I tell you that in the same way [the same as in this parable] there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance . . . (10) In the same way [the same as in this parable] I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
And I can see Jesus looking around on the scribes and Pharisees and on the tax-gatherers and sinners. The moment is hushed. And from face to face he sees something glorious and something terrible—perhaps he sees it happening even in this room right now.
On some faces the question mark begins to harden and narrow into a tight, resistant exclamation point of NO. NO. Nobody can talk like that in a Barnes and Noble world. Nobody—parable or no parable, we can tell what you are saying; we know this presumption and arrogance—nobody can claim what you are claiming. That God Almighty, in you, is seeking and finding his lost sheep. That the Old Testament prophecy of Ezekiel 34 is being fulfilled in you. ("Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken," Ezekiel 34:23–24.) That you are God's promised Messiah. The Savior. That when you receive sinners and they repent, they are part of God's flock—because they're in fellowship with you! That God is seeking them in you and rejoicing over them when they come to you, which is the same thing as coming to him. We know what you are getting at. And we think it's blasphemy (in a Jewish setting), or preposterous and arrogant (in a modern, pluralistic setting).
That's one thing Jesus probably saw on some faces. And it probably made tears come to his eyes as he began his next story—longer, even more heart-felt, and ending with a word to the elder brothers with the hard exclamation points of NO on their faces.
But he saw another kind of face around the room. He's just been condemned: This man receives sinners and eats with them. He has just answered: when I do this, it is like a shepherd seeking and finding a lost sheep and a woman seeking and finding a lost coin. And they have just heard him say that the joyful celebration of the shepherd and the woman is a picture of the joyful celebration of heaven over one of these repentant sinners who is eating with me.
And on some of their faces now Jesus sees the light of worship rising. We hear you. You are the love of God seeking and finding what belongs to God. You are the heart of God. You are the arm of God reaching out. You are the crook of the Shepherd's staff in the wilderness. You are the shoulders of God where the sheep gets carried home. You are the lamp in the woman's house. You are the broom with its bristles in the dirt of our Barnes and Noble floor. And this meal right now, where you receive sinners and eat with us, this is the party, isn't it? Or at least the beginning of the party. And in your receiving us, God is receiving us. And in your joy we see what God is like. He is happy that we have come home. We have seen him. We have seen the Father.
Two kinds of faces in a pluralistic world where Jesus says—with parable and actions—"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6). Which is your face?
Let me close with three brief applications.
Def.: A turning from sin to embrace Christ as God's all-satisfying manifestation—is necessary, but it's God's aggressive initiative in Jesus that brings it about.
Verse 7, "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents . . . " Repentance is in the parable. But what we see at the table is Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them. Jesus is the seeking heart of God going out after sinners and winning our repentance. We must repent. But he has not left us alone in this. He has taken bold initiatives to reach us and change us. This message today and your being here is one of them. It is no accident. God is here in this word and is speaking. And his word is this: come to the table, repent. Open your eyes and see that the banquet of being with Jesus is worth the cost of following Jesus (Luke 14:16–24, 25–33).
In spite of his majesty and holiness and universal power and greatness, he astonishingly cares for individual human beings one at a time.
There was one sheep—out of a hundred—and one coin—out of ten. God has a universe to run and galaxies to uphold and atomic particles to manage and governments to rule in his providence. But there is not much in the Bible that says, all heaven rejoices over orbits of the stars or the rise of kings or a global women's conference in China. It's true that God takes pleasure in all that he does. But Jesus is clearly referring to something special in these parables. When one sinner repents, there is a special joy in heaven. God cares for individuals one at a time.
Finally, consider the worship of the ninety-nine who are already in the fold. Jesus says there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over these ninety-nine. Does this mean that God does not delight in our worship? Does it mean that personal evangelism is a more ultimate goal than worship is?
No. John 4:23 says that the very meaning of evangelism is that God is seeking worshipers. The lost sheep is lost because he worships something more than God. The reason God rejoices so much over the winning of the lost is not because God doesn't have tremendous delight in worship, but because he delights most in the worship of the whole family. If we content ourselves with our limited worship experience, without wanting to include the lost sheep who don't have this joy, then the God we are dealing with in worship is not the God of Luke 15.
Therefore, for the sake of worshiping the one true God for who he really is, we are being called as a church—in a Barnes and Noble world of diversity and pluralism—to leave the ninety-nine and receive sinners and eat with them.