I’m going to start with a confession: I have not yet read Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund. But before you strip me of my ordination, I promise it is in the queue. But a theme from that book is perhaps the most distinguishing truth about Jesus. Unlike any other religion, Jesus comes to us in a way – and does for us what – no other god does. The Bible teaches those who are not yet Christians are/were not just bad people, but that we were enemies of God (Romans 5:10) and dead in our trespasses against a holy God (Ephesians 2:1). Jesus did not take on our sin in order to do something nice for good people. This is not a case of being on the plane but bumped to first class.
The list of stories of when Jesus went after and cared for the hopeless is a mile long – and those are just the stories we have recorded in scripture. Jesus’s whole earthly life and ministry was committed to doing the will of the Father which prioritized spiritual reconciliation with God and also engaged in physical restoration of people. The author John does a great job capturing these events throughout his book. John 4, the woman at the well. John 5, the invalid at Bethesda. John 8, the adulterous woman. John 9, the man blind from birth. And that is just the first 10 chapters.
Luke records a powerful parable that Jesus teaches in Luke 15 – The Parable of the Lost Sheep. In this story, the shepherd of the flock leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to go after one sheep who has wandered off from the herd. The Bible describes the sheep as having gone into “the open country.” While this language may for us create images of a nice vacation in the Texas Hill Country, for a sheep in Israel this was a death sentence. To leave the flock and exists in the open country alone was the definition of hopeless. Most shepherds would do a quick count and realize the risk far outweighs the reward. Yet, this shepherd does the unthinkable. He leaves the ninety-nine to rescue the one. He goes after the hopeless. A dear friend and fellow pastor gave me a wooden carving of a shepherd caring a sheep across his shoulders as a gift from his first trip to Israel; a priceless gift I have on the shelf in my office to daily remind me of this great truth.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He left his throne in heaven (Philippians 2) to do the unthinkable. When no other god would stoop so low, when every other deity would count the cost and choose to remain distant from his potential followers, Jesus goes into the open country of our world and our lives to rescues us. The most beautiful thing? We like that lost sheep didn’t even realize the eternal peril we found ourselves in. We knew not our condition nor our fate until the gentle, compassionate voice of God drew us to his Son.
The spiritual truth does not stop there. Before the women, the invalids, and the blind man, Jesus found himself in the company of a wealthy, dignified man. John 3 records a Pharisee, a “ruler of the Jews […] came to Jesus by night.” Symbolic of both spiritual darkness and possibly social embarrassment, this middle-of-the-night meeting is more than it seems. Though it is not the raw, uncivilized arena of the “open country,” this quiet corner of Jerusalem was the place where Jesus went after the one. Were we there, we would not consider Nicodemus the obvious lost sheep. Instead we, like Jesus, should recognize him as a different kind of broken. Buried under the mounds of theological head knowledge and moral lifestyle was a heart which was not surrendered to God in a relationship with Jesus.
Early in February of this year, Tom Brady won his unprecedented seventh Super Bowl as an NFL quarterback. After having won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, he traded the snowy coast of Boston for the sunny shores of Tampa Bay. He led the Buccaneers to a rout of the Kansas City Chiefs. Though heralded as the G.O.A.T. (and rightly so) it’s worth realizing he didn’t leave the Patriots for a team of lovable losers. He joined a team that finished tied for second in their division with a 7-9 record the previous year. The leap from that record to Super Bowl winners is really impressive, but not inconceivable. The 43-year-old quarterback had at least something to work with. And so, it goes for me sometimes. I would rather “go after” the lost sheep which has the potential for a story of redemption. The people who come into my life I feel the most confident I will receive a return for my investment. The best chance I have a helping to write a success story. Can you hear all the “I’s” and “me’s”? Who is the priority on those sheep rescue missions? But as my overseeing pastor reminded our team this week, we do not define, nor do we choose the underdog. As ministers of the gospel of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) our role is to be used by the powerful hand of God for his glory, in his way, and in his timing – especially when it seems hopeless to us.
So, as we who are Christ-followers live our lives, may we realize that God is calling us to go after the spiritually hopeless of this world no matter what they look like nor the depth of their hopelessness. Whether they have a curious mind or a hardened heart. My honest confession is that I would often much rather deal with the Nicodemuses of the world; those who already have a “working knowledge” of right and wrong, who God is, and a curiosity for spiritual things. Yet Jesus, the Good Shepherd, does no such picking and choosing. And praise God he does not, for each and every one of us are broken, even if it is in different ways.