I don’t know if you’re like me, but whenever I read the Bible I look for the hidden truths. I’m always looking for the part I might have missed at first glance. I was reading a story Jesus told in Luke chapter 15 last week and had one of those moments.
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away.”
He told this story to communicate an important truth to two specific groups of people:
First, to the tax collectors, sinners, and other religious and societal outcasts, Jesus was saying that God was pursuing them. That He hadn’t given up on them, looked away, or cast them off. He was explaining that, although others might refuse to associate with them, welcome them, or accept them, God was longing for them. The Father was chasing after them, searching for the lost, ready to celebrate even one who turned to Him.
Second, to the religious leaders, the holier-than-thou elitists that loved to look down on the sinners from their self-righteous thrones, who were quick to pick up stones to throw anytime a statement could be made, Jesus was saying, “They matter. The sinners, the outcasts, the broken, the poor, the voiceless. They all matter. They have value. Worth. Purpose. God loves them. He wants them. He welcomes and accepts them. And when one is far away, God is more interested in finding and bringing them close – not just calling, but carrying – than He is in entertaining the found who have no compassion or concern for the lost.”
Culturally, this was such a controversial statement for Jesus to make that undoubtedly even His closest followers were more than a little worried that they might quickly become the targets of some stone-throwers in the audience. But Jesus was intent on leaving no room for misunderstanding. He went on to tell two more stories (the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Son) back-to-back to drive home the message.
Now I’ve read this and heard this story a thousand times. I’ve taught this story over and over. It’s powerful. There’s so much hope in these words of Jesus for people who are wondering if God is angry with them, or worse, apathetic toward them.
But I missed something. I missed the fact that there’s hope in there for me. And if you’re a Christian, there’s hope in there for you. Jesus wasn’t just correcting, contradicting, or condemning the religious leaders. He was trying to explain that they mattered just as much to God as anyone else, sinner or saint. Even though I hope no one ever thinks of me or compares us to those self-righteous Pharisees, the same hope applies to me, and to you, and anyone else who might be one of the 99.
It’s the simple truth that if you or I ever wander off and become the 1, Jesus will pursue us too. Many days I feel lost or far from God. Even as a pastor, there are times I just feel distant. I know I’m not alone…I talk to many others (not just pastors, but people from different faith backgrounds and in different places on their spiritual journeys) who are in the same boat. Some days, you’re on top of the mountain. Some days, you wonder if it were even possible for the valley to be deeper or darker or more hopeless.
Our Father loves us too much to lose us.
We can take comfort in knowing that God will pursue us just the same. On the days when you feel like the 1, Jesus is pursuing you. On your best days, when you’re feeling like one of the 99, you can be certain that you wouldn’t be able to wander far before Jesus would begin searching and calling and drawing you back.