There were ninety and nine
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
“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.”
My in-laws Peter and Helen were what you would call directionally challenged.
I myself am pretty good with maps and directions and finding my way around in new cities and when we went on our recent holidays to California with Fiona’s brother and wife, my brother-in-law who rented the car, said to me when we met at the airport:
“you drive Harry, because you’re good with directions.”
Peter and Helen were not so good with directions, so whenever we would give them directions, we would have to really spell it out for them.
One time when we were living in Summerside PEI, Peter and Helen had to drive down to the Halifax airport to pick up relatives who were visiting from Scotland.
From Summerside, it really isn’t that complicated to get to the Halifax airport. You cross the bridge from PEI to New Brunswick and stay on that road until you get to the Trans-Canada. You head south and eventually just before Halifax the airport is on the left-hand side.
But with Peter and Helen you couldn’t say turn south. We drew them a map showing them that when you came to the TransCanada, that you drive under the highway and take the first exit which goes up and around onto the TransCanada.
And then I said to Fiona after we drew them the detailed map. “I bet you they will still get lost.”
Fiona wouldn’t take that bet, because she was just about to say the same thing to me. We both thought they would get lost.
The next day Peter and Helen set off for the Halifax airport.
We called them later that night after they arrived home. “Any problems with the directions.”
“No, not really…” There was a pause…
Not once we got off the Island.
What had actually happened is that they turned the wrong way in Summerside and instead of heading towards the Confederation bridge they headed off towards Charlottetown. They went the wrong way for a half hour before realizing they were going the wrong way.
But eventually they got off the Island and made it to the airport.
I guess we just assumed they knew to go right to the bridge instead of left towards Kensington and Charlottetown.
I don’t know if you have ever been lost? I suspect you have sometime in your life. Maybe not dramatically, or trauma inducing, like being lost in the woods for a day when you are a little child.
Or being in a plane crash in the wilderness and sitting waiting to be rescued.
But it is possible as a child you wandered away for a few minutes and scared your parents.
Or even the best of us get turned around in directions and can’t find some place.
Just the other day, I went golfing with my son Andrew and a couple of friends at Broadmoor Golf course in Sherwood Park. I drove all up and down Broadmoor Blvd and could see the golf course and tried every road off Broadmoor Blvd, but I couldn’t find the entrance to the golf course.
The entrance to Broadmoor Golf course is not near Broadmoor Blvd. It is a totally different road.
And so, the image of being lost and being like a lost sheep is an old one in religious circles in Judaism and in the Christian faith.
All we like sheep have gone astray is written in the book of Isaiah.
And one of the great hymns of the Christian faith, Amazing Grace, has that oft repeated line:
I once was lost, but now am found…was blind but now I see.
And I don’t know about you, but many of have identified with that very familiar story in Luke about the lost son, what we usually call, The prodigal son.
It is one of my favourite parables, if not my favourite parable…
And I have had a lot of solace in understanding God as the forgiving and welcoming, non-judgemental father who runs out to meet me and throw a party for me. For me who is lost and undeserving, who wasted the gifts given to me, who like Paul is one of the chiefest of sinners.
I have often used the Prodigal Son story in funeral messages and say that the person who dies went home to God the other day, and the Heavenly Father ran out to meet her and threw his arms around her and kissed her and had a great big party for her.
And, one of my favourite illustrations I have used, which I basically got and adapted from the late Fred Craddock, who was my favourite preacher, goes something like this:
You know when I was a kid, we used to play a game at my friend’s farm called “Kick the can”.
It was a good game because all you needed to play was an old tin. And that was in the days when we didn’t have much money, one TV station and no Nintendo.
Kick the can is kind of like hide and seek, except that you start the game by kicking the can and while whoever is IT goes and gets the can, you go and hide.
And if you are caught, you can be set free if someone who is not caught kicks the can.
Well I had a place to hide, I would go down in the basement, of the farm house where all the wood was kept and crawl in a corner where it was dark and when someone was IT would come, they would never see me.
And I could sit there for a long, long time and people would come in and never see me.
And I would have fun for a while, thinking:
they can’t find me…they can’t find me
And this went along like that for a while until it really dawned on me.
“Hey, they can’t find me.”
So, next time, someone came along, I deliberately coughed.
I see Harry, Harry you’re It.
What did I want? What did I want?
I wanted what everybody wanted.
I wanted to be found.
And today I proclaim that God has found you. Jesus the good shepherd has gone looking for you and found you.
It’s a good illustration.
Today the hymn we sang from our hymnbook is an old hymn
There were ninety and nine that safely lay,
in the shelter of the fold,
But one was out on the hills away,
far off from the gates of gold,
away on the mountains wild and bare,
aware from the tender shepherd’s care. 2x
The words were written by Elizabeth Clephane in Scotland shortly before her death. She also wrote the well-known hymn: Beneath the Cross of Jesus.
Her hymns were not published until after here death.
The tune that has become most familiar for the hymn; There were ninety and nine is called The Ninety and Nine and was written by the great gospel tune singer and writer, Ira Sankey who was born in Scotland and grew up in the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He was famous for teaming with the evangelist Dwight. L. Moody. Ira Sankey was a Presbyterian at the time of his death in 1908.
There were ninety and nine has special meaning for me, because I sang it one time in church in a quartet with my two brothers and my grandfather. I sang the alto in falsetto.
