We clergy receive free parking when we visit our people in Credit Valley Hospital. In the Spiritual Care Room a machine stamps the parking card paid. Then we insert the card at the exit gate, the arm rises and out we go. Very nice indeed.
One day in the spring, I went to the spiritual care room for the stamp but…I couldn’t find my card. Usually I put the card in my shirt pocket. But it wasn’t there. I searched all my pockets three times. But no card. When that happens you go to the parking office and explain your dilemma. You may have to pay the full daily rate of $16.00 for a lost card. Or if the person on duty is kindly, you estimate when you came in and get charged for that amount. In either case, it’s a hassle. I thought perhaps I had left the card in my car, so I headed to the parking lot to search. As I came out of the hospital, lying there on the sidewalk was a parking card. Oh, I was relieved. It had to be my lost card. I picked it up, looked at the time stamp and it was around when I had come in. So I went back, had the card stamped and exited as usual. It was my lucky day.
That evening, as I was getting undressed my original card fluttered to the floor. Somehow it had slipped out of my pocket and become wedged between my belt and the sweater I was wearing. Then I realized I had found someone else’s card on the sidewalk, who would have had to go through the hassle I described. There was nothing I could do and I sure hope that person didn’t have to pay $16. To sooth my conscience, I made a donation of $20 to our food cupboard. In any case, that day someone else paid for both my blunder and my parking space. That reminds me of why you and I belong to God’s family now and forever. It’s because the One named Jesus paid the price for our sins and opened up a place for you and for me.
Luke 15. Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Pharisees and scribes were grumbling, “(He) welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus spoke about a shepherd leaving ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after one lost sheep. Then he added, “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Jesus is telling us that the God of the Bible is a searching God. Out of love and compassion and mercy God seeks the lost. It’s happening right now. God is searching for the lost.
First, let’s think about the lost. Who are they? How do they get lost?
Basically the lost are people who are away from God and his flock. Now a sheep which has its head down can become so intent on nibbling grass that it just wanders away without realizing it. It falls into a ravine. Or gets caught up in a bramble bush. Or even if that doesn’t happen, the sheep must now face the dangers of the wilderness on its own. Just so, some people wander away from God and his people. They were once among the found. They came to Sunday School, youth group and worship. They were baptized, confirmed. They were married here. Their children were baptized in the church. But they drifted away. They got busy with other things. They became distracted by the world. And it’s easy to become lost today, especially in this culture which seems so far removed from God and his ways. So much around us is false and unworthy, yet somehow so very attractive. It draws people away from the loving Shepherd and his flock.
Now some become lost for other reasons, reasons we take seriously. Some who were once among the flock have become disappointed or even angry with God because of setbacks or losses in their lives. Or they have become disappointed with the church. It didn’t meet their expectations or their needs. Or they become offended. Now I think that people are sometimes oversensitive to things that others say and do in church. People become very offended with words that they would laugh off on the golf course or in the workplace. Some people use it as an excuse to excuse themselves from God’s flock. It is important to watch what we say to one another in the church. Let your words be uplifting and encouraging. Even offer words of criticism in a positive way. I don’t want to be the cause of someone becoming lost; I want to be the reason someone becomes found. So there are people who were once part of God’s family but are now lost. The church is full of them; or rather the church is not full of them, because they are no longer among us.
Then there are people who are lost because they were never part of God’s family. They’ve never been inside a church; they were never exposed in a meaningful way to the church’s faith or ministry. They have never heard the Gospel message of God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ. They’re wandering around lost, and in grave spiritual danger. Often they don’t even know they’re lost, anymore than a fallen coin knows that it is lost.
A person tells of how one day he and his wife and three-year-old daughter attended a large fall fair here in Ontario. They blinked and the little girl was gone. They lost her. And with a sense of increasing fear they searched for her, calling her name, imagining all the bad things that could happen to her among the crowd of people. Then suddenly they saw her, and she was smiling and happy, wandering around taking in the sights and sounds of the fair. She didn’t know she was lost until her parents found her. That’s the way it is with many people today. They are lost spiritually and don’t even realize it. They don’t know the eternal danger they’re in. They haven’t yet heard that someone who loves them dearly is searching for them.
