Of Lost Sheep and Lost Coins

Luke 15:1-10 – The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin

God is looking for you

In World War I, illustrator James Montgomery Flagg produced the iconic recruiting poster that we’ve all seen. Uncle Sam is looking intently at the viewer and announcing, “I want you for the U.S. Army.” More than 4 million copies of the poster were printed from 1917-1918, helping to man the Army with 4 million soldiers to fight the war. The Army continues to look for men and women to fill its ranks. The total Army needs to add over 120,000 men and women to its rolls in 2019 in order to achieve the mission it has been given by the nation.

Similarly, the United Methodist Church is looking for a few good men and women (to borrow a Marine slogan) to fill the ranks of its clergy. Specifically, it is looking for young clergy. Like the denomination itself, the clergy are graying. The Young Clergy Initiative is a $7 million fund created by General Conference to increase the number of young people called to serve as elders and deacons. The institution needs them to survive.

Jesus tells us that God is looking for us, too, but his purpose is rather different. Jesus isn’t looking for us because he needs us to do something for him. Rather, he wants to do something for us. He is looking for us simply because we are lost, we are in peril and we important to him.

Rescue those in peril

Like lost sheep, we are separated from our master and our lives are in jeopardy. The shepherd looks for the lost sheep in part because the sheep is in mortal danger on his own.

In 2003 I accompanied the initial wave of forces into Iraq. When we finally stopped moving north, we established a position near the south end of the airport runway in Baghdad. One of Saddam’s palace was located just to the east. Day by day a shepherd-less flock of sheep walked past our fence line headed who knows where. When someone suggested to the local residents that they take the sheep, they recoiled in horror. These were Saddam’s sheep, and heaven help the person who did anything to anger him! The dictator had gone into hiding, but he still struck fear into his neighbors.

So the sheep wandered, without a shepherd, grouped tightly together to look for pasture and safety – together, that is, except for one little straggler who couldn’t keep up. It seems that sheep just naturally know there is safety in staying with the flock. To fall behind is to fall into danger. This little fellow did his best, but he lagged further behind the group each day. I’m not sure if he was sick or injured or just more malnourished than the rest, but I knew that his life was hanging by a thread. One of the feral dogs who roamed the area might get him; the dogs were starving, too. Or he might succumb to illness or hunger. Or he might just fall so far behind that he couldn’t find the flock. He – or she, I didn’t check – needed a shepherd to rescue him.

God is looking for you for the same reason that Terminator’s Kyle Reese was looking for Sarah Connor: to save you from death. He finds us in peril, reaches out his hand and says, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Rejoice when the lost are found

Like lost sheep we are in danger, and like lost property, we are valuable to God. The value of a coin is obvious. And although we may want to be sentimental about the lost sheep, it too is a valuable commodity. But, as the parable of the Prodigal Son will make clear, we are not valuable to God like a coin or a piece of livestock, but like a child.

We are valuable even though God had to impoverish himself to rescue us. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave. A slave. A servant. One without earthly honor or power. That’s what Jesus’ opponents objected to the most, I think, that Jesus debased himself and “submitted to be more vile” (to borrow a term from Wesley).

We are valuable to God, then, not because we enrich him, but even though we cost him. Jesus suffered injustice and was executed on a cross. That’s what it took to find us. That’s what it took to rescue us. That’s how valuable every single person is to God.

We are so valuable to God, in fact, that all of heaven rejoices when a lost sinner comes home, even though bringing us home came at a great price. There’s no griping or complaining on God’s part, just joy without measure over every single son or daughter that comes home.

The good shepherd looks for the lost in good weather and bad. In pleasant places and dangerous deserts. At noon in the hot sun and in the middle of the night when only starlight illumines the way.  The shepherd is looking in hospitals and hospices and battlefields. In bars and prisons and drug houses. In offices, on factory floors and behind the counter in the places we shop. In suburban homes and college campuses. Where corn and soybeans grow and where cattle graze. Amid the gleaming high-rises of corporate America and under dark overpasses where the homeless try to sleep. The shepherd is looking for the lost.

God’s search for the lost is not a distraction from his main work. Right now, in this broken world, it is his main work. He’s not too busy keeping the lights on in the universe to search for his lost children. The fact that he has to search for us wanderers is a problem. It means the world is messed up and needs to be fixed. Some sheep, it seems, need to be rescued again and again. Somehow, God never reaches the “Damn it, I’ve had enough” stage. God is single-minded, persistent, unswerving. He keeps looking for us until he finds us, for we are loved and in mortal danger on our own.