Read Luke 15:1-10 to start.
I’m going to let you all in on the worst kept secret – I like Star Trek. Have liked it since I was a kid watching the repeats of the original series on CBC on Saturday afternoon. I remember it was on right after lunch time. No one else in the house was much into it, but I enjoyed it, cheesy as it was. I liked the movies as well, well, not the first one, it was long and boring, but the later movies were great. There’s a line that comes up a couple of times in the second movie, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” In the context of the movie the line fits with Spock putting himself in danger to save the ship and ultimately dying from radiation poisoning.
In the context of everyday life, this is a reasonable and practical approach to many things. We see this principle play out all the time. Main roads with lots of traffic see the snow plow first. When there is a power outage, the crews will generally try to get the largest groups of people back on first, and then deal with the smaller individual outages. If you are ordering pizza for a group of people, you order what most people like. The guy who wants nothing but pineapple, olives, and anchovies, he’s probably out of luck, because the larger group, the many, they don’t want that, and it’s more reasonable to meet their needs than the needs of someone who has terrible taste in pizza.
Questions of pizza, plows, and power outages might all seem urgent at the time, but when you look at the big picture, none of those is especially important, none are likely to have any lasting significance. Are we ourselves more concerned with the views and opinions of the many, or of the few? Are we concerned with the well-being of the few? Or are we more worried about the approval of the many?
It was very tempting for me to take this sermon in a different direction than I had planned, and to talk about the importance of taking care of the small, the weak, the marginalized, unpopular, the few, even at the expense of incurring the ire of the many. I do think that is a valid topic for another day, because all too often is this world quick to dismiss and discard those who do not fit a preferred mould. For that matter, all too often in the church we are also ready to distance ourselves from those who don’t conform to our views or whose Christian walk might be stumbling and halting at times, or might not measure up. It is something that we all need to watch out for in our own behaviour, our own thoughts and deeds, because we enjoy having the approval of the majority, and at times that may divert us from doing what is right. The parables we read were delivered to a group of people that included the Pharisees who did not approve of how Christ associated with publicans and sinners. Clearly He did not care about the approval of the many.
But this morning, I want to ask a different question. Is God more concerned with the many or the few? Is He the God of the many, or the God of the few? Is He both? Or is He neither? That is what I would like to consider this morning.
It’s easy to find scripture to support either side of this. In the Old Testament we see repeated references to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We also see many examples of how God interacted directly with individuals. Some of the most well known Bible characters are people who had a close personal relationship with God, and with whom we see Him communicating. Think of men like Noah, Moses, and Samuel, they walked with God, talked with God, and very specifically did His work. Each of them was called out by the Lord for a particular task, and we even have some specific details of their conversations with Him.
It’s not just prophets and patriarchs that God dealt with personally. In Genesis chapter 16, we read of Hagar, at the time pregnant with the baby who would be Ishmael, how she fled into the wilderness when things went badly for her. We see how God sent an angel to speak with her, instruct her, acknowledge her affliction, as well as give a promise to her about her unborn baby. This is as plain an example of God dealing with someone personally as we will find in scripture, and most notably, someone that we do not have any indication that they knew God at all prior to this event. She even refers to the Lord as “Thou God seeth me” which is an acknowledgement of how God has taken notice of her directly and in a personal and specific way.
God clearly deals with people on an individual basis, and deals with them where they are.
But we can also see God dealing with larger groups of people, often much larger groups, such as individual tribes, or specific family lines, or with entire nations. Israel is the most obvious one, there are myriad promises to the Israelites, some of which are contingent upon their obedience, and some of which are not. Likewise, there are warnings for Israel as a nation, that should they refuse to follow God’s laws, there would be consequences. We can see that unfortunately, that is what happened, Israel fell far short of a passing grade when it came to serving God. They did not keep the Sabbath as they should have, they did not keep the Passover as they should have. They did not follow the seven-year-cycle of harvest and letting the land rest as they should have. Most notably, they did not refrain from worshipping idols, they continually fell into that and became virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding nations, including the very groups that God had told them to remove from the land. As a result, they went into exile as a nation, and never experienced the level of freedom that they had before until 1948.
It’s not only Israel that God deals with as a group. Often there are select groups mentioned in scripture, such as on the day of Pentecost when a vast crowd heard Peter’s sermon, and three thousand believed and were added to the church on that one day. Many of the epistles in the New Testament are directed to entire local churches, with however many people they might consist of.
In the Old Testament, we see prophecies directed to various nations, such as Moab, Ammon, Edom, Assyria, and Egypt. We also see other, more general examples. Psalm 33 has an interesting one, which is both for Israel, but not limited to that nation. Reading at verse (12) Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance. (13) The LORD looketh from heaven; he beholdeth all the sons of men. (14) From the place of his habitation he looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth. (15) He fashioneth their hearts alike; he considereth all their works.
