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"Lost and Found"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 11, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Luke 15:1-10

I still talk to God about them, my former neighbors. I'll call them Justin and Stephanie. I've changed their names and left out details from the story to protect their privacy.

Justin and Stephanie had recently moved into the neighborhood, my neighborhood. They were a couple of young professionals in their late twenties. Stephanie was pregnant, expecting their first child. Soon after they moved in, we were introduced. When they learned that I was the pastor of the local church, they were standoffish at first, but eventually we connected. I invited them over to dinner with my family. They accepted. We got to know them. They got to know us. They didn't have a church home, but they said they might be open to being part of ours. And in my head, I am already planning the welcome home party.

Over the next several months, we walked with them through adult instruction class, visited them in the hospital when their first daughter was born, brought diapers for them as a gift from the church. In the following year, we baptized their daughter. Justin and Stephanie started volunteering with community service projects organized by our church. They participated in our church's ministries. They became our friends, not just new members.

Although looking back, I did take some validation in the fact that they had come to our church and that they were new and younger members. Like it was a sign that what I was doing was working. And it took all of about two weeks for that to change.

I was leading a Bible study with our men's group. Justin was there and we were discussing the relationship between religion and science. Justin, being a medical doctor, felt like he needed to defend science against the attacks of religion. And I, the pastor, felt like I needed to defend the Christian faith against attacks from science. And it got to be a heated discussion. And in hindsight, Justin was being a little stubborn, and I was being a bit rude. But I thought that it all had ended reasonably well and that we had patched things over. But Justin didn't. A few days later, he sent me a long text message that ended in "Please remove us from the membership." I texted him back. I tried to keep the conversation going. I tried to meet with him and talk with him, but it wasn't working. He had already checked out. And whether it was because of his stubbornness or my rudeness, or a little bit of both, it was clear that I had lost him. This wasn't their home anymore, and I wasn't their pastor.

That was five years ago. They have since moved to a different part of town. And when I see their old house, I pray that even though I lost them, God won't. If you're a pastor or a church worker or any person committed to following Jesus with other Christians, you can relate to how this feels, to find someone for Jesus and then to lose them. And if not, maybe you can relate to Justin. Because on some level we, the church, lost you or we never had you in the first place. And it kind of bothers you that Christians even talk this way, referring to some people as lost and others as found. We talk this way because Jesus talked this way, because He is the Son of God. He's our Creator. And He knows us better than we know ourselves. And when anyone is spiritually separated from God, not listening to Jesus, not talking to God by faith in Jesus, not listening and talking with other people who follow Jesus, Jesus calls them "lost." And He says His mission is to bring lost ones home, back to God, back into God's household.

Listen to how He said it in these two stories recorded in the Gospel according to Luke, one of the ancient biographies of Jesus. It starts in chapter 15 like this:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to hear Him, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, the religious leaders, kept on grumbling, saying, "This Man welcomes sinners and eats with them." So Jesus told them this parable, saying, "Suppose a person among you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, rejoicing, he puts it on his shoulders and going home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me. I've found my sheep. The one that was lost.' In the same way, I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, who turns back to God, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who have no need of repentance.

"Or suppose a woman, having ten coins, loses one of them. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search diligently for it until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls together her friends and her neighbors and says, 'Rejoice with me. I have found the coin, the one that was lost.' In the same way, I tell you there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who is repenting, who is turning back to God."

Years ago, David Kinnaman, a researcher with the Barna Group, which studies trends in Christianity in the wider culture, he wrote a book titled You Lost Me, all-too-common words spoken to the church by ex-members of the church. Kinnaman explored a dropout crisis within the Christian church. The studies showed that young people who had been raised in church homes by the time they got into their twenties were leaving the church at such an alarming rate, it seemed to be a sign that what the church was doing wasn't working,

Kinnaman saw a couple things that weren't working. First, the culture wasn't working well with the church. For years, American culture and Western culture more broadly has become less and less friendly to Christianity. For example, our culture tells people to trust the promises of science and technology but to distrust those of the Bible. Our culture enthrones personal preference, and tends to disown authority of any kind. So it's not surprising that people influenced by this culture would be standoffish toward the church with its Bible promises and claims to God's authority. People may feel distant from the church simply because the church is being faithful to Jesus.

