This morning, I have a rather simple sermon. Now, don’t get too excited, I didn’t say a short sermon! I said simple, for it is about only one word, one simple word which I believe may be the most hopeful word in the entire Bible.
Jesus is confronted by grumbling Scribes and Pharisees: “Jesus, why do you insist on hanging out with people who are known sinners? Rumors are flying all over town about you eating and drinking and welcoming sinners.”
And Jesus responds as he usually does by telling a story. Here, he tells three stories: one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin and another about a lost boy.
It is in these wonderful stories that we find what I believe is the most hopeful word in the entire Bible. Which word do you think it is?
What about the word found? Now there’s a hopeful word. In each of these stories, there is something or someone who is found. The shepherd finds the lost sheep. “And when he found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” The woman finds the lost coin. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” And the father finds his lost son. “Let us celebrate for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost but now he is found!”
Found: It’s a wonderful word. For being found is the polar opposite of being lost.
Being found being recognized and accepted, welcomed and affirmed. Being found means coming home. Coming home to a place where you are loved and appreciated and understood. Being found means receiving salvation. Being found means being completely whole and alive.
I spoke to a young man this week who had been laid off from his job like hundreds of others here in Oklahoma. He said: “I don’t know if Aubrey McClendon drove his SUV into that bridge on purpose, but if he did, I get it. I feel like my whole world is crashing down on me. I have three children, and we were just making ends meet when I was working. And I just don’t know how I am going to make it not. Right now, I feel so lost.”
As a pastor, I have heard those words before.
“Since my my wife died, I have been so lost.”
“I feel absolutely lost without my husband.”
“Since my doctor gave me the grim diagnosis, I have been lost.”
“I know I have made many mistakes. And I keep making mistakes. I keep doing the things that I know I shouldn’t do. And I don’t do the things I need to do. I am lost.”
Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of playing hide-and-seek with his sister when he was a child. The game where one person is “it.” They hide their eyes and count to a hundred while the others run and hide.
Fred said that when his sister was “it,” she always cheated. “One, two, three, four, five, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one-hundred. Ready or not hear I come!”
But Fred said there was one day he didn’t care if she cheated because he had picked out the perfect hiding place, under the porch and under the steps of the porch.
Completely hidden from sight, he watched his sister search, behind the trees, in the barn, in the corncrib. Round and round she searched. He watched as she kept passing him by again and again, confident that she would never find him.
He kept saying to himself: “She will never find me here. She will never find me here.”
Then he says it dawned on him, “She will never find me here.”
So he says he stuck out a toe.
And finally, she saw it! “Fred, You’re it! You’re it!”
He said he crawled out muttering, “Aw, phooey, you found me.”
After telling the story, Craddock asked, “What did I want? To hidden, yes. But what did I really want? To be found, just as every person in this room.”
Found: What a hopeful word! For how many of us yearn to be known fully, understood completely, accepted fully and loved unconditionally? How many of us yearn for a place that we can call home? Where we can be ourselves, reveal all of our flaws, be honest with all of our mistakes, and still be welcomed and affirmed. Found: it’s a wonderful, hopeful word. It is who we are called to be as a church, but it is not the word that I am thinking of.
What about the word rejoice? Now there’s a hopeful word. In each of these stories, there is an awful lot of rejoicing. When the shepherd finds his lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and “rejoices.” And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and invites them to a party, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
After the woman who lost one of her silver coins turned on every light in the house, swept every square inch until she found it, she called together her friends and her neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
And who can forget the party in the final story of the lost boy. When the boy is found, the father says to his servants: “Quickly, bring out a robe, the very best one, and put it on my boy. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let’s eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again’ he was lost and is found!” And they began to rejoice together with food and music and dancing.
Rejoice: now, that’s a hopeful word. Although that young man who lost his job cannot imagine it, someday, somehow, someway there’s going to come day in his life when there is going to be rejoicing. One day, he is going to get another job. I said to him on Friday, “Although you feel as if your life is over, you do know don’t you, that with God, it is entirely possible that all these things will work together for the good.”
Rejoice: it’s an incredibly hopeful word, but it is not the word I am thinking of. There is another word, a little word which is found in each of these stories that I believe offers even more hope.
Jesus says that the shepherd searches until he finds the lost sheep. The woman searches until she finds the lost coin, and the father waits until the lost boy is found.
Each time Jesus tells a parable, he is implying that God is like that. God is like a woman who turns on all of the lights in the house, sweeps every square inch and feverishly searches until she finds it. God is like a shepherd who searches, not for an hour, not for 24 or 36 or 48 hours, not for a week or a month or even a year, but searches until he finds his sheep. And God is like Father who patiently and graciously waits until his son comes home.
The most hopeful word in the Bible may be the simple word until.
The most hopeful good news is that God is going to stay beside the young man who lost his job, and with his family until he finds another job. God is going to be his friend and his companion until he is able to one day come home and rejoice. God is never going to forsake him, never going to give up on him. God is going to be patiently persistent until.
I believe someone needed to remind Aubrey McClendon, as someone needs to remind each of us, that no matter your mistakes, no matter your trouble, God is going to stay with you and fight for you until.
I have always prided myself on being open-minded. I have even preached sermons about the importance of being open-minded, and I have chastised people who were hard-headed. I’ll never forget that after one such sermon, a worshipper came up to me and asked, “Preacher, don’t you think that sometimes it is good to be close-minded? Don’t you think that there are some things that God is hard-headed about?”
Although the man was notorious for being closed-minded, he did have a pretty good point. For the good news is that the God of Jesus is a close-minded, hard-headed, stubborn God. God is obstinate and unrelenting in God’s desire to draw all of us unto God’s self. It was a very stubborn, immovable and inflexible love which propelled Jesus to pick up and carry his cross. Perhaps the most close-minded statement that was ever made was made from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The late L.D. Johnson’s wonderful book, The Morning After the Death, ends with these words about the stubbornness of God.
“God can be trusted! In the last analysis, Christians have no more persuasive word. God can be trusted. That does not resolve all the mysteries or answer all the questions, but it gives us enough to build our lives around. God is trustworthy. God is Lord of life and death and God is to be trusted.”
So you say, “I’m so sick and tired of being sick and tired. How much longer can I count on God to hold me close?” Until.
You say, “I keep failing, I keep falling. I keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. How long will God continue to pick me up and put me back on my feet?” Until.
You say, “I don’t think I am ever going to get over the loss of my husband. It’s been ten years. How much longer can I keep calling on God to help me?” Until.
You say, “Although I know that it is wrong, I still find myself doing the same stupid things over and over. How much longer is God going to put up with me?” Until.
How long will God keep fighting for me in this battle? How long will God keep protecting me in this storm? Until.
How long will God keep working with is church, encouraging every member to use his or her gifts for ministry? Until.
How much longer is God going to believe in me and stand by me and make a place for me at God’s banquet where there is going to be endless rejoicing, where life will be full and whole and complete and eternal? How much longer is God going to wait for me to come home?
The answer is in the simple, yet most hopeful word in the entire Bible: until.