5 – How things Get lost
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them….”
“What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them….”
“He was lost…”
These three stories, about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, all have lost things in common. There is, however, a drastic change in the recovery process. The shepherd goes searching, until he finds. The woman begins searching, until she finds. But the father stays home. He does not go searching. The thing of greatest value is lost, and no search parties are sent out? What strange twist is this?
It might be due to the different causes behind the lostness of sheep and coins, and the lostness of a son.
How Sheep Get Lost
Sheep stray, nibbling themselves into lostness. They have no malicious intent. They do not do it on purpose. No sheep starts out the day, saying, “I think I’ll try to escape today.” They undertake no sinister plot to evade the shepherd, by jumping behind a bush when they see the shepherd turn his back. Sheep simply puts their noses down and nibble, engrossed in the grass, until they suddenly become aware they are all alone. Their lostness is due simply to stupidity.
How Coins Get Lost
Now coins cannot wander off. They are neither stupid nor smart. If they get lost, it is pure accident. One of those ten coins may not have been as securely fastened as the others. The setting may not have been as snug. Perhaps the edge of the coin that had been punctured for the necklace, had worn thin over the years. But due to circumstances over which coins have no control, it was lost.
Of course it did not know it was lost. The sheep may have known that it was lost, but the coin knows nothing. It just lies there oblivious to its lostness.
How Sons Get Lost
But the son is not like a sheep or a coin. He is not lost in the same way. The sheep does not know where he is and doesn’t know how to get home. The coin is so lost it doesn’t even know it’s lost. But the son knows where he came from, where he is, and how he got there. He also knows the way back. His lostness is willful lostness. He has chosen to hide himself from his family and friends. He has made a series of decisions. He did not fall overboard; he jumped. He did not just wander off; he cut the ties.
Searching for the Lost
Because the sheep did not choose, the shepherd goes searching. When he finds the sheep he doesn’t ask if it wants to go home, he picks it up and carries it home.
The coin did not choose, so the woman searches and restores it to the necklace without so much as by your leave.
But the father faces a different dilemma. He “cannot” go and kidnap his son and re-program him. He “cannot” send out a posse to drag him back. The son left of his own accord. He left freely and without coercion. He himself must choose to come back. He made the get-away by choice. He must initiate the return. So what “can” the father do? He does what this father does. His heart goes out to his son, while he must stay at home. His eyes wander over the horizon, though his feet must stay planted at home. His prayers go after his son into every far country, while he himself cannot go after him. And that was the most difficult of all options. To wait, until. To wait and hope.
But did you notice what happens when the son appears in the distance. The heart of the father recognized his son before his eyes could be sure. He plummeted down the stairs, threw open the front door, raced down the pathway, threw open the front gate, and ran as fast as he could, running to shorten the distance for the returning son.
The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son were all highly prized. All were longed for, and when found, jubilation beyond bounds was the heartfelt response.
Wonderful to be Wanted
And it is wonderful to be wanted! Some of us remember our childhood days playing hide-and-go-seek. It was fun finding a hiding place. But not much fun, if no one could find us. And to prevent that we squeaked, or made funny sounds, or we stuck our head out of our hiding place, because though hiding was fun, being found was more fun. Then we could join the screams of delight and jump around with our friends. To hide too well was sad, because the others got tired of looking, and might just drift off to other pursuits. It is wonderful to be wanted. It is wonderful to be found.
Some of us remember those adolescent days when sides were being chosen to make up teams for baseball, volleyball, hockey or some other group sport. It was wonderful to be wanted and chosen early. To be chosen last was a thing most horrid.
And this is the unmistakable message of these three stories. No matter how we get lost, whether by stupidity, accident or willfulness, a great value is placed on us by God, and he grieves for us until we turn homeward.
If any are tempted to say, “Who cares about me, or what I do!” implying that no one does, these 3 stories tell us that the shepherd cares for every sheep, the woman cares for every coin, and our Father cares for every son and daughter, whether profligate or pharisaic. It is indeed wonderful to be wanted and more joyous to be found!
I have asserted above that God “cannot” do some things. Some would ask that I change the word to “will not.” This brings us to one of the great debates within the church of God.
When speaking about the attributes of God, the church used a Latin word to describe the powerfulness of God. They said, “He is omnipotent” which means, all-potent, all-powerful and almighty.
Now the declaration that God is almighty has been a source of great comfort to millions. It is such an important truth that it enters our songs and hymns with great frequency. Listen to the praise songs we have taught our children:
“God can do anything, anything, anything. God can do anything, but fail.”
“My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, There’s nothing my God cannot do….”
“Nothing is impossible, When you put your trust in God…”
Of course it is a prominent theme not merely of our songs, but also of the scriptures. Jeremiah asks the question, “Is anything too hard for You?” And the answer is “Nothing!” (Jeremiah 32:17, 27.)
