What Makes Heaven Happy

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 15:6-7

What makes heaven happy? What sets the joy bells ringing around the throne of God? Jesus told a little story about that once. Listen. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 15, beginning at verse 3:

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 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 which was lost.” 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.

These parables of Jesus, these little vignettes from life, are crammed with surprises. They report things about God that we would never have dreamed possible. They overturn our ordinary notions. They go beyond our best hopes.

Some things about God are relatively easy for us to recognize. It’s hard to miss them if we have eyes to see. Think about His power. Have you ever thought about those colossal blazing suns we call “stars”? There are trillions of those bigger and brighter than the modest one that warms this earth. Who set those aflame? Who banks their fires? Who sends them hurtling through space? It must be someone incredibly mighty.

Or think about the possibilities within a microbe or the power sealed in a tiny atom. What a God this must be who designed all of that and wrapped it in packages so amazingly small!

Again, can anyone doubt that God has a tase predicted, for example, that God rejoices over wanderers who come back? Would your observations of life have led you to that conclusion? Think of it, friends. God looks on sinful human beings as lost sheep. He leaves everything else to go seeking for them. And when they’re found, He’s overcome with gladness.

Jesus told this story, remember, in response to bitter criticism. He was being attacked because of the company He kept. He welcomed, they said, publicans and sinners. True, He was happy to see them. He accepted them cordially. He seemed to enjoy their company. But even that wasn’t the worst. He actually ate with these people.

We have to understand Jewish laws regarding table fellowship to grasp what this means. Few things in those days were seen as more expressive of piety and religious commitment than scruples about eating. Since tax collectors were viewed as socially abhorrent, and sinners were seen as morally beyond the pale, to sit at table with such people seemed a flagrant rejection of everything holy. But when Jesus was challenged about it, He defended His action with a kind of “sweet reasonableness” by telling this little story.

He made no attempt to defend the lifestyle of publicans and sinners. In fact, His story implies that they needed to repent. They were perhaps as guilty and deserving of judgment as the Pharisees believed. But from God’s perspective, the most notable thing about these people was not their sin or their shame but their lostness. They were persons who belonged to God, in whom He had a special interest, but who had wandered away from Him. He looked on all of them and felt toward each as a shepherd feels about lost sheep. They were guilty, yes; they were rebellious, undoubtedly. They were unclean. But most of all, they were missed. That was the main thing. They were longed for because they were lost.

Sometimes we hardly notice it when we’ve lost something. The object was not especially important or valuable to us. Our life can go on pretty much the same without it. Some day visit the lost-and-found department at a school or a place of business. There you may find a jacket or a hat or a scarf or an umbrella that may have lain there unclaimed for months. No one apparently felt the loss of these things deeply enough to come back and see if they were there. If what was lost had been needed by its owner, it was apparently easy enough to replace.

But it’s different, isn’t it, with lost persons, especially those who are loved by someone? Perhaps you have witnessed on television reports made from time to time to the U.S. Congress on the human tragedy of missing children. Here’s a mother who hasn’t seen her little boy for two and a half years. She has no idea where he is. She’s fighting back the rush of tears. She tells the senators that though their family is surviving, life can never be the same for them again.

There was a time when one of our sons was missing, and this was only for two and a half days. But that, friends, was the darkest, most anguished period of our whole lives. Many other important and pressing things were completely laid aside in our concern for a lost boy. He had been having serious problems at the time but they seemed insignificant now. The thought occurred to us that he might have gotten into trouble or done something terribly wrong, but somehow even that mattered little. The consuming agony was that he was gone. He was lost. Try as we might, there was no way to reach him.

FOUND

Can we believe today that the Lord of heaven and earth feels that way about us? However miserable, mixed up, soiled and shamed we are, one thing about us matters supremely to God. We are His lost ones and He wants us back.

Now this God, we learn from Jesus, not only misses His lost sheep – He goes searching for them. Such teaching was something entirely new in the religious world. It still is a marvel. A prominent biblical scholar has pointed out that the only feature of the New Testament which finds no parallel in rabbinic literature is this parable of the lost sheep. In Judaism at its best, God is always ready to receive a penitent sinner who comes back to Him. But the new element here is a gracious God who doesn’t even wait for that. He actively seeks the lost ones. That one difference, friends, makes Christianity. That one difference is the secret of the Incarnation of Jesus and of His Cross.

In Jesus Christ, God comes to us as the Good Shepherd, ready to lay down His life for the sheep, the straying ones. He doesn’t choose to stay in heaven’s splendor until His wayward people decide to come back. No, He comes Himself to visit our planet, to share our human life. He seeks us where we are, in all our brokenness and need. He finds us, harassed and helpless. He comes as a strong rescuer to hoist us onto His shoulder, to carry us next to His heart.

This shepherd Jesus tells about has an extravagant, almost reckless concern for that missing sheep. Deeply grieved, He leaves behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness to set out after his one precious stray. He braves darkness and danger. He plunges on, heedless of thorns and wild beasts. He won’t give up the search.

If we could read it rightly, we would see all of our experience as God’s questing, seeking for us. The whisper of conscience in our moments of temptation, the agony of remorse when we succumb, the fleeting visions we have at times of a better way, the dreary round when life seems to lose meaning for us, and all those fluctuating moods of ours, are all signs of God’s pursuit. Something deep within us knows that but shrinks from acknowledging it. We’re somehow afraid to be found, aren’t we? We confess with Francis Thompson in The Hound of Heaven, “I fled him down the nights and down the days. I fled him down the arches of the years. From those strong feet that followed, followed after, with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace . . . for though I knew His love who followed, yet was I sore adread lest having Him I must have nought beside.”

But then we hear Him saying also to us, “All which I took from thee, I did but take not for thy harms, but just that thou mightest seek it in my arms. All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home. Rise, clasp my hand and come.”

If you can realize today that God is seeking you, that in Jesus Christ He comes near and knocks at the door of your life, you will have grasped the gospel. You will have found new courage. You’ll be ready to say with that weary man who was rescued after long days at sea in a little rubber boat, “My only hope was that I knew I was being sought.” That’s our hope too. That’s our salvation: God’s seeking love.

CELEBRATION

Now for the chief point, the final comfort of this little story. There is joy in heaven over every lost one who is found. The Pharisees were annoyed that Jesus seemed to delight in down-and-outers, in social pariahs. He went to their homes, dined and laughed at their tables. The religious elite saw all of that through spectacles of suspicion. They thought that Jesus enjoyed the ways of sinners when what He really wanted was to win their hearts. What filled Him with gladness was to see them repenting, receiving God’s grace. In that eager seeking for them, Jesus revealed the heart of His Father, too.

That’s what this story is really about. Three times it sounds the note of great joy. When the shepherd finds his lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders, we read, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me.” “And so it is,” Jesus continues, “around the throne of God in heaven: abounding joy over one sinner who repents, one wanderer who is fod. Because, friends, that is what makes heaven happy.