“There is joy in the presence of the angels…” How about joy at a funeral? The pastor’s funeral was in the church he was serving at the time of his death. Several of us assisted. As we put on our vestments, one said he wanted to wear the deceased pastor’s stole as a tribute to our colleague. Another immediatelhy spoke for his cincture, the rope belt we wear. Another found his book of worship for the hymns and order of worship.
We sang big strong hymns in major keys and marching 4-4 time. The bishop preached the good news of the love of God and victory over death. We shared bread and wine. When we went out during the last hymn, we left those items borrowed from the deceased on the baptismal font as a deliberate symbolic gesture. First life and then resurrection. The dead live in Christ.
Then we went to the fellowship hall where we were soon laughing and eating as we remembered our fellow pastor with a party. Did we hear rejoicing echoes from heaven? I have no idea how angels rejoice, or what happens when one saved sinner meets God face to face, as all of us by God’s grace may look forward to that event.
But I’m certain that any Southern pig-pickin’, hoe down, stomp-around blow-out of a party that pulls out all the stops – doesn’t come close to angelic joy.
`Just one? But why would a shepherd endanger 99 sheep by leaving them while he goes off to look for one lamb? Certainly it was not sensible to leave the 99 unprotected.
Or if a neighbor asks us to come have coffee with her because she found a lost coin, would we not ask “has she gone off her rocker?” When angels want to rejoice, I can’t believe they get it done with one sly Mona Lisa smile, or that Michael or Gabriel gives only a little wink to another of the angels. Do they hug one another, tell jokes on the devil’s loss, congratulate each other for this new citizen in the city of God?
Perhaps their joy is more like the American revival called the Great Awakening 250 years ago. In those great assemblies or in the crude meeting houses, there was a sinner’s bench. Anyone who felt the urge to repent came there for prayer and forgiveness and thanksgiving. The congregation would make a lot of noise, with loud “Amens” and shouting, singing and general hallelujah. Such a sinner’s bench would not have pleased the Pharisees.
They were scandalized that Jesus would even talk to tax collectors and sinners. In their eyes, no further evidence was needed to show that he was not to be taken seriously.
He spoke of God’s forgiveness and of how the Father would give the kingdom to sinners. Do we take Jesus seriously? We know the story of his life, his death on the cross and the outcome of the resurrection for our eternal victory over sin. Do we take him seriously for ourselves? Jesus Christ presents himself to the world in the life of the church. We are baptized in his name.
Our Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of heaven’s great banquet which is to come. If we had been there when he told these stories, we might well have sided with the Pharisees. Their attitude was the reason Jesus told about the lost, and joy in heaven. Their grumbling comes right after Jesus saw how the guests played games to get the seats of honor at the head table.They grumbled about how Jesus welcomed sinners and even ate with them.
The Pharisees were worshipping the wrong God, the God of going by the book, the God of predictability, the God who has a neat law about everything. They believed they could make a transaction with God. If you said, “I’m sorry,” God would erase his mark against you. They didn’t understand rejoicing. They were trying to make God over like people who say to themselves, “I’m not so sure whether God loves me or cares about me or even knows my name, so why should I care about the church visible in a congregation?” Such persons have made their own version of a golden calf.
When the Israelites thought Moses was not coming down from the mountain and they wanted a god to worship, it is significant that they poured melted gold into a mold that had been previously formed, just as some of us try to make God fit a form or shape we have previously imagined.
Jesus tells these parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep to show these fine, respectable, grumbling people that God is outrageous with joy to save sinners. The right question is “where is your joy for God’s grace that found you?” Whatever else we may say about God, he is not indifferent to our condition. Instead he is the searching God who finds us, who brings us home, and who then rejoices.
Relentlessly, God pursues us like Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven in his great spiritual poem,
“I fled him, down the nights and down the days,
I fled him down the arches of the years;
“I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the mist
of tears I hid from him.”
After a long back-and-forth argument in which Thompson admits he is running from God even as God is ready to love him, God finally calls out to him:
“Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, Save Me, save only Me.”
God pleads with him, “All which I took from thee I did but take, Not for thy harms, but just that thou might’st 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.”
In his mercy, in his reckless and outrageous love, God pursues those who are undeserving, careless, hiding, thoughtless, half-committed, inattentive, ungrateful, unresponsive. He pursues the wanderer, the shiftless, the irresponsible, the blackguard, the reprobate, the less than perfect, the undesirable, the prodigal, the flagrant sinner, those who are fearful or too proud to turn to him.
If we had been there with Jesus, we would have looked for much more than a storyteller doing his thing with a few people. Would we have seen that he is holy, that he is in God’s place? That he is speaking with God’s voice?
And would we complain that God receives sinners? If he receives sinners, then there is hope that the God who is not indifferent has a place for you and me. Notice that in the parables Jesus told, the sheep could not repent. The coin could not repent. The initiative belongs to God who seeks those who do not recognize they are lost and who cannot save themselves, or be restored by their own action.
These parables are followed by the story we wrongly call the prodigal son. He composes a terrific confession, full of high-sounding malarkey about not being worthy to be his father’s son anymore, and he hits the sawdust trail home. But the parable is about the Father. The son doesn’t get to earn forgiveness by a transaction called Coming Home and Saying You’re Sorry. The prodigal is not forgiven as a result of a transaction, nor is he the point of the story. The father doesn’t forgive him because he made the right confession. He forgives him because he’s a loving father. He is the God who seeks.
People who don’t understand will say, “Then why bother with confession, repentance and faith, or the church and carrying your own cross of discipleship?” We must answer such a question as from the devil with this answer: “Dummy! Why go to a party when you can eat and drink at home? Why take your wife out to dinner? In other words, “Why be human when you can be a jerk instead?” The question is whether we will participate voluntarily, willingly, happily in the party already underway in our midst.
We come to worship because we hope and want desperately to believe that in the midst of life, dirty and fearful as it is, we can for this moment glimpse a foretaste of the feast to come. The banquet will go on long past the time when the sun becomes burnt toast and the last star has become a black hole in outer space. Here we renew our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here we feast at the great eternal banquet begun in the Upper Room. In the life of the church, the noise of heaven touches our hearts and if we listen closely, above the turmoil and racket and terrorism of this world we are sure to hear the angels.
And in the midst of rejoicing that never stops, we shall find our response to the God whose love never ends.
Footnote: Today is the 15th anniversary of “9/11,” Remember where you were?
Say a prayer for those who are dead and those still dying from the tragedy – esp. the firemen who brought others to safety only to die years later from the effects.