By Hook or By Crook (Luke 15:1-10)
Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation today comes from our Gospel lesson, especially where Luke records, “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

I’ve told this story before, but I think the day befits it. It was 21 years ago today that the world changed drastically and, arguably, forever. A truly unprecedented terrorist attack on our nation: two jetliners, American Flight 11 and United Flight 175, slammed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; American Flight 77 was driven into the U.S. Pentagon building; and United Flight 93, likely originally intended to strike the U.S. Capitol Building, was downed in Pennsylvania after the passengers retook control of the aircraft from the terrorist hijackers. Little less than a decade later, the mastermind behind the whole operation, Osama bin Laden, was killed in a U.S. Navy SEAL raid. I shared the general sentiment of elation felt around the nation at the time: justice had finally been served, the monster was slain, a major victory for the U.S., especially those serving in our military. That elation, for me anyway, was subdued when I saw a friend’s Facebook post: “Bin Ladin is dead. Unfortunately, many of us are happy about it. Was he saved? Then should we be happy?”

It’s true; his actions were reprehensible, inexcusable, and downright evil. But—and this may make you feel quite uncomfortable—the reality is that our Lord Jesus … loved Osama bin Laden … and not only loved him, died for him. Nothing would have made our Lord happier if, while still alive, this murderous, sinful brute had repented – yes, repented of the actions he took that led to countless deaths, but also for his idolatry, worshipping the false god of Islam. Jesus still loved him. Still died for him, even though he rejected the true Lord of creation. Here’s what we need to ask ourselves: do we really think that we’re any better? We’ve all got a little Jim Jones, a Caligula, a Hitler, or a bin Laden dwelling within us, because we’ve all got the Old Adam dwelling within us.

No human being, conceived naturally, is exempt from this; with David, we all rightly declare, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We are sinners, all of us, and that makes the bewilderment of the Pharisees and the scribes in our Gospel lesson … very interesting. Out of a very misguided view of the law, they thought themselves to be less sinful than those around them, if not sinless. That ridiculous notion is bad enough, but they took it further by taking some pleasure in knowing there were sinners around them far worse than they were. They viewed these sinners as a blight upon society, a drain – perhaps even the reason why the Lord was punishing them through the use of Roman oppression. Sinners were to be reviled and rebuffed; being charitable, maybe they thought their indifference and disdain would move them to change their ways. This is why they were so perplexed, perhaps even annoyed, with Jesus: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”

They thought themselves sinless, and thus superior to the sinners with whom Jesus associated, but the truth is, as members of the human race, they too were miserable sinners, and they also needed to repent. To illustrate, Jesus tells three parables; our text gives us the first two, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, and we’ll be focusing on the first. 

“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.” There were ninety-nine other sheep; why is the one who foolishly wandered off so important? For all we know the dumb thing’s wandered off a cliff, or got snatched up by a pack of wolves, or stolen by another shepherd. That sheep … is a lost cause, and to leave the ones that stuck around in order to pursue this lost cause is reckless, to say the least!

The Shepherd may seem reckless to abandon the 99 “good” sheep (all of whom are just as apt to stray), but His love and care for His sheep is such that He is willing to lose everything to find that one and bring it back. He pursues it relentlessly, seeking it, calling it out by name, urging it to return – to repent. He is willing to risk it all in order to save that one sheep who’s put himself in danger.

You don’t need a master’s degree in theology to understand this parable. The stupid sheep that wanders off … that’s us. That’s all humanity. Isaiah tells us, “All we, like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way ….” We aren’t any better than the bin Ladens or the Kims or the Stalins of the world. We all wander. We are all utterly helpless, unable to save ourselves – as Luther himself wrote, “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him…” Our situation is desperate, no doubt about it … but it is not lost.

No, you’ve got a very Good Shepherd, who laid aside everything, His glory and comfort to relentlessly pursue you. He calls you by name, lays you upon His shoulders, and invites one and all to celebrate with Him, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” We stray much, we wander much, we sin much, but our Shepherd pursues us much, because we are of infinite worth to Him. To our Lord Jesus, we are worth shedding holy, precious, perfect, godly blood for, and that’s exactly what He did. Our Good Shepherd … laid down His life for His sheep …  His blood was shed for all sinful mankind – whether we esteem them as vile offenders or not, whether they heed or ignore the call of their Shepherd.

I started this sermon with the example of Osama bin Laden, lamenting how he did not repent of his evil. Compare his case with that of Wilhelm Keitel, a man raised Lutheran but led astray by the propaganda of the Nazi war machine and became the chief of the Third Reich’s armed forces. After the war, as he sat in jail during the Nuremberg trials, a compassionate Lutheran pastor and Army chaplain named Henry Gerecke showed him the error of his ways. Keitel was so moved, that he repented, weeping openly for the evil he had committed, the countless destroyed under his direction. So convinced was Chaplain Gerecke of the sincerity of Keitel’s repentance, he felt it appropriate and necessary to give the German field marshal the Lord’s Supper. Yes, he went to the gallows to pay for the crimes he had committed, but Keitel also knew that his sins, however horrendous, were atoned for by the blood-payment of his Savior, Jesus. Yes, the most twisted, debased, wicked behavior ever seen on the face of this planet was paid for in full by the innocent suffering and death of our beloved Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His blood covers it all, and whenever a sinner repents, regardless of the offense, the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven rejoice! The Shepherd pursued His lost sheep, He found His lost sheep, and He brought home His lost sheep, by hook or by crook!

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.