God's love pursues and transforms.

WELCOME!  We are celebrating Back to Church Sunday because so many people drift away from church for a lot of reasons and circumstances. We are thrilled you are here.

Or maybe you haven’t been part of a church before.  From the outside it may seem like we are a kind of a holy club that you’ve got to meet qualifications to join. Even if that may be true in some places, it’s actually backwards from what we are meant to be as Jesus’ Church, as we can see in today’s Gospel (Luke 15:1-10)

God’s love pursues.

A key to today’s Gospel is in the very first sentence. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” Why are they coming? Because they are outcasts.  People wracked by their own sin and/or the sin committed against them by others hear that Jesus is preaching about God’s Kingdom, forgiving sins, healing people and saving lives – not just from death but for living a good, meaningful life.

If you hear nothing else today, if you never set foot in this sanctuary again, please hear this:  The hand of God is upon you.  You don’t have to have it all right to be here.  None of us do.  Just draw near to listen to Jesus.  Maybe someone invited you today and handed you one of our cards. Maybe someone hung a door hanger on your front door. Maybe you just wanted to visit. Maybe you’ve attended this church for years, or most or all of your life.

By whatever means, you made the decision to come here and that means closer to Jesus, because he is here.  His message for you today is to make it absolutely clear and certain that you know that he will ever pursue you.  Like a shepherd looking for his lost sheep.  Like a poor widow searching for her lost coin.  Like a mother or father searching for a lost child.

God’s love transforms.

When those tax collectors and sinners come to listen to Jesus, they have made a very important decision, they have made a very important turn toward hope, toward change, toward transformation.  It’s absolutely miserable to be an outcast, so that when you show up, people start grumbling. No one sane wants to be an outcast, not really. Even if they think they want it, it’s because they have no idea what real love and community is or that they don’t believe they ever could have it.

Jesus says that “…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” That word repentance means to turn back, to turn back from the sinning, from rebelling against God.

And the thing is, that’s us.  All of us.  We are all sinners in need of repentance and grace, in need of healing and reconciliation, in need of restoration and encouragement.

Once we make that decision to draw near to listen to Jesus and the transformation starts working in our hearts, it changes us, changes our families, changes our communities and changes the entire world.

The Apostle Paul is a prime example. He writes Timothy that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor of Christ and violently so. He says he was the foremost sinner. The worst! Jesus saw past all of that, confronted him and made him the greatest evangelist the Church has ever known. Paul’s evangelism for Jesus Christ helped establish the Church and has thus changed the world in immeasurable ways. Here are a few examples:

Do you believe in medicine and health care? After this sermon, we will pray the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief in Jesus first articulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD.  Did you know that at that same council, they decided that wherever churches were built a hospital must be built as well?  This is a direct extension of the healing ministry Jesus shared with his first disciples.  Today the church is the largest provider of health care in the world.  The whole notion of public health grew out of the church.

Do you believe in education?  You may know that the first book printed with moveable type was the Gutenberg Bible in 1455.  That touched off a massive boom in literacy and education.  The whole idea of colleges and universities began in the Church, in monasteries, beginning with the oldest – Oxford University in England.  The pursuit of knowledge and truth is the pursuit of God – for God is truth. 100 of the first 110 universities in the United States were founded by churches, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

It was under the mantle of Christianity that science itself emerged; Alchemy became chemistry; Astrology became astronomy. The great works of early Greek thinkers in math, physics and philosophy were preserved and explored by monks of the church.  The church pressed for public education in this nation and remains the primary provider of education in many countries around the world.

Jesus has inspired much of the world’s greatest art, from music to painting to sculpture to literature, dedicated to the glory of God.  Human rights, unalienable rights, are rooted in Jesus’ teaching and demonstrating love for the poor, the forgotten, “the least of these.”  The Red Cross, Salvation Army, YMCA, YWCA and Alcoholics Anonymous were all started by churches.

While the church has failed Jesus in so many ways, and sometimes spectacularly bad ways, there is no question that humanity is profoundly better off today because of the influence of Jesus Christ through his Church.  And those are just the visible signs of his grace.

Beyond measure is the saving of hearts and souls, the power of forgiveness, of restoration, of resurrection that billions bear witness to every day.  The church has never grown faster than it is growing now all around the world. All of that from an itinerant rabbi whose ministry was all conducted within 100 miles of his home town and probably lasted less than three years.

If Jesus could accomplish all that through Paul, who by his own admission was the worst, surely he can do something worthwhile through us.

And he does. The Church of the Good Shepherd is a warm, loving community that truly enjoys being together and actively cares for one another.  We have dozens of people involved in prayer, pastoral care and healing ministries. We see Jesus in the faces of the people we serve in our Thrift Shop, the children, teachers and staff we serve at Polk Avenue Elementary, the people we serve through the Care Center, the prisoners our Kairos teams visit and the people we serve in Honduras.  We see him in the people we visit who are sick or recovering from surgery or in a nursing home or under hospice care. It’s not just us. We are one of dozens of Christian churches in this community. We have different traditions and perspectives, but we are all under the mantle of Jesus Christ.

All of it is because we have drawn near to listen to Jesus. 

Our relationship with God remains a choice.

God’s love for you has no end, no limits.  And just as he has made extraordinary changes in this world for the better, he can and will do the same for you.  But as with any relationship, it’s a choice. You chose to be here this morning. God would not have stopped you from going fishing or golfing or watching TV.

We all are writing our stories and we get to be the heroes in our stories. God invites us to receive him as our guide, our goal, and our end.

I made that choice for Jesus a long time ago and I need to make it every day. I have a long way to go, but I am on my way – His way.  It comes with a price that he paid with his own blood on the cross.  It comes with his command to repent.

You probably are not as spiritually bad off as I was.  You may be a lot better off than I am.  But I know there are people here this morning who are curious, wondering if Jesus is truly alive, if he truly cares, if he can truly make a difference in their lives.  So if you would please bow your heads and pray with me. Allow those who need to pray to do so, out loud or in the silence of your own mind.  Doesn’t matter.  God hears us. Remember Jesus said, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

Lord Jesus, thank you for loving me.  Thank you for calling me home today.

I’m sorry for the ways I’ve been away from you, for the ways I have not lived and the ways I have lived.  I am a sinner in need of a savior.  Please forgive me.

Thank you for dying on the cross for me so that I could be forgiven and set free.

I have drawn near to you today. You have found me today.  Do not let me go.

I want to follow you from this moment forward.

Fill me with your Holy Spirit.  I now receive that gift.

Please come into my life by your Holy Spirit to be with me forever.

Thank you, Lord Jesus.

The remainder of this service will follow that prayer.  We will say some prayers, confess our sin, then come to his table to receive him through the bread and the wine, to take him inside to continue the work he has begun in us.  We will thank him and carry him out into the world.

He makes all the difference.  Welcome home.