The Happiest Days of Heaven
The following is a lightly edited transcript
I invite you to take a Bible, either your own or one from the pew, and turn to Luke 15:1–10. This is the second sermon in a four-part series on Luke 15. We looked at verses one and two in their wider context last week, and now we’ll focus on the two little parables that Jesus gives in response to the criticism that he received for eating with tax collectors and sinners:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ’Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
We live in a world that is very different from the world of John Bunyan 300 years ago, or George Whitfield 200 years ago, or D.L. Moody 100 years ago. It’s a very different world than theirs to do the kind of work they used to do. This week Abraham and I went downtown together. We were confronted with one of those remarkable differences. We went to Barnes & Noble bookstore.
I don’t know if you’ve been to a major retail bookstore recently of that magnitude, but it’s really quite an overwhelming experience. This store takes up about half a block downtown, and it is remarkable meeting with the overwhelming relentless, seemingly ever-expanding, aggressive pluralism and diversity of the world in which we live. Every topic, every sport, every vocation, every worldview, every philosophy, and every religion you can think of, not only has one or two books, but sections of books on them.
The feeling I got as I walked back and forth through this store, as I was just looking, was that it felt very aggressive, intimidating, and pushy. One of the reasons is due to the fact that not only do you have representations of everything you could imagine, but that they are packaged with professional, glossy, slick, attractive covers that make you feel like there’s a whole movement and industry behind every one of them, laying claim on your mind and your attention. And there’s 50,000 of them. It’s mind boggling when you let yourself feel that there’s different people, world views, convictions, beliefs, standards, and values behind almost every one of these books that are laying claim on Minneapolis. And Barnes & Noble has thousands of stores like this all over the country. And then, there’s Baxters Books, which we went to next, though it is not quite as big.
It’s another world. When Bunyan, Whitfield, and Moody confronted their culture with Jesus Christ and his supremacy, the competitors were few in Britain and America. Today, if you want to stand up and say Jesus Christ is the one way to glory, heaven, eternity, and God, you have 50,000 competitors. You have people who are going to say, “That is the most outrageous thing you could possibly say in contemporary America, that Jesus is the way and the truth, and the life.” And you get pressed upon and aggressively pursued. If you can’t read, that’s okay because the have the books on tape and headphones to listen to them if you want them. It is a remarkable experience. It’s our world in a microcosm.
For Such a Time as This
As I walked through there and just felt that this is the place, this is the world in which I must stand up and say what the Apostle Paul said, “Minneapolis, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. God was in Christ. If you see Christ, you see God — the one, solitary creator God. He was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And then Jesus himself said, “If you see me, you have seen the father” (John 14:9). That’s an outrageous claim. We really need to be aware of this.
Our situation is a lot more like the Apostle Paul’s. Let me stress this for a minute, because you can easily become discouraged thinking of history as a kind of evolutionary spiral towards one thing. It isn’t. It isn’t except in the macro view of God. As we look at it, it is not an evolutionary spiral, so that you could say, “Oh my, it was easy in Bunyan’s day, and it was a little harder in Whitfield’s day, and a little harder in Moody’s day. In our day it’s impossible to stand up and say that Jesus is the only way because history is moving towards diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. And there’s no way you can be a Christian like that today.” There’s a historical mistake there — a big historical mistake.
History is longer than 300 years. Does anybody realize that? Does anybody know it’s longer than 25 years and it’s longer than 300 years? It’s at least 2,000 years old. Did you know that? Of course it’s a lot longer, but do you know what happened 2,000 years ago? The Apostle Paul — who was knocked off his horse and converted by the one and only God, who said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. I am the way. You thought I was a false Messiah but I am the way” — went to Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, and Rome. Do you know what those cities were like? Minneapolis, only worse. There was a cacophony of sorcery, witchcraft, gods, religions, philosophies, and worldviews as various as the caravans going back and forth across the Mediterranean world. So we’re going back to a time like that. We’re not going anywhere into difficulty. We’re just going back to the way it was when the gospel was born, and it spread, and it triumphed.
How is it possible that in a world like that, where there were tens of thousands of competing little groups of people all thinking they had a corner on the gods, that Christianity became the empire religion within 300 years? Well, it was blood, it was faithfulness, it was the power of the Holy Spirit, it was preaching, and it was signs and wonders. It was a lot of different things. We are called to stand up at work tomorrow, down at the park in an hour, and in all kinds of ways, and commend Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.
Now, here in this text, let’s see if I can show you how all this came to my mind while meditating on this passage. In Luke 15:1-2, Jesus is speaking in a Barnes & Noble type world. He’s with tax gatherers and sinners. The religious leaders of that day do not like him receiving and eating with those people. They indict him, and they say, “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” challenging Jesus, as if to say, “Why are you doing that? What does this mean? What’s going on here? How can you do that?”
