There was definitely one missing. Ninety-nine sheep accounted for, not one hundred. So, ensuring the ninety-nine were safe, the shepherd went searching for the lost sheep – because it mattered. And he didn’t stop searching until he found it. When he found it he didn’t scold it. No, he put it across his shoulders – with great joy, the Bible says. Then he returned home carrying the found sheep, calling his friends and neighbours so that everyone could rejoice with him in the safe return of the precious lost one.
We mortals cannot bear being lost – as the child separated suddenly from the parent in a busy crowd, or in later life, hopelessly lost in a world that no longer makes sense and parents long gone. Damaged by broken relationships. Aching for what is no longer there… We understand something of the helplessness, the vulnerability, the suffering.
Adrift. Afraid. Alone. We have all passed this way… the way of lost sheep.
Sheep have an extremely unsatisfactory satnav. They get lost very quickly. They keep their heads down and when they lift them nothing looks familiar. Maybe not here so much where there are nice, tidy fields with edges, but certainly in the seamless desert and hills of Israel. Unable to fend for or defend themselves, these timid followers need a good shepherd.
The Bible is full of sheep – and people who are just like them:
‘When he (Jesus) saw the crowds he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ (Matthew 9)
The shepherd was on duty twenty-four hours a day. He led his vulnerable flock from the fold every morning to find water and good pasture. He risked his safety to protect his sheep from wild predators. He found them quiet rest and kept them from straying. They knew his voice and trusted it. Then he returned them to the fold each night and slept in the entrance to guard them. Wouldn’t you love to have a ‘shepherd’ like this? You can.
The Bible uses shepherd imagery to show the relationship with God that we were designed from the beginning to have: ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.’ (Isaiah 40)
But it also says, ‘We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.’ (Isaiah 53)
We are born into a state where we need to be brought back to God, to the relationship that was meant to be:
‘The Son of Man (Jesus) came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19)
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10)
He is still searching, spurred on by love and the overwhelming desire to find – and bring home rejoicing.