This afternoon Sue and I are meeting Daniel somewhere north of Richmond. He’s bringing Lydia and Joel to us so they can go to RBC Camp this week. I can guarantee that during their stay with us we’ll be playing several games of HIDE AND SEEK because that’s one of our favorite things to do together. I mean, whenever I suggest that we play it they always enthusiastically say “YES!”
I close my eyes and count to ten while Lydia and Joel run and hide—whispering advice to each other as they go. I count slowly to give them time to find a place to hide. And then—I open my eyes and say, “Ready or not here I come!”
Now—it’s never hard to find them—because they aren’t very good at hiding or at being quiet while they do—but I take my time—because it’s fun to hear Lydia and Joel enjoying being hidden—whispering to each other from their respective hiding places. “He can’t find us. SHHH—be quiet!” I circle around the house saying things like, “I wonder where they are? Let’s see—they aren’t under the dining room table.” I hear them giggling from their hiding place—which is apparently behind the couch. Then I throw in a few silly statements like, “They aren’t in the sugar jar.” MORE giggling from behind the couch. Eventually I go back to the room where they are and the closer I get to the couch the more their excitement grows. They try to be quiet but as I draw close they just can’t contain themselves. I say, “There you are!” and the explode up with joy—hugging me as they say: “You found me grandad!”
It’s a blast.
Sure—it’s tiring—but when I need a break I just let THEM be IT and I hide. Since I’m a much better hider than they are—while they look I can rest—then when I’m ready to get back in the game I make a noise or something, they find me—-and it’s more joyous giggles.
The reason I share this is because our text for this morning includes a parable that Jesus told—one that has a lot of “Hide and Seek” elements to it. Much of the insights of this message are gleaned from a sermon John Ortberg preached at Willow Creek in 1995.
Here’s the setting. One day as Jesus was teaching He was surrounded by two groups—the same two groups that seemed to follow Jesus wherever He went.
GROUP ONE was made up of well-known sinners: thieves, drunkards, women of ill-repute, and worst of all: TAX COLLECTORS. Saying “worst of all” is not a stretch—because in that culture everyone considered tax collectors to be the greatest of sinners.
And, this was not an opinion that was limited to the Jews of Jesus’ day. For example, Cicero the famous Roman politician and orator who was assassinated sixty years before Jesus was born, once insulted an enemy by saying: “You must have imagined yourself to be a tax gatherer since you most thievishly ransacked every man’s house, the warehouses and the ships—entangled men engaged in business with the most unjust decrees, terrified the merchants as they landed, and delayed their embarkation.” In short, Cicero’s idea of the BEST put down would be to basically say, “You—you—you TAX COLLECTOR!” And then he would drop the mike and walk off.
Chrysostom, that early church father, who died four centuries after Jesus, said, “The tax-gatherer is the personification of licensed violence, of legal sin, of specious greed.”
Well, in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, tax collectors were considered more than the worst kind of sinner. They were thought of as being TRAITORS—because they were Jews who had basically sold their souls to buy Roman tax-gathering franchises which they then used to prey on fellow Jews. Think of the guys who make their living owning and maintaining the speed cameras that plague us all and you get the idea—you know the ones the put at the bottom of a hill behind a tree? I mean—I know you have to make a living—but I hope I never have to do that job—I’d have to work at night so no one could identify me.
GROUP TWO was made up the religious elite—the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These were the supposed “good guys” of that day. They were a group of people who felt like they had arrived at righteousness. And, they looked down on the people in GROUP ONE—especially tax collectors. They believed it was not only scandalous to BE with a tax collector but that it was a sin to teach that kind of person God’s law. One of their favorite criticisms of Jesus was the fact that He—a rabbi—was known to hang out with people from group number one. They grumbled and murmured, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And to understand their accusation we need to remember that EATING with someone was a lengthy affair in those days. There was no such thing as “fast food” —no, a meal in the home of a sinner or “tax collector” would take several hours. So, it incensed these Pharisees and Scribes that Jesus would spend that kind of quality time with these LOW-quality people.
