Sometimes we have an experience that illuminates Scripture, even a particular passage, for us in a whole new way. I had several of those over the past week, being away at a worship conference, and they all pointed me to this passage:
“What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:12-14 NRS).
I count myself among the ninety-nine in Jesus’ parable. I was born into the life of the church, raised by Christian parents in the church, and never wandered away. Now I serve the church as a pastor, and I would do so until I draw my last breath, if that be God’s will. I know that Christ is Lord, my Savior from the eternal damnation my sin warrants. I know that I have received grace by the blood of the cross, and that God Almighty, revealed in the three persons of the Trinity, is God alone. I am one of the ninety-nine who rest under the secure watch of the Good Shepherd and know who their master is. So what about that one lost lamb?
There are actually millions of lost lambs in this world. God wants to bring them all back home, to be safe within the fold. There seems to be this pervasive sense in Christians that going after the missing lambs is Jesus’ responsibility, and it is, except that how he does that involves us. We are the presence of Christ in this world. We are those who, gathered together in his name and fulfilling his purpose, manifest the Body of Christ. We are conduits of his gathering of the lost. The Father and the Son are calling upon us to go out into the world and bring back the lost lambs. We cannot just abide in the pasture while others suffer. We cannot slough off our duty to testify to the Gospel and makes disciples of Jesus Christ. We have been chosen to illuminate the darkness with the light of Christ that burns within the hearts of those who love him. That light is meaningless if it never shows someone else the path, and guides them home into the loving grace-filled arms of our heavenly Father. And so it is that we must leave the comfort, the safety of the pasture.
Our local churches are safe, known, and comfortable for us. They are bastions for the faithful in a world where hostility towards Christianity grows more virulent. They are where we know others and we are known by them. For many of us, they are the only place where we feel content outside of our homes. That is great. That is a blessing, but we should know better than to think that Christ is not ready to do a new thing, and newness means change, and change means discomfort. So we need to gird up our loins and prepare ourselves. We need to prepare for discomfort, prepare for going back out into the world to search out Christ’s lost lambs. The Father wills that not one, not one should be lost. We are the search and rescue. We are the light that leads them back home into the loving, waiting arms of their God. Our comfort has been a joy. It has been a source of strength, but its purpose is to fill us up and make us able to do the work of the Kingdom. How far into discomfort are we willing to go? I can say this with all confidence: it will never begin to match the discomfort, the downright atrocious suffering that Christ endured on that cross for us. So if we have to endure changes to our worship, then we can. If we have to put ourselves out there to risk rejection, then we can. If we have to tolerate new people coming to our church who do not look, speak, or dress like us, then we can. We can because we are called, we are filled with the power of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we go forth in the name of the Father. There are lost and suffering people that would be strengthened and encouraged infinitely with faith, not just their faith in God, but discovering God’s faith in them to turn from their sinfulness and discover the liberating love of God. Will we not risk ourselves, our comfort, we the ninety-nine for just one? God help us, we must.