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September 11, 2022*
By Pastor John Partridge
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 Luke 15:1-10 1 Timothy 1:12-17
In 1781, famed preacher Jonathan Edwards presented a message to his congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He preached that same sermon again in Enfield, Connecticut later that same year and, by many historical accounts, triggered the beginning of what is now considered to be the First Great Awakening which brought countless waves of people across the new United States and England to faith in Christ. In that message, Edwards proclaimed the horrors of hell and forwarded the idea that it is only the grace and the powerful hand of God that holds back the demons of hell and allows sinners to remain in this world so that they will have an opportunity to repent.
Present day preachers tend not to preach with that kind of style or fire, though many of us would agree with much of Edward’s message. What’s worse, however, is that somewhere along the line, our churches established a reputation as places where you needed to get right with God before you came in, or as places where sinners, the unclean, the tattooed, bikers, persons of color, the poor, the homeless, smokers, gamblers, and any other kind of outsiders aren’t welcome. And, in many churches, that characterization is unfortunately true.
But that isn’t the message that we find in scripture at all. Yes, God does have a problem with some people, but God’s list almost never seems to overlap with the people that our churches like to exclude. In Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, we hear this:
11 At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; 12 a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them.”
22 “My people are fools;
they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
they know not how to do good.”
23 I looked at the earth,
and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
24 I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
25 I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
26 I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
27 This is what the Lord says:
“The whole land will be ruined,
though I will not destroy it completely.
28 Therefore the earth will mourn
and the heavens above grow dark,
because I have spoken and will not relent,
I have decided and will not turn back.”
God condemns Israel not because of everyday, ordinary sin, but because of their conscious decision to act in ways that they knew were in opposition to God’s will. They had known God… but forgot God and had become so desensitized to wrongdoing and injustice that they only did evil and entirely forgot how to do good. God had created Israel to be a light to the nations but whatever light that they had… was gone.
God’s intent is better demonstrated to us in the actions and the teaching of Jesus such as we find in the story contained in Luke 15:1-10.
15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 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.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[each worth a day’s wage] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The accusation against Jesus was that he must be a bad person because he welcomed “sinners” and shared the relationally intimate act of eating meals with them. As I noted last week, during communion, a shared meal is an intimate act. Only an exceedingly small number of people will be invited into our homes and in the even smaller inner circle that sits at our table and shares food with us. Even in a group setting with larger numbers of people, there is still a decision-making process by which we choose who will be given access to that level of closeness. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law would never do such a thing and they thought that doing so cast doubt on Jesus’ authority, credibility, and likability.
But the parables that Jesus uses to craft his reply reveal that these are exactly the people that God wants to welcome. When you have one hundred sheep, and lose one, you use all your time, talent, and resources to find the one that is lost, not to nurture the ninety-nine that stayed home. And when you lose a coin that’s worth an entire day’s wages, you don’t just keep counting the nine that you have, you expend all the effort that you can to find the one that you lost. The people who were in the Temple and who worshipped in the synagogues weren’t lost. The lost people that God wanted back were the people that had left the church and had left God’s family in one way or another.
And as the Apostle Paul writes to his friend Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:12-17, he writes from the perspective of a person who was once lost, but has been found, welcomed, and redeemed. Paul says…
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Too often our churches are so laser-focused on the chaplaincy of our church, which is the mission of caring for the day to day needs of the congregation, that they completely ignore, and sometimes are downright unwelcoming, to the lost people that God wants to rescue. How often do we hear stories or jokes about people who felt unwelcome because they visited a church and accidentally sat in the spot that Mrs. So-and-so had sat in for sixty-three years? Or folks who were angrily stared at because they wore the wrong kind of clothes? Or had the wrong color skin? Or belonged to the wrong political party? Or were shown the door because they were divorced or remarried? Or were single parents? Or drank too much, or smoked, or swore, or… well, you get the idea.
When God condemned Israel in the story we read from Jeremiah, his condemnation wasn’t for any of those things. God’s condemnation was for the church people who forgot how to do good and couldn’t stop doing evil. Instead, what Jesus is trying to teach us is that the people we need to spend our time, talent, and resources on, are those lost children that we so easily overlook or condemn because they don’t go to our church, or don’t look like us, or talk like us, or vote like us, or move in the same social circles as us.
Bear in mind that Jesus never told sinners that it was okay to keep on sinning. But Jesus most certainly did say that sinners should always be made to feel welcome in his house so that they could hear… and feel, the message of love, rescue, and transformation that is contained in the gospel message. Our mission isn’t to keep out the riffraff. Our mission is to save the lost, to welcome the riffraff, the outsiders, and the outcasts so that we can be agents of rescue, restoration, and reconciliation.
But in order to accomplish our mission, in order for us to do what Jesus has called us to do, requires us to do what Jesus did.
And that… is to make sure that sinners are welcome.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.