READ : Matthew 18:12-14
Do you ever feel lost? It isn’t unbelievers who feel lost; in fact, they scoff at the notion. Feeling lost is actually the first step in coming – or coming back – to faith.
“Lost” is a word people don’t use much today, at least in its spiritual sense. It even sounds almost crude and embarrassing today to refer to people as “lost sinners,” doesn’t it? Even in the church we don’t talk as much as we used to about “saving the lost.” True, we still sing “I once was lost, but now I’m found,” but only because Amazing Grace is the one hymn most people still recognize. But even as people sing the words, they don’t really mean them. Still, as the use of the word “lost” becomes more and more rare even in the church, the condition becomes more and more obvious in the world.
A World of the Lost
John Stott has written that the tragedy of our time is that so many people who were created by God, like God, and for God, are nevertheless living without God in the world. That’s really the tragedy not just of our day but of all times and of every age.
The Bible bears consistent witness to the lostness of humanity, the human condition apart from God. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet; “we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). The apostle Paul describes people as “separated . . . alienated . . . strangers . . . having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). In other words, lost. This is the state of all those who have turned against God to live on their own terms.
Just look around. You can see signs of lostness everywhere. You see them in the faces of modern men and women who are desperately searching for love and intimacy, even as they hook up and split apart again at a dizzying rate. “Lost” is an apt description of a society where folks can remember game-show trivia but have forgotten God; where polls measure everything and determine nothing; where every opinion is celebrated except the opinion that some things are right and others wrong; where the idea of universal truth is mocked, where art celebrates ugliness and films glamorize brutality and all the “best people” mock the very idea of faith. All around us individuals of all kinds are devoting their existence simply to satisfying their appetite for pleasure and novelty and excitement. How else would you describe that except as lost?
The Searching Savior
But now here’s some good news. People are lost, it’s true. But God is in the search-and-rescue business. You know, Jesus once described his mission this way: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He made that point over and over, including in parable form.
What do you think? [Jesus asked his disciples one day] If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
God doesn’t want us to perish. He doesn’t want us to be lost. And he does something about that. That little parable I just read is from Matthew 18:12-14. Jesus told it again in an expanded version in Luke 15, where he also added two more stories that make the same point: that God is in the search-and-rescue business. We call this story the Parable of the Lost Sheep, but that name actually puts the emphasis in the wrong place, I think. Jesus’ focus is really more on God than on us. It would be more appropriate to refer to it as the Parable of the Seeking Shepherd.
As with every story in the Bible, God is the real hero. He’s like a shepherd who, noticing that one of his sheep is missing, drops everything to go find it and bring it safely home. In this respect, as in so much else, God is different from us. Our tendency is to ignore trifling losses, to write them off. One sheep has wandered off? Oh, well, we think; we still have 99. A 1% loss is an acceptable rate of attrition. But not to God. His response is, “99 sheep safely in the fold? But I had 100. Where’s my one?” And off he goes into the wild, searching for the wanderer, seeking out the lost.
I wonder how much different our church fellowships would be if we cared as much as the Lord does about just one wandering soul. I wonder what it would do to our comfortable lives if we looked at our communities through Jesus’ eyes, eyes that would dart around until they stopped and settled upon the poor lost folks that we tend to overlook, the people living on the streets and sleeping under the overpasses.
Jesus is the sort of shepherd who cares about the little and the least, and yes, the lost. You know, comparing him to a shepherd is actually a startling metaphor. The only reason it doesn’t surprise us anymore is because we’re so used to it; and because very few of us actually know much about real shepherding. It’s one thing for the Bible to compare him to a high King or a mighty lord. Those images we would expect, speaking as they do of his splendor and greatness. But sheep herding was humble, dirty, hard, and thankless work. Shepherds themselves were often considered unclean in ancient Israel. Yet the Lord chose that image to convey the kind of love and care he has for his people. It’s a love that goes beyond merely searching for the lost, because something more is needed to save us beyond just finding us.
In John 10 Jesus described himself this way: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11). The good shepherd does more than just search for his sheep, care for them, even provide for them and protect them. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
And this is where analogy and metaphor break down, this is where parable stops and gospel begins. Because in real life, a shepherd would not lay down his life for his sheep. It wouldn’t be worth it. Oh, he might risk his life in an emergency as David did in the Old Testament, but he would never intentionally die for them. The shepherd’s life is worth infinitely more than all the sheep put together. Besides, if the shepherd sacrificed himself for just one of the sheep, the rest of the flock would be left defenseless.
But the Good Shepherd deliberately dies for each one of his own, as if that person were the only one. And in so doing he brings life to all. “I lay down my life for the sheep,” Jesus says (John 10:14). The Lord willingly surrenders his life to save us from death.
How does God truly feel about us? He loves us so much that he died in our place, when we were helplessly lost, entangled in our sin and its guilt. He loves us so much that he’s willing to drop everything and go out into the world to search for us when we have strayed away from him again, even though perhaps we once confessed we were his. How does God treat us when we turn to him in repentance, despite how prone we are to wander off again and again? He welcomes us with amazing grace. He doesn’t want anyone to perish. What happens when even one sinner is brought back home to the flock? There is a party in heaven. Who can resist a God like that?
Lost . . . and Found
So Jesus is the good shepherd, the seeking and searching savior, and you and I are the wandering sheep. Actually, it’s a bit worse than that because we’re not just lost; we’re actively hiding from God. Do you recall what Adam and Eve did in the garden after they sinned? “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). You know, people’s desire to hide from God explains a lot about a lot of lives, doesn’t it?
So if you are lost, the first, all-important step is to recognize it, admit it to yourself, and especially admit it to God. We need to have our eyes opened to reality, to understand where we really are apart from the Lord, to see how miserable we are without him. St. Augustine said that the only real happiness in the world is in knowing God. Until you realize that, you will go on hiding in one place or another.
But the next step is to acknowledge our helplessness. It’s not like we’re some sort of survival expert, able to find our way out of the woods and follow the trail home on our own. No, if we’re lost, we’re stuck; we are going nowhere, unless God finds us. We can do nothing, except to cry out to him to save us. So here’s an important question. Do you want to be found? The psalmist prayed, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” (Psalm 119:176). Do you see what he says? He admits he’s lost. He prays to God to find him. And he commits himself to God’s word and God’s way.
What about you; can you do that? People in church sometimes like to talk about how they found God. We know what they mean by that, and we rejoice for it. But in a very real sense, none of us ever finds God. He finds us. I am eternally grateful for that. Aren’t you?