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The searching widow - Luke 15:8-10

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 29th September 2019.

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~~The Long Search
The Searching Woman
  Luke 15: 8-10

The church minister was resting in his allocated seat minding his own business when a tall, beautifully tanned blond woman came scurrying down the aisle puffing and panting - she had almost missed the plane. As she more or less fell into her seat beside him, she blurted out: ‘I hate to fly. I put off getting here as long as I can.’ And she really did hate to fly. The minister was soon to discover that the way she coped with her fear of flying was by excessive talking. ‘I’m going home to meet my Dad.’ She enthused, ‘He’ll be amazed at my tan. And I’ve got this new boyfriend, he’s from Lebanon. He travels a lot though, so I only see him at weekends, which is fine by me because it gives me the house to myself. It isn’t far from the beach and………’ on and on she rambled.

Now the minister had learnt over the years what to do whenever a friendly, attractive woman sits beside him. At the earliest opportunity he reveals his status and his profession. So he interjected as soon as she paused for breath, ‘Yes, my wife hates flying too, so I know how you feel.’ And then he quickly added, ‘And since I’m a minister, I know a part of the Bible you might like to read as we take off.’ And so he turned to the 23rd Psalm. He had discovered that such an approach was usually met with one of two responses. Stony silence or some sort of contact. For this woman it was contact. ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ she smiled; ‘I remember this from when I was a kid.’ But then a tear began to form in her eye. ‘It’s been a long time’ she mused wistfully, ‘a very long time.’ She then went on to tell the minister how she believed…once. She became a Christian, she said, when she was young, but she couldn’t remember the last time she went to church. Perhaps it was a few Christmases ago. So they talked about faith and the God who gives second chances. Then the minister paused and said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ ‘Yes, sure’ she replied, ‘go ahead.’ ‘Do you believe in heaven?’ ‘Why yeah.’ ‘Do you believe that one day you will go there?’ She looked away for a moment and then turned and with a firm confidence replied, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I will be in heaven.’ ‘How do you know?’ the minister asked. ‘How do I know?’ she said. She then grew quiet as she started to put together some sort of response in her mind. But the minister knew what she was going to say even before she opened her mouth. ‘Well, I’m basically good. I don’t smoke more than a pack of cigarettes a day. I exercise. I’m dependable at work. I made my boyfriend get tested for AIDS’ (As if that was bound to impress the clergyman) and off she went counting each achievement on each beautifully manicured digit until there were no fingers left. Do you see what kind of thinking she was buying into? It was the idea that by keeping a list on earth she could ensure a place in heaven. Even with those who are not so sure that there is a God, the one thing they are sure of is that if God does exist then this is the basis on which he will relate to us- a list.

Well there was a group of people in Jesus day who certainly believed that. We met them last week in Luke 15, the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Sure, their list would have differed from the woman on the plane and would certainly appear more religious, but it was a ‘list’ nonetheless. They had their check list which they not only applied to themselves but to others to decide who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ of God’s favour. But did they seriously believe, as some believe today, that when we finally meet God face to face, he is going to be impressed with us when we present him with a check list underscoring how acceptable we are? In Luke 15 Jesus tells three stories designed to undermine check list religion and to point us to what really delights the heart of God.

In response to the carping criticism of the Pharisees about the dubious company Jesus was keeping, Jesus told a parable made up of three stories which cumulatively build up a picture of God’s great passion, our dire situation and the danger DIY religion. The first story was of a lost sheep and a searching shepherd. The second story is of a lost coin and a searching woman- v8 “Or supposes a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?

So what’s happening?

Here we have a Middle Eastern peasant woman who, like other such women, would occasionally carry their worldly wealth in gold or silver coins fastened to a chain around their necks or in a head band. This jewellery was referred to as ‘the woman’s bank’. Literally a small fortune would be tied up in this kind of capital. So if the woman became widowed or divorced, she had this wealth to sustain her. So maybe it was from this cosmetic collection that the coin was lost.

So what does she do? According to Jesus, she lights a lamp and meticulously sweeps throughout the house until she finds it. You have to understand that the village homes of the first few centuries in this area often had floors made of lime plaster or smooth uncut stones taken from the Sea of Galilee. Cracks naturally developed in such floors and so not surprisingly coins could easily fall in between them, which is good news for modern day archaeologists but bad news for poor peasant women. What is more, the windows were narrow slits placed about seven feet up from the floor and the building stone around Galilee was black basalt, which would have added further darkness to the home. So even in broad daylight, the woman would naturally light a lamp to find a coin- she had to.

So what picture does this story paint?

 

First, we have a picture of human lostness.

The coin is lying somewhere in the darkness and the dirt. But it wasn’t made for the darkness and the dirt – it was made for the neck of the woman or to be used to sustain her and her family. It was fashioned and stamped and given its setting for a place of beauty and dignity. There could hardly be a greater contrast than between where the coin was and where it was meant to be. And you know, it is like that with us as human beings made in the image of God. We were made to be more than animals, to be defined not merely as members of the animal kingdom. We are not to be reduced to biological machines either- one machine amongst many. As individuals we were made to be more than our personal schemes and small ambitions, or whatever our selfishness and pride would make us. We were made for God and we will never be right without him. 

We were not made for the dark and the dirt but for God and the light. While it remains lost in the cracks and crevices the coin has in effect lost its value and purpose. As human beings lost in the crevices of an existence where more and more people understand less and less of their purpose, their true value can never be realised,  such we will always be selling ourselves short, settling for less in life rather than embracing what God wants to give us- which is himself in personal relationship.

