The very sound of it feels good to me.
Optimism … it’ll be okay … we’ve got hard work ahead of us, but we’ll make … just wait and see … we’ll make it … things will work out.
Who are the most optimistic people in the world?
Mystery Writers …
The crime is always solved …
The miscreant is punished …
Things get put back together …
New love is found …
Life goes on …
All is right, once again!
Until the next book, of course, and the next crime, and then we’ll start all over again …
Mystery Writers are optimistic to the core.
So are Duct Tape users … think of it … get that role of tape, and there’s nothin’ that can’t be fixed with Duct Tape - falling plaster, cracked fenders, broken cupboards, and leaking pipes.
Another class of optimistic people - rodeo clowns … they can take it, no matter the bull …
And before this gets any worse, let’s press on …
When it comes to optimism, the Gospel Writers are on top of my list … Matthew, Mark, Luke and John … so are Paul and Peter and James and even the odd-ball writer of the Book of Revelation …
The lost are found … God wins … love prevails … thick and thin, sick and sin … the world is never easy, but God’s grace is greater … stones are rolled away … life begins anew.
The three parables this morning define the work of Jesus, and define the God whom Jesus serves … God in search of the lost … a shepherd, a widow, and the waiting father.
I love these stories … they give me hope …
The first two parables are wonderfully Presbyterian … if I may say so … a God who doesn’t wait around for the lost sheep to find its way back to the flock, or the lost coin to suddenly appear.
And please note the sliding scale of value in these three parables … Luke arranges the materially carefully … one sheep out of a hundred - a loss that could be written off … one silver coin out of ten - a wee bit more serious … and a son who abandons his family for bad living - and suddenly the audience grows quiet; a level of pain and loss that breaks the heart.
The point is clear: nothing is written off by God … nothing … and no one!
And note the strategy … how does God work? For the sheep, for the coin, God is the seeker … with the boy, God wait, to let time run its course.
As for the shepherd, pushing through the brambles, climbing into dark canyons, skinning knees, bruising knuckles, until the lost sheep is found, and even then, the sheep is too tired to walk beside the shepherd, so the shepherd shoulders the sheep … tired the shepherd was by this time - bone tired, tired to the core … but with the last ounce of strength, shoulders the sheep and carries it back to the flock …
Psalm 23 …
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
A few weeks back, Scott reminded us that it doesn’t depend upon us entirely … this business of life and salvation and hope …
Psalm 23 makes it clear: the shepherd does the heavy lifting … in the great mystery of life … when darkness comes upon us … when hope takes flight … when all seems lost, the hand of God, the voice of the Good Shepherd … “be not afraid” … “I am with you” … “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
One of the great spiritual teachers of the 16th Century, St. John of the Cross, wrote his famous work, The Dark Night of the Soul, for young monks who entered the monastery in the flush of spiritual joy, only to find their joy disappearing after a year or two … sort of like the new car, or new job, we got last year.
St. John of the Cross speaks not of defeat or loss, but getting ready for something better …
He reminds the young monk that the early phases of spirituality are mostly immature and sensual … all about experience … the quiver of the heart, the overwhelming sense of God’s presence, spiritual gifts, easy prayer, simple platitudes … but all of this is just the beginning … and needs to replaced with deeper realities, higher truths … stuff a bit tougher, more durable.
In the transition, the young monk wonders what has gone wrong.
St. John suggests that the Dark Night of the Soul is when God is doing God’s best work … God has to obscure the work from us, like a sculptor might shroud a statue … until it’s finished.
St. John reminds the young monk that if God were to make plain to us what God was doing, we’d rush in and muck it all up with our many suggestions, guidelines, needs and wants … God could never finish the great work, because we’d be meddling and fussing and fixing everything all the time.
So when God goes to work in the deep places of life, it’s out of sight for a while … maybe a long time … even years … until the time is right, and the work is done … the shroud is pulled back … we exclaim with surprise:
Oh my God … that’s what you were up to!
I had no idea.
I thought I was alone.
That you had left me.
That I was lost and gone, forever.
But you found me before I knew it.
You loved me before I loved you.
You have always cared for me.
No matter what.
And have always been my companion.
Even when I knew not.
“The good work that God began God will finish” says Paul the Apostle … and if ever there were anyone well-qualified to speak of God finishing the work, it was Paul.
A self-righteous man, full of himself, bent on weeding out the Christian heresy … willing to put others to death in order to protect his personal vision of what faith and god and religion were all about.
And then on that fateful Damascus Road, boom!
Paul is blinded by the light … a metaphor of his spiritual life … blind as bat, blinded by his own pride and power … blind to the truth of love … blind to what God is really doing …
This man, who was willing and eager to lead others off in chains, now has to be led away by the hands of others …
And when Paul finally grew up a little bit, he understood the power and the glory of God finishing the great work of grace
“Yes,” says Paul, “ask me about grace.”
“Ask me how God finishes the great work.”
God is no quitter … God is relentless … when things get lost, God goes to work …
The second parable:
A lady of means … ten silver coins … no small amount … one is missing … somewhere in the house … she pulls back the carpet, moves the furniture … lights a lamp, sweeps the floor, searching, searching … where is it? … I’ll not give up, I’ll not write it off … I’ll keep on looking until I find it …
And find it she does … and calls her friends and neighbors, throws a party … spends the lost coin on food and drink, and probably spends a few more coins, to boot …
And, then, one of the greatest of all stories …
The father of two sons … the younger says, “Dad, I gotta get out of here, and I want my inheritance now.” Some commentators have suggested that the boy was saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead, so I can get my share of the estate now.”
I don’t think so … I think the boy just didn’t want to be a farmer, and he probably didn’t like his older brother, and the older brother probably didn’t like him either.
The father consents - maybe he’s tired of all the squabbling and bickering … we might call him foolish for that, I don’t know … perhaps he should have put his foot down, or simply turned the boy out … but the father consents, and gives the boy what he whats … so the boy goes off to a far country, something he’s dreamed about, I’m sure … adventure, strange food, wild nights (maybe I’ll be discovered in Hollywood and given a starring role), and there in that far country, the boy spends everything he has, until he’s flat out broke and hungry, his “friends” gone … so he does the only thing he knows, he goes back to farming, raising pigs … so hungry, he eats their slop.
Does the boy repent?
No, he’s just hungry, and his clothes are falling apart …
So, he says to himself, What am I doing here?
He heads back home, rehearsing his apology, and still a long way off, the father sees him, because the father went out most every day, to scan the road for travelers … hoping, waiting, wondering, Will I see my boy again?
And one day, there’s the boy - the father can recognize the cast of the body, the way the boy walks, a mile away - ragged and smelling of pigs … and before the boy can finish his apology, the father is shouting for fresh clothes, “Bring me a ring and some sandals … and get him some food … get us all some food … butcher the fatted calf … no sense saving it for another day; now’s the day, now’s the time … m’boy is home; I thought he was gone, gone forever, but he came home, and I don’t care how or why … we’re gonna throw a party.”
Well, there ya’ have it … three stories … a trinity of hope … the lost sheep, a missing coin, and a foolish young man.
Love wins … God wins … and so do we.
God behind it, God within it … at work in all things for good …
The lost are found.
Amen and Amen!