In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
No way! Jesus – this has to be some kind of joke! Leave 99 out in the desert wastelands to go looking for one?! Really?! Seriously?! No shepherd is going to do that – at least not a Good one! Or is He?
Why on earth would the shepherd leave the good ones to go looking for the stray? Why would he endanger those who had been obedient and search high and low for the one who wandered? There are predators in the desert – wolves, snakes – and dangerous terrain. Why risk any more? Why on earth would any self-respecting shepherd leave 99 sheep and go looking for one?! Why look for the trouble maker when you still have 99 good sheep?!
But then again, how “good” are those 99? They think they are pretty good. They feel they are righteous. They comfort themselves in a self-righteous pride.
So are you the one, or one of the 99? Careful how you answer that! And be careful not to romanticize that picture too much.
Don’t get some high and mighty image of yourself of “Oh! I haven’t strayed. I’ve been in church all my life. I never was a rebellious youth.” The Lord would beg to differ. Even when you have been in church physically, if your honest, your mind has wandered. As the mind-blowing miracle of heaven opening and Jesus coming to you in His Sacrament occurs, your sinful flesh is attempting to tell you that this is all boring. As you have spoken the words of the “Our Father,” your mind has slipped to other matters, every bit as much as everyone else. As you have outwardly been good to others and made decent choices, inwardly you have desired or lusted after things that wish to rob you of faith.
Being one of the 99 does not mean you have been good. It simply means that your sin has been of a different variety. In the end, it is every bit as damning as the straying of the one.
And maybe you have been the one. Maybe you have gone through a rebellious time. Maybe you turned your back on the Lord and His Church. Maybe you went looking for events, people, or even churches simply because they excited you and spoke what you wanted to hear to feel good about yourself. And as you were feeling good about yourself and perhaps even with your self-esteem soaring, your eternal well-being was in danger.
The congregation in which I grew up has a beautiful stained glass window that is a copy of the famous portrait by Bernard Plockhorst of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A large group of sheep are following the Lord, with one little lamb safe and secure, nuzzling its face in Jesus’ bosom. All is well and good. The lamb has been saved from the appealing traps around him.
Dear friends, no matter who you are or what you have done, at one point or another, you have joined that straying lamb. But God our Savior… desires all people to be saved! (1 Tim. 2:3-4) The Good Shepherd “drew [you] up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set [your] feet upon a rock, making [your] steps secure.” That is the sweet Gospel, with the lamb having been rescued from the dangers of the world and itself.
Whether a single stray or a self-righteous animal from the mob of 99, the Holy Spirit has worked on you. He has brought you to repentance. He has turned you from your ways. Jesus has pulled you out of the briers, away from the rocky ledges keeping you from falling to your death and destruction. The Good and Gentle Shepherd gives the rescue as a gift, with no payment required, reuniting the whole flock. And what a joyous reunion it is!
“[The Good Shepherd] calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'” All the Church on earth and in heaven, together with all the holy angels rejoice and praise God for every repentant sinner redeemed and restored by Jesus. This is a tremendous, cosmic celebration every time the Holy Spirit brings someone to repentance. You know, just like in the weekly prayers of the Eucharist, we thank and praise the Lord “together with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven,” as we repentant lambs receive His forgiveness, life, and salvation through His Body and Blood.
It’s awesome! It’s amazing! It sends chills down the spine! What appears before the eyes is very ordinary. But what God is revealing is beyond extra-ordinary!
As we are gathered here for Divine Service, hidden to the eyes is that the Lord is cracking heaven open, pouring out forgiveness and mercy on all His repentant lambs who have strayed. All of His forgiven, redeemed Church, rejoices when one sinner repents. That is all the time. Stop and think how incredible this is: heaven constantly rejoicing over those whom the Spirit has brought to repentance – those who are restored and renewed in Christ! It is a beyond-your-wildest-dreams celebration…with Jesus at the center!
And with this celebration of Jesus and the whole Church, all you little lambs have great peace. Just like still waters and green pastures delight lambs, so receiving Christ in His Gifts delights you, His baptized children. Yes, it is thrilling to praise the Lord along with the hymnist, “God’s own child, I gladly say it, “I am baptized into Christ!” And just as thrilling is that you, His baptized child, are Jesus’ little lamb. Amen.