Yes, that does refer to Israel, if not by name, but it also includes the entire world. All the inhabitants of the earth, that phrase is ever so inclusive. That includes me, it includes you, it leaves no one out. Not only does God see us, He has formed us, and He notices our works and deeds, and He considers them. He weighs and evaluates and knows us, we do not get to fly under the radar.
God is the God of the Many, and He is the God of the few.
We see this well illustrated in the passage that we looked at to start this morning. We read a parable from Luke’s gospel, or rather two closely related parables, the parable of the Lost Sheep, and of the Lost Coin. In both cases, someone has a large number of something, whether it be sheep, or coins, depending on the parable, and in both cases, a small percentage of both goes missing. The owner of that which is lost, instead of quickly giving up and abandoning it, instead makes a diligent search. The lost sheep and the lost coin are both recovered, and there is cause for rejoicing in both cases. We see exactly this in both parables, one is almost an echo of the other.
These are well known parables, although perhaps not quite as well known as the one that immediately follows, which is the parable of the Prodigal Son. I didn’t read that one, because it’s long, and it is one of the best known of all the parables. It is of course deserving of an entire sermon. One day I expect to preach that sermon, we’ll see how things unfold and how my perspective develops over the next couple of years.
But for the here and now, these three parables have an interesting progression with numbers and percentages. First we have 100 sheep, and one is lost, which is only one percent. Then we have ten coins, one lost, which is ten percent. Finally we have two sons, one of which for a time became lost. That is of course fifty percent. The relative value of what is lost compared to what is not lost changes dramatically. But in all cases, that which was lost is eventually found.
Is a son more valuable than a coin, or a coin more precious than a sheep? You might think that the answer to the first one is obvious, of course your child is worth far more than some money or an animal. Sadly, there are some parents who do not act as if that is the case, but that is another topic for another day. The point is not who or what is worth more, the point is that there is perceived value, great value, in all of the lost things. It’s not about the monetary value or the cost of replacement, it’s about how precious the lost ones are to those who own them, those who value them.
If I’m driving out in the country, a random sheep lost on the side of the road is not particularly worrisome for me, and it’s probably not for you either. I’ve not seen stray sheep out and about, but I have seen stray cows on more than one occasion, and I haven’t exactly gotten worked up about it. Presumably sheep get out of their pastures and get lost from time to time as well. For most of us, that’s not the end of the world. But I don’t own that lost sheep, or for that matter, any sheep. To whoever owns that sheep, though, a lost sheep is a big deal, a very big deal. That animal is precious to them, and they would very much like to find it, to recover it.
It’s also not about how many there are, how many are lost compared to how many are not. When you have 99 sheep remaining, one missing animal may seem insignificant, not worth the effort to find it. But it’s worth the effort when you care about that sheep, when you care about each of your sheep. You make that effort when you value something, or someone.
You know who else appreciates that effort? The lonely lost sheep.
As mentioned, I don’t own sheep, or any livestock for that matter. And while I don’t ever expect to own sheep, I do own a cat. Well, technically, there’s a cat that lives in our house and we supply it with food and treats, and we clean up its poop. So far as the cat is concerned, we don’t own him, we’re more like his cooks, janitor, and butler. Our cat is an indoor cat, because he does not need to be outside murdering birds, avoiding cars, and making friends with skunks and raccoons. However, he has on far too many occasions made excursions to the great outdoors, usually because someone didn’t notice him slip out when they were coming in the door. When he gets outside, sometimes he gets scared and comes back in a few minutes, but there then are other times when he does not. When that happens, we go and find him, we chase him down, we lure him in with treats, we wait for him to come out from under the deck or down from one of the maple trees –– it’s always a maple, he must be a patriotic cat – because it’s not safe for him to be on his own outside. I don’t even like the cat all that much, but the rest of the family does, and therefore he’s precious enough to us to go and rescue him when he gets himself into trouble.
If my cat is precious to me, how precious must we be to our Creator? Like my cat, and like the sheep in the parable, we are entirely too dumb and frequently we make ill-advised choices and get into trouble. We get ourselves away from God, away from safety. Maybe we realize quickly that we have lost our way and are far from home, and maybe we don’t, but God is there for us once we are ready to turn to Him for help.
God sent His only begotten Son to pay the price for our sins in order that we might have the salvation we need. If we were not precious to Him, He would not have done that. We have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday morning to commemorate this, to recognize that Christ suffered and died for us, because we were lost and needed to be found. Yes, He asked His followers to remember Him in this way, and so we do, but we also do so because of how significant His sacrifice was, how greatly He suffered, and how complete is the salvation that we have gained from His work. If we trust in Christ to save us, then the benefit we enjoy is beyond measure, and that benefit only exists because we are precious to Him.
We are not precious to Him because we are good, or we are righteous, or well behaved, or skilled, or particularly brilliant and wonderful. We are precious to Him because He made us, we are His creation, and He values us more than we can ever truly comprehend. And because of this, He made a way that we could be with Him, a way to resolve the divide that is caused by sin.
