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 our wallet. Ladies, you may have lost an item of jewellery at some point too – perhaps an ear-ring? (In fact we’ve found a couple on the floor of church over the years – maybe one of them is yours?!) If you are as disorganised as me, you may even have once lost an important document! For example, a couple of years ago I even managed to lose my marriage certificate, which understandably didn’t go down well with Helen!
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 expensive 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 lost.
And when you do find something that’s been lost, how do you feel? Relief, I bet, plus joy - plus perhaps a bit of regret or resentment at the time you’ve spent searching for what was lost – but that’s life I suppose!
Today’s parable describes God’s actions and attitudes when he’s confronted with something that’s lost. Not a wallet or 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 away from him. God’s response when people are living in sin and 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!
But before we delve further into this passage, let me pray: Lord, help us to learn from you this morning, help us to feel the love you have for the lost, and share the joy you have when sinners repent. Amen.
- Listen to Jesus’ words, don’t grumble! (v.1-2)
Every society has unpopular people. People who are looked down for one reason or another. People who are despised, disliked or merely made fun of. Tabloid newspapers, for example, often tell us we should look down on certain politicians or celebrities, as well as people like convicted criminals, second-hand car salesmen and estate agents!
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 some extra money for themselves. Those tax collectors were wealthy and well-connected with the government, but that didn’t stop them being unpopular.
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 unclean, because of what they ate or wore. Its fair to say that these ‘sinners’ were not members of high society – on the contrary they were at its margins.
But whatever their faults, these two unpopular groups of people were doing something rather wonderful. They were listening to Jesus. They were gathering around Jesus to listen to what he had to say. They were obeying an instruction that Jesus had just given in the last verse of the previous chapter. Jesus said there “whoever had ears to hear, let them hear.” And these tax collectors and sinners were wisely doing just that.
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. Michael’s. And its why we should listen to Jesus in our daily lives, as we read the Bible privately for ourselves and 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. Sadly 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! They were so busy muttering to one another that they missed out on hearing words spoken by God’s Son! So listen to God’s Word, don’t grumble.
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. Jesus had previously defended himself in against similar accusations by describing himself as a doctor. A doctor visits the sick, not the well. Jesus said he had come to heal the spiritually sick, not the healthy.
But in today’s passage he tells a different story to make the same point. He tells a parable about a shepherd and his sheep. Parables are messages with a meaning, stories Jesus told to teach us spiritual truths. Stories told not simply for our entertainment, but for our education.
2. Jesus seeks and saves the lost (v.3-6)
Verses 3 to 5 today describe Jesus’ parable, 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 does’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 our condition before we become Christians. That, says the Bible, is the condition of every non-Christian 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 is the Lord. This Good Shepherd is the God who became man in Jesus Christ.
You know, when Jesus came to earth and began his ministry, he began to fulfil a wonderful promise God had made many centuries earlier. Words found in chapter 34 of the book of Ezekiel. Let me read them for you:
‘“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness…I will search for the lost and bring back the strays…I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
And that’s exactly what Jesus has done - and is doing - to this day. Like the good shepherd in our parable, 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 the Gospel is preached by his people today, the risen Jesus is still seeking and saving the lost.
And we must never forget that Jesus’ mission to seek and to save came at great personal cost, culminating at the cross. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his flock. As the prophet Isaiah famously phrased it “We all like sheep have gone astray”, and God laid on Christ “the iniquity of us all”. He was willing to be pierced for our transgressions.
3. Rejoice when Jesus saves sinners! (v.6-7)
And why does Jesus seek and save the lost? For the same reason we search fervently for our wallets, keys and wedding certificates! 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.
This wonderful scene is described in verse 6 and 7 of today’s parable. After returning home with his lost sheep, the good shepherd “calls his friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.”
As Christians, we must cultivate the same joy at seeing people converted to Christ. It should be the aim and ambition of every Church family to see our family grow. To see more and more people join our congregation and become brothers and sisters in Christ by faith. It has certainly been a joy for me over the past four years to see new faces and new faith amongst this congregation. God delights when sheep return to the fold, when sinners get saved – and so should we!
Before I conclude, I should confess that one reason I chose this parable for this morning is that it is intensely meaningful to me. Because back in the Spring of 1996, over 22 years ago, it was after reading this passage that I consciously and deliberately put my faith in Jesus for the first time. It was university holidays, I was sitting up in bed reading this passage, and I remember it hit me like dynamite.
God’s spoke to through this passage as powerfully as he ever has. Jesus called me as clearly as he ever has. It was through was through this passage that God’s Spirit convicted me of my sin, showed me that I was a lost sheep, and pointed me to the Good Shepherd. A Shepherd who had gone to great lengths – even to the cross - to find me and carry me home. I remember being moved to tears by what I read, as I realised the love of God for a lost sheep like me.
If you are a Christian this morning, I hope that you have a similar testimony to tell. I hope you are grateful for the love and forgiveness Gd has shown you in the Gospel. 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 this parable. Are you honest enough to recognise you are lost without God? Do you realise how much you are loved by him? And will you accept Christ’s invitation to forgive you and shepherd you forever? Because if you do, the whole of heaven will go wild!
Let’s pray: Father, thank you for sending your Son to seek and to save the lost. Thank you that Jesus went to the cross to free his sheep from sin. Help us to share this Gospel with the non-Christians we know and love. May they repent so that you may rejoice. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.