His answer is spectacular. He might as well have dropped an atomic bomb, though you have to have eyes to see the spectacularness of it. If this answer is true, then he might as well have dropped an atomic bomb. Here he is in a little Jewish village. Just picture this. It could have been like a little village in Guinea.
Nobody in the world knows this is happening. There’s a dinner or a lunch happening, and there’s a few people present. I don’t know how many — maybe a few dozen people, but not a big crowd. There’s some Zacchaeus types who cheat everybody, and everybody knows they’ve got a bad reputation. The sinners referred to are probably prostitutes and other people who make their money in ways that are not right. And then, probably standing around the walls, or maybe in the doorway, are the Pharisees and the Scribes, who are always looking for a reason to get down on Jesus. He’s not making any big deal about the badness of these bad people. He’s eating with them and receiving them. Those are strong words; he’s receiving and offering his table, fellowship, hands, and food. And he’s just taking them there.
The Pharisees and Scribes are very upset about this, but it’s no big deal yet, right? It’s just a little squabble, a little religious disagreement in a Palestinian city out of the way. Nobody knows what’s going on here. It’s insignificant. In China, 3,000 miles away, there was probably some big war going on where millions of people’s lives were at stake. Or maybe, the Native Americans over here were having some big powwow that determined the future of their tribes. Nobody knows what’s going on in Palestine. It looks like this is very insignificant. This is a small deal.
And then comes the answer to their question, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” Jesus seasons his speech with salt by telling us a parable. And he says, in effect, that the God of heaven, before whom all the angels in the universe bow down, in this very lunch, at this very table, through these very words, to these very sinners, is intersecting with the world. God is doing something here. He’s welcoming sinners. He’s bringing them home to repentance. He’s leading all of heaven in a party to celebrate what’s going on here. That’s the essence of what Jesus is saying. What’s going on in China, or in America, or South America, or in Australia at that moment, cannot hold a candle to what’s going on here in terms of eternal, global significance.
The habitation of God is intersecting with the habitation of man, and God is being revealed here. The heart of God is being exposed here. That’s what these parables are about. These parables, these two parables about the sheep and the coin, are Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees, “What are you doing, receiving sinners and eating with them?” He’s giving an answer that boils down to the fact that God is coming into the world to search for sinners.
Joy in Heaven
That’s a summary, but let’s look at it in more detail. Jesus answers very quietly, thunderously quietly: “The love of God in heaven has entered the world through me and is seeking and finding what belongs to God and is now lost.”
Let’s look at the parables. He is saying, “My first answer to you, Pharisees, is this: When I receive sinners and eat with them, it’s like a shepherd leaving 99 healthy, found, righteous sheep and going out into the wilderness to find his lost sheep, put it on his shoulders, and take it home. And it’s like a woman, looking for a silver coin, a drachma, which is about a day’s wage. She’s lost about a 10th of her income. This is what is happening when I eat with tax collectors and sinners. I’m this woman, and I’m lighting a lamp, I’m taking the broom, I’m sweeping, and I’m looking for my coin. That’s what’s happening when I eat with tax collectors and sinners.” That’s the beginning of the spectacularness of this answer.
I can see on the faces of the Pharisees a big question mark, as they’re thinking, “I don’t get it. What do these two parables about seeking lost sheep and a woman’s coin have to do with it? I don’t get it. Come clean. What’s the story? What does the parable have to do with the defilement of your hands with these people? I don’t get the connection.” I think that’s probably the question mark Jesus sees on their faces, so he comes clean.
In Luke 15:7 he says, “I tell you that it’s the same way in heaven,” that is, it’s the same way as in the parable. They had this neighborhood party. Everybody got together and celebrated, and Jesus says, “In the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” In Luke 15:10 he says the same thing: “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Now, at that moment, I think something happened in the room. I think there was a moment of hushed silence. In that moment of silence, I think Jesus looked around the room, right into people’s faces, because at that moment, something had to happen with that question mark on their face. Two things could have happened. Let’s just take them one at a time.
First, as those Pharisees were listening to this and heard him say, “I’m eating with tax collectors and sinners. It’s like a shepherd finding a sheep and throwing a party. When that happens, heaven, God, and the angels are rejoicing,” some of them had the question mark on their face begin to harden and narrow into a big straight exclamation point of, “No! Nobody can talk like that. Nobody can have the presumption to say that kind of thing right now in this place. This is a Jewish world.”