Christ said that He came to seek and to save the lost, we can read that if we flip over a few pages to Luke chapter 19. And who are the lost? While He came first to Israel, to His chosen people, this invitation is extended to one and all. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All we are have gone astray. We are all lost sheep. God is the God of any who will accept Him.
The shepherd in the first parable, is he the shepherd of that one lost sheep, or of all the sheep? The immediate answer is to say both. The parable pays the most attention to the lost sheep, but no doubt when that shepherd was not out recovering the missing animal, he was caring for the other 99. Or more accurately, most of the time he was caring for all 100.
And likewise the woman with her coins, all ten of them were precious to her. The one that was lost had her attention at the moment, because it was not with the others, and its fate was uncertain, but it was not more or less important than the others. She owned all ten of them. She valued them all.
Both people in those parables, they went out and looked for the lost. They went to find what was missing, and in the case of the shepherd, went quite a distance out in the wilderness, and carried it back.
God does that with us as well, He meets us where we are. This can be out in the wilderness, hopeless and alone, or it can be right where we have been all along, not even seeing that we need Him. But alone or in a crowd, God sees us and knows us and cares for us.
I’ll ask you to turn to Acts chapter 8 to see how God meets people where they are, no matter how large or small a group they might be in. This takes place in the early days of the church, shortly after persecution has started at Jerusalem, and believers have started dispersing out to the surrounding areas. Reading at verse (5) Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. (6) And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. (7) For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. (8) And there was great joy in that city.
Samaria is a bit of a distance from Jerusalem, about 70 kilometres or so. It’s a fair hike when you are on foot, which Philip almost certainly was. But instead of running and hiding and staying quiet to avoid potential persecution following him to Samaria, Philip instead shared the good news of salvation to the Samaritans, who he probably didn’t particularly like, as there was a long standing animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, which we won’t get into at this time. God used Philip to reach this group of people, probably a fairly large group, because they clearly needed to be reached. They had illnesses, they had injuries, they had demonic oppression, and they did not have the gospel. God sent Philip to be His minister to the Samaritans, and it says that they listened. It says they were healed, and that there was great joy. We don’t have specific numbers of how many believed, but it was certainly in the hundreds at minimum, and probably in the thousands. What a blessing to those people who had been on the outside looking in when it came to being part of God’s people prior to this point!
We saw how God was the God of the many, how the city of Samaria was reached and was blessed, and how many were added to the church. We see a different example if we look further down the chapter, to verse (26) And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. (27) And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, (28) Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. (29) Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. (30) And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? (31) And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.
I could read the rest of the passage, but it is familiar to most, and I’ll simply sum it up instead. The Ethiopian heard the gospel from Philip, who explained how the Old Testament prophecies applied to Christ, and how this was relevant and important, and the Ethiopian believed and was baptised almost immediately. This man, this one man, was added to the church universal on that day, out in the wilderness, in isolation from other believers, from anyone else apart from maybe his chariot driver. No large group, no others, just him. God found him where he was, when he needed help, when he needed answers. God saw him, and saved him, because God pays attention to those who seek Him, those who need Him.
At times we might feel that we are part of a larger group, and that we relate to God as part of that group. We worship as a group, we pray as a group, we sing as a group. This morning, right now, I’m speaking to you all as a group, not sitting down with you one by one to share with you directly, as Philip did with that Ethiopian in the wilderness.
If we have believed and trusted in Him, then we have been added to the church so that we will be part of a group, part of His building, so that we will be better equipped to serve Him, and better supported in this life, so that we will be part of something much larger than ourselves. He is the God of the many, and we are part of the many.
But at times we may not feel that we are really a proper part of the many. We may feel that we do not fit in, that we are not seen, that we are all on our own. I won’t have you turn there, but we could see many examples in the Psalms of how David found himself all alone, or at least feeling that he was alone, and that there was none to help. We also could look at Elijah, who fled into the wilderness and cried out to the Lord that he was the only one left who actually followed, who actually believed.
For both of them, God met them where they were, and reassured them that He had not forgotten them, not left them, and that they were not alone. They needed to be reminded of God’s goodness, His grace, and His presence, both in their lives and in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes, quite often I think, we need that reminder as well. We need that attention.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father loved both of his sons, he valued both of them. The one who went off, who went astray, he gets the lion’s share of attention in the parable, because he got into trouble, trouble of his own making, mind you. He needed help. He required attention.
Sometimes we need a lot of attention, and sometimes we do not. Some people need more attention and more help, and some do not. That is how this life goes. That has nothing to do with how much God loves us. His love and His grace are sufficient for us, in whatever measure we may need, and when we need it.
God is the God of the many, it is true. We are part of the many, whether we feel it or not, and whether we like it or not. But God is also the God of the few, and the God of the one. He meets us where we are, He deals with us where we are, because He values us every bit as much as that shepherd in the parable valued the lone lost sheep. He seeks us as the woman looks for her lost coin. He loves us as much as the father loved his runaway son.