It’s fair to say that all of us have been lost at one point. In fact, even now we go through periods when we are happy in God’s love, happy among God’s people, singing his praises and serving him joyfully. But then there are other periods when we seem far from God and his people, wandering from God’s truth and even deliberately following paths of sin and disobedience.
A teacher asked a Sunday School class, “If all the children who are good were painted green, and all the children who are bad were painted red, what colour would you be?” A boy put up his hand and answered, “Striped.” How true. Often we are a bit of both, found and lost. We would say that the tax collectors and sinners were among the lost. But what about the Scribes and Pharisees? Well, they were among the found, because they belonged to God’s chosen people, but they were also somewhat lost, because they grumbled at Jesus. They didn’t recognize the searching God at work in Jesus, welcoming sinners and eating with them. So it’s possible to be partially found and partially lost. Sometimes it even happens to us. “Prone to wander, Lord, I can feel it, prone to wander from the love I’ve known.” There are times when we need to feel the gentle pull of the shepherd’s staff, pulling us back from our wandering ways. The point is that there are many lost people in the world today, people who have wandered away from God, people outside of God’s family for one reason or another. But God is searching for the lost. God loves lost people. He wants them to become found. God wants them in his eternal family.
Now let’s think about how God is conducting his search.
Recently I have noticed many signs posted by people searching for lost dogs. There is a photo of the dog, its name, what to do if you see the dog, and the owner’s number. Imagine the heartbreak and anxiety a family feels over their lost pet and then the joy they experience if and when it is found. Lost people are even more precious to God than a lost dog to its owner. God keeps a picture of that that person in his mind. God is searching for him or her.
God’s search is like a shepherd seeking a lost sheep or a woman looking for her lost coin. God searches diligently and carefully and persistently. Like a searching shepherd God endures the brambles, the rocks, the sharp needles which draw blood. He goes into deep valleys. He enters the wilderness. As the Psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit, or where can I flee from your presence.” Like a woman who lights a lamp to search for a coin in her dark house, so God searches with a light in this dark world. That light is Jesus Christ, his Son, the light of the world. God is searching for the lost with message of his love in Christ, Crucified and Risen. God is crying out, “Home, weary wanderers, home!”
A bishop was preaching to a congregation in Notre Dame Cathedral. He told of three young men, secular and godless, who wandered into the cathedral one day. Two of them bet the third that he would not make a fake confession. He accepted the bet. The priest realized what had happened, so when man finished his fake confession, the priest said, “For every confession there is a penance. See that great crucifix over there? Go to it, kneel down and repeat three times as you look up into the face of the crucified, “All this you did for me, and I couldn’t care less.” The young man came out of the confessional box and told his companions what had happened and asked for the money. “Oh no,” they said. “Do what they priest said, and we’ll pay up.” Walking slowly to the great crucifix he knelt down and looked up into that suffering face with its searching eyes of love. Then he began, “All this you did for me, and I…” He got not further. Tears flooded his eyes. His heart was broken by repentance. There his old life ended and a new life began. Finishing his message, the bishop said, “I was that young man.” Nothing draws the lost back to God more powerfully than the love of Jesus Christ. “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” That’s why the sinners and tax collectors felt drawn to Jesus.
God is conducting his search for lost people through the church. Do you know that transit systems like the TTC have a department which reunites passengers with lost items? The church, this church, every church is God’s lost and found department. Our ministry is not only directed to the current flock, but outward to the lost. God works through the church to reunite lost people with himself. He is searching for the lost through us.
Yes, God is actively searching for the lost. But Jesus’ parable only goes so far. You see, when a shepherd finds a lost sheep he lifts it to his shoulders and brings it home to great rejoicing. A woman picks up the lost coin she has found and rejoices with her friends. Sheep and coins do not have a choice. But humans do. God searches for us and draws near. His hand reaches for ours. But no one is truly found until they say, “Yes” to the searching God, and to his Son, Jesus Christ. If you need to come home, I invite you to say “Yes” to God today. Take the hand of the Good Shepherd. Rejoice in knowing you are among those whom God has found. And know this too – that you have brought great joy to God’s heart.