I have been preaching through Matthew's gospel account and recently I shared of Jesus' instructions regarding the lost sheep and how the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the flock who are safe to go find the one that is lost.
It's a challenging passage and raises many questions.
What do you think? 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. - Matthew 18:12-14 (ESV)
Who is the lost sheep?
The lost sheep in this parable is a new believer, a member of the flock that has strayed. That much is clear.
Is the one more important than the ninety-nine?
No, that's not the point of the passage. The ninety-nine are believers. They are together. They are in community. They are safe.
Why leave the ninety-nine alone?
Even today, if Middle Eastern shepherds know they need to be away from their flock for an extended period of time, they will likely get a friend or relative to watch over the flock. Yet, the point of this passage and word from Christ is that God values each and every person. No one is worth less than another. The shocking story was shared by Jesus to his disciples to emphasize that they are not to devalue any person and should seek to keep unity among the believers, for the good of the church and the glory of God.
This story is to motivate and encourage the church. The message is clear - God loves his children. We should, too.
I am reminded of a dog my wife and I used to own. He was a small black poodle (not Max, our current wonder-dog) and he loved to get out of our back yard. He would get out and start walking. He would "follow his nose" and loved to discover new scents. However, he wasn't the sharpest dog I've ever known. I'm no dog whisperer, but this guy would walk away for blocks and eventually look up. When he looked up, he would be far from home. I imagine in his little dog brain he was thinking "Uh...where am I?" We'd look for him, but when we couldn't find him, we'd wait until a neighbor, or like one time, the workers at Jiffy Lube in Orange Park, to call us. Our number was on his collar. We'd go pick him up. All was good. He was home.
We were happy. He was happy. He didn't desire to be lost. He jus strayed away.
The lost sheep (not poodle) in the church are like this. They stray. They lose focus. They begin listening to the lies of the enemy and start agreeing with the lies. Sometimes, those lies sound like "You don't matter. You're worthless. No one at this church loves you. No one loves you." When the lie is taken for truth, straying results.
These are lies.
But, what about the sheep who wants to be lost?
Sometimes people walk away from church and the community of believers and do so intentionally.
Sometimes people want to believe the lies. They refuse the grace of God. They refuse to acknowledge brothers and sisters in Christ to step out of their comfort zones to reach out and connect. They're not forgotten by others, but they believe they are.
It is true that we need to not forget the lost sheep, but what about that sheep who has seeks to remain lost, for various reasons?
The passage in Matthew that follows the lost sheep story speaks of conflict and discipline. The focus is on the sin of Christians and how the church must respond.
It is sin for the church to ignore the lost sheep. Yet, it is also sin for the lost sheep to desire separation and lostness. It is sinful to continually ignore the draw of the Holy Spirit and to grieve him.
Running from God is different from straying away. Many who have run attempt to declare their just lost sheep. That's not true, they're rebellious sheep. In those cases, discipline from God's church is needed. Sometimes, even excommunication is the required response.
That seems extreme, but it's right. It's holy.
Pray and Remember Your Role.
It is God who draws. It is Christ who has come to seek and save the lost. He invites us into this great story, but ultimately, he does the rescue. We, the church, must not ignore our calling. We must be obedient. Yet, we must also be wise to discern the difference between a lost sheep who has strayed and one who is running from God.
In the case of the latter, I think of the story of the prodigal son. In that case, the son never lost his title as child, but the father remained home. He apparently prayed and waited. Eventually, the lost son came home. He "woke up" from his rebellion and shifted into "lost sheep" status. He realized he was being drawn home.
Prayer is not a weak, passive response to those who stray. It is the active role we must take, especially when we find the lost sheep and he/she has no desire to be found...yet.
Remember, God knows the details. He is in control.