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God Looks for those who Leave

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God Looks for Those Who Leave

Luke 15:3-10

Then Jesus told them this parable: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not 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. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 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 persons who do not need to repent.

"Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Luke 15:3-10

On a warm afternoon in September 1982 Patsy Wheat left her two-year-old son Jay playing in the carport with his eight-year-old sister and five-year-old brother. Her husband Harold, a long-distance trucker, wasn't due home until later that night. She set her oven timer for ten minutes, a trick to remind her to check the children. When the timer sounded ten minutes later, she went to check where the children were playing.

Jay was gone. The two older children hadn't noticed that he had somehow disappeared. Six and a half acres of lawn and woods surrounded their Bedford, Virginia home. But Patsy's first concern was the four-lane highway near the home, so she raced there. She did not see little Jay.

Trying to stifle fears of kidnapping, she first called the state police. Then she called the Bedford County sheriff's office. Within thirty minutes, patrol cars, rescue trucks, and a hundred people had gathered on her lawn to help with the search. By nine o'clock that night, a helicopter and a pair of bloodhounds had both proved ineffective.

When her husband arrived at 11 p.m., hundreds of volunteers were involved in the fruitless search, walking hand in hand through the woods. Some had been cut by briars; some had fallen down in exhaustion. The temperature was down to 65 degrees. But the volunteers continued their search in the bramble- and briar-laden area, thinking of the barefooted little boy wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.

Only one possibility remained. A slight, gray-headed woman was summoned with an air-scenting German shepherd. At 4:30 a.m. the dog picked up a scent, ran up a mountainside, and barked wildly. When rescuers reached the dog, it was licking little Jay, whose bleeding feet were caught in briars.

At the bottom of the mountain, a sea of people cheered with joy. A little boy lost was found. But greatest of all was the joy of Patsy Wheat. There is joy in finding one who is lost. (Patsy Wheat, "Please Find My Son," Redbook, May 1985, pp. 24, 260)

Jesus explained that such joy in finding the lost is the most distinctive characteristic of God Himself. In Luke 15 Jesus gave to all the ages this description of His Father: More than anything else, God wants to find whose who are lost. If you have gone away from God, He wants you to come back.

What else is God like? Jesus gave these pictures: He is like a shepherd who will leave the flock of a hundred sheep to find the one that is lost. He is like a woman who will turn over her house to find one lost coin, and like a father who will wait hopefully for the return of the son who has left. God seeks those who are lost, and His greatest joy is their recovery. When you have gone away from God, He gets no pleasure out of the emptiness, alienation, and lostness you experience.

In the three stories in Luke 15, Jesus revealed the depths of God's heart. God simply wants you to come back. Whatever the reason you have gone away, God wants you to come home. These word pictures show how much He longs for your return.

Jesus and the Lost

Jesus said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). With invisible chains, He drew the lost toward Him. Those labeled irreligious were drawn to Him as if to a magnet.

The greatest chapter of Jesus' parables begins with the statement, "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him." The mark of Jesus' ministry was His attractiveness to the abhorrent, repulsive, despised, and branded of His age. These are presented as two different groups: tax collectors and sinners. "Tax collectors" referred to the most despised Jews of them all. The Roman Empire did not collect its own taxes. It sold franchises for tax collection, and the Jews who bought the franchises were considered by their fellow Jews as traitors to God and country—both blasphemous and unpatriotic. "Sinners" referred not just to those who committed sins, but also to certain occupations of people—shepherds, tanners, and people who could not keep the Pharisees' legalistic interpretations of the Ten Commandments. (And remember, the Pharisees had subdivided the Ten Commandments into 613 manmade rules. Most of the people could not even remember them, no less keep them!)

You may have grown up learning who the tax collectors, or publicans, were in the New Testament. What you may not understand, though, is the shock value those characters carried during Jesus' day.

To explain, suppose your church began to attract only those people who were on parole from the state penitentiary, or those out on bond from the county jail. Along with them, suppose your church attracted some of the more affluent con men, extortionists, and ripoff artists in your area, plus slum landlords and massage parlor hostesses. Now suppose at the same time the religious establishment of the city openly rejected your church and condemned its direction.