And when my grandfather was deep in the throws of dementia, when he didn’t know who any of his family was any more, he still could sing some lines of There were ninety and nine
And I take comfort that he is found and safe in the fold with the Good Shepherd.
But much as I love this old hymn, I have to point out to you that that scripture verses on which it is based, which we read in the gospel lesson today, are at odds with the text of the hymn.
In the hymn the sheep are safe in the fold and the one sheep is lost in the wilderness, away on the mountain wild and bare, and the Shepherd at great travail wanders through the deep waters and goes to the desert wilderness to find the poor sheep.
But listen again to words from the parable Jesus tells.
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
Did you get it? He leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness.
The sheep are not safe in the fold.
And the way Jesus tells it, is that he asks the crowd a question.
Which one of you does not leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness and go after the one lost sheep?
And the answer would have been. “None of us. None of us would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness with the coyotes.”
I am sure they didn’t have coyotes, but they would have had other animals that liked lamb for dinner.
No, nobody would have left the sheep in the wilderness to go looking for one sheep.
And that is the extravagant nature of God and God’s grace. The one lost sheep is of superlative value.
Why is this?
Because to God everyone one of us is priceless,. Every doggone last one of us, not just you and me, but everyone, from President Trump to Taliban terrorist, from the greatest Saint to the chiefest Sinner
It is grace so wild and extravagant that we all have trouble believing it.
You see the paradox of grace is that we all understand grace when we are the lost sheep. We all revel in the fact that God sees us as priceless, as a great treasure, so valuable in fact that Jesus would leave the other ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to come and find us.
But, we actually have trouble believing it for all people, no matter how much we say that Jesus died for all people, we often don’t believe it.
And when we read the scripture, we romanticize the part about Jesus eating with the sinners.
We don’t view them as sinners. We view them as victims of society. We read about Jesus reaching out to the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, and to poor women who had to turn to prostitution or starve…
And we lump all the bad people together with the victims of society, and instead of thinking about the bad people as bad people, we think of them as victims.
As yes, Jesus did reach out to the poor and the victims, and there is a message there for us…
but he also hobnobbed with some pretty bad people, and the history of Christian faith has Jesus and his followers forgiving murders and thieves and traitors and the immoral and all sorts of people we might want to put on the FBI’s most wanted list.
And all of us have trouble with real forgiveness, and acceptance and welcome for those we consider really bad and evil.
And today’s parable is in direct response to Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors.
These were not the poor and victims. These were the people who caused victims. These were the traitors who worked with the Romans, and cheated their own people and became rich. They were like the Mafia, or like Israel’s version of Quislings, which was a name given to Norwegian traitors who worked with the Nazis during World War 2 after their leader whose last name was Quisling.
And Jesus ate with them and ministered to them and told the parable of the lost sheep directly in response to the criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees that he ate with sinners and traitors.
And so, while we like to put ourselves in the place of the lost sheep, maybe Jesus was telling it for a different reason.
Maybe Jesus wants to identify with the Scribes and Pharisees, the organized religion of his day, who believed in a limited grace, a limited forgiveness.
Who in effect were saying: ‘We are all for forgiveness and grace if you repent and turn around and follow the way you are supposed to, but until you do: “No grace for you!”’
I am well aware that last Wednesday it was September 11 and 18 years since the big terrorist attacks in New York city which resulted in the destruction of the two towers of the World Trade Centre and a plane crashing into the Pentagon.
And I am well aware that just in the new recently there was some talk of planned secret meetings between the Taliban and President Trump, which apparently have fallen through.
It is my reading of the gospel today, that Jesus thinks that we are all sheep needing his love and care. That we are all lost.
Even those who planned the attacks of 911 and even those groups like the Taliban that by pretty much any definition are terrorists. They need Jesus’ love and Jesus to eat with them and seek them out and love them.
And even we, who think we are really not that bad, we maybe need to realize that we too are lost, but maybe in a different way, and that we need the Savior’s help and care.
Maybe the word from the Lord today is that I am just as lost as the Taliban…
…because I have trouble leaving the ninety and nine to look for the terrible, the troubled, the evil and the bad.
That I have my own version of self-righteousness, and it is just as ugly as terrorism.
Christian counselor Dennis Linn tells his wonderful story about how his mind was changed about God. You can find it in the book: Good Goats: Healing our image of God.
One day Hilda came to me crying because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder. She ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”
Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”
Although I tended to agree with her, I didn’t want to say….so I said to Hilda, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. Your son has just arrived at the judgment seat of God. Squeeze my hand when you can imagine that.”
A few minutes later Hilda squeezed my hand. She described to me the entire judgment scene. Then I asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” I asked Hilda what she would do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.
Finally, when she had stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.
I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.
God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us most.
Maybe we can identify with being the lost sheep, whom God needs to save.
Maybe we can identity with being a grumbling sheep who doesn’t want Jesus to go after the good-for nothing sheep who are only getting what they deserve.
But I am wondering if what Jesus would like us to be, is shepherds. Shepherd like Jesus who go after and love the lost, not just the ones who are a little bit lost, but the ones who are really lost.
Maybe what God wants is the Shepherd and all ninety-nine sheep to go looking for the lost sheep to let them know that they are loved and valued and have infinite worth.