You remember the story. It’s recorded in Matthew and in Luke. The details, the back story, are different in Luke. In Luke it's also told as part of three stories that illustrate how precious we are to God. Perhaps Jesus told the parable more than once. But in Matthew, the disciples had just been asking Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called a child to come stand in their midst and told them they had to be like little children. Then he said,
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt. 18:12-14)
He did what? He left the ninety-nine? Without a shepherd? Alone? In case you’re wondering, domestic sheep aren’t any safer from predators in a flock of ninety-nine than they are on their own. Oh, maybe a little bit safer. The big ewes and rams are a little better at facing down a wolf or a jackal than a lamb is, but without that shepherd, they can still get picked off, still fall down a cliff, still drown in a flash flood, still get stuck in the mud of a wadi.
Still, the shepherd leaves them and goes off after the one. This doesn’t make any sense in our economy. You don’t trade the safety of ninety-nine for the rescue of one.
God doesn’t think that way. To God, the one and the ninety-nine have the same value. Individually or corporately, they’re all worth searching for and rejoicing over. And it’s a good thing, or you and I would have been picked off by the jackals a long time ago.
You see, we are the one. We—all of us—are the straying sheep. There’s not one of us who hasn’t strayed away from the flock, looking for a better patch of grass, an easier way up the hill, a warmer bit of sunshine. Paul says it in Romans, quoting David:
As it is written:
"There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one." (Rom. 3:10-12)
I don’t know about you, but I strayed a lot from the flock. I never went very far, but I spent years heading over the hill whenever it suited me. Then I’d get scared, or tired, or just sick of being on my own, and I’d run back to the flock. And I was pretty good at it. I could find the flock most of the time. Or at least, that’s what I thought I was doing.
It turns out that I never once found the flock on my own. Every time I came back, it happened because the Shepherd sought me out and brought me back. Without him, the first time I left, I would have kept on wandering until I got swallowed up.
But the Shepherd kept coming after me. Gradually, I have learned this is where I belong. I’ve lost my desire to head over the next hill.
Something else I’ve learned. The other sheep didn’t come looking for me. It was the Shepherd. Oh, certainly there is value in being part of the flock. There is safety in numbers . . . at least for most of them. Have you ever watched lions hunt? Sometimes they stalk close to the herd in heavy cover. Sometimes they drive the herd toward another lion. Sometimes they just wait for that one antelope to wander a bit too far from the rest, looking for the best grass. Occasionally, the herd comes to the defense of the victim. Have any of you seen the Battle at Kruger video? That shows a herd of Cape Buffalo rescuing a calf from lions. But not every Cape Buffalo is safe. Some still get eaten. And for the one that gets eaten, the herd wasn't very safe, was it?
That's the way it is with sheep, too. Except when there is a shepherd. The shepherd not only looks for the straying sheep, but he drives off the lion, the wolf, the bear, the hyena. Do you remember what David said to Saul before he went out to battle Goliath?
But David said to Saul, "Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. (1 Sam. 17:34-35)
David was a shepherd. Apparently he was a good shepherd. He went after the lion or the bear and rescued the sheep.
I've been rescued, too. Except my rescuer didn't use a sling or a staff. He used a cross. And one day he'll return with a sword.
I am the one. So are you.