By the way, this Greek word we translate as “murmured” is a form of onomatopoeia because it sounds like what it describes. It’s pronounced “gon-GOOD-zoe.” Say it aloud a few times in a low voice. Sounds like grumbling doesn’t it!? That’s what it was like. These people who supposedly represented God—grumbled that Jesus would associate with this kind of people. I mean, to them, referring to Jesus as a “friend of sinners” was a blatant put-down.
Isn’t it interesting that sinners were drawn to Jesus and self-righteous were repelled by Him?! Group One knew they needed Jesus—Group Two felt they were doing just fine on their own.
Before we go any further, think for a moment—which group would you put yourself in? Which attitude is most like yours?
Okay, that’s the setting—with these two groups—one silently listening to Jesus’ every word and the other grumbling at Jesus’ every word—with these two groups standing there—Jesus told a sort of hide and seek story—to help them better understand who they were—and Who God is. Of course, God inspired Luke to record this story in his Gospel to help us as well—help us understand our condition as sinners—who hide from God—but, who, like my grandkids, want to be found.
I love this parable because it underscores how much God loves all people—and it’s the first Bible Story our RBC CAMP teachers will tell all those campers—tomorrow. My prayer is that by studying this story ourselves today we’ll not only better understand how much God loves us—but we’ll be better equipped to pray for this week’s camp—because if there’s one thing we want our children to learn this week—is that God loves them!
Okay—take your Bibles and turn to Luke 15, verses 1-7. Let’s all stand in respect for God’s Word as it is read.
1 – Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.
2 – But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered [gon-GOOD-zoe!], “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 – Then Jesus told them this parable:
4 – “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?
5 – And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders,
6 – and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
7 – I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Okay, before we go any further, think with me a little more about the game of Hide and Seek. I mean, it’s been a long time since most of you played it—so let’s do a little review of the rules. Everyone in the group runs off and hides—except the person who has to find them. And of course, if you are playing hide and seek, it’s more fun to be one of the hiders.
- You see, if you hide, you get to be in control.
- You get to decide where you are going to go.
- You get to keep your eyes open.
- You get to call the shots.
The HARD job in hide and seek is to be the one that seeks—because the seeker has to deliberately let all of the hiders run away from him and place himself in the humble position of the one who will search on and on for everyone else—people who are trying to evade you, who are often laughing at your inability to find them. Nobody wants to be the seeker, because everybody is going to avoid you.
Plus, in this game, the one who seeks does not even get much of a TITLE. I mean, in other games you can have at least an exalted job description.
- In basketball, THE CENTER is the one around whom the action flows.
- FORWARD at least has a “go-get-’em” kind of sound to it.
- THE GUARD is somebody who is protecting something that matters.
But in hide and seek, it is not that way. If you’re the seeker you don’t have a cool title. What is it—HINT HINT—what is it that we call the one who seeks in hide and seek? RIGHT! “It.” Not “Captain It,” not “Chief Executive It,” not even “Cousin It” (for you old Addams Family fans)—just plain old “It.” And nobody wants to be “It.” In fact, at the start of the game, what does everybody say? “I’m not it!” And at the end of the game, if people have hidden themselves too well, if they elude “It” through the entire game, then “It” has you surrender by yelling the words that ends the game. “It” cups its hands and opens its mouth and shouts as loud as it can, “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen free.”
Did you ever wonder where that phrase comes from? It is actually a Latin phrase that means, “Liberate the oxen.” I’m just kidding—I have no idea what it means. I don’t think anyone does. But in the context of the game, it means you can come home now. It is safe to come home. No one will chase you. No one will tag you. You won’t have to be “It.” You won’t have to suffer any penalties. You are free to come home. It’s basically the cry of grace to people who are hiding.
Everybody understand the game? Good!
With that settled, there are two main truths I want us to latch on to in this story—this parable of the lost sheep. Here’s the first:
(1) We HIDE.
