Repentance Is Music to God’s Ears.
The Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 15:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who “is patient toward [us], not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9), dear fellow redeemed:
You don’t realize how much a music soundtrack and sound effects change the movie-watching experience until the sound is removed. Without sound, an action sequence is not as impressive, and a scene of suspense is not as compelling. Sound makes the image much more powerful and impactful.
When our thoughts turn toward heaven, and we imagine what heaven is like, I think we often picture heaven without much sound. We might imagine shouts of joy when family members and friends are reunited there. But otherwise, we may think of a peaceful setting, something like a walk through a meadow or time spent by a river or lake.
Heaven is a bit noisier than that. Isaiah wrote about the angels in heaven calling to one another in voices powerful enough to shake “the foundations of the thresholds.” They say, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3-4). The apostle John wrote about heaven being filled with the sound of trumpets and described “flashes of lightning, and rumblings, and peals of thunder” coming from the throne (Rev. 4:5). He said the “Holy, holy, holy” cry does not cease day or night, and the twenty-four elders respond with their own song of praise (4:8-11). The saints in heaven also join in these songs of praise. John speaks about hearing “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!’” (19:6).
What we hear in heaven will far surpass what is produced by the greatest musicians and singers here on earth. Unlike here, the sounds that come from our mouths in heaven will always be beautiful and holy and right. There is no imperfection in heaven. That includes imperfections in our singing and hearing.
I expect that in heaven, we will be able to detect and appreciate layers of sound unknown to us now. Just think of those trumpets and rumblings and shouts and singing blending together in a rich and holy song that our ears will never tire of hearing. Four-part harmony will not impress us in heaven like it does here. Maybe heaven will feature forty-part harmony or four-hundred-part harmony.
But why this emphasis today on the sounds of heaven? It is because Jesus says in today’s text that “there will be more joy in heaven/there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” A celebration without sound wouldn’t be much of a celebration, no matter how amazing it looks. When a sinner repents, the halls of heaven ring with the sound of thanksgiving—thanksgiving to God for His abundant grace.
But why is it that repentance causes this reaction? Repentance is not something the world celebrates. The world celebrates things like birthdays, graduations, promotions at work, and the purchase of a home. The world has even taken to celebrating when a person dies, focusing on happy memories of that person’s life because it cannot bear to face the reality of death. The saints and angels in heaven do not celebrate these things, as significant as they may seem to us here. They celebrate our repentance. And if that is what the saints and angels celebrate around God’s throne, this must be what God celebrates too.
So what exactly is this repentance? The word for “repent” means “to change one’s mind,” “to turn back.” We change our minds all the time, such as what we want to eat or what we want to do with our day. But the repentance Jesus talks about here is a spiritual turning, a spiritual changing of the mind. This is necessary because the unconverted mind, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God,” as Scripture says; “it does not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7).
The first table of God’s law demands that we love Him “with all [our] mind” (Mat. 22:37). The second table demands that we “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (v. 39). No human being born of a sinful father and mother has done these things, because each person has inherited the sin of his parents, passed down through the generations all the way from Adam and Eve. By nature, we are opposed to God; we do not want to live by His rules. We want to make our own rules. We are self-centered and selfish. In this state, we are ruled by the devil and are stuck in his kingdom of darkness without any way of getting ourselves out.
But the merciful Lord is firmly invested in freeing us from this hopeless life. God the Father sent His eternal Son to enter the fallen world and lead us into His marvelous light. That is easier said than done! In order to free us from our chains of sin and death, Jesus had to pay the price. He had to pay the debt we owed by shedding His holy blood and giving Himself up to the jaws of death. This was the only way to satisfy the Father’s wrath against sin. It was the only way to overcome the devil’s hold on sinners.
His saving work was done for all sinners, but not all sinners believe it. It is a mystery to us why some hear the Word of God and repent, while others hear the Word but do not repent. We are all equally sinful. We are all equally lost in the darkness by nature. None of us deserves to be forgiven by God. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word, some are converted. Some are led to repentance and faith.
If we think that our conversion must depend in some way on ourselves, today’s text—among many others—says otherwise. Jesus describes a sheep that wandered away, referring to a person who has wandered away from God into sin. The shepherd does not sit around waiting for the sheep to come back on its own. He goes after it. And when he finds it, he puts it on his shoulders and carries it to safety. That does not sound like cooperation in conversion.
But for those who would say that the sheep could possibly have returned on its own, what about the next example Jesus gave? How likely is it that a lost coin by its own power could roll itself back into the purse of its owner? Ephesians 2 says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (vv. 8-9).
When the Holy Spirit turns back the sinner from the path of destruction and works a spiritual change in his mind and heart, this is when heaven erupts in celebration. We can’t always know when this celebration happens. It certainly happens when a baby is baptized and when an adult confesses the true faith. But in some cases, a person’s confession is not honest, and his repentance is not heartfelt. The Bible tells us there are some who may appear to be model Christians, but who live otherwise than they confess, or who think otherwise than they say.
It is one thing to fall into sin unintentionally. Maybe you got caught up in a crowd that behaved badly. Or you stumbled across something you were not seeking out but which led you to sin. This can happen when you spend time on the internet or look for something to watch on TV. Or maybe unkind, impure, or judgmental thoughts enter your mind about another person, and you are immediately sorry for thinking in those ways. These sins are not faith-destroying, and God will help us fight these temptations.
But intentionally and willfully doing what God condemns can and does destroy faith. Christians are not immune to these sins. In fact the devil works harder to pull us from the faith than he works on those who are already in darkness. Some Christians fall into sin and instead of acknowledging the sin—even if the consequences would be severe—they try to cover them up, hide them. But nothing can be hidden from God, and what the unrepentant will face on the last day is far worse than anything they might experience here.
All of us have need of repentance. We sin many times every day. We have all done things we knew were wrong, but we did them anyway—and often more than once. None of us is righteous. But the Lord is gracious. He works to bring us back when we fall into sin. Like those tax collectors and sinners, the Lord moves us to repent through His law, and He draws us near to hear His Word of grace. He wants us to know that all our sin is forgiven, all the things that trouble our conscience and make us feel ashamed. All of it was set on Jesus, who suffered and died in our place so that we might live.
The Good Shepherd loves to hear us humbly repent of our sins and rejoice in His forgiveness. We are ones whom He has brought back from our wanderings, and whom He still brings back. Through daily repentance, He leads us again and again to the still waters of our Baptism and guides us to the green pastures of His Word and Sacrament. These great spiritual blessings which God showers down upon us are a cause for continuous celebration in heaven.
We do not see or hear the saints and angels in their songs of praise, but by faith in Jesus we are already counted in their number. We join these songs of praise imperfectly here on earth as we thank God for His mercy toward us. And we look forward to being among the great host in heaven, where we will forever rejoice in the Lord’s great love for us.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(portion of “The Good Shepherd” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)