What a year we’ve had. We’ve faced a tornado, a pandemic, an economic disaster, and a season of racial conflict—and all of this in the middle of most unsettling presidential election we can imagine. On top of that, a lot of people have had personal problems. We’ve truly wondered if we were nearing the end of the world.
But in the middle of it all, we’re likely to miss the most important lesson, and that’s what we’ll talk about today on this first Sunday back.
I’d like for you to turn with me in your Bible to Luke 5:27:
After this, Jesus sent out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth.
Now in those days, tax collectors were not simply internal revenue agents. They were Jewish turncoats who were employed by the Roman occupying forces to collect money from their own fellow Jews, and they often used threats and extortion to do it. So people despised these tax collectors, whom they viewed as traitors.
It’s easy for you and me to despise certain people for political or economic or racial or philosophical reasons. Or even for reasons of personality. For example, there’s a particular politician I just can’t stand. I’m not going to tell you who it is, but I truly tempted to dislike this person. There’s a particular news commentator that I just can’t stand. I’m not going to tell you who it is. But I shouldn’t feel that way. It’s one thing to disagree with someone and it’s another thing to despise or disdain them. The latter is worldly thinking. That’s secular thinking. That’s the way our culture thinks. But that is not the way Jesus thinks.
Look at this again:
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him. And Levi got up and followed him. Then Levi gave a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to His disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
I’m certain that Jesus had a lot of differences with the people at this party. He had moral differences. He had religious differences. He probably had political differences. He had so many differences with them you would think He would be out of place among them. But He wasn’t. It was exactly His place. He explained in verse 31:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Yes, Jesus said, these people are sinners. There’s no doubt about that. But I going among them to call them to repentance—and some will repent and that’s why I’m here.
Exhibit A is Levi, who had another name. He was also called Matthew, and he ended up writing the first Gospel, the Gospel that opens the New Testament.
The One Thing We Must Understand
Now, let’s go over to chapter 15 and we see a very similar scene:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.
Probably the names were different, but it was a similar situation as chapter 5.
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered….
This Greek words means to grumble in such a way as to be deliberately overheard. Have you ever done that?
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
This verse 1 is the key to the entire chapter. Luke 15 is one of the best known chapters in the Bible. This is where Jesus tells three stories—the story of the lost sheep; the story of the lost silver; and the story of the lost son. But we cannot interpret these stories correctly if we don’t see verse 1. Everything flows out of verse one.
Jesus told these stories to the Pharisees and to the scribes who were unhappy that He was mingling with sinful people. But here is the one thing we must understand.
Jesus wasn’t mingling with the tax collectors and sinners in order to participate with them in their sins. He was mingling with them in order to bring them out of their sins. They were not rabble to be deplored; they were souls to be delivered.
That’s our principle too. We don’t mingle with unsaved people to participate with them in their sins. We mingle with them to bring them out of their sins. They are not rabble to be deplored; they are souls to be delivered. And when we see that happening, even a little bit; it’s a source of great joy.
That’s the key to this chapter. And so against this backdrop, Jesus told three stories—three parables. We’ll look at the first two this week and the third one next week. The first is the parable of the lost sheep.
The Lost Sheep
Verse 3: Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Notice the three-fold occurrence of the words joy and rejoicing. He joyfully put it on his shoulders, and he told his neighbors to rejoice with him and there was rejoicing in heaven.
When I was a child, someone gave me a little dog. In no time that dog was my pride and joy, and my playmate, and my best friend. And one day he went missing. I was quite young and I don’t remember much about it. But I do recall being greatly distressed and upset. I found some construction paper and crayons, and I started making signs – Lost Dog. His name is Tippy. If you see him call Lincoln 4700.” Back then we gave out our phone number like that. And I got on my bicycle and went to every power pole and signpost I could find and taped my little childlike signs. Well, to my great relief in a day or two Tippy came straggling home from wherever he had gone. And all my distress turned to joy when I found him. Maybe you’ve had an experience like that.
But Jesus is not talking about dogs or sheep or any such thing. He was telling a parable, which He interprets for us in verse 7: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Who is the lost sheep? It is a sinner who needs to repent. A sinner is someone who has missed the way, who has missed the mark, who has fallen short of the expectations and standards of their Creator-God.
There is a four-thousand-year-old story that is the suspension cable of history. In Genesis 1, God created a perfect man and woman in a perfect world, but within two chapters they had made a mess of all that. And their sin has been passed down to us. We inherited the fallen blood and the sinful DNA of our original parents—and that’s why we have so many problems.
But in Genesis 12, God unleashed a great search and rescue mission. He took a man named Abraham, revealed Himself to his descendants, gave them His laws, and made of them a great nation. That’s the story of the Old Testament.
From that nation—from the tribe of Judah—Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem during the days of Herod the Great. He was no ordinary child. He was the virgin-born Son of God—He was God Himself in flesh appearing. That’s the Gospel.
Jesus lived a sinless life, but He was put to death by angry men who drained His blood with their thorns and whips and nails and spears. But His innocent blood had a redemptive quality we can never fully understand—the blood of Jesus Christ never loses its power.
And when any one of us—condemned, confused, hell-bound, dying sinners repents of our sin, we are like a sheep that had been discovered. We are saved.
What does it mean to repent? It means we are willing to change our attitudes, our words, and our behaviors so that we begin living for Jesus Christ and seeking to please Him. It means we say, “Lord, with Your help, I’m willing to change my life,” which really means we’re willing to let Him change our lives.
What that happens, Jesus said, “There is joy in heaven over each and every sinner who does that.”
The Lost Silver
Now, Jesus was a Master Teacher and He knew the power of repetition. So He immediately told another story that was very similar. Look at verse 8:
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.”
