Luke 15:1-10 (click to display NIV text)
Aug. 11, 2013
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ ”
Some of the authorities were not happy with Jesus because he ate with tax collectors and sinners, two of the main groups of what would have been considered “lost” people. Kenneth Bailey explains that an invitation to a meal was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness. Jesus was not only eating with sinners, he was welcoming them, even honoring them.
So Jesus tells them a story about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. The theme is the determination of God to find the lost. God wants lost people found, and when they are found, then there is great rejoicing. Darrell Bock says, “Jesus searches for sinners because heaven rejoices at their recovery.” In welcoming those who are lost, Jesus is doing what he sees the Father doing. In Ezekiel 34, the Lord says of Israel as his flock, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep.”
These parables invite exploration. I think that is why they have been embraced and loved by so many generations and cultures, and why so many artists have used them in their work. Jesus is saying that there are lost people, that is the human condition caused by sin. He pictures lost people as ones who stand in an open field. The lost sheep is alone and unprotected in an open field. The 99 who are left alone by the shepherd are also in the field, and in a sense they are lost too. We notice in the parable of the lost son that the young son is alone in a field with the pigs when he comes to his senses. The older brother is in the field when he hears the music from the welcome-home party for the younger son. So I think Jesus is using the image of the field as a symbol of being lost.
So, who is lost, in the view of Jesus? Certainly the tax collectors and sinners –- these are most closely identified with the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. But there are others: the Pharisees and legal experts, the religious folk who do not go after the lost, who may in fact exclude them: they too are lost.
Jesus says that a lost person is like a sheep, left alone in the open. When it gets separated from the flock, it becomes very fearful, very anxious. It freezes and is unable to walk. Even when the shepherd finds it, the sheep is not able to relax and walk; it must be carried back to the flock.
There are people who, when they go through a difficult situation, become isolated and fearful. They cannot help themselves. They cannot seek help or admit what is going on. They hide from their families, and from the church. Their only help is when a friend comes to stand alongside them, and even to carry them for a time. Gradually, the fearful one is able to talk, able to be honest with the friend. The friend patiently hears the confession and loves the fearful one back to a relationship with the Lord and with the community. God is always searching for the lost sheep. He is present in the words of the comforting friend, and in the actions of the one who carries the burden. Jesus is the friend of sinners.
There are also people who become like the lost coin. These are caught in some darkness, unable to escape a trap of addiction of some kind. These often cover themselves with habitual lying, secrecy, empty promises or living a double life, so they are not seen, not found out. The woman in the parable has to sweep and sweep and look closely into the darkness. Her job is not easy. So, when people are lost like this, it requires a special kind of intervention. Someone must be persistent in sweeping the layers away, must be discerning in looking through the darkness to find the real person. In the brief story Jesus tells, the search for the coin is described in detail. Jesus is the lover of our souls. He sees us truly through the layers of darkness.
The lost coin retains its value when it is lost. The lost son questioned whether he had any value left in him, and offered to become a hired hand of his father. But the father embraces him as a son. When we allow God to find us in Christ, our eternal value is intact.
God is always searching for the lost. So he makes the search for the lost a central part of the commission of the church. It is hard to do. We are tempted to give up. We can grow weary. But God wants lost people found, and he rejoices when they are.
My first place of ministry after seminary was First Covenant Church in Jamestown, N.Y. It was a wonderful church, one with many older people who needed care, and one with much tradition to follow. My job description was very broad and soon I had more than I could handle. I was scurrying around trying to keep up with programs for the youth, visiting the older members, funerals, weddings, midweek and Sunday evening services, talks to the Ladies’ Aid, preaching, Confirmation and so on. Then I met Bill and Inga Black, a couple who thought we ought to be involved in finding lost people and that the associate pastor should spend some time looking for lost sheep. They bought a house across the street from the church and opened it for homeless young people to live there. The church struggled with their vision, but over the years that church has become a place that focuses its ministry on finding lost people, largely through their recovery groups.
When we got to Mt. Vernon, I met Bob Ekblad, a young man who had lived in Honduras, and he had a vision of ministry for the many people from Mexico and Central America who were coming to the area to work in the fields and to begin a new life. He began a church and a school and a migrant camp outreach and a coffee roasting business, and a jail ministry and a home for women who were being released from jail. At first the churches were slow to join him in his vision. But now there are many ministries in that region that seek lost people, welcome newcomers and help people of a different culture find faith in the Lord.
Then we came here, and I met a man named Carl “Spark” Ball. He has a vision for helping churches care for the poor in Lake County. He connected us with Community Christian Church in Waukegan to help with their food pantry. He became the director of Love INC., and has been consistently building a ministry to the lost, through the local church. These have been good models for me, of people who have been found by Jesus, and have joined him in the work of seeking the lost.
There is a cost, though. The reality is that because he sought and welcomed the lost, Jesus was rejected and was crucified. Because of the cross, lost people can be found. Finding the lost is difficult. Carrying a fearful soul is beyond our strength. Lost people are found not through friendship or intervention or providing food and shelter, as important as those are. Lost people are found through the cross of Jesus. It is the power of the cross that saves people, that shows people the way from the open field to their home with God. It is the redeeming love of Jesus that sets trapped people free. These parables of Jesus point directly to his death and resurrection. It is by faith in Christ that we are found and that we live.