As I said earlier, we all do. As fallen, flawed beings, we all have a tendency to hide from God—to run from Him. And this hiding from God is nothing new. It started with the first two humans. Do you remember what Adam and Eve did after they sinned? They hid. When God called out, “Adam, where are you?” Adam said, “I heard You in the garden and so I hid.” (Genesis 3)
Well, we still do that. When we sin we still hide. And—of course we all sin. We all do bad things—or neglect the good things we know we should do. And when we do—we hide. We avoid God’s presence because it is Him we have disobeyed. Like a dog who has chewed up the sofa and crawls under the bed—we avoid our Heavenly Father. Our avoidance is seen in our refusal to confess our sin—or by justifying it—excusing it. And we all do this. We hide.
Surely Jesus was remembering Isaiah’s prophecy when He told this parable—because it talks about our human tendency to run—to hide. “All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way.” (Isaiah 53:6) All of us have run from God’s loving will. All of us go astray.
Sin always involves a choice to hide from God—to ignore Him and head face on into temptation when His still small voice tries to lead us away from it. Think. Think of the times YOU have run from—HID from God—times He made it very clear what you were to do—or were NOT to do—but you ignored His leading.
- Perhaps there was someone in need and you ignored that because you were too busy.
- Perhaps there was some pleasure you embraced even though you knew it was sin. You justified your behavior by saying you needed a little fun in life—a release.
- Perhaps there was some bit of bad news about someone else that you just had to share—even though you knew it was gossip.
I could go on—but I don’t have to do I? I don’t have to spell it out—I don’t have to share examples, because we all have examples popping up in our minds right now. Everyone of us in this room knows what it’s like to hide from God. All of us go astray. All of us mess up. Some of have strayed so much in a particular way that we are no longer sensitive to it. You see, God doesn’t continue to convict us of sin. There comes a point when He lets us have our own way.
My point is this: That verse from Isaiah applies to all of us. We have all hidden from God. We have all gone astray. We have all been involved in dishonesty, selfishness, greed, arrogance, laziness—sin that has hurt us—and other people. We all have behaved like wayward sheep.
Okay—back to Jesus’ story. What are the odds that this one sheep is going to make it back to the fold on its own? Not good—because the sheep is not a bright animal. It doesn’t have a very high IQ when compared to other animals—which is why you never see a sheep get his or her own TV show. I mean, dolphins—yes. They are very intelligent. Anybody here remember the name of a dolphin that had his own television series? Right! Flipper. When I was young it was on every Saturday night. And dogs—dogs are very smart. Can you think of any dog Television stars or movie stars? Right: Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin, Beethoven, Turner and HOOCH. Horses make the grade. There’s Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Mr. Ed, and Sea Biscuit. Even pigs are intelligent enough to get celebrity status. Does anyone remember a show called “Green Acres?”
Who remembers the pig’s name? Right! Arnold Ziffel. Arnold could turn the TV on and off—and he was so smart he could use his tail to forecast the weather. The only sheep “celebrity” I can think of is Lampchop—and I hate to pop your bubble—but he wasn’t actually a sheep—he was just a sock puppet. That was the voice of Sherri Lewis you were hearing.
All kidding aside, one writer about sheep puts it like this, “Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. Left to themselves, they will follow the same trail until it turns into ruts, graze the same hills until they become desert wastes—pollute the ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites.”
Here’s something else. Sheep are not proactive. Sheep are followers. If mean if a whole flock of sheep is walking along and one of them goes over the side of a cliff. Do you know what happens to the whole rest of the flock? They all will just follow right over the cliff—every one of them. You would think that one of them, at least, would pause for a moment and say to himself, “You know, Sally went over the cliff and she never returned. I’m going to just reflect on this truth for a few moments before plunging ahead impulsively into the same reckless course of action.” But no, it never happens that way. The sheep just says to himself, “Well, okay. I’ll give it a try. Doesn’t sound like a ‘baaaad’ idea to me.”
