I grew up with Ladybird Books. They've morphed nowadays into witty and rather subversive spoof versions that are selling by the million. But I'm old enough to belong to the generation of the glory of days of Ladybird books. And one that made a deep impression on me told the story in words and pictures of a little black lamb that was too curious for its own good. It found a broken down gap in the dry stone wall of its field, jumped out, ran off and got lost. But it was found by the shepherd and brought back home.
It was, in fact, a retelling of this parable that Jesus tells in Luke 15. As a young boy I was very touched by the plight of this lost lamb, and so glad when it was safe again. Looking back, I would say that even then the Holy Spirit was using that simple picture book to begin to grip my heart with the mission of Jesus, that is to be our mission in life too. The teaching of Jesus is so simple, graphic and powerful, isn't it? Simple enough to grip the heart of a primary school aged boy. Simple, but so deep. I have four headings.
1. Jesus the Good Shepherd has come to do what it takes to find his lost sheep and bring them home
Take a look at verses 3 and 4:
"So [Jesus] told them this parable: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?"
This is not really, of course, a story about sheep – but a story about people, and the mission of Jesus to rescue lost people. One of the great Old Testament chapters on shepherds and sheep is Ezekiel 34. In it, the shepherds are the leaders and the sheep are God's people. And the leaders of Israel have been self-serving and exploitative. So God steps in. I quote, from verses 11-13:
"For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them …"
And verse 23:
"And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd."
So the God-Messiah will be the good shepherd who seeks and finds God's lost people and cares from them. And in time he came. And Jesus said:
"I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep." (John 10.14-15)
One of my favourite books is a recent memoir about sheep farming in the Lake District – The Shepherds' Life by James Rebanks. Speaking of his flock, he says:
"We know these ewes as individuals, their breeding and life stories, what their lambs were like this year and possibly last… My grandfather used to have an anecdote for every ewe, and used to drive us mad telling us where each one lambed, what its lamb sold for. Today my father and I take turns offering comment and judgement."
Jesus said, "I know my own and my own know me…" He knows them and he cares for them. What does it take for Jesus to find and rescue his lost people? He has to lay down his life. He goes to the cross. That is how much he cares. And when we think about our mission to a lost world, that is how much we are called on to care. We are to love the lost like Jesus does. But who are the lost? That brings me to my next heading.
2. We are all lost sheep, whether we know it or not, until Jesus finds us and brings us home
Back up to Luke 15.1-2:
"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them.""
So there are two groups in view here around Jesus. There are the tax collectors and sinners. They are drawing near to Jesus. They are realising that they need to be rescued. Then there are the Pharisees and scribes – the religious leaders of the day. They didn't see themselves as sinners or as lost. They knew they were OK. And Jesus didn't come for those who were OK. Jesus said – this is Luke 5.32:
"I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
Do you remember how, back in Luke 7, Jesus is at dinner with a Pharisee named Simon, and a sinful woman interrupts the meal and anoints the feet of Jesus, weeping. Luke says, verse 39:
"Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.""
Simon is contemptuous of the sinful woman and doesn't want anything to do with her. But Jesus forgives her, and accepts her worship. And do you remember how Jesus tells another story about a Pharisee and a tax collector? The Pharisee is self-righteous and proud and despises the tax collector who has come to hate his sin and throws himself on God's mercy. And it is the repentant tax collector who is accepted by God – not the Pharisee, who is just as sinful and just as lost, but doesn't see it. The apostle Paul in Romans 3.10-11 spells it out. He says:
"None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God"
And Romans 3.23-24:
"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…"
The truth is we are all lost sheep, whether we know it or not, until Jesus finds us and brings us home. Every one of us needs to be sought and found by Jesus. Or we will stay lost. James Rebanks describes a time when he lost a lamb. He writes:
"A lamb has gone missing. Its mother is agitated. She runs up and down the fence. I left them, hours ago, safe and well-mothered, and now it is gone. There are no clues … I check the becks in case it has fallen in and drowned … I hate losing a healthy lamb. I check the neighbouring fields. No sign. Then I see that it has got itself stuck between the trunks of an old thorn tree, about a foot off the ground. It is fine, just squashed and tired. I lift it out and it runs off to suckle its mother. You can lose hours looking for a lamb … We live with foxes skulking around the lambing fields overnight and in the twilight … The older ewes are fierce and stamp their feet and lower their heads as if to charge. But a younger ewe can be confused by the fox and can be fooled."
