“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor, and in fact he trained for the ministry himself. However, he soon turned against his faith, his baptism, and God Himself, becoming one of the most bitter atheists the world has ever known. He considered Christianity a blot on the history of humanity. Nietzsche declared God dead, and then dedicated his career to writing the obituary. But despite his incredibly hard heart, this man was a tortured soul, groping in the dark for an unknown God. Before he became insane, Nietzsche cried out to Christians: “You must sing me a better song so that I learn to believe in your Redeemer: Why are His disciples so joyless in their salvation?” This hardened atheist who died over a hundred years ago looked at Christians, at people like you and me, and what does he criticize? A lack of joy.
Where would this lack of joy come from? Certainly not from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus exuded joy, for He had come to welcome sinners with joy. His joy was in spending time with those who were outcast, who had fallen in almost any way possible. Listen to how our text begins: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.” Jesus preached a message of repentance, of forgiveness, of welcome for those mired in their sin, and the people responded. He pulled up a chair with prostitutes, with cheats and crooks, with the lame and crippled, all who felt the effect of their sin. He did not excuse or endorse their sin, He forgave it, and welcomed them to His table.
For Jesus had come to seek out and find the lost. Those people had become lost from God because of their sin, and so they needed someone to come and rescue them. Jesus is the shepherd that He speaks about in our text. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Jesus came to search for wandering sheep, those who were lost in the midst of the wilderness. He has come to seek out the lost in every corner of this world, but then also in the house, for Jesus also pictures Himself as the woman who finds a lost coin. “Or what woman, 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?” There are many who are lost in the wilderness of this sinful world, but there are also more than a few who are lost in the house, in Christ’s Church. He seeks out all those who are lost despite their occupation of a pew or a slot on the membership list.
It is no mistake that the word used for ‘lost’ in our text is the same word used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe death and destruction. Those who were lost were condemned to death for their sin, but Jesus Christ came to seek them out, to find them and bring them to safety. And this task gives Jesus great and overwhelming joy. “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” Jesus rejoices with every lost sheep that is brought back into a relationship with His heavenly Father, and He invites all people to join Him at His home for a banquet of rejoicing.
But there is a group who refuses to rejoice or join the banquet. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” They have no joy in the reception of sinners by Jesus. In fact, they look down upon sinners, and can’t believe that Jesus is wasting His time with them. You know how it is. Someone comes into Church that you know has led a sinful life, and immediately they receive stares from everyone. “You don’t belong here with all of us good people,” is what our eyes say. There is no joy at a sinner being brought to the Lord, instead there is a sense of outrage. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Never mind that the Pharisees and scribes were meant to shepherd the people, that they were to care for God’s beloved flock and bring in the wandering sheep. No matter that we as Christians are to be the instruments of Christ as He seeks out those who have wandered. No, it seems much easier to stand stubbornly outside the feast and shake our heads, wondering why Jesus would bother with such awful people. This is what Nietzsche saw when he said, “Why are His disciples so joyless in their salvation?”
For the ninety-nine other sheep do not realize that they are lost themselves, they are content to stay in the wilderness, outside the feast. Jesus describes the ninety-nine sheep as those who have ‘no need of repentance.’ There is more than a little irony in Jesus’ words. There is not a single person on the face of this earth, then or now, that has no need of repentance. All are sinful, all need to repent of their sin. But the ninety-nine are those who think they don’t need repentance. They don’t see that they are lost, they don’t see the wilderness for what it is, a place of danger, a place of death, and so they stay there, comfortably grazing away. They are self-righteous, convinced that they are all right with God, or that there is no God to be right with in the first place. They scoff at those who Jesus has to go find: “It’s a good thing I’m not like them!” And so what happens to these sheep? Jesus cannot bring home sheep who stubbornly refuse to admit that they are lost, and so they remain in the wilderness, lost and wandering but under the delusion that they are doing great. That is, until the last day comes, and they see clearly that they are outside the feast and will spend eternity in the wilderness.
In our Old Testament lesson for today, God promises to seize the reigns from those shepherds of Israel and take charge of the flock Himself. “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Jesus Christ has come as the fulfillment of that promise. He seeks out all the lost, you and me, bringing us out of the wilderness and into the banquet feast. All who despair of their sin, who know that they need deliverance from their corruption, are sought out by Jesus, and He brings them to His Father with great joy. He even seeks out those who obstinately refuse to see that they are in the wilderness, using the Law to show them their need for a Savior. We all were those wandering sheep, unable even to realize that we were lost. But Jesus came as the shepherd promised by Ezekiel, who came to seek out wandering and stubborn sheep, those lost in their trespasses and sins. And He did this by paying the price.
In Matthew chapter thirteen Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus searches us out and then sold all that He had to pay the price for us. He gave up His very own life into death as the payment for lost and wandering sheep, submitting to the cross on our behalf. He sold all He had to buy us back from sin and death, He paid the price we owed for our sin. His innocent life, His precious blood was the price to redeem us, and He paid it in full, submitting to the torture and humiliation of sinful people and the wrath of God itself in our place. Having paid this price, having submitted to death on our behalf, Jesus seeks us out through the work of the Holy Spirit in both Word and Sacrament. His Word proclaimed from this pulpit or in your private conversations during the week seeks out wandering sheep, and Jesus works through that Word to find the lost and bring them to the Father. In Holy Baptism, Christ brings wandering sheep home, claiming you as His own through the water joined with the Word. Therefore, rejoice, for you are found! Christ has claimed you as His own, He has sought you out when you were lost and brought you home to Himself!
After finding her coin, the woman in Jesus’ parable said, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” She invites her friends and neighbors to join her at a victory feast. Jesus gives us the explanation: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Every sinner that Christ brings to the Father is cause for celebration, for rejoicing, for a feast. That is what heaven is, the victory feast of all who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. There will be rejoicing there that we cannot even imagine, joy expressed by the angel choirs, joy from those who Christ sought out and brought to the Father, joy over the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death through His death and resurrection. Heaven is the banquet of joy, and you and I will be a part of it, seated with all the redeemed at the feast that lasts into all eternity. In fact, even on this earth we are a part of that joyous banquet, each and every time we come to the Lord’s Table. Here we eat with Christ, we partake of the Lord’s Body and Blood with fellow sinners, those who have also been found by the Lord who seeks out and finds the lost.
We find joy in the redemption of Christ, in His shed blood, in His seeking and finding of you and me, and we have great joy every time that Christ finds another sinner in the wilderness and brings him or her to the feast. Even though we live in a difficult and sinful world, our joy is not based on anything in this world, but on Christ and what He has done for us. Someday He will bring us to our heavenly home like the shepherd did in our text. “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” On that day He will present you to His Father with great joy, and you will join in that joy for all eternity. We rejoice in the Lord for His great redemption! In His Name, Amen.