God and the letter "r"
We all know what a pirate’s favourite letter of the alphabet is. What is it? Rrrr?
And what were those three important subjects we had at school that set us up for the rest of our lives, all starting with the sound of ‘r’ – reading, writing and ’rithmetic?
In Luke 15 we have three of Jesus’ parables – I’m going to focus mostly on the shepherd who goes searching for the one lost sheep. Just as you have heard many sermons on this parable, so also I have preached many times on these verses, but this time as I read these verses again (including the parables of the lost coin and the lost son) one sentence stood out because it’s repeated in each parable, “Rejoice with me, let’s celebrate, let’s have a party because what was lost has been found”.
"Rejoice” – the call is made to celebrate, to be happy. It’s a celebration of the lost being found. It’s a celebration of the success of the shepherd returning the lost to safety. “Rejoice” starts with the letter “r” so in my own strange way I got to thinking and I came to realise that this is a parable about the letter “r” – words that start with “r”. Apart from “rejoice”, you’re right if you say that there aren’t any words, in the parable that start with the letter “r”, but they are implied. So let’s check it out.
A flock of 100 sheep would have been quite a large number of sheep for a shepherd of those times. Mostly shepherds cared for 20-30 sheep and if one went missing that was a big deal. So with a flock of a hundred it would be easy to reason, “Why bother with one stupid, sheep who didn’t have the brains to stick with the shepherd”.
The shepherd always led the flock to fresh green grass, quiet running water, protected them from danger with his rod and staff, gave them shelter at night and setup camp at the entrance so that no wild animal could get in. With the new lambs soon to be born, that sheep wouldn’t be missed.
But the shepherd’s reaction is so unexpected (and so we note the words that start with “r”). There is no reckoning – “It’s not worth my time going after that one lost sheep. I’ll bring her back today and tomorrow she’ll do the same thing.” There is no ranting and rebuking – “Stupid’ sheep lost again. She’s done it before and now she’s done it again!” There is no ruthless rejection. “I’ve got them all here safely except one useless ditsy sheep. Well, she can stay lost!”
In fact, the rugged and tough shepherd who has to deal with difficult and unresponsive sheep all day reacts in a completely different way. And that leads me to my first word positive word starting with “r” that describes the shepherd.
He is responsive. When he sees that one is missing, one is hurting or in pain, he doesn’t ignore those whom he loves, he is understanding, compassionate, sympathetic. He knows what it’s like to be alone and scared and so he responds without hesitation.
Like the shepherd in the parable, the Lord our God is our shepherd and we lack nothing because he is (this our next “r” word) relational. He has a bond with us not only because he created us and he is our Father, but especially because he established a special covenant and promise with us through the blood of his Son, Jesus. Not only that he has filled our lives with his own Spirit.
This relationship became ours personally through the water of baptism, and then every week through the sacrament of Holy Communion when that special relationship with our shepherd God is refreshed and renewed and reinforced ready for the challenges that we are facing. He knows when we are scared out of our wits, when we’re afraid of the future, when events in the present don’t make any sense, when we’re anxious and everything is getting us down.
There is nothing that can tear us away from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We have a Shepherd who loves us dearly and when we are lost and floundering in a sea of trouble, he is there with his outstretched arm to hold us and embrace us and walk with us to safety, even through the dark valley of death.
Some more words starting with “r”. It’s clear from parable that the shepherd is restless. He is not going to sit back and do nothing. He is restless because he is concerned and anxious. Like a parent waiting for a teenage child to come home from a night out. He can’t settle until he can embrace his lost sheep again. That lost sheep is special and precious. Every sheep in his flock are his sheep and he will not let one of them fall by the wayside.
So he sets out to rescue his sheep. He is reckless in his rescue mission and by that I mean he is prepared to go to any length, nothing is too hard, to make sure his sheep is returned to safety. He is ready to risk his own life to restore his sheep into the safety of his own arms and the rest of the flock. He even risks the other 99 sheep leaving them in the wilderness. He is resolute and relentless – stubborn, unyielding, passionate, focussed – he has only one goal – save the sheep.