It is ridiculous, how sheep behave. Or at least, sheep are sheep – but it's ridiculous when people behave in the same way. Jesus' parable is about one lost sheep. But when it comes to people, it isn't just the odd one that goes astray. It's the whole lot. And it happens so quickly and easily. Over the summer we were on holiday on a farm in Scotland – with a field of sheep right outside our window. So we got to watch how they reacted. And when one sheep suddenly started off running, the whole flock would follow. Sometimes there was a reason for it, such as the shepherd arriving. But sometimes they would all take off, for no reason at all except that everyone else was doing the same. It was so clear how, if one sheep got lost, they could all get lost. That's what's happened to humanity. As the prophet Isaiah says in Isaiah 53.6:
"We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him [on Jesus]
the iniquity of us all."
Apart from Jesus, we are all lost sheep, whether we know it or not, until Jesus finds us and brings us home. So how does that happen, now that Jesus has ascended to heaven? Well:
3. Jesus now sends his disciples out to find his lost sheep and bring them home to him
That's implied by this parable, but it's explicit when the crucified and risen Jesus teaches his amazed disciples. Luke 24.46-49:
"Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.""
And then later he says – this is Acts 1.8:
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."
So if we have been sought and found by Jesus – if he has given us the gift of faith and we are trusting in him as our Lord and Saviour – then that is our task, now. We are to witness to Jesus to all people and all nations in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit will use our witness to draw all God's people back to him. Jesus is using us to do the seeking and finding now. The sheep are our top priority. James Rebanks sums up the shepherd's life in this way:
"My job is simple: get around the fields and feed and shepherd the different flocks of ewes – dealing with any issues that arise. First rule of shepherding: it's not about you, it's about the sheep and the land. Second rule: sometimes you can't win. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work."
As witnesses to Jesus, it's not about us. It's about Jesus and his lost sheep. We are to speak up, and go and do the work. A few years ago we were on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. A usual, we spent a good deal of time walking across the fields and hills. I have two particular memories of that week. The first is of coming across dead sheep. And not just once. Over and over. Sheep that had got into trouble and not made it home. The second memory is of finding a sheep in trouble but still alive. It was stuck in a barbed wire fence and couldn't get out. We decided it couldn't wait for the farmer to find it. We managed to take hold of it, twist it so that its stuck head came loose, and set it free. Very satisfying. That is our calling as disciples of Jesus. He now sends his disciples out to find his lost sheep and bring them home to him. And that is hard – but in the end it is full of joy. So finally:
4. When we join in Jesus' mission, we share in God's joy over sheep who are found and brought home
"And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
God rejoices; Jesus rejoices; heaven rejoices when lost sheep are found and rescued. It's a hard life, being a disciple of Jesus, but there is nothing better. James Rebanks loves being a shepherd, for all the trouble the sheep give him. He says:
"We are not sentimental people, but we share our lives with these sheep. We care about them … This is my life. I want no other … My children have long figured out what makes me tick. When my elder daughter was four years old, she looked at me sternly across the kitchen table and said, with a wisdom beyond her years, 'The trouble with you, Dad, is that it is all about the sheep.'"
That's what needs to be true of us, and true of this church. We need to care about the sheep. It's all about the sheep – lost and found.
Over the summer I went to a college reunion – something I've never done before. And I saw guys there who are now aging like me, who I hadn't seen since they were 21. Seeing one in particular – Stephen by name – took me back in my mind's eye to the welcome tea of the college Christian Union. He said to me then, as we chatted, with me feeling very out of my depth and alone in this new world, that in his experience there was nothing better than being used by God to lead someone to faith in Christ.
That simple comment was a great help to me – though Stephen never knew it – until, that is, I told him then, nearly forty years later. As a very unsure young student that comment reminded me that Jesus was there, caring for each one of us individually. And it helped me to get my priorities straight. There is nothing more important – and nothing better, nothing that brings more joy – than seeking out lost sheep, finding them, and bringing them home.
A few weeks ago I was speaking away at a church weekend. One of the songs we sung took me right back to when I was in my early teens and Jesus was in the process of setting fire to my faith. I hadn't sung it for years. It was written in 1972 – just a ditty really. Very simple. But deep. Because like the parable of the lost sheep, it is the teaching of Jesus. Maybe you know it. The chorus went like this (though I'm not going to attempt to sing it):
"Freely, freely you have received;
Freely, freely give.
Go in my name,
And because you believe,
Others will know that I live."
God forgave my sin, Carol Owens
That really says it all. Jesus has sought us and found us – at the cost of his life. And now we are to go in his name. And seek. And find. And rejoice.