Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity – June 17, 2018
“Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”
HAVE YOU EVER gotten yourself good and lost? Maybe in the mountains, on a thickly forested hillside, taking a short cut or making a passage over some rise to get to the valley beyond, and then there is no valley, and you’re in the wrong place and can’t see far. You cry out and no one returns the call. You double back, try to retrace your steps, but the terrain is different and you’ve lost your sense of direction. Now you don’t know if it’s left or right, or straight-ahead. Just about now you break out of the trees and come to the sudden drop of a cliff.
Lost. A little kid in a crowded shopping center has lost sight of his mother. Lost. You’ve planned a rendezvous with someone you love and instead find a note that says it’s over, please don’t call, have a nice life. Lost. You fly back from a long and unsuccessful trip where you’d hoped to settle in a new place, but everything went badly and they’re all mad at you now, and no one here is talking to you, ashamed that you’d made such a mess of it, disappointing everyone and bringing shame on yourself and the family. Don’t bother to call for help. Lost.
I’ve studied the cults and how they operate. We used to marvel at the Moonies who approached us at the airports, extending pretty flowers toward us and offering us a little pamphlet about the Unification Church and a Korean prophet. The glassy look in their eyes said that we couldn’t reach them even with a polite argument, and they’d have a pat answer for it anyway. The cult member often loses their ability to reason to the cult leadership and is lost to the rest of us because of that. How do they get that way?
People on a mission to acquire devotes to such a religion look for the lost among us. They look for people who’ve been weakened by loss, cut out of relationships, alienated from their own people so that they desperately need friends. The kind cultists invite that person to the house, serve her dinner, tell her nice things about herself and appear very beautiful and loving to her. We accept you. We want you. You’re welcome to come back tomorrow; we’ll pick you up. As the victim is being love-bombed by the members, they begin to hint at the hidden teachings and the secret language of the group. Words that mean one thing in the world are used for other things, crazy things, things that sound like wisdom but make the brain spin. Her logical mind is challenged.
Then she meets the leader. He’s been away, but has heard all about her. He seems enthusiastic about her many gifts and her interest in their way. He plies her with attention and uses the magic words, the lingo of the cult, seeming to invite her to join in this new way of speaking and believing.
Words have both creative and destructive powers beyond anything we know. Stick and stones aside, words can indeed hurt you. Hearing lies incessantly can distort your worldview and make you think in ways that are false. But you believe them. Hearing lies and having them couched in strange but provocative language poses the mind with a question: I don’t believe their conclusions about some things, but I love these people and they love me. I won’t be a part of this until I appear to believe it as well. If I use the lingo, I can be accepted. But my mind rebels at the meaning that lies under those words.
Then the victim breaks through the barrier, she begins to use the cult language, though her mind is telling her to stop, and she chooses. She decides to disbelieve her own mind and believe the source of all that love. She switches off her discerning mind and repeats the lingo, and as they all rejoice in her new faith, she realizes that she believes it as well.
Lost. There are millions of ways to get lost. The fact is, even in a world where you once always remembered the way home, knew your telephone number by heart, and your social security number, your wife’s birthday, and the names of your friends and neighbors: the way to heaven was a mythological uncertainty, and ideas about God rather sketchy, at best. If there was a God, He hadn’t been performing very admirably lately, not in your life, and you weren’t too comfortable having Him look too closely at you anyway. Better just to let that whole side of things drop. Lost.
We see lost people every day, in the stores, on the street, at school, in the workplace, even at home. It’s a common condition, and we easily see the more extreme examples of lost sheep: drug addicted, living out of trash cans, or in the other hand, racing from one plane to another, cellphone in hand, cursing and making deals while cutting in line and getting elite service without any word of thanks. Can we reach those we see who are truly lost? Lost and they don’t know it? Lost, but seem to have a reason for doing what they do and living how they’re living? The down and out person may be willing to hear you, but the jet setter: how is he going to take the time to listen to your religious speech? And he’s as lost as anyone gets.
There’s a place in any institution where the things people leave behind them end up. It’s a locker or a box at the front desk, a shelf behind the front counter marked “Lost and Found.” Like the contents of a pawnshop, where you got money for your old guitar and a pawn ticket with a date on it. By that date, you have to return the money with a little more, with the ticket, and you’ll get your guitar back. Go past that date, and the instrument goes on sale to the general public: it belongs to the pawnbroker now and it’s a cash sale. That guitar is lost to you.
Our souls have been more than just lost in the woods, or betrayed to a cult leader. They were sold for very little, on the basis of a lie, and they didn’t belong to us anymore. The pawn ticket quoted a price none of us could pay, and the day is fast approaching when the broker would just put our souls in the pawnshop window, for sale, cheap.
Jesus taught that: “Those who want to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for me will find them. What good will it do for people to win the whole world and lose their souls? Or what will a person give in exchange for soul?” Mat 16:25-26 To lose your soul by trying to save it: what does that mean? And losing your life in order to save it: it sounds crazy. Is this cultic language? Are we being fed lingo?
