(This is the chapel devotion at the seminary for Monday, September 12, 2016.)
Are we in danger of chasing from Jesus those he rejoices to reach? It’s a sobering question that next Sunday’s gospel (Luke 15:1-10) dares ask us.
Jesus was being judged by those who felt a visceral disgust for the kind of people this would-be Messiah allowed around him. Their grumbling was no compliment: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They’d never dream of associating with tax collectors, prostitutes, or others whose evident sin shamed their lives. If this were God’s Messiah, he’d ask them to chase such people away from him.
Which leads to our question: are we in danger of chasing from Jesus those he rejoices to reach? Are there those who’d never dream of approaching us because they have the distinct impression that we don’t want anything to do with them?
See that twenty-something young man? He’s struggled with same sex attraction since his teens. Confused and uncertain – frequently wrestling with the voice of conscience – he’s stumbled again and again to the temptations of the homosexual lifestyle. Would our disgust over his sin and thundering against “the LGBT agenda” almost guarantee that he would never approach us about his troubled conscience? Are we driving him into the arms of those who sing his conscience to sleep rather than to repentance?
Or see that college educated young professional whose expressed views on all things political place her among those on “the left.” Tolerance is her law – diversity her gospel creed. Yet many of her worldview’s cherished dreams have left her more disillusioned than you would ever know. Would she ever approach you or me? Or does she have the impression that W…E…L…S must be a strange acronym for Fox News, that our churches are only a welcome haven for those holding the Tea Party line? Does she get the distinct impression that she isn’t welcome?
Or see that street-smart teen who’s fought his whole life to gain the façade of respect that comes when one has proved himself tough by clenched fist or gun barrel’s flash. Yet down deep there is a pain he cannot explain or dare to acknowledge. Would he find in you and me someone who seems interested in him, or do we make it painfully clear that we’d rather put safe distance between us and him, securing our wallets as we cross the street? Is he left to conclude: “This isn’t someone interested in me”?
If sinners like those who flocked to Jesus are under the distinct impression that they are not welcome by us, hasn’t something gone terribly wrong? And I’m not talking about the wickedness of their sin – as real as that is. Have we lost sight of what is truly disgusting wickedness!
Let me ask you, is there anything more wicked than to find oneself in direct opposition to God’s greatest delight? Jesus’ parables speak of heavenly joy whenever a sinner is led by the Spirit to turn from sin that burdens consciences to the Savior who unburdens them. And note carefully in the second parable that the emphasis is not on angels rejoicing. It is God who is rejoicing in their presence! God longs to welcome every sinner to himself and to eat with them. God’s hope is to eat with them forever at the wedding feast of the Lamb. In fact, he has prepared for them an honored seat at the table marked “the Bride of Christ.”
When we blanch at the thought of welcoming and eating with those like the ones who gathered near Jesus, aren’t our proud hearts performing the most wicked thing imaginable: setting ourselves squarely against that which is God’s most zealous desire?
It is a powerful temptation to be blind to that wickedness in our hearts. We may have been blessed with an upbringing that God used to keep us from scandalous sins that others may have fallen into. But we turn blessing into curse if we proudly fashion that gracious gift into blinders that block our vision of the equal – though more well-hidden – natural wickedness of our own hearts. Our visceral disgust at the sins of others can be a powerful diagnostic clue to when we are falling prey to that spiritually deadly blindness.
But just as Jesus’ parables patiently sought to show the Pharisees and teachers of the law the arrogant foolishness of their proud hearts, so Jesus still day by day sends his Spirit to put to death that same arrogance as it rises up in our hearts. How in the world will that Spirit ever succeed in teaching us to love the lost as Christ does? He does that by leading us to marvel over and over again that he even welcomes and eats with sinners who have stumbled into arrogantly setting their hearts against his own heart. No matter what wickedness Jesus’ own Spirit reveals to our shamed gaze, our Savior does not recoil in disgust from us. It was for real sinners like you and me that he came. It was for hearts that have arrogantly opposed what is so dear to him that our dear Savior went looking for us all the way to a cross, to hell, and to a grave. And now risen, his goal is to return home rejoicing with us draped around his strong, saving shoulders! And until then, this same Savior often invites us to eat with him at a gracious meal to “strengthen and preserve us in this true faith.”
Do you want to learn from Jesus how to love the lost as he does? Then learn ever anew what a wonder it is to be able to say this each day: This Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with…me!