A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on September 12, 2010.
Almost six years ago, a now-famous television series entitled Lost debuted on national television. The series focused on 71 passengers who survived a plane crash over the South Pacific and swam to a nearby tropical island. For six years the American public watched by the millions as these marooned people struggled against all kinds of obstacles to find their way back home.
Before the season ended earlier this year faithful viewers of “Lost” were treated to all kinds of mysteries and parallel realities that made interpreting the show difficult if not impossible. After the series ended earlier this year in a controversial concluding episode, countless fans called “lostaways” or “losties” continue to blog and debate the ultimate meaning and significance of the show.
Leave it to Americans to turn lost people into a Hollywood spectacle! Long before ABC television produced this series about lost people on a tropical island Jesus and the writers of the New Testament put spiritually lost people on center stage.
Oddly enough, while the prospect of people lost on an island absolutely captivates us, the prospect of people lost for all eternity either leaves us anxious to change the subject or yawning with disinterest. In all but the most theologically conservative churches talking about “the lost” has fallen out of favor. It’s fine to talk about lostaways or losties. But talking about being lost and being saved is no longer hip, not even close. We either come up with interesting synonyms for these words, or worse yet, we just ignore the topic altogether.
I will confess to you that I have been in that number who wanted to avoid words like lost and saved. The reason is simple—I grew up in a Baptist church where preachers consistently threatened the lost of this world with the fires of hell unless they repented, got right with God, and got saved. If I heard the phrase, “lost and dying world” once, I heard it a thousand times! Eventually, I became tired of it, then scandalized by it to the point that I just felt more comfortable avoiding the “l” word altogether. I decided that words like lost had outlived their usefulness in a testy world that frankly could use more tolerance.
But as I have gotten older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I have begun to reclaim vocabulary of the Christian faith that I formerly cast aside. And today I want to publicly reclaim the word, “lost”.
What I’ve come to see is that Jesus talks about the lost a lot differently than the fire-breathing preachers of my youth. When Jesus talks about the lost, it’s with a twinkle in his eye and love in his heart. Jesus doesn’t talk about lost people like they are the scum of the earth. He doesn’t spend lots of time shaming lost people about their sinful ways. He’s far more interested in showing his “losties” the way back home, and throwing a big party when they finally fall into the arms of a loving God.
At least, that’s the tone I hear when Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin in the hearing of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Remember, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were shocked that a so-called “holy man” like Jesus would hang out with unholy people like tax collectors and sinners. Jesus’ behavior was not only unseemly but unclean. These lost people had “cooties”, and their cooties might rub off on you, so you best avoid them. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were certain that God despised the lost, and so did they. Lostaways weren’t to be pursued but avoided at all costs. And if they rotted in hell, so be it. They deserved it!
Sometimes, I think the preachers I heard growing up, and still hear on occasion today feel the same way about the lost.
Now listen to not only the words but the tone of Jesus as he addresses the subject of the lost: 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. And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me. I have found my lost sheep. 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.
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me: I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Now here’s what I notice about these famous stories of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t avoid words like “lost”, “sinner”, or “repent”. He’s no softie when it comes to sin. He’s not about to gloss over those patterns of our lives that doom us to destruction, in this life and the next. He knows we don’t have a chance if we don’t admit our sin, and repent or turn from our sin.
But Jesus isn’t obsessing about our sin nor shaming us for our sin. He’s going out of his way to tell us how precious we are in God’s sight, so precious that God is willing to move heaven and earth to reclaim us as his own.
No shepherd in his right mind will leave ninety-nine sheep for one. But the Lord our Shepherd exhibits what Paul calls the “foolishness of God” and leaves the ninety