The Scent of Salvation
Salvation has a smell and you know it when you smell it. Paul says it's the odor of death to them that are perishing but the aroma of life to those being saved (2 Cor. 2: 15-16). So what scent comes off our text to you?
Something stinks. Least to the Pharisees and teachers of the law because the text says they were muttering. You Bible class attendees know this word. Actually, you know the main part of the word. It's gogguzo. That onomatopoetic word which to hear is to know what it means. That word is used by all 4 Evangelists. The word in our text is diagoguzo and is only used by Luke. Here and by the crowd when Jesus has the temerity to be a guest at the house of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector. Diagoguzo is not just muttering, but "used of many indignantly complaining" (blueletterbible.org). And here diagoguzo is imperfect. Over and over they muttered resentfully, they diagoguzo, "This guy welcomes sinners and He eats with them!"
This stinks, if you think these "tax collectors and sinners'" are beyond saving. Although you probably don't like paying taxes, you probably don't think IRS agents are beyond saving. But I'm betting there is some type of sinner you think is. With the Supreme Court by fiat putting LGBTQ in the category of moral, the only sexual sinner beyond redemption is any kind of pedophile, but, predictably, that too is changing. What about Nazi war criminals? What about those who were tried at Nuremberg for war crimes after World War II? Now those had to be unsaveable. Along with Osama bin Laden only those associated with Hitler can be put in hell these days. But did you know that the chaplain who ministered to 6 of those who were eventually hanged was a Lutheran (See, Townsend, Tim, Mission at Nuremberg)?
Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them stinks if you think they are unsavable or if you think Jesus leaves them in their sins. Even though the Pharisees and teachers of the law were the conservatives of the OT church, it's liberals who take that position today. Jesus didn't call these sinners to repentance. Or if He did, it's in the manner of the liberal churchmen: we're all sinners. I'm a sinner; you're a sinner, but that's just the way we are. No one is called to forsake their sins, turn from them, renounce them. And if that's what's going on here, it stinks. But we know that's not what's going on. How?
First, we know when Jesus invited Himself to the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus's house, it led to him declaring, "If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back 4 times the amount." Second, the text itself says Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them had to do with leading them to repentance. The two parables Jesus used to illustrate what's going on say, "There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent." And, "There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." That Jesus welcomes sinners to stay in their sin is fiction. It's false, a grand lie; it's the suppression of the truth that Romans 1:18 warns God's wrath is (present tense, today) revealed against. It's a sinking lie that Jesus welcomes sinners to stay in their sins, and it's self-deception says Paul in 1 Cor. 6 (9-10). Stop being deceived says Paul. Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, passive or active homosexuals, thieves, lusters, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers can't go to heaven.
But then Paul trumpets these glorious words in the very next verse: "Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." And here we're to the last stinking thing about this text. It smells if you're not a sinner or not that bad of one or at least not as bad as say a war criminal or a catamite, sodomite, pedophile, or drunkard. Or going off other lists of Paul's, if you're not as bad as say an overeater, a gossip, or the height of Paul's list of sins in Romans 1: unmerciful (30), then the grace of God in Christ, which is the sweet aroma of lemon scented rain is the stench of decomp, decay, death. Something that stinks so bad you gag.
The scent of salvation comes off this text; actually it wafts from heaven itself, but it's like the smell of saltwater in New Orleans. New Orleans is surrounded by brackish water swamps. They don't smell sweet; they smell of decaying vegetation and mud. You think of New Orleans as a coastal city because it's a major seaport, but it's not. It's 100 or more miles to the ocean. The only time I ever smelled fresh salt air there was when a hurricane was bearing down on the city. It was an ill wind that blew some good. And so the scent of salvation does come off this text but it blows across a lot of decomposing vegetation and stinking mud.