The scribes and Pharisees were repelled by Jesus. The scribes were the interpreters of the law—professional religionists. The Pharisees were a layman's league of never more than six thousand men. They were the guardians of personal piety and purity. When they saw the kind of crowd attracted to Jesus, the Bible says they "murmured." The word suggests a quiet complaint continually and habitually whispered to one another. One can almost hear the disdain in their words: "This man actually welcomes these people." They could not imagine Him even tolerating such a crowd. But their ultimate sneer was saved for another habit of Jesus: He actually sat down and ate with them.

If you could imagine all this, you would understand the situation in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Lost people continually came to Him. And they came more and more as His ministry progressed. They were not groupies seeking to be close to a great man. They really knew that He cared for them. In this regard, Jesus stands unique among all biblical figures. The Jewish scholar Claude Montefiore states that no one whose life was recorded in the Old Testament or other Jewish writings had this effect on lost people. They simply wanted to be near Him.

Do you feel far away from God? Have your circumstances created a sense of alienation from your spiritual home? This is not a secondary question on the periphery of spiritual life. The central aspect of Jesus' ministry was to appeal to those who were lost. Even today, Jesus wants you to come back.

Tennessee Williams's family moved to a city during the famous playwright's childhood where he and his younger sister and wanted to join a church's choir. Because of their less-than-perfect social situation, they were made to feel like untouchables. He never went back to church. One wonders what the outcome would have been if his talents had been captured for the church rather than the world. What if the man with the vivid dramatic imagination to write Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had used his creative genius for the kingdom of God?

Jesus wants us to understand that He represents God in His search for the lost. Jesus is like this. Those who follow Him should be like this, too.

The Reality of Lostness

Jesus did not denounce His detractors with anger. He reasoned with them from common experience, reminding them they would leave the flock to find one lost sheep. By arguing from the lesser to the greater, He pointed out, shouldn't He turn aside to find lost human beings? If a peasant woman would turn her house upside down to find a missing coin, should He not turn the accepted order of things upside down to find a lost person?

Just what did Jesus mean when He described being lost? Again, He gives word pictures to help us understand the reality of lostness. For example, a sheep is lost through heedlessness. It does not willfully separate from the flock. A stone that falls, a snake that crawls, or a gap in a pasture wall may frighten or beckon a sheep away from the flock. The sheep is heedless, stupid, or unwary. A flock of one hundred sheep was an average size flock in Jesus' time. One can picture the shepherd in the evening, counting the sheep before closing them into the pen—and then recounting again: ninety-nine. Every Pharisee hearing the story knew that a Hebrew shepherd would search for one missing sheep.

Jesus wants you to understand that God seeks people even when they are lost through their own stupidity, or heedlessness, or carelessness. A teen-ager experiments with drugs for the first time and is hooked. A married person flirts with passion and in a sudden gust of unexpected lust is swept into a situation never expected. A debt-ridden employee takes money from the till, expecting to pay it back. Such people are heedless and stupid like a sheep—but Jesus says God seeks them anyway.

A coin, on the other hand, is lost through carelessness. In the parable of the lost coin, Jesus continued the same lesson, but with several contrasts. These contrasts in the parables are between a man and a woman, relative affluence and poverty, outdoors and indoors, a living sheep and an inanimate coin. A sheep is lost through its own stupidity. A coin is lost through no fault of its own. The coin in question was a Greek drachma, the equivalent of a Roman denarius, which was the wage for one day's labor. It was one-tenth of what this woman had. But it meant more than that to her.

Women of that generation may have worn a circlet of ten coins on their foreheads. This would have been the woman's dowry, a sacred gift related to her marriage—and all that she had of her own. The ornament of beauty was marred by the loss of one coin—as was her very person.

Forty-two percent of American people claim to attend church every week. What of the 50 percent who never go, who are living away from God? What of the children in those families who, through no fault of their own, never hear a word about God, Christ, values, commandments, Bible stories, spiritual truths, or anything related to reverence or spiritual life? Does God seek them? Does the Great Shepherd's heart long for them? Jesus says "Yes."