So clearly the culture isn't helping. But Kinnaman's research revealed another thing that doesn't seem to be working for the church. To put it simply, sometimes Christians are rude. Now the situation wasn't all that different twenty centuries earlier when Jesus first told those two stories recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter 15. There were cultural reasons why some of God's people had broken away from the ancient beliefs and practices of the Bible, the law of Moses. There were pressures from the Roman Empire to conform, to go along and get along. And the people under the sway of those influences, obvious sinners and tax collectors especially, they had distanced themselves from God's people simply because God's people were trying to be faithful to God and His Word.

But there were other factors. Sometimes God's people then and now can be rude and lazy and mean and cliquish and self-righteous. And that's why Jesus is telling these stories. He's telling them against the people who are on the inside, who are most sure that they are found. Jesus more or less says to them, "If you're so sure you're in the found group, why are you still grumbling about how bad all these people are? Why are you being rude to them? Why aren't you out trying to find them and restore them? Why aren't you out there carrying them home on your shoulders, or even nudging them in the right direction? Any one of you would do the same if you lost a sheep or a coin or your smartphone or your car keys. You would stop everything, retrace all your steps, upend every couch cushion, maybe even say a prayer to God asking you to help find them."

And so Jesus' stories accuse religious insiders, then and now. But they do more than that. They reveal the heart of God. They reveal, first, that God is no stranger to loss. God knows what it's like to lose, to suffer loss, how it feels when you lose people and it appears that nothing you're doing is working. Go read the Old Testament. And Jesus stitches these stories together out of that Old Testament angst woven in with familiar scenes from working life in and around a small Middle Eastern village. But Jesus has also sewn in an unusual thread to help make His point. It's in the way He described how the loss took place.

In polite company, when something valuable got lost, they'd say it just like that: "It got lost." Just like we say it today. "The sheep got itself lost again." "Where did my keys disappear to? They were here a minute ago." We say it like that, indirectly blaming the thing that got lost, right? But Jesus doesn't say it like that. He puts the responsibility on the character in the story. He says a man loses his sheep; a woman loses her coin. And on one level, He may be accusing the religious insiders for losing them, losing people like the tax collectors and outrageous sinners.

But on a deeper level, Jesus reveals that the real actor in the story, in each story, is God. The shepherd and the woman both stand for God. Jesus brought God into the story of the parable because He came to bring God into the story of the world. And in this story, Jesus Himself takes responsibility, all of it, for the loss and for the finding. And when He was crucified, when it looked like nothing He had been doing was working and He had lost everyone, that's where God did His best work.

And with Jesus telling the world's story, our story, there is no doubt that the central actor has the skill and the will to make it work. That shepherd in the story, he is decisive. He knows his mission is urgent because he knows the sheep that went astray won't last long on its own. So he puts the rest of the flock in the care of other shepherds. Anyone with a hundred sheep in those days likely would've had co-workers. And while they're still out in the wilderness, when the others are on their way home for the night, that lead shepherd marshals all his tools and hard-fought wilderness experience to find that lost sheep, which by now has probably given up and laid down to die in the desert.

But as sure as Jesus has risen from the dead, there is no doubt that the shepherd has the skill and the will to make this rescue mission work. And the woman in the house, there is even less doubt and more certainty that she will find that coin. It's only a matter of time. She is, after all, a small-town woman in the ancient Middle East, and she devotes almost all of her work hours and days managing that house of hers. That house is her domain. She is master of it, as Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth. And that coin in her domain has zero chance of staying lost. In these characters, Jesus shows us what God is like. He has the skill and the will to make it work. He finds the lost. It's only a matter of time.

When I'm listening to Jesus tell me the truth about God, it affects the way I talk to God about the lost. When I'm listening to Jesus, I speak to God more gratefully for finding me when I was lost and finding me again and again and again when I get lost in my own head, in my fears and regrets and rudeness. When I'm listening to Jesus, I speak to God more frequently, asking Him to show me how He's already working, seeking and saving, pushing and pulling, nudging and carrying lost ones home. And that I may, in some way, participate. When I'm listening to Jesus, I sometimes speak to God remorsefully when nothing I'm doing seems to be working, but also hopefully because I know that when He has made it work, one of His favorite things to do is invite others to join the party with Him.

Leonard Sweet, in his book titled, Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who's Already There, he encourages Jesus' followers to think of themselves as baton-passers in a race, a race that may run for decades and centuries, not just weeks and years. "If you think about it," Leonard says, "this is how it has always been. God uses more than one person to lead people to Christ. It may take 10, 20, 50, and we may be number 23."