The language of today’s popular science urges you to adopt its words and beliefs about the origins of human beings. We arose with all other life forms out of a common soup of amino acids and protein strands, forming, as by magic, over time into the complexities of life. You see what is missing in this formula for life? The magician who makes the chemicals live, the bright star that shines into the primordial sludge and gets the unborn protoplasm to wiggle and eat surrounding stuff. The lingo of Darwinian thought insists that we talk of evolution as a magic force innate in matter that tends to make itself better by itself until single cells become complex cell communities and finally people rise out of the jungle, no longer lost, but finding themselves at last. Carl Sagan speaks of statistical obstacles of humans rising out of mud, by themselves, over eons, as though the astronomically vast number were only just interesting instead of an airtight case against his godless universe. The powers of ten against such a life source crushes his argument, but he is simply mystified.
But if it’s not a godless universe, the only logical conclusion we may draw is that, since life exists, therefore God made us live. And if this life was all we had, it’s pretty unfair and our God is playing with us a very cruel game. But we look for Him in our history and we find Him the central figure of human history. And He says there is another life. It’s a life starting right here, and we’re born into it anew. That life never ends and when these bodies look dead to the ones remaining here, our souls are alive still and full of joy and knowledge of Him we never knew on earth.
Now, both assertions sound nutty. They do actually. But as glossy and intelligent as the materialist view of life may look to us, the more we find out about the design of life, the intricacies of it all, the less this looks like an accident and the more it looks like the creation of a Great Mind. So, it’s God, I guess. And God says there is meaning to life and a meaning that transcends this life. We’re not crazy. We’re not in the cult. We may stand and recite the creed, but if you don’t, but just sit there, you’re still always welcome. We will love you anyway. I’m not a cult leader and I don’t want to control your life. You are no longer lost. Your pawn ticket was purchased out of the scaly hand of a very wicked being, and paid for with the blood of the Savior.
There is a day coming when all this will appear to all eyes, wide open. Jesus continued in speaking of the soul, “The Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory. Then he will pay back each person based on what that person has done.” Mat 16:27 The Son of Man is Jesus Christ, already killed and risen again, now glorified and astride a warhorse, coming to claim His own out of this world and to set things finally right. The pawnbroker, the cult leader, the liars of this world and those who lead people away from their Maker, will face their worst nightmare. I don’t know if they will, even then, be offered a chance to recant, but no one will enter His kingdom except those who acclaim Him as their King. Many never will.
And how did He come to such power? We’re back to trees. A thick forest may get you lost for a time. But a single tree was all it took to get us all lost for centuries and longer. One tree stood in that original world and it was the only test of humankind’s love. If we loved God, we would obey a command that we didn’t understand. Why not eat the fruit of that tree? With that thought already in their minds, most probably, the pawnbroker whispered to them, “Why not eat the fruit of that tree? You won’t die. God lied to you. If you eat it, your eyes will be opened to good and evil and you will be gods.” The first cult leader, uttering his own magic words, in couched meanings and redefined reality. “Just act on it, and you’re mine.” The pawn ticket for our souls was issued, and the price that was required: “the blood of a perfect man.”
It was a tree again that everyone dreaded, and it was a manmade tree this time, invented to torture and kill its victims. A tree that brings death, once more. But the blood of a perfect man was required, for all souls, and “Jesus took the tree of death so we could have the tree of life.” Tim Keller Billy Graham once wrote, “God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’”
Language can lead us to truth. Without words, our sense of truth can follow lines of survival, getting the food we need, the pleasures we seek, security without community. But people live in order to love and in community, we need a common language. And like treasures found in unlikely places, we find ideas in words strung together and meanings that are true. Say the word “God” and you’ve said volumes. St. John particularly understood this, and called God’s Son, “the Word.” As a simple word spoken by Him created just what it described, in the biblical creation, that word gave life to dead earth. The missing magician, lightning bolt, acid rain or whatever else science conjures up to make happen what just will not happen in a thousand laboratories, we believe is simply the right word spoken by the right Person, the Logos, the Word, who said to the mud, “Live!”
Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, wrote: “Jesus Christ did not come into this world to make bad people good; He came into this world to make dead people live.” In more challenging words, C. S. Lewis wrote that, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” St. Augustine was even braver, saying simply that “God became man so that man might become God.” Now we’ve really challenged our minds. Knowing Augustine, I know that we never become God the Father, Son or Spirit, but we take His nature into us, He lives in us, and we in Him, and we become perfected, pure, holy and sinless as He is.
This world spins on its axis and hurls into space at frightening speed, held in orbit by a star that will not burn forever, through a vacuum deadlier than any poisonous gas. Always in motion, hurtling into uncharted darkness, are we lost in space, aliens without a passport, figures of people standing like trees, blinding our way, getting us lost? No. We have been found, and paid for, and washed clean, and made new. As we used to be, we now no longer live, for we too have died to the old lost life. He lives in us. We will live forever. The lost sheep is found. The shepherd rejoices. Wherever we go, we are home. And when this life is over, it’s only just begun.