Walter Lippmann was one of the most influential American political commentators of the 20th century. This is what he once wrote about modern Western man and woman: ‘At…. heart… there are likely to be moments of blank misgiving in which he finds that the civilization of which he is a part leaves a dusty taste in his mouth, he may be very busy with many things, but he discovers one day that he is no longer sure they are worth doing. He has been much preoccupied: but he is no longer sure he knows why. He has become involved in an elaborate routine of pleasures; and they do not seem to amuse him very much. He finds it hard to believe that doing any one thing is better than doing any other thing, or, in fact, that it is better than doing nothing at all. It occurs to him that it is a great deal of trouble to live, and that even in the best lives the thrills are few and far between. He begins more or less consciously to seek satisfactions, because he is no longer satisfied, and all the while he realises that the pursuit of happiness was always a most unhappy quest.’  Isn’t that so? We are all by nature like coins lost in the cracks.

However, this is also a picture of human value.

As we have seen, Jesus is telling these stories to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses who were scandalised that Jesus was welcoming notorious sinners and eating with them. But Jesus does not see those outcasts as their critics see them. No, his view of them is both tender and compassionate.

One scholar discovered that the Hebrew word for the coins referred to in the story was ‘zuzim’. And he noticed that the same word can also mean ‘those who have moved away’ and he suggests that Jesus was employing a deliberate play on words when speaking of the tax-collectors and ‘sinners’ of Israel because the coins are excellent symbols of people who have somehow rolled away…and yet are still within the house, [that is Israel] - only waiting to be swept up by some sweeping operation (which is exactly what Jesus was about). 

These people were like the coins that had been dropped and rolled into the dark corners of the house. They had strayed from God into the shadows of life. And guess what? Jesus was after them!

Part of what drove this woman in her frantic search was the realisation that she had lost the coin in the house. She hadn’t been out that day, she knew it was in there somewhere and she was not going to rest until she found it. This is a woman with a mission with sleeves rolled up and broom in hand.

So, what does all this have to do with the carping Pharisees and the compassionate Jesus?

It all centres on where the coin was lost. It was not lost outside on the streets or even out in the wilderness like the sheep; it is in the house, confined quarters and so in principle at least, findable. Similarly the so called ‘sinners’ who are gathering around Jesus were in the ‘house of Israel’, they were part of the wealth of the nation and so they too, in principle could be found. They were right on the Pharisees doorstep so why weren’t they looking for them or perhaps more to the point helping Jesus look for them instead of criticising him for doing their job for them?

The fact is God created you and me for an eternal purpose and the story of the gospel is how God recovers us for that purpose. Here the emphasis is on the effort of the woman to find her lost coin and the effort of God to save lost men and women. Around Jesus are tax-collectors and sinners whom the Pharisees think are of little or no worth. They can never match up to their check list-they are irredeemable failures and so ‘nobodies’ as far as they were concerned.  But the message Jesus brings is that God values them- and you- so highly, he searches for them diligently, and rescues them joyfully.

Did you notice what Jesus said of what happens in heaven when lost people become found people?  The woman in v9 says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one ‘sinner’ who repents."  He doesn’t say the angels rejoice (although they probably do), he speaks of someone else rejoicing who is before the angels. The question is: who is the one in heaven who is before the angels? The answer is… God. He is the one, who if I may put it like this, is beside himself with delight when one of these lost ones is brought back home to himself where they belong, knowing the security and privilege of being children of God and personally coming to know him as their loving heavenly Father. That is why Jesus came into the world ‘to seek and save that which is lost’. All of which brings us on to the final heading, namely, that this is…

A picture of divine passion

The woman is in some measure a portrait of Jesus himself. God in Jesus is not to be conceived simply as a shepherd- acting with brashness and energy to seek that which is lost, but also like a woman showing diligence and care. The woman is actually moved and upset by her loss; is God to be thought of as being any less moved by the loss of someone he has carefully made in his image and has no living, meaningful relationship with him? Don’t you see that portrayed by all the energy and thoroughness of the woman we are being given an insight into the character of God as we see him in the face and life of his Son the Lord Jesus Christ? God’s passion for the lost can’t be contained. God’s desire to save is boundless. That is why Jesus is with this crowd of so called undesirables- God desires them to become his.

Think of it like this: the coin dropped out of its proper setting- the necklace or the headband. The Bible tells us that by nature we are all ‘drop outs’, our entire world has tried to break free of God’s ownership and authority. Some of us have been reclaimed and restored; others are still far from God. You may have been brought up in a Christian home where your allegiance is still uncertain. You may be someone who has ‘dropped out’ or someone who is about to do so. Perhaps you are tired of the religion in which you were raised, fed up with what you see are the restraints of the Christian life. You want your freedom. You may have said, on coming to this town to study or work, ‘Good. At last I can leave God behind me with my parents, my family and friends back home. Now I can drop all this and be myself.’ Perhaps long ago you made this decision; you left a childhood faith for an adult life which did not include God’s loving ownership. Like the coin detached from the rest you rolled under the furniture to get away from the grip of God! Well, I have got news for you: he’s following you; he’s after you; he will move the furniture of your life if necessary to get to you.

When you walked in here this evening for whatever reason, Jesus Christ was waiting for you and ready to touch you on the shoulder and say ‘I want to welcome you home. I’m still here, I still want you, and you actually belong to me, so come to me and my Father who love you.

Like the woman in the parable God says ‘I am your dignity and you are my dowry’. It was on the necklace of the woman that the lost coin came into its own, not under the furniture in the darkness, or in a crack in the floor. And it is as part of the crown of God’s honour and glory that you will come into your own, being a precious treasure of Jesus. Let me tell you: God is sweeping the world for men and women, boys and girls because they matter to him, you matter to him. Forget check- list religion and tonight come to the Lord Jesus and savor the genuine article.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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