There is an old term the English used to use for a sheep in a certain condition. They would call it a “cast sheep.” A cast sheep was a sheep that had gone off on its own and had gotten on its back and became unable to right itself, unable to move. You see, a heavy, fat or long-fleeced sheep will lie down comfortably in some little hollow or depression in the ground. It may roll on its side slightly to stretch out or relax. But then suddenly the center of gravity in the body shifts so that it turns its back far enough so the feet no longer touch the ground. It may feel a sense of panic and start to paw frantically. Frequently this only makes things worse and it rolls over even further. At this point it is impossible for the sheep to regain its feet. As it lies there struggling, gases begin to build up in the rumen—which is one of the sheep’s four stomachs. As the rumen expands, it tends to retard and cut off blood circulation to the extremities of the body, especially the legs. If the weather is very hot and sunny, a cast sheep can die in a few hours. If it is cool and cloudy, it may survive for a few days. But no matter what the weather, left to itself, it is going to die.
So, sheep are cute fluffy—dumb creatures. On their own they get lost—and on their own they never find their way back home. Okay—let’s apply this to us because Jesus is saying this is the human predicament–yours and mine. This parable is about us. Like the sheep that is hopelessly lost we cannot make it to God on your own. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. We are just as stuck as a “cast” sheep. On our own we can’t right ourselves—save ourselves.
I point this out because this is where many people get confused. They say things like, “If I’m just good enough, I think that that will be okay to God.” Or maybe, “If I do more nice things than I do bad things, hopefully it will all balance itself out.” Or— “If I go to enough church meetings—that will do it.” The Bible is very clear on this, friends. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death—that left to ourselves, we are without hope. Even our most righteous deeds are stained with the sin of pride. Paul said they are no better than filthy rags. We cannot earn our way to God. We need to be saved.
And the truth that makes the Gospel GLORIOUS GOOD news is we CAN be. That’s what the cross is all about. The cross is where God claims lost sheep like you and me. The Bible says that on that cross the death that I should have died, and that you and I by all rights should have died, was died instead by Jesus. We were separated from a Holy God by our sin. We were lost! Jesus suffered our punishment. He satisfied the just demands of a Holy God. Do you remember the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy? “All we, like sheep, have gone astray. We have turned every one of us to our own way. And the Lord has placed on Him the sin, the fallenness, the lostness, of us all.”
It is as John the Baptist said when he saw Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” We cannot EARN our way to God—we cannot save ourselves—but that’s okay because like the shepherd in the story, Jesus came to find us—save us.
And that leads to the second basic truth I want us to take from this parable.\
(2) God SEEKS.
In Jesus’ story God is “IT.” He is the Shepherd—the person trying to find lost people. As I said, Jesus’ story is not really about a shepherd and his sheep—it’s about God and human beings. In Jesus God came to seek and save us. He told it that day so that the people of Group One could know they could be saved—and so the people in Group Two might realize they could not save themselves—that they needed saving—FINDING—just as much as the tax collectors.
You older people may remember back forty years or so ago when there was a bumper sticker kind of a campaign that was popular. It was called the “I FOUND IT” campaign. And bumper stickers and bill boards all had those three words on them. The idea was “I found Jesus!” and “You can too!” Well, actually that’s not the way it works. The campaign had it backwards. It’s God Who seeks and finds us.
That’s the way it’s been since the very first sin. Remember? Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit. They hear God walking in the garden and they hide themselves and God comes looking for them. He says, “Adam, where are you?” Now think about that. Did God know where Adam and Eve were? Of course, He did—just as I always know where my grandkids are hiding. But—unlike me, God knows literally everything. He’s not some old grandad playing hide and seek.
God is ALL-knowing. Nothing can be hidden from God. So why does He ask Adam, “Where are you?” I mean, God knew what they had done. He knew where they were hiding. He could see them behind the bushes. He knew their thoughts—knew the guilt and shame they were feeling. He knew WHY they were hiding. He knew what Adam would say before the word was on his tongue.