This is the same essential parable. Something is lost, and nothing matters until it’s found. And when it’s found, there is celebration. There is a party. There is great joy.
But there is one difference between the two parables, and that’s in the way Jesus ends them. There is a slight difference in wording.
Look at the ending of the first parable in verse 7: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine….
Now look at the end of the second parable in verse 10: In the same way, I tell you, there is more rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinners who repents.
In the first parable, the Lord tells us generally there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, but in the second parable we’re told there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
This does not say the angels rejoice. I’m sure they do, but that’s not the point Jesus is making. Someone else is rejoicing, and the angels are present to observe it? Who would that be? The verse tells us: There is rejoicing in the presences of the angels of God.
I don’t know how to visualize this or describe it. But somehow on the highest throne of the highest heaven, almighty God Himself—who is infinite and eternal—shouts out a cry of joy, as it were, whenever any boy or girl or man or woman on this earth repents of their sin and comes to Jesus Christ for forgiveness.
I read in Christianity Today about a man whose real name wasn’t given for security reasons. The article referred to him as Zaine, and he grew up as a devout Muslin in the Middle Eastern Gulf Region. Even as a child, he memorized much of the Qur’an, and he was faithful in all the Islamic traditions. But his family moved to an English-speaking country, and he hated it. In his school, he started an Islamic group and he did everything possible to convert the other students to Islam. He prayed for the death of Jews and Christians, whom he described as pigs and dogs.
But one day a Christian man came to his apartment with gifts, including clothing and a car. He was kind, and he was helping them resettle. He asked if he could pray for the family, and he did so. Zaine was unexpected moved by that.
At the invitation of some friend, Zaine decided to attend church As he heard people singing and praising God, he experienced a surge of emotion he had never felt before. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. At the church, he received a Bible and he started reading this Gospel written by Levi—Matthew—the man we saw in chapter 5. Zaine fell in love with the portrayal of Jesus. He read through then entire New Testament, and he couldn’t believe how much comfort he felt.
One day he went to his room, locked his door, fell on his face, and prayed to God, telling him he would put his trust in Jesus Christ as Savior.
At that very moment, a great cry of joy, as it were, went up from the highest throne in the highest heaven as there was rejoicing in the presence of the angels. And just think, the same cry of joy went up when I received Jesus Christ as my Savior and when you did.
The Open Door
I remember years ago in the 1980s when we were in a building campaign for one of the buildings we’ve built here. Those campaigns were always hard and rough. During my years as senior pastor, I led five of those building campaigns and I’m thankful for the opportunity, but they were hard to shoulder. But during one of them, it all came into perspective for me. We had a banquet to ask people to give as significant a three-year commitment as they could. I was so tense and worried about that banquet. But at one point in the program, a man named Earl Langley went to the microphone and sang a song, which had just recently bee released.
That song touch my heart so deeply that I’ve never forgotten that moment. It’s one of those songs that have come and gone, and you may not know it. But it still haunts me. It says:
Every day they pass me by;
I can see it in their eyes;
Empty people filled with care
Headed who knows where.
People need the Lord. People need the Lord.
At the end of broken dreams. He’s the open door.
When will we realize that we must give our lives.
For people need the Lord.
The only other year in my lifetime that can compare with 2020 was 1968, when our nation was absolutely torn apart. I was a junior in high school. The entire nation was engulfed in rioting. Colleges and universities were warzones. The fatality report from Vietnam was high and getting higher. President Lyndon Johnson gave up on another term in office. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a battlefield. And all across the nation young adults dropped out of society and became hippies. They turned onto psychologic drugs and tore off their clothes and wore sandals and tie-died t-shirts. They hated the establishment and all it stood for.
But out in San Francisco, a Christian couple opened a coffee house right in the middle of Haight Ashbury Street at the epicenter of the antiestablishment movement, and young people began finding Jesus. And for the four or five years, the Jesus Movement swept over California and over the world and thousand upon thousands of young people were saved.
It was that revival that propelled many of my generation into fulltime vocational ministry. My greatest hope is that 2020, with all its disasters, will help precipitate another revival like that—or an even greater one. But we have to be ready.
I remember one story during this time; it’s a story I read and I used in a sermon years and years ago. I still remember it. A lot of churches in those days were hesitant about the Jesus Movement. I was a part of that movement, and I remember getting some pushback from my own church and denomination. Not a lot, but some. People weren’t used to dirty, long-hair hippies invading their church.
There was one very conservative congregation that gathered one Sunday, everyone dressed in their suits and ties and nice dresses. They had gathered and opened the service and sang the opening hymn. And at some point in the service, the door opened and a hippie came in. He was barefoot. His hair was long and unkept. He had on sandals and a t-shirt with a peace sign on it. The pastor saw him walking down the aisle and paused in his sermon. Everyone’s eyes were on that dirty young man, and he walked down the aisle and came to the first row right in front of the pulpit, and he saw down and crossed his legs.
No one moved. But a moment later, they heard another set of footsteps. It was the old deacon and usher, who was more or less the church’s gatekeeper. He was old and gray and stubborn and strong. And he walked a cane. And down the aisle he came, following the young man. And nobody moved. And the old fellow got the young man, and he bent down on one knee, and you could hear his joints pop, but he sat right down beside that young man, crossed his legs, gave him a gentle hug, and the pastor resumed the sermon.
That’s our principle. We don’t mingle with unsaved people or get down on their level in order to participate with them in their sins. We mingle with them to bring them out of their sins. They are not rabble to be deplored; they are souls to be delivered. And when we see that happening, even a little bit; it’s a source of great joy.
…because people need the Lord.