Or we might say today, “This is a Barnes & Noble world. It’s blasphemy in a Jewish world, and it’s presumption and arrogance in a Barnes & Noble world. Nobody can hint like that, parable or no parable. You can’t talk like that. You can’t start hinting that what happens in heaven is hinging on you’re eating with tax collectors and sinners, that God’s joy is somehow being realized in your joy around this table, in this room, as you receive tax collectors and sinners. And as they come and find fellowship with you, they’re finding fellowship with the Father. And as you receive them, God is receiving them. And as their sins are being forgiven here by you, God is receiving them and forgiving their sins. Nobody talks like that. There’s no way we will let you talk like that.” Ultimately, he was crucified for talking like that. Nobody in a Barnes & Noble world talks like that.
Drawn with Cords of Love
That’s one thing that he saw, but it’s not the only thing that he saw. In fact, I think when he saw that, if not on the outside, I think on the inside, there were tears. It says in Mark in a similar situation, “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). Can you bring those two words together in your life? Having both anger and grief at their hardness of heart. Two things that feel so at odds with each other, but they’re both right. They’re both right to feel. I think he felt them right there, and inside he wept.
At that moment, you know what he was composing in his mind? The parable of the prodigal son. It's longer, more delicate, more emotional, and more receptive. As he walked them through the parable of the prodigal son, he got to the last part, the parable of the elder brother, and showed that was the Pharisee. That’s the way he ended it, and it’s a tragic ending.
But that’s not all he saw in that room. He had just said, “I receive tax collectors and sinners,” and they condemned him for doing that. Then he answers back, “It’s like a shepherd finding sheep and it’s like a woman finding a coin. When they come and we eat together, it’s like a party, and it is a party in heaven. This is happening right now. God is so happy with what’s happening right here.” When he said that, others in the room had worship beginning to rise in their heart. As they realized what was going on here, they began to say, “You are the love of God. You are the outstretched arm of God. You are the crook of the shepherd’s staff in the wilderness. I feel it now around my neck. You are the broad shoulders where I’m beginning to ride on my way home to the flock of God.”
This other group of people is seeing and saying, “I get it. He’s the bridge. He’s the way home. He’s the shepherd. He’s the lamp that the woman lit in her dark and dusty house. He’s the bristles on the broom, on the floor of dirty Barnes & Noble, sweeping around trying to find me, back in the art books where they have naked women.”
He’s there. He was there this week. You’re here this morning, because he was there. Somebody in this room is here this morning because he was there with the bristles on the broom, and you were the dirty little coin peaking at something you weren’t supposed to be peaking at. He was down there sweeping to find you. And you’re here this morning. He found you. I know that you are to meet him today.
We’ve got prayer teams ready to pray with you afterwards, and I would love to talk to you. There are people that God’s been sweeping up this week; people who have the shepherd’s crook around their neck, and it hurts a little bit and their conscience is killing them. They want out of this thing. You’re in this room right now to find out this is not a noose; this is the shepherd’s crook. That’s why you’re here. That’s why he told these parables. There’s more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Come to the Table
Let me close with three brief implications. Those are the two faces. You’re one of those faces this morning. Don’t be the hard face. Don’t be the face that started with the question mark and hardened into a “No” exclamation point. Be the face with rising worship that says, “Now I get it. Jesus came into the world to be God to me. He came into the world to receive me. He came into the world to forgive me, to find me, and to sweep me up out of the dirt and dust of my lost condition.”
Repentance is necessary. Yes, listen to what Luke 15:7 says:
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
That’s the one who turns away from sin, goes to the shepherd, loves him and trusts him, and just gives himself up to him. Isn’t it interesting that the demand for repentance is indirectly shown and the main thing here is the pursuit? It’s the pursuit. Repentance is being wooed, won, and created by Jesus’s behavior. Jesus’s behavior is the way this whole thing got started. He didn’t start with his words. He started with behavior. He came into a house, and for some reason these tax gatherers and these lowlife sinner types flocked to him. He didn’t push them away, or hold his nose, or brush them off. He received them. He ate with them. This is God. This is the gospel. This is the heart of the Father. It is designed to awaken repentance.
If you want to read the kind of thing that he would say to a tax collector or a prostitute, just back up a few verses and read Luke 14:25–33. That was last Sunday night’s message. You don’t need to do that now, but know that his behavior is designed to reach out and embrace sinners and draw them in. And then repentance, feeling the wooing of God, the mercy of God, and the grace of God, recognizes that he’s worth it. He’s worth whatever you’d have to change.
In spite of the majesty, holiness, universal power, and greatness of God he cares individually about you and every single individual that you know, one at a time. In a big church like this, we are prone to begin thinking of significant spiritual activity being evidenced in crowds — if you don’t have a big crowd, God is not as much at work. But parables like this will not let something like that stand. This text says that, if you stayed away this morning to visit a hurting person, you did the right thing. This text says the big gatherings of the 99 are okay and good. I’ll talk more about that in one more point. But here, God in Christ is out reconciling an individual down in Elliot Park right now.