How relieved he felt when he was finally reunited with his lost and scared sheep. He put her on his shoulders and restored her to the safety of the rest of the flock.
This parable of the lost sheep is really the parable about our rescuing shepherd, Jesus. Every word that has said started with “r” can be said about Jesus. Let me run through them.
Jesus is responsive to our needs and understands us perfectly even when we don’t understand ourselves.
Jesus is relational. He is our brother, our saviour, our friend, our God. He loves us with a love that goes beyond our human understanding. When we feel the least worthy of his love and even unaware of his love, his love holds on to us as his dear brothers and sisters. He won’t give up on us.
Jesus risked everything, even giving up his own life to save the lost sheep of humanity. He endured the worst because of his love for each of us.
His love was ruthless to the point of facing the anger of his countrymen and even a cross. Jesus is restless and sees the need for so many people to be rescued.
You see it’s all these “r” words, that led Jesus to tell the parable of the lost sheep in the first place. A whole lot of Pharisees and teachers of the law loudly criticised Jesus and questioned why he associated with – and even ate with – the scum of society, the worthless people of the community – tax collectors and every notorious sinner in town. These people weren’t worth wasting valuable time on. If he truly was from God, he should be hanging out with people who were worthy of his attention, not these no hopers.
Jesus tells the parable to remind us that God throughout the Bible is the rescuer of the lost. From the first chapters of the Bible, God is the rescuer of the lost Adam and Eve. When the people of Israel lost their way and bowed down to a golden calf, the forefathers of those criticising Jesus, God didn’t give up on Israel, even though they rejected him and worshipped an idol.
Neither did he give up the people in Jesus’ time. Even though they rejected Jesus, he was still resolutely determined to relentlessly complete his risky rescue plan of reconciliation and reunite his people with their Creator.
Jesus urges us to have this same godly restlessness and to be rescuers and reconcilers and responsive to the needs of the people of our community and world. Whether it’s speaking his word of comfort to a person feeling the weight of trouble and pain, or meeting the physical needs of people, this is not a time for sitting back, but a time to be restless doing the work that Jesus has given us to do as his disciples.
To be shepherds will also mean being reckless, resolute, relentless and risk takers as we step out of our comfort zone to be the effective shepherds to the lost. When it comes to rescuing someone who is lost in the bush, or in the outback, there is urgency to the task. Delaying the rescue can have disastrous results. Every person matters. Everyone is loved by God and needs rescuing regardless of what we think of the person.
Even we, the people in this church, can so easily become lost, side-tracked like a ditsy sheep, lose our focus, consider less important things as more important, consider our needs as more important than anyone else’s.
There are times when our love is not reckless – we are too choosy with whom we are going to share our love. We get hang ups about the colour of people, their background, their looks, their habits, the way they spend their money, the way they dress, whether they smoke or drink.
There are times when our love isn't relentless – we give up loving people. We write them off as hopeless cases. We become hardened to their needs and just give up.
We need rescuing and restoring, so we come here to hear his Word and receive his Body and Blood and be reunited in love and forgiveness with our Saviour and with one another.
Needless to say this text also provides us with a challenge as members of the church who have experienced this grace of God, namely, to be equally gracious toward others. We may falter, make excuses, find it hard going, let other things come between us and our commitment to Jesus and our service to others. But the reading tell us that no matter how far we stray, God still loves us, and all heaven rejoices when we are found and brought back through repentance.
And so that bring me back to first “r” I mentioned – “rejoice”. All the “r” words that I have used today sum up the marvellous grace of God. His love for us burns so brightly and strongly and it’s this love that influences and affects our lives as we seek out his lost sheep – the lost church member, the lost child or teenager, the lost homeless or hungry person – when one of these lost ones are safe in his love, heaven goes wild. Finding and restoring the lost gives God great joy. He invites us to share that same joy and rejoice that the lost has been found.
Parables – John MacArthur
Do you love me, feed my sheep – Rick Tunis
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Tending his Sheep – Stephen Gose
Feed my Sheep – Lemuel Baker
The Crippled Lamb – Max Lucado