’s Gospel would appreciate such a God, such righteous anger. When Jesus, who is supposed to be a godly teacher, spends time with openly sinful people, they grumble, they complain. If ever there was a sign to them that Jesus was not of God it was this association he had with clear, unabashed sinners, and his offering of God’s love to them.
It’s a little more complicated for us. We confess that Jesus is the Son of God. We call him Lord, we say he is the Eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Christ, the Savior of the world. What he reveals to us about the reality of the Triune God is the definitive truth we have about God; that’s what we claim. As John the Evangelist says, it is the Son who reveals to us the truth about the Father. So Jesus’ welcome of sinners, his willingness to touch those who by religious standards are untouchable, all this should tell us this is the very nature of God.
But we also hear this story of the God of creation prepared to wipe out the people of God in the desert for their sinfulness. Only after the desperate pleas of a human being, Moses, does God change his mind. This seems a very different God.
So which is the true nature of God?
This is a tremendously important question. There are plenty of people who boldly claim God’s retribution and judgment on those whom they call sinners. There are plenty of people who claim God’s grace and love for all as well. We can’t simply choose a version of God which doesn’t threaten us. There is no value, no hope to claiming God’s grace for us and for all if we aren’t assured that is actually true.
What Jesus reveals to us today is a God of mercy and relentless searching for any who are lost.
The question in these parables actually has almost nothing to do with why the lost are lost. The Pharisees and scribes are angry that Jesus consorts with sinful people. Doubtless they would like further conversation about the proper types of people for a Jewish rabbi to befriend, and why these are unsuitable. This is typical of those who value and wish to highlight God’s righteous anger at sin. Long conversations about what sin is and why it is unacceptable to God are the order of the day.
But in these first two parables, nothing is said about that. When Jesus defends his practice, his associations, he tells a story of a lost sheep that is all about the shepherd. A story about a lost coin that is all about the one who lost it. And a story we already heard last Lent, the next one in this chapter, which, while it does outline in more detail why the son got lost, is still a story that is all about a welcoming father who never demands an accounting for the lostness.
And surely it cannot escape our notice also that nothing is said in these stories today about how the lost need to get themselves found. By all appearances, the sheep just sits wherever it is until it is brought home. And we have yet to see a coin that can hike its way back to our nightstand and join its comrades.
So these parables are all about the searcher, and the joy in finding that the searcher and the searcher’s friends share. They are all about the nature of God, not the nature of sin.
And the nature of God, revealed by the Son of God himself, is that the Triune God cannot stand to lose a single child. Remarkably, the only percentage of children present that is acceptable to God is 100 percent.
When Rachel, who is now 19, was 3 years old, Mary and I lost her for 15 minutes in a mall. And not just any mall. We were in what was then Camp Snoopy at Mall of America. I had gone off to do another errand, and as Mary and the children were cutting through Camp Snoopy to meet me, somehow in the huge crowd Rachel took a turn in a different direction. But you know our Rachel, and won’t be surprised that “somehow” had nothing to do with it: Rachel has always had a sense of her own will. She did not think she was lost; she was going wherever it was she thought she needed to go.
We were absolutely terrified as the minutes dragged on. I felt sick to my stomach immediately. When it was five minutes, then 8, then ten, it got worse and worse. I have never felt more scared or sick in my life. I literally began to think about having to put up missing child posters, and wondering how you go about doing that, where you put them, that sort of thing. Then, at about ten minutes, I was hit with this realization: I had no idea how I would live my life without this little girl in it.
That’s what Jesus says God is like. That’s God’s true nature.
And it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about sin. It just seems that according to Jesus God’s highest priority is how to get us back when we do sin. The sinfulness, the lostness of those whom God loves is a problem that is solved only when they are found again. At three years old it was hardly sin for Rachel to go her own way. But as a parent, why she was lost was the absolute last thing I could think of. In fact, it made no difference. That she was lost was everything. And finding her was the only goal.
And in these parables, when the lost are found there is still no retribution, only joy in the finding. In each of these parables Jesus claims joy in heaven over the lost being found. In each of these parables Jesus has the searcher, now the finder, throw a party with the words, “Rejoice with me!”
Finally on one of our frantic trips around the park area, Mary saw Rachel with a woman, and the woman was leading her up to a security guard. There are good people in the world. As quickly as our fear had come, our joy and relief were overwhelming. We know this. It’s how God has made us to care for others. Perhaps that also is a sign that this is God’s true way.
But what are we to do with God’s righteous anger? Because it is righteous, and deserved. And it is fearsome to behold.