Somebody is probably talking to someone right now down in Elliot Park, getting set up for the sound or whatever we’re going to do down there. If they’re talking to one person then it’s just as important, maybe more important, than what I’m doing right now talking to maybe 700 to 800 people.
You need to feel that. You are one person and Almighty God, who has big business to attend to, who upholds the universe by the word of his power, who guides every electron in every molecule, who raises kings and he puts down kings, who is in charge of that big shindig over in China where all the women are going to get together, cares about one person at a time. When you say, “Oh, I want to be significant. I want my life to count, but I only know one or two unbelievers,” it’s all you need to know to make heaven shake. We’re talking heaven, not a little teeny weeny globe with only 6 billion people on it. We’re talking heaven rejoicing over that visit this afternoon, or over lunch tomorrow. You want to know significance in your life, forget about crowds. Crowds are an ego trip most of the time. It’s people, one at a time, that God is very much taken up with.
What about the worship of the 99? That’s us right now, right? What about the worship of the 99 who are already in the fold? Jesus says there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner out there who repents than over the 99, who don’t need repentance. Does that mean that he does not delight in what we’re doing right now? Does that mean that Jesus is not excited, in heaven right now, about this worship service? or that he’s neutral about it? If the real action is in Elliot Park or wherever else, how does he feel about this?
Here’s my answer to that question: No, he is not indifferent and he’s not neutral; he’s very excited about this meeting right now. Not just because there’s some unbelievers here who were swept into this week’s service by the low, loving, incarnate, pursuing broom of God, but also because this is what the sheep gets rescued for. The only reason anybody is lost is because they’re not doing this. They’re not worshiping. They don’t know the true God. They don’t love the people of God. They don’t fellowship with God and his people. They’re out doing their own thing, writing their own laws, and plummeting towards perdition. The reason God goes after them is so that they can enjoy this fellowship with him called worship. John 4:23 says:
…the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
You can’t say God is indifferent to worship if the very goal of personal evangelism is worship, which it is. However, let’s make sure we say this right. We live in a world where most people do not have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. If, therefore, we get so caught up and fascinated with this little experience of worship on Sunday morning that we don’t have a heart to include them in it at risk and cost to our lives and convenience, you know what? We’re not worshiping the God of Luke 15.
It’s scary to think what he might think of our sacrifices, what they might smell like to him, if that’s the case. The test of the authenticity of Sunday is Monday. I love him. I love the looks on your faces. I love the fellowship of God’s people. I love my work. I love the Bible. I love the gospel. But I could be deceived and a liar. The test is this: Do I love unbelievers? Do I want them to share it? Is it real enough to get me off my can, talking to them with earnestness and yearning? If I can’t and don’t, the big problem is not that there’s some little thing that needs to be fixed here. The big problem is: Who do I love in my worship? What god am I beholding that I can have such a ravished experience of him and let that person go to hell? What kind of worship is that? What kind of god is that? It is not the God of Luke 15.
My closing exhortation is this: For the sake of true worship here and around the world, for the sake of the true worship of God, let us leave the 99, and go eat with tax collectors and sinners this week.
You can just keep your eyes open. I’m going to have some people stand in a minute. A lot of people are going to stand, so don’t think you’re going to be by yourself. I want you to stand just so I can focus prayer for you. You will remember, “I stood on Sunday,” and that will help you this week.
I don’t want everybody to stand. It isn’t an indictment if you don’t stand. It’s a special burden that you feel. God’s been doing something recently to give you a special burden for somebody. For me, I could name the person, but I just want to be delicate. I’ve got a special burden for a couple of people that are lost. I want them to be saved. I want them to be with me in eternity. Now, I want wisdom to know how to press, and how to not press. I need wisdom and I’m going to pray for that.
A lot of you are burdened with this. There’s somebody, maybe a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or whatever. There’s just a special kind of urgency that has been on you that is probably of God, and you would like me to pray with you. We pray for each other that, in the next week or two, this message, this wonderful Christ, would so fill you as to create an opportunity for some good time of testimony and prayer, perhaps. If there’s somebody in your life that you carry a burden like that for, stand up right now, would you?
We’re going to sing here in a minute. I want to just pray for you, and then, when we’re done praying, I’ll have the rest stand. Those who are sitting, pray earnestly. It may be that God will birth in you right now such a burden for somebody. Right here are the people whom God seems to have been giving a special burden to pray toward, and to work toward a sheep that’s out there — a coin that’s in the dirt. There’s a light to be lit. There’s a broom to be swept. I want to pray for you and then the team will sing as we close. You can linger and pray, you can come pray with the prayer teams, or you can head off to the picnic, and just keep going in the Spirit.