An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The God who Searches

A sermon on Luke 15: 1-10 by Stacey Aslangul

In the frenzy of battle during WW II it obviously wasn’t always possible to return fallen soldiers to their homeland for burial. Many lay where they fell & died and are only remembered today by anonymous graves. Fearing this fate for one of their own, a US company fighting in the heart of the French countryside approached a Catholic priest to ask if they could bury their fallen colleague in the small, countryside graveyard attached to the church.

To their astonishment, the priest turned them down on 2 grounds – 1st of all the dead man wasn’t a Catholic and secondly there was no room in the already overcrowded graveyard.

With heavy hearts the soldiers were left with no other choice than to bury their friend just beyond the small wooden fence that marked the boundary of the cemetery & indicating its presence with a simple cross.

Within a couple of months the war was over & the company prepared for the journey home. But longing to say one last goodbye to their dead friend, they decided to return once more to the graveyard alongside which they had buried him. On arriving at the church, the cemetery looked much the same but, try as they might, as they walked around the perimeter of the fence they could not see any sign of the wooden cross they had left to mark the grave. Angered by the belief that the priest had removed even this simple memorial to their fallen buddy, they ran towards the church to challenge him.

However, as they approached, the priest came out to meet them. “I’m so glad you have returned,” he said in a welcoming voice. “After you left I was troubled by my decision. I saw the dignity with which you buried your friend & realised the anguish my decision had caused you. I couldn’t change the fact that the cemetery was full so I decided to solve the problem a different way. I’ve moved the boundary fence a meter or two so that your friend’s grave is now within the graveyard itself. I hope you can forgive me.”

Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world was about moving the boundary fence that the religious and social order of the day had built. This radical blueprint for the kingdom of God would mean the opportunity of a return from ‘exile’ for all peoples who were ‘lost’ or estranged from the Creator God, whatever their spiritual, social, ethnic or economic standing. Indeed it would ultimately include the whole of creation.

So when the ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’ from our passage in Luke’s gospel (15:1) muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they knew nothing of the inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God – they could not see that God’s Kingdom had moved the fences, had shifted the boundaries, so that there was room for everyone around the table. Their comment was meant as a reproach but Jesus took it up as a true description of his mission & ministry here on earth.

In answering them Jesus introduced what was then a completely revolutionary idea – that God actually sought out sinners with the purpose of bringing them to him…of reconciling them, of gathering them into his kingdom of shalom…

Furthermore, the shocking idea that it is a more pleasing sight in heaven to see one sinner brought to the worship of God than to see 99 righteous people continuing in such work (v 7), was no doubt blasphemous in the sight of the religious leaders but, of course liberating for the sinners eating at the table with Jesus!

Jesus illustrates this idea with 3 parables designed to show God’s relentless compassion in seeking out the ‘lost’. This cluster of parables – a story about a lost sheep, a lost coin and the lost son/s (Prodigal son), all talk of the pain following the loss of something of value. This causes the deprived so much anguish (even torment) that they do not rest until they have found it, at which point there is a great celebration.

I remember being at Point Leo with Mike about 2 years ago. We had a picnic and sat on the beach talking about life and love, our hopes and dreams, when I realised that the Russian wedding ring I always wore wasn’t on my finger! I look back on it now and it all seems very trivial, but at the time the level of panic at the thought of having lost such a special ring (such a special gift to me) was unbearable. For the next panic-stricken 45 minutes I had Mike retracing our steps on the beach searching earnestly for my silver ring…of course it wasn’t until I got home that I found my ring sitting on the bathroom bench. I was so excited to have my ring! Although I didn’t call my neighbours in for a celebration I remember the feeling of joy and relief (which in the end was short lived because during our frantic search on the beach Mike had gotten burnt, dehydrated and was suffering heat-stroke!) I’m sure we all have stories of times when we have lost something of great worth and then found it…Of course in the grander scale of things losing my ring was hardly earth shattering.