He asked so they would know He loved them enough to seek them out—loved them in spite of their sin. In His sovereignty, God has chosen that He will allow human beings to hide from Him if they want to. He gives us free will. Of course, He also knows how we will use it but He lets us choose. God loves us. And He wants us to love Him back. He wants REAL love—and REAL love is never forced—it’s given. So, God lets us CHOOSE whether to love Him—CHOOSE to come back to Him.
To help you understand a small tasted of the kind of love God feels for you let me share a couple personal stories. The first comes from 32 years ago when Daniel was three. Sue and I took him to Lake Forest Mall. We were shopping at the Children’s Place and suddenly we looked up and he was gone. We panicked. We thought sure someone had grabbed him. While Sue searched the store, I sprinted out in the mall calling his name. Other shoppers joined in the search. Everyone was looking. Everyone was crying out, “Daniel!” My heart was beating a mile a minute. The only thing I thought of was FINDING MY SON.
Well, just as we were about to call the police—Daniel popped out of his hiding place. He was in the middle of one of those circular racks of clothes—he had started a game of Hide and Seek without telling us. I was SO relieved. I mean, I was a little angry that he hid—but I forgot all that and rejoiced at finding our lost son. “Thank You God!” I prayed! Have you parents ever had something like that happen? I mean, you feel your love for your children MOST CLEARLY when you think you’ve lost them. Right? It’s like all the love you have for them comes to the surface at the same time.
Here’s a second example—When Daniel’s daughter—when Lydia was about three we were eating on their deck—and Lydia popped a grape in her mouth. Apparently it slipped by her teeth and lodged in her throat. She started to choke. She couldn’t breathe. I could see the panic on her little face—and my heart just stopped. It almost stops now as I remember that moment. Daniel grabbed her. He tried to get the grape out—but couldn’t get his finger around it so he pushed it down her throat past the wind pipe. I can’t tell you how relieved we were when she stopped choking. We had our little girl back. I thanked God again and again. I don’t think I’ve FELT my love for my granddaughter more than in that moment when she was almost lost to me.
That’s a SHADOW of how God feels about US—His lost children. God LOVES all people as a PERFECT father loves his child. “He is not willing that ANY should perish.” (2nd Peter 3) He wants us back—and so He comes seeking us. He calls out to all of us, “Where are you? Why have you run away? Come home! Ollie Ollie oxen Free—no penalties, no having to earn it—it’s free! All can be forgiven!”
Let me stop at this point and say that—if we are honest—when it comes to loving people, we are more like the people in Group Two than we are like God. We are like the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day in that we devalue people because of their HIDING—their sinful waywardness. We don’t feel the kind of LOVE for the people in Group One that God does. Our hearts don’t stop beating as they hide. When we read of the new sexual lifestyles—all the new practices that add another letter to the LBGTQP acronym—we usually feel disgust instead of love. Instead of breaking—our hearts harden toward these people. When we hear ads of a person running for congress bragging about his pledge to preserve the woman’s right to choose to end the life of her unborn child—once again we feel disgust instead of love. We grumble and murmur like those Pharisees, “Gon-GOOD-zoe!” When we see immigrants flooding into our nation—there are too many who feel disgust instead of love. When we hear of terrorists and their plans—we feel anger and disgust instead of love.
Do you see what I mean? We don’t LOVE the people in group one like God does. God’s love is limitless—infinite—inclusive. Lost people matter to God—ALL LOST PEOPLE. I love the old Hasidic story that tells of a great celebration in heaven after the Israelites are delivered from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and the Egyptian armies are drowned. The angels are cheering and dancing. Everyone in Heaven is full of joy. Then one of the angels asks the archangel Michael, “Where is God? Why isn’t God here celebrating?” Michael answers, “God is not here because he is off by himself weeping. You see, many thousands were drowned today.” God doesn’t rejoice when sinners are punished. He rejoices when sinners are found.