Psalm 14 starts like this:
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
Whatever Psalm 14 says, I prefer to withhold judgement. Let me tell you a story.
Karen and I used to live in West End, an inner-city suburb of Brisbane. We had a neighbour two doors down, an old Greek man who had come out to Australia to farm the land in central Queensland. As we all know, Australia is a pretty unforgiving place for farmers. This poor man had lost everything through a series of prolonged droughts. He was never able to forgive God for this. He’d been a Greek Orthodox Christian, but after this experience he became an atheist. We used to visit and we’d drink coffee and eat baklava. He loved our visits, because he could talk at length about the God he said he didn’t believe in!
When I listened to him, I was reminded of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. I began to feel that God hadn’t let go of him; and because God hadn’t let go of him, this atheist still had a relationship with God. It was a strange relationship in which he was permanently ticked off with God. He complained as much as Job! I feel he wanted to hear an answer to his questions, one he couldn’t hear, an answer that would restore his faith.
I believed then and I believe now that God had not let him go; and that God would never let go of him.
What authority do I have to say that? I have the authority of three stories Jesus told, three parables that Luke puts together in chapter fifteen of his Gospel. I’m talking about the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son.
These three parables have several things in common. Number one: the figure who stands for God never gives up on the one who is lost.
The third parable, the Parable of the Lost Son, has the most obvious picture of God. We spoke about this parable in Lent, way back in March. Then, we called it the Parable of the Powerless Almighty Father.
The father is the God-figure in the third parable. What does he do? He looked out for his son. He scanned the horizon for signs of the son. When the son was coming home,
while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
The father looks and wait for his son. In his heart, the father has already forgiven his son; he’s just waiting for him to come home.
When we say every week, “You are forgiven!” we mean it. You are forgiven. You are at peace with God. It’s God’s decision! There’s nothing to do but to come home and live as a child of God.
Let’s look at the first parable. Here, the picture of God is the shepherd. When one sheep is missing, the shepherd goes after it, up hill and down dale. He doesn’t rest until he finds it. The other ninety nine might grumble and suggest it’s the wandering sheep’s own fault and the shepherd should stay and look after them, but the shepherd seeks the lost sheep until it is found.
The picture of God in the second parable is the woman. She realises a coin is missing and so she lights a lamp in her small, dark peasant house and she diligently sweeps and sweeps the dirt floor topped with rushes until it is found. No easy task this, it’s not a matter of switching on the electric light and getting out the Dyson.
That’s the first thing the three parables have in common: the figure who stands for God never gives up on the lost. God never gives up on you and me. God never gives up on those people we may have given up on.
Sometimes, these people are friends; they may be family. God never gives up.
The second thing these three parables have in common is rejoicing. When the sheep is brought home, when the coin is found, the shepherd and the woman are so excited they call their friends and neighbours together. When the son comes home, the father has the fatted calf made ready for a party.
We bring joy to the heart of God when we come home. And God wants us to share that joy.
To come home is to ‘repent’, which means to change our mind, to change the way we look at things. God rejoices when we repent and begin to think and live as children of God. We live in a cynical age, and often when a public figure changes their mind on something we want to know what’s in it for them. While we’re being cynical, God may be rejoicing.
Have we lost the simplicity of mind and heart that allows us to rejoice?
The third thing these parables have in common is that the one who pictures God for us—the shepherd, the woman, the father—are all flawed figures in the eyes of respectable people. But God doesn’t care about that. God doesn’t care about that because the supreme image we have of God and God’s love for us is Jesus on the cross of shame.
What’s wrong with the shepherd, the woman and the father? Why are they flawed images of God? Let’s see.
Firstly, God is like the shepherd who looks for the lost sheep. What’s wrong with that? We like shepherds; they remind us of cute woolly lambs and children with tea towels on their heads at the Christmas pageant.
Yet in the days of Jesus, shepherds had a very bad press:
Shepherding…eventually forfeited its social acceptability. Some shepherds earned their poor reputations, but others became victims of a cruel stereotype. The religious leaders maligned the shepherd’s good name; rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains.
The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, also reflects this prejudice, referring to shepherds in belittling terms. One passage describes them as “incompetent”; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit.
Jeremias documents the fact that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights. They could not fulfil judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses.
He wrote, “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.”
To call God a shepherd was offensive. But Jesus does.
God is like the woman who searches for her coin. What’s wrong with that? Well, we all know that women were at the bottom of the social heap back then. So of course Jesus’ hearers would be shocked.
But today we all agree that women and men are equal, don’t we?—so remember that next time someone makes a ‘jokey’ remark about women drivers. Or next time you are made aware of the pay gap between men and women. Or when you hear about domestic violence statistics.
We may agree that women and men are equal, but if we try to speak of God in feminine images or in maternal terms, some Christians are still shocked.
Friends, we call God ‘Father’, but God isn’t a boy. As Father, God is the origin of all things that exist. As Mother, God cares for and fiercely protects her little ones. There are many verses in the Old and New Testaments that speak of God in motherly terms. Let two suffice:
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you…
I will fall on them like a bear robbed
of her cubs,
and will tear open the covering
of their heart…
God is like a Mother cares for and fiercely protects her little ones. It was shocking to liken God to a woman in the first century. And it still can be. So let’s catch up with the Bible on that one.
But why on earth was it disrespectful to call God a father in the third parable?
It was because this particular father has no dignity, no honour. He gives his son his inheritance while he’s still alive . He watches for him to come home. He runs to him—that was something a man of honour just did not do! He throws a party for him, and doesn’t even consult with the older brother.
To Jesus’ listeners, this was a very poor father. But this father pictures God for us.
Let me introduce you to one of my favourite quotations. I think Wow! every time I am reminded of it. It comes from Michael Ramsey, who was the hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974. He said this:
God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.
“God is Christlike.” Most ordinary Aussies don’t expect to hear that. They might expect to hear Christ is godlike, or some such thing. But no!—God is Christlike. This means that if we want to know God, we get acquainted with Jesus. If we look at Jesus Christ, we see the face of God. Jesus is God’s explanation of himself.
God is Christlike, and the Christlike God is a surprise to believers and unbelievers alike.
Jesus Christ came to seek and to save the lost; that’s what he says in Luke 19.10. So a Christlike God seeks and saves the lost, careless of his dignity. A Christlike church does too!
That is why I can say that God never let go of my old Greek neighbour. God loves the lost. God sits with them in the mess of their lives. God throws a party when they come home.
My old neighbour is dead now. I like to think that there was a party waiting for him when he went home to God.
Jesus told these stories for one reason:
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
God wouldn’t do that, they say! Oh yes, God would. A Christlike God does precisely that.
Outcasts and sinners are attracted to a Christlike God, a God who never gives up on them. Do we attract people who are on the outer edges of respectable society? Jesus did. A Christlike God does. A Christlike church can. Do we?
We can as long as we return and return again to the God who came to us in Jesus. We can be a church that welcomes people whoever they are. A church that rejoices with others when they take a step of faith. A church that goes out of its way for others. A Christlike church for a Christlike God.