The morning before I recorded this message, I looked over at the house that used to be Justin and Stephanie's, my former neighbors. I asked God to bless them and nudge them wherever they are. Later that day, my pastor, the pastor who now serves at the church I had once served, he invited me to a visit, a visit to a family he had recently met in our neighborhood. See, weeks before, a youth group from out of town had come to our church to canvas our neighborhood, going door to door, telling people about Jesus and our church. I'm told by experts that going door to door doesn't work. But this family, the one pastor and I were going to meet that day, lived at one of those doors that canvasing youth group had knocked on. And why this family responded positively to some strangers knocking on their door, God only knows.

It was a husband and a wife, young professionals in their late twenties. They had recently moved into the neighborhood and the wife was expecting their first baby. On this follow-up visit, pastor brought them some diapers, a gift from the church. They were home when we knocked that morning. We met the wife, who couldn't talk long because she was on a call, working from home. "But my husband will be right out," she said. He came out and we had a nice visit with him there on the front porch. And then we prayed with him, for his wife and for the baby they were expecting. And then we invited them to church. Will they come? And if they come, will they come again? I don't have a clue. I don't have any sure signs that anything we're doing is working, but only that Jesus is.

Would you pray with me? Dear Jesus, forgive me for being rude to anyone, but especially to the lost. Help me, help us, to love like You love. Bring us along for Your work so that we might be there for the party when You return to make all things new, because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for September 11, 2022

Title: Lost and Found

Mark Eischer: We're back once again with our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler. Thinking about what we heard in today's message, people might say you're illustrating the problem with what is often called "organized religion." What would you say to that?

Mike Zeigler: Very glad that you brought that up, Mark. I hear people use that phrase, "The problem with organized religion ..." And in my experience, what I think people mean is the problem with getting together with people that are different than me and people who sometimes annoy me or bother me. That's the problem. It's not a problem with being organized, and it's not a problem with religion; it's a problem with people, getting along with people.

Mark Eischer: So, the deeper question is why do we as Christians insist on getting together with other people?

Mike Zeigler: That's right. That's exactly what we're saying. That being a follower of Jesus must include getting together with other followers of Jesus. This is a communal thing that we're doing. The simple answer to the question why we insist on this is that's what the Scripture insists on. A passage for this is Hebrews 10:24-25. The writer of Hebrews says, "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good works, not neglecting getting together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another."

Mark Eischer: Okay. So we get together because the Bible says so.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah, the Bible says so. That's the simple answer. A deeper answer is that we do this because it is part of the character and nature of God. God is communal. And this is the unique perspective of the Christian faith, that we confess that God is One who is also eternally Three relating Beings—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, you could say that God is a getting-along-with-others God, and He's created and saved us to be getting-along-with-others kind of people.

Mark Eischer: It's part of God's nature then to create community.

Mike Zeigler: Right. Community is His idea. He created us as relational, communal beings, and He's come to restore that, what was lost, what was broken. Sin and death has destroyed and divided communities. Jesus has come to restore. That's part of God's nature is to get together. For example, my wife Amy, she is a person who loves to get people together. And so I have to realize that being her husband, that we're going to have people over to our house, maybe more often than I would choose, but this is part of her nature. And so I learned to embrace her nature as someone who loves her and she loves me. So also with God. God is a God who loves to get together because this is His nature from eternity.

Mark Eischer: The Gospel message is one of atonement of forgiveness, of redemption, but in your preaching, you've also stressed that the Gospel is a message of relationship restoration.

Mike Zeigler: Right. Even in that word, atonement—that's a fancy theological word, but if you just break it down, "at" "one" "ment."

Mark Eischer: Okay.

Mike Zeigler: Meaning it's a relational word. What was the opposite, or what was the problem before atonement? It was division, irreconcilable differences between God and humanity. Jesus comes to take away those differences so that He might reconcile. So, as you said, relationship is always at the heart of the good news of Jesus. And this is again the unique perspective of the Christian faith. We are a monotheistic faith. We confess that God is One, but unlike Islam, unlike Judaism, we believe that God is Three-in-One. He has revealed Himself through His son in the power of His spirit. He is a relational Being from eternity. And that's why relationship is always at the heart of God's work to create and restore and reconcile.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

The Lord's My Shepherd" setting by Richard Hillert. From This Is the Feast: Music of Richard Hillert by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter's in the Loop (© 1992 Canticle Records)

"Son of God, Eternal Savior" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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