What Makes the Angels Rejoice?
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Dressed in the finest white gown, this beautiful young blonde comes to meet her Bridegroom and receive His name. She’s escorted down the aisle by her father and her mother joins in giving her away at the front of the church. Eight days old, she’s certainly unable to come up on her own or speak on her own behalf. The pastor marks her with the sign of the cross as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and baptizes her in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Dressed in faded blue jeans and an old flannel shirt, he feels a bit out of place among the suits and ties, dresses and skirts, of those standing with him. But then, he’s certainly not there to make a fashion statement. He’s not even really sure why he’s there. He feels so lost and alone. It’s been a long time since he’s joined in the assembly. At first the words come to him with great difficulty, but soon the confession he learned as a young boy rolls off his tongue. Then comes the absolution, sweet music to his ears: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Dressed in his Sunday best, the old man walks forward to the rail just as he’s done almost every week for the last 75 years. Kneeling, he receives a small piece of bread and a sip of wine. It doesn’t look like much, but through the eyes of faith he sees a heavenly feast. This is the Lord’s Supper, the only food and drink that truly satisfy. This is the meal that will strengthen and preserve him in body and soul unto life everlasting. Here at the Lord’s Table, in the presence of his fellow sinners, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, he receives his Savior’s precious body and blood. And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Dressed for bed, she’s weighed down by the normal cares, struggles, and mistakes of the day. She makes the sign of the holy cross in God’s triune name, recalling her Baptism, as she does almost every morning and evening. She repeats the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Then she whispers this little prayer: “I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that you have kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.” Unburdened and with a clear conscience, she cheerfully goes to sleep at once. And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
“There is joy before the angels of God.” Something special must be happening. What could make the angels rejoice? It has to be something pretty big. It has to be something really special.
The Bible mentions only three times when the angels rejoice. In Job 38:7, God Himself tells us that “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” at the dawn of creation. In Luke 2:13-14, the evangelist reports that the angels sang for joy the night when Christ was born. We repeat their hymn almost every week: “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And in our text for today from Luke 15:1-10, we hear “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
What makes the angels rejoice? Creation, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the repentance of one sinner. All three, miraculous, powerful, creative works of our loving and gracious God. That’s what makes the angels rejoice.
Today, we will focus on the third. Each of the opening stories is an example of one sinner repenting, of someone confessing his or her sins and receiving God’s gracious gift of forgiveness and life. If repentance is the cause for the angels of God to sing, it is obviously important for us to understand it clearly.
Unfortunately repentance, true repentance, is a concept that is often misunderstood today even as it was in Jesus’ day. Many mistakenly see repentance as a human activity, what I must do to make myself right with God. Others think of repentance more in terms of a one-time conversion experience—“the day I accepted Jesus into my heart.” Both misunderstandings turn us inward and away from God’s gracious work. Both of these false understandings lead people away from the real joy that true repentance brings.
So let’s turn to the only place that can help us rightly understand this wonderful teaching—God’s holy Word—and our text from Luke 15:1-10, where Jesus teaches the Pharisees, His disciples, and us about the joy of true repentance.
The previous section of Luke’s Gospel had concluded with Jesus’ admonition: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This new chapter tells us who did gather to hear: tax collectors and sinners. And not only did they listen to Jesus—they were even welcomed to eat with Him! The word “sinner” may refer to people who were especially immoral and wicked. But it can also refer simply to people who were not strict about fulfilling all the requirements of the ceremonial law. They were “sinners” in the eyes of the Pharisees because of their neglectful attitude toward religion. The tax collectors were just one example of such.
The question of eating with tax collectors and sinners was raised previously when Jesus called Matthew to become one of His followers. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners,’” the Pharisees asked. Jesus answered them. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Here, once again, the Pharisees and scribes mutter about the people with whom Jesus associates: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In answer to the criticism, Jesus tells three parables in which there is joy over finding what was lost. We have two of them today: the lost sheep and the lost coin.
The description Jesus gives of the shepherd joyfully returning home carrying the lost sheep is heartwarming. He bids his friends to come and celebrate with him the recovery of one lost sheep. There is no mention at all of the 99 sheep out there in the open country. All attention is focused upon the lost sheep that was found. Jesus says that the same is true in heaven: there is more rejoicing over the lost sinner who repents than over the 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.
The suggestion that some people don’t need to repent sounds wrong to us. Jesus had said to the crowds, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:5). Everyone needs to repent. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We need to understand Jesus’ statement as a criticism of the Pharisees who thought they were so righteous that they did not need to repent. Jesus is saying to them, “God is not rejoicing over you and your self-righteous attitude; God is rejoicing over the lost sinner who realizes he is lost and repents.”