This has been the consolation of God’s people thru the ages. Words about God’s power and might are good news to those in danger.
But if the news about the omnipotence of God is good news to some, it has driven others into discomfort, doubt and despair, for it is news that is not always seen as good news. The question comes, “If God is ‘in control’, how come the world is so out of control?”
In the face of incessant wars the question comes racing to the forefront, “If God is so powerful, why does he not stop the war? And why did he not stop Hitler and prevent the death of 6 million Jews, and the deaths of the millions of those who fought in that horrific war? And while we’re at it, if God is so powerful, why does he not protect the innocent millions from starvation and suffering?
Those are legitimate questions. The debate in response to those questions has gone on for much of human history. It sounds like this:
“If God were all powerful, He could stop the wars.
If He were all good he would want to stop the wars.
If the wars are not stopped, then one of two things must be true:
Either He doesn’t want to stop the war, which makes him evil.
Or he cannot stop the war, and that makes him impotent, weak and powerless.
The popular Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner, has written a very interesting book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.[i] He wrestles with the dilemma of undeserved suffering. He concludes that God cares deeply, he loves intensely, but, He is powerless to change things. He sits in the grandstands and cheers us on when we do the right thing. But that is all he can do. If things are to change, we will have to do it, for God is not omnipotent. Rabbi Kushner is prepared to say, “I believe in God the Father, all loving” but he cannot say “I believe in God, the Father, Almighty!”
Is there a way out of the dilemma that has been handed to us?
God’s Omnipotence and Human Freedom
Augustine and the Reformers, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, held the conviction that God was sovereign over the universe. They underscored the idea that God was omnipotent and had control over all things. They stressed his control over history. Some moved so far as to say that God was so in control that he predestined all that happens. They seemed to infer that if I fall off the sidewalk and break my ankle, God planned it, for reasons known only to him: perhaps to teach me something, to punish me, to warn me. But God is in control of all events. Even war.
But that has not sat very well with others in the church. For if that is true, then to call God, “Loving Father” is a bit of a misnomer. It would be better to call him King, Lord, and Sovereign, but do not call him Father.
Let me, however, suggest another solution to the dilemma that Rabbi Kushner faced.
“If God were all powerful He could.
If God were all loving he would.”
First it needs to be said, that God is able to do all that he wills to do. There is nothing in this universe that can stop God from doing anything he chooses to do. But a second thing needs to be said. God created humanity with the gift of freedom. Freedom to choose for themselves. Freedom for Adam and Eve to choose, freedom for Cain and Abel to choose, freedom for you and me to choose.
Whatever happened in the Fall of man, described in Genesis 3, it did not rescind God’s decision to give man significant authority over his own life, and the life of his neighbours, and the rest of creation. He gave all sufficient autonomy to be considered responsible for some, if not all, of our actions.
Now the gift of freedom is a terrible gift. It puts into the hands of people, responsibilities for themselves and their neighbours. There are times I do not want this gift. It demands too much from me. But there is no other gift I prize more highly. God has not taken away this gift from his creatures. It is an irrevocable grant.
This does not imply, however, that God surrendered his power. He has all the power he needs to do his will. But in his unfathomable wisdom, he decided to share power with his creatures.
God is all loving. Kushner is right! God is all powerful. Kushner is wrong! But God will only rarely interfere with our choosing. He will not manipulate us into being good, when we choose evil. There are some things that God “cannot” do. He cannot be unjust. He cannot be untrue. He cannot give freedom to humanity and then take it and its consequences away.
Now there are times when God intervenes in human affairs, and we call them miracles. But for much of life, he has given instructions on how to live. He sent Moses and the prophets, Christ and the church, to demonstrate how life is to be lived. Along with the instructions, he also gave us power to make right choices. But he also gave us power to make wrong choices. The choices are ours to make. What we cannot choose, however, are the consequences that may flow from wise and foolish, good and evil choices. What we choose to sow, we may have to reap.
At such moments, when any of us make bad choices, God looks on our folly. And as in days of old he says, “How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not. Your house, instead, is left to you desolate.” The wars of our world are not of his doing, not of his manipulations. It is people like you and me, who have risen to places of great power who have taken their freedom in their hands and ignored the counsel of Christ and have created the conditions for war.
So what do we do with this great dilemma? We confess our weakness or wickedness to him, and ask God to help us become wise. We confess our hate to Him and ask Him to help us be compassionate. We listen to his yearning for our race and resolve to live and speak and act so that such conflagrations do not keep on recurring. We take our wounded world and hold it in our arms that his healing grace can bind up that which we are breaking.
[i] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (New York: Schocken Books, 1981).