When was the last time you lost something precious? I guess at one time or another we have all mislaid a set of keys, or our glasses, or an item of jewellery.
Whatever it was, when you did lose something valuable or precious – how did you feel? Anxious, frustrated, even angry or frightened? Losing something precious can have consequences.
And so what do you do in those situations? I assume you stopped everything and looked high and low – in every room, under every cushion, no stone unturned. You’d retraced your steps, rack your brains and even recruit family members to help you find whatever you’d lost.
And when you do find something that’s been lost, how do you feel? Relief, I bet, and joy – plus perhaps a bit of regret or resentment at the time you’ve spent searching for what was lost!
Today’s parables describe God’s actions and attitudes when he’s confronted with something that’s lost. Not a set of keys or a wedding certificate, of course, but a person – a human being made in his image. Because today’s parable describes God’s response when people are living their lives without any regard for him or his ways. God’s response when people are sinful and spiritually lost.
As we shall see, God’s first response is not anger or frustration, but searching and saving. And when he finds what he’s lost he doesn’t feel resentment, but real joy!
Every society has unpopular people. People who are looked down for one reason or another. People who are widely disliked, fairly or unfairly. In the first verse of our reading today, we meet two types of unpopular people in first century Palestine. We’re told that “tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus.”
Tax collectors were unpopular, because they collaborated with the Roman occupiers to collect revenue for the Empire, and because they often creamed off extra money for themselves.
‘Sinners’ was a more general term used to describe anyone who didn’t live according to the Jewish law. Some lived obviously immoral lives, while others were simply ritually or ceremonially unclean, because of what they ate or wore. They were on the margins of society.
But whatever their faults, these two unpopular groups of people were doing something rather wonderful – they were listening to Jesus. They recognised the authority and wisdom of his words and had gathered round him to listen attentively.
The same principle applies to us today, whoever we are. Whether we are wealthy and well-connected, or skint and a social outcast, Jesus calls us to gather around and listen to his words. That’s one reason why we should gather together every Sunday to sit under God’s Word together, as the Bible is read and taught to us here at St. John’s. And its why we should listen to Jesus in our daily lives, as we read the Bible privately for ourselves or study it with others in our midweek house groups. Whatever their faults, those tax collectors and sinners were spot on when they gathered around Jesus to hear God’s word.
Sadly, not everyone was listening to what Jesus had to say. Some people present had their ears closed and their mouths open. The mutterers and grumblers are identified for us in verse 2 as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These self-righteous, outwardly religious men were within earshot of Jesus Christ, and all they could do was grumble. How tragic!
What lay behind the Pharisees grumbling was a misunderstanding about Jesus and his motives. They had failed to understand who Jesus was and why he’d come.
You see, their complaint against Jesus was that ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’ The Pharisees thought that a true man of God would keep far away from tax collectors and sinners. They thought a true Messiah would make it his business to keep apart from those considered spiritually sick and morally unclean. They thought that only a sinner would seek out the company of other sinners.
Of course, they could not have been more wrong. In today’s passage Jesus tells two stories to explain why he was associating with tax collectors and sinners. Stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin.
Verses 3 to 5 today describe Jesus’ first story, don’t they? Its short and sweet, so let me re-read it: “Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.”
Its worth taking a moment to think about sheep. Sheep are pretty stupid. They easily wander off, get themselves into trouble, and their physical appearance doesn’t exactly strike fear into the heart. I expect few of us would like to be thought of as a sheep – we’d much rather be thought of as wise old owls, strong lions or a soaring eagle.
But the truth is that the Bible consistently and clearly compares human beings to sheep. Human beings are prone to wander from God and do (frankly) stupid, sinful things. We are prone to get lost – to lose contact with our Creator and harm ourselves and other people by not living his way. That, says the Bible, is the condition of every person before they come to Christ. Human beings are sheep in need of a Saviour.
In contrast, what a wonderful shepherd is described in our parable! Think about how well he responds when his sheep wanders off:
• For a start, he takes initiative – the shepherd goes out to seek the lost sheep, leaving the 99 behind. He doesn’t sit back and wait for it to find its own way home. He knows the sheep desperately needs a Saviour.
• Secondly, the shepherd shows great perseverance – he keeps going until he’s found his sheep, he doesn’t slack off.
• And thirdly, the Shepherd saves his sheep at some personal cost. He sacrifices his time and energy to find it and carry it back home.
We should be in no doubt who this wonderful shepherd is meant to be. This Good Shepherd represents the Lord Jesus himself.
Like the good shepherd in this story, Jesus has taken the initiative to seek and save the lost. He came from heaven to earth to bring sinners back into a relationship with God. When he walked the earth he met and ate with sinners – with men like Matthew the tax collector – and called them to repentance and faith in him. He gave them God’s forgiveness and turned their lives around.
And whenever people turn from sin and put their faith in him today, the risen Jesus is still seeking and saving the lost.
And why does Jesus seek and save the lost? For the same reason a shepherd searches for his lost sheep or a woman looks for her lost coin – because human beings are enormously precious to him. Because we are loved by God.
It follows that God’s reaction when a sinner repents is one of joy. Father, Son and Holy Spirit – plus all the angels of heaven – delight when even one lost soul gets saved. Heaven rejoices over every sinner who accepts Christ’s offer of forgiveness and a fresh start.
Two wonderful scenes are described in today’s parables. After finding their lost sheep and their lost coin, the shepherd and the woman both call their friends together and say, “Rejoice with me, I have found what was lost.” And after both these parables, Jesus says “I tell you that in the same way there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.”
As Christians, we must cultivate the same joy at seeing people become Christians. It should be the aim and ambition of every Church to see our congregation grow. To see more and more people become brothers and sisters in Christ. God delights when sheep return to the fold, when sinners get saved – and so should we!
As I finish, if you are a Christian this morning, I hope you have a passion to introduce family and friends to the Good Shepherd who is your Lord and Saviour.
But perhaps you are here this morning and don’t yet consider yourself a Christian. If that’s you, please take time today to re-read and reflect on these two parables. Are you honest enough to recognise you are lost without God? Do you realise how much you are precious and loved by him? Will you accept Christ’s invitation to forgive you and shepherd you forever? Because if you do, the whole of heaven will go wild!
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