Get my drift? Do you see that you're the lost sheep? You're the lost coin? You know a lost sheep can't help find itself. Even its bleating is not that loud and is as likely to draw a predator as someone looking. You know what they tell you if you discover you're lost? Stop. Don't keep going. You only make things worse. I don't know when or even if a sheep ever knows it's lost. Dogs of mine who've gotten lost seemed oblivious to the situation and I think dogs are smarter than sheep. And there's no debate that a lost coin can do nothing to help itself be found. Here comes the stink of dead vegetation and rancid mud: do you know the difference between the smell of sweat from exercise, work, and fear? Fear sweat stinks in a way the other two don't. And you won't smell the fresh fragrance of salt air without the stink of fear filling you're nose. And that doesn't happen till you fear you're lost with absolutely no hope of finding yourself or helping yourself be found.
Do you smell that? I smell blood, sweat, and tears, but not that of mine or yours but that of Jesus. It's in the parable. Now don't smell the blood, sweat, and tears in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, pushing through brambles, scraping His knees on rocks, and tearing His clothes on thorns. No you can smell what Jesus went through to find you in the little line: "Does he not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep?" No earthly shepherd puts 99% of his flock at risk to save 1%. Commentators say, "Everyone would know he would have helpers and would have left them in charge." This is a parable, and parables make drastic, over the top points. The Good Shepherd does the unheard of, reckless thing of leaving 99 sheep for the sake of 1. But heavenly reality is starker and sweeter than earthly parables. The one True God leaves the glories and worship of heaven behind for the sake of all damned humanity. The one holy Man on earth spares no expense: no blood, no sweat, no tears to pay for, to cover, to wash away the mud, the sins, the stench of death we're born in and make worse day after day.
The aroma coming off this text is not just sweet or freshening. It's rich. This text smells rich and I don't mean "smells like money" but like a baking smell, a food smell, even a flower smell can be rich. But you only smell this if you got the last part. If you're still living in the lie and self-deception that God is a cosmic Santa Claus who can "ho, ho, ho" sin away; that to welcome sinners and eat with them all He has to do is say, "I'll do it", you still smell decayedness not richness. Although we have the experience of being propitiated all the time, we don't think God ever did or needed to. Propitiated isn't a 5 dollar word when a .50 cent one would do. Propitiated means to make someone not angry who has reason to be angry with you by satisfying their wrath.
This happens to you all the time. Well, it does to me. When the Duracell battery leaked in my clock, I was mad. They tout the reliability of their batteries and charge much more to prove it. When the church's 20 dollar LED bulb advertised to last 22 years didn't work the first time I turned it on, I was mad. Duracell propitiated my wrath by sending me 4 to replace the one. CREE removed my wrath by replacing the one bad bulb with 3. Propitiation happens to you when Sonic gives you two fries for forgetting the one, when your bank waves your penalty for their fault, when the store gives you a discount for the hassle they caused. You are propitiated all the time; yet you don't think the Holy God needed to be in the case of the sins of the world, in the case of your sins. You think He could just wink and nod and say, "That's okay; forget it."
Take a deep breath; smell the richness of the blood, sweat, and tears of God the Son that satisfied God's justifiable wrath at just your sins of today let alone a lifetime, let alone a world's. Had not His wrath been satisfied, well that lost sheep could go to hell; would've gone to hell. Had not Jesus satisfied the wrath of God completely for all, holy Mother Church would not be lighting the lamp of the Gospel, sweeping the dirty floor, and searching carefully until She finds her lost coin. That smells heavenly, doesn't it?
"Smells like heaven," we say of a favorite fragrance. I think of lilacs and apple blossoms growing up. I think of night blooming Jasmine in New Orleans. The scent of heaven wafts from this text if you've been found. If Jesus, through His Word, has reached out and found you, put you on His shoulders and carried you back to Church, you've been welcomed by the Good Shepherd and now you have a seat at His table. And doesn't knowing God for Jesus' sake has put away all His wrath toward you, doesn't knowing you're forgiven of all your sins, doesn't being sure you'll will be at heaven's great feast, smell heavenly?
The church building in North Zulch and in New Orleans were small. After everyone had gone, the post-Communion smell of wine that was the Blood of Christ and of perfume that was the smell of forgiven people was heavy in the air and heavenly in the nose. Jesus says, "Take a deep breath." And if you scent salvation, you'll exhale, "Amen." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (20191006); Luke 15: 1-10