If a man 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? (Matthew 18:12)
It would not have been an uncommon scene in the shepherding industry of First Century Palestine.
A shepherd would be out in the open field with his sheep — say 100 of them — and one of the sheep would wander off to some other place. The grass was fine where they were, so it wasn’t that, but the other grass off in the distance must have looked greener, and so the lone sheep would venture out to give it a try.
The lone sheep would leave the 99 in pursuit of an empty promise, and before long, though sometimes it was longer than others, the sheep would find itself stuck, hopelessly vulnerable, exposed to every threat that the shepherd had been laboring to defend. But the shepherd wasn’t there anymore, not in this new terrain, not where the sheep had ended up. Can you imagine it from the perspective of the sheep?
Wait a minute, the sheep must have thought, this grass isn’t what I thought; this place isn’t what I hoped; this promise isn’t a promise at all!
And then the sheep would look in every direction, desperate for a way out, wondering how in the world it had ended up here, because of course...that was never the plan.
"Does the shepherd even know I’m missing? What is this place? Is anybody going to find me?"
Then the sheep answers its own question, and inner-dialogues like this are not a good sign.
"No. There’s no way. There’s no way I’m going to make it. Not here where I’ve ended up. Not now."
Sheep, of course, are not very smart. Their brains are about the size of an apple, so they don’t really think this way or ask these kinds of questions — but you do.
When It’s You and Me
And chances are, at some point you’ve found yourself somewhere like this: Stuck. Vulnerable. Desperate for a way out. You look around for the Shepherd, but he’s nowhere in sight, and that’s when the hopelessness sets in like a rainstorm. The Shepherd’s been so good to me, you think. He’s been so kind to me, you remember. But what have I done? How have I strayed like this?
Then, more suddenly than when you found yourself alone, almost out of nowhere, you look up and see someone coming toward you, turning the shadows into light, climbing every mountain in his way. It’s the Shepherd. He has left the 99 for the one, for you. The Shepherd is coming for you. He has been searching for you this whole time. While you were wandering, and wondering, he was on pursuit for your soul. He has fought for you. He has paid it all for you. He has kicked down every wall and torn down every lie that has kept him from you. You were the lone sheep, the lost one, but now you are found. He has found you.
And of course you haven’t earned this. You don’t deserve it. This isn’t about what you do or don’t deserve. This is about the Shepherd’s love. This is about the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God — a love that was made clear in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and a love whose purpose cannot fail. This is a love that cannot be stopped, a love that is reckless because God means it to be, and a love that really is for you.
This love — God’s love — is for every sheep like us who are so prone to wander — sheep who know what it means to lose their way, but who also know, because of this love, what it means to be found.