But look at that story again. What Moses is interested in here is not the sin of the people. What Moses is interested in is what we are seeking to know. He cares about the true nature of God.
It’s not that he doesn’t recognize the people’s sin. Read the next verses to follow our story today, when Moses actually gets to the camp of the Israelites. He is furious at what they have done.
But what’s interesting, what’s powerful here, is that like Jesus, the only issue for Moses is not why the people sinned, or whether God is right in being angry. No, as with Jesus’ stories, the sin is never in question. It’s just not the main thing.
Moses reveals what he considers the important, main thing, as he calls God to account for God’s own, true nature. Moses talks to God as if God is exactly as revealed by Jesus. And he talks not about the people, but about who God is in relation to those people.
He claims they are God’s people, “your people,” something God had forgotten in wrath. Why would you want to destroy them, your people? Moses asks.
He reminds God that others will see this and believe the wrong thing about God’s nature: why should the Egyptians think you had evil intent and took these people out in the desert only to kill them?
But most importantly, Moses recalls God to God’s own promises to the ancestors of these people. Moses says, “Remember.” Remember how you promised to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, that they would be a blessing, and numerous, and God’s children forever.
This is a marvelous thing. Moses knows all he knows about justice, mercy and love from the God of his ancestors who called him to lead these people. Now he turns to that God and recalls all of that.
It’s not hard, in this context, to understand God’s anger. As much as a parent fears the loss of a child, anger at what they did to get lost can often bubble up along with the fear. Anger and fear are partners, co-workers.
Jesus doesn’t mention it, but in the three parables of chapter 15 in Luke, is it hard to think that the shepherd was angry that this one sheep got lost, that the woman was angry at herself for losing the coin, or that there were moments for the father who was waiting for his son where the father felt anger at this wayward child?
What Moses understands is that just because God is angry it doesn’t mean that is God’s true nature. And that’s the powerful gift here. Moses trusts God’s nature is that of love and mercy, what he has learned from God over the years.
And he is so confident in that true nature of God he puts himself between the people and God and says, “Lord, this is not what you want to do. I know you and your love for these people. Think. Remember.” If Moses is wrong about this he will die. That is how confident he is that he knows truly who God is, and the love God has for the people.
So it is what Jesus has said: the true nature of the Triune God is to relentlessly search for the lost and welcome them home.
We can live in this world in that reality and make it shape our lives and our witness. Because it is not always the witness God’s people make in the world.
For us, a challenge will be when we are in the position of the scribes and Pharisees, and even Moses, and we see people whose sin is obvious and hard to find empathy for. Nothing here says we shouldn’t care about their evil, or the harm they are doing. Moses cares. Jesus, the Son of God cares.
But the true nature of God is to find a way to bring them home, forgive them, and bless them with life. That needs to be central to our lives, our witness. Even when it’s hard for us to see it or want it for some.
And it is also part of our witness to each other and to the world that there is no one outside the loving search of the God who made all things. Some of us might find ourselves feeling lost from God for any number of reasons. It’s unlikely that any one of us would have a hard time thinking of others who feel lost and separated from God. Our witness is to be part of the search team, and help bring people back to the God of all who loves each one, not just the group.
And perhaps, as people who also know what it is to be lost, this is where the conversation about sin best takes place. Elsewhere Jesus says that he has not come for the healthy but for the sick, the only ones who need a doctor. Of course he says it to people who are also sick and lost, but who refuse to believe it.
Maybe the reason Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” as the scribes and Pharisees complain, is that they’re the only ones who know their need, and they see the loving welcome of Almighty God in the Son of God’s eyes. Perhaps we can become a people who help each other and the world recognize what lostness looks like, what sin can do, what it means to separate ourselves from God. That would be a gift, because then we could help ourselves and others know the love of God.
But the ultimate good news here is that regardless of whether or not the sheep or the coin knew they were lost, they were being searched for. Maybe only the sinners knew enough to look for Jesus and hang out with him.
But Jesus was looking for the scribes and Pharisees, too. And in the economy of God, even those lost ones need to be found and brought home.
That’s the best news we could ever hear.
In the end, for the people of Israel, for the sheep, for the coin, the only thing that mattered was what God was going to do. The only thing that counted was the nature of God.
And it is the nature of the Triune God to care about every last one. Every last one. It is in the nature of God, even if we might sometimes need to remind God about this, it is in the nature of God to love and to seek the lost and bring them home.
All the lost. Every single one.
And that’s why we call this Good News.
In the name of Jesus. Amen