Both the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin point out the value to God of "the one." Whether it's one out of ten or one out of one hundred, God values the one. In contrast, much of our lives today are lived in a suffocating depersonalization, as shown by the names we have applied to decades during the past fifty years:

In the 1940s Franklin Roosevelt spoke of a generation that had a "rendezvous with destiny."

In the 1950s we were called the Silent Generation, and David Reisman spoke of the lonely crowd who developed values by looking at others.

Then came the Now Generation of the 1960s, sure of itself and wanting to work its will on others.

The 1970s was the Me Generation, living largely for self-fulfillment and ego gratification.

The 1980s has been called the Uncaring Generation.

Vance Packard called us a nation of strangers. Louise Bernikow calls loneliness an American epidemic. AT&T urges us to reach out and touch someone. Life has become privatized. We do not even know what other people are here for any more. The television, computer, and bank-teller machine eliminate the need for others.

Five billion people now occupy this planet. But this planet is a speck in the Milky Way, 100,000 light-years across. The Milky Way is one galaxy among ten billion other galaxies. The largest known object in the universe is galaxy 3C-236 in Leo Minor, which is 18.6 million lightyears across. In light of this, it makes all the difference whether God really cares for the one, the individual, the single, solitary person. Jesus Christ dares to say that the God who created it all searches that universe for "the one." And nothing else brings Him the joy He feels at finding that lost person. He wants you to come back.

Searching for Those Who Leave

Rescue requires thoroughness. When the shepherd searches for the one sheep that is lost, he does not abandon the ninety-nine. He leaves them safely in the pen, with other undershepherds standing watch. But the shepherd's passion is to find the one that is lost. One can picture the shepherd seeking through crags and dunes for the lost sheep. Remember, the shepherd stands for God. God does not have to leave His own found ones to make the search. But the search is His passion.

The story of the lost coin also recalls the thoroughness of the search. The woman lived in a typical Palestinian peasant's house with no windows and a low door. Her home was so dark she had to light a candle for the search even during the day.

She used a broom of brush to jostle the coin in order to hear its tinkle against the barren floor. This turned the house upside down. Furniture turned over, dust raised, household in a mess—everything to find the coin.

For two days in October 1987 the whole world was gripped by the drama of "the one." Even as an Iranian missile hit an American-flagged tanker and the Dow Jones plummeted, the whole nation was absorbed with thoughts of one little girl. We learned again that small things and the life of an individual are what really matters as we watched the monumental rescue efforts focused on eighteen-month-old Jessica McClure, who had dropped twenty-two feet through an eight-inch opening in an oil pipeline. Drilling experts, highway construction equipment, pneumatic drills, special air vents, high-pressure hydraulic drills, and herculean effort were expended during the fifty-eight hours she was trapped underground. Rescuers tried everything possible in their mission to save the little girl.

Jesus came to make that same kind of effort to seek and to save that which is lost.

Many of Jesus' representatives could learn a lesson from His efforts to bring people back to God. When you look at evangelical religion today you see a great deal of narcissism, but not much interest in the lost. There is a defection of the baby-boomer generation from any organized religion. Those born from 1946 to 1962 do not demonstrate that much interest, even though some are coming back to church. Sociologists Wade Roof and William McKinney attribute this mass defection to the baby boomers' self-indulgent ethos that recognizes no bonds apart from personal choice, and regards society as a crowd of individuals strolling through a lifelong shopping mall of private purposes.

There is something woeful about anything that is lost— and something joyful about the one who is found. Just before Christmas 1986, six masterpieces by Edouard Vuillard were torn from their frames in a Paris museum, where they had hung since 1913. The paintings, worth three million dollars, were found the following February, prompting great joy throughout the art world.

Ephesians 2:10 says, "We are God's workmanship." The very word "workmanship" suggests a finished masterpiece, a work of art. God intends your life to be a masterpiece of His work. If you are a lost masterpiece, He's looking for you.

Homesick for God.

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