The second parable presents a woman who has lost a coin. But she diligently seeks until she finds it. She lights a lamp and carefully sweeps the dirt floor. She uses every possible means to recover what she has lost. That a poor woman should search so diligently for a lost coin does not surprise us. But that she should invite her friends and neighbors to join in celebrating her find is a bit much. It’s the way in which Jesus stresses the divine joy over the repentance of a single sinner. “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The Greek word for “one sinner who repents” is a present participle, indicating continuous action. Literally, it should be translated: “over one sinner repenting.” Jesus does not mean just a one-time conversion, but constant, daily repentance. Martin Luther highlights this aspect of repentance in the first of his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, said, ‘Repent!’ He meant that the whole life of a Christian is one of repentance.” Repentance is a daily process, one that needs to be repeated over and over again.
So let’s look a little closer at this process of repentance and how it might be applied to our lives. The first step comes, unfortunately, all too easily.
A Christian teacher once asked her class, “What is the first thing we must do in order to be forgiven?” One boy’s hand shot up immediately. “Sin!” he shouted. And of course, he was perfectly correct. The process of repentance begins as the Holy Spirit uses His Law to convict us of a specific sin and to produce true contrition in our hearts.
What is true contrition? As the apostle Paul once discussed contrition, he sought to help his readers distinguish between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” As anyone with a few traffic tickets can testify, most of us regret being caught in some violation of the law. We dislike the inconvenience of going to court to pay a fine, or we find ourselves embarrassed when our name gets in the paper. Perhaps we fear possible future consequences (such as higher car insurance rates). In any case, most of us regret having our transgressions exposed, because in one way or another, we fear punishment. This is one definition of “worldly sorrow,” and we have all experienced enough of it to recognize it instantly.
Another definition of worldly sorrow involves what the Scriptures sometimes call condemnation—the feeling of despair that crashes in on us when we fear that we have used up our quota of God’s grace, and, therefore, that He will refuse to forgive us for a particular offense. I think it’s safe to say that all Christians struggle with this sense of condemnation from time to time. We recognize it in ourselves, and Christians who listen carefully to others will almost surely discover individuals who struggle with this kind of worldly sorrow as well.
Worldly sorrow comes from Satan; it brings death. By way of contrast, Paul commends “godly sorrow.” This kind of sorrow for sin leads us to the next step in God’s process of repentance. Recognizing our sin and sorrowing over it, grieving that we have offended our righteous God, we confess our sin.
The word for “confess” in the Greek of the New Testament means literally “to speak together” or “to say the same thing.” When we confess our sins, we simply say what God says: (1) We have indeed done what His Law has forbidden. (2) Our action (thought, or attitude) was wrong. (3) Our sin hurt God; it hurt us; it hurt other people. And (4) we deserve God’s punishment.
When we honestly confess our sins to God in this way, we do not try to excuse ourselves. We do not try to shift the blame for our sin. We do not try to trivialize what we’ve done, as did the Pharisees and scribes in our text. Nor do we minimize the consequences we deserve. As the apostle John wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). No, we speak the truth about ourselves.
Standing before God stripped of all self-righteousness, we hear the beautiful words of our Father’s absolution: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Absolution is, for the Christian, a glorious emancipation. The Latin word from which we derive the English word “absolve” literally means “to set free; to release.” Absolved from our sins, we find freedom from their guilt and shame and from the punishment we have deserved. But also—and this is critically important—we receive in God’s absolution release from the power of our sins to enslave us. That freedom from sin comes, not as we try hard to amend our sinful lives, but as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to not only cleanse us, but also to create a new heart and renew a right spirit within us. We realize that in our own strength, we cannot obey God. We acknowledge that, left to our own resources, we do not even want to obey God. And so we ask Him to work these things in us by the power of His Holy Spirit working God’s means of grace—His Word and Sacrament—for the sake of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Contrition. Confession. Absolution. Yielding to God’s Spirit. That is the cycle of repentance. And, we repeat this process of repentance as often as we need it. We may, at times, find ourselves mired in a sin that we confessed only minutes before. In fact, we may find ourselves repeating the process a dozen times within a 10-minute period. But God will not become impatient or angry with us. He simply invites and encourages us to use the medicine He has prescribed. We can take it as often as we need it; we need not worry about overdosing. In fact, Jesus tells us: “There is joy before the angels of God” every time this process is used.
As the Holy Spirit leads us through this process, He continually adds the surges of power we need so that, little by little, we can obey on ever-so-slightly higher a plane. By the Spirit’s power, this process in our lives becomes a spiral headed gradually upward. Not that we will never fall back again into the same sins, but the general trend of our lives will be toward increasing Christ-likeness.
Perhaps all this seems too simple. Admittedly, it is simple, so simple that we could easily let our human pride prevent us from using the process our Lord has given us to enable us to live more fruitful, less frustrating lives of discipleship. It is simple. But it works. It is the only thing that works. And our Lord Jesus yearns to help us use it. And there is joy before the angels of God every time we do.
What makes the angels rejoice? One sinner who repents. Join them in rejoicing! Be the cause for their rejoicing! Repent! Encourage others to do the same. Remember your Baptism daily. Partake of our Lord’s life-giving body and blood in His holy Supper. Confess your sins and receive Christ’s absolution. For truly “there is joy before the angels of God” every time you do. Rejoice with them hear and believe this Good News: For the sake of Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.