In the Lake District we saw something very impressive. There was a large rectangular field with a herd of sheep at one end. The shepherd who was on a quad bike and his dog managed to get the sheep down to the other end of the field and through a gate in no more than twenty seconds.
Despite this, and one of the universal challenges of a being a shepherd, is that at least one of the sheep you can guarantee will be the other side of the fence. Sheep do not consciously set out to separate themselves or become lost, it more likely they are enticed by the grass that must look even better the other side of the fence.
Shepherds and sheep play a big part in the Bible story and alongside David in the Old Testament there are references to God being seen as a shepherd and Jesus refers to himself as the “good shepherd.”
Possibly the most famous shepherds we read about are in the Christmas story who leave all their sheep on the hillside to find the infant Jesus.
The parable of the lost sheep is very well known and if the Lake District is any guide, sheep who become separated are oblivious to the danger they are in. If they are outside the safety of the enclosure then they are at risk.
The experience of being lost is not a great one. If you know that you are lost then at least you can do something about it. It is a greater danger to be lost, but not be aware that you are. It is easy to be caught in something that can entice you in and take over.
I used to work for a homeless charity in Glasgow and the charity helped long term homeless with alcohol addictions. Some of the people in the houses spoke about their families and the deep regret for what they did and said when they were drunk.
I asked one resident was he aware at the time of what he was doing to those around him. All he could think about, he told me, was where was the next drink going to come from. He was lost and it was only on hitting rock bottom that he realised he was going nowhere and needed help. Maybe that is what being lost is like, you keep repeating the same mistakes and can’t move forward.
It is not just individuals. Societies and countries can become lost.
I was reading through the prophet Isaiah and most of the first part is aimed at the frustration of the prophet against the nation and the rulers. They are concerned with material things and financial gain, they are oblivious to the needs of the poor and the demands of law and justice.
There is a correlation to the modern era in weapon sales: The United States and the UK are the largest exporters of weapon sales and the main buyer is Saudi Arabia.
A few months ago, the Court of Appeal ruled that arm sales to Saudi were illegal as the ministers had ignored concerns that the weapons would be used to endanger civilians in Yemen and therefore broke humanitarian law.
It is easy to become lost and the words of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah is that things need to change. How you are acting is not what you were called to be, because in the law is a constant theme of looking after the vulnerable.
Although the focus in the parable can be on the sheep or the coin, the story is also about the shepherd. The opening asks a question, namely, “which one of you if they had 99 sheep and lost one, would not leave the 99 and find the one that was lost. Or, “which one of you,” if they had a lost a coin would not like the woman in the story dismantle the house until she had found it.
The answer might be, quite possibly not many of us if any would go to such lengths. Why would we risk losing the 99 or damage the house trying to find one coin. The parables are asking what sort of God do we believe in?
The answer given by Jesus is that God is constantly seeking and searching and will go to amazing lengths to find what is lost. God is like a seeking shepherd, or a determined woman and we heard a few weeks ago in the parable of the prodigal son, he is like a joyful father. The parable that we head this morning end with a focus on joy. What is lost has been found and now it is time for a party.
Although this is good news there is always a suggestion in the Gospels that some believed that Jesus went too far. It is one thing to tell people who are living in certain ways that they should change and live right, it is another thing when you party with sinners and spend time with them.
The only response that Jesus can give is that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner repents, over the 99 who do not need to repent.
The older brother in the parable a few weeks ago really struggled with this one. He believed that there was a bias towards the undeserving and it was completely unfair that his younger brother should be rewarded.
Yet this is the nature of grace that constantly brims over in the Bible readings. We don’t earn God’s favour by hard work and determination, we receive it as a gift and the Christian life is essentially, a life of gratitude for the gift that we have received.
God’s gift of grace is to say to each of us that we are loved and have value. Yet, we are not only recipients of God’s love, it is something that we share.
“You can sit on your sofa, beer in hand and junk food by your side watching TV for hours – that’s ordinary. You work around the clock not because you have to feed your family, but for no other reason to park a better car in the garage than your neighbours have – that’s ordinary. You get up off the sofa to play with your children or give your time and energy to help someone in need or lend an ear to someone – that’s extraordinary. Why? Because you are giving. Every gift breaks the barrier between the sacred and the mundane and floods the mundane with the sacred. When a gift is given, life becomes extraordinary because God’s own gift giving flows through the giver.”
Even though we can be lost, the seeking God finds us, and the gift we receive is there to be shared.