Other losses in life are much more significant and the searching may be heart-breaking – the loss of a life, the deteriation of the health of a loved one, the loss of employment, war & suffering, loss of innocence, loss of relationship, loss of peace….so much loss, desperate searching and often little celebration or rejoicing in the outcome.

This passage says a great deal about God’s heart for humanity – for you and I. The shepherd, who represents God doesn’t say, “Well, 99 out of 100 isn’t bad and a couple of them are about to have lambs anyway – Its not really worth the effort to go trampling all over the countryside to find just one sheep. I think I’ll just write that one off as a tax deduction; a bit of negative gearing.”

No. The shepherd goes immediately to search for it. No hesitation. He seeks until he finds…prepared to look for as long as it took. According to the prophet Ezekiel (34:11) YHWH denounces the shepherds of Israel who don’t care for their sheep. YHWH declares: “I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so I will seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them.” This image of God as the good shepherd was a well-loved one both in the ancient world and today.

God as shepherd relentlessly looking for his sheep, shifting the fences
to show us just to what lengths He will go for that one lost sheep…

Similarly, the woman looking for her lost coin. One coin may not sound like a lot of money to us. But perhaps for this 1st century Palestinian woman it was part of her dowry sewn into her head covering and worth the equivalent of a days wage for an unskilled labourer.

God as the woman relentlessly searching for Her lost coin, turning tables and searching in the dark corners showing us the lengths to which She will go for that one lost coin…

Both the shepherd and the woman loose something of value and worth, they search, they find what is lost and then they celebrate by inviting friends and neighbours to a party. The sheer joy of the shepherd and woman contrast wonderfully with the whinging, grumbling of the Pharisees. In the chapter preceding our passage (Luke 14) Jesus talks about the cost of discipleship and the danger of salt losing its flavour. Luke 15 then begins with the tax collectors and sinners drawing near to Jesus to listen to him. It is the sinners who want to hear, who are prepared to listen. It is the sinners and tax collectors that embrace the idea that God’s Kingdom is theirs – that God has moved the fences so that they are no longer on the outside looking in…but that the Kingdom of God is their right here, right now. God searching for them. God searching for you…

This image of God searching is also found in today’s OT readings. The Psalmist cries out in Psalm 14: “There is no one who does good – no, not one!” Here God is searching, looking for signs of goodness and justice, compassion and hope, but not finding. The Psalm finishes with one last desperate hope – “If only a Saviour would come from Zion to restore the people’s fortunes.”

God also looks for signs of life and light in our reading from Jeremiah. Here the prophet in the midst of war and suffering, of hopelessness and desolation reveals God as the one searching and looking…yet once again God does not find…

Our scripture readings invite us to see God as the one who searches… It reminds me of something someone once said to me in my first year of study at Whitley College – “There is a God-shaped whole in every human heart.” Well, perhaps our scripture readings for today are saying that “there is a human-shaped whole in God’s heart”….

God searches us out, moving the fences, making room for those of us who are lost, estranged, wounded, in need of healing and saving. And God will go to whatever lengths to make that happen…

And the gospels are full of stories of God’s compassionate grace that stretches far beyond the limits the Pharisees and often ourselves, place on God. Jesus welcoming outcasts, touching lepers, healing the sick and demon-possessed, mixing with gentiles, caring for the women & widows, welcoming children and eating with sinners and tax collectors are all examples of God’s Kingdom moving the expected boundaries to fit everyone in. All are welcome. All are offered the free gift of forgiveness. All being relentlessly pursued by the searching God- the God of grace and love….and it would seem that our celebrations pale into insignificance compared to the celebration and rejoicing that God experiences when God recovers what has once been lost:

Jesus says: “Let me assure you that the angles party over each wayward person who turns their life back towards God” (v 10)

How can this not be good news? This would have been good news for the sinners gathered at Jesus’ table that day. And it is indeed good news for those of us in need of trusting God again, of recommitting to the life of discipleship, of letting go of the things that hold us back from receiving this warm embrace from God….God searches for us, travelling through the fields and valleys….God searches for us relentlessly in the dark quiet places longing to have that “human-shaped whole in God’s heart filled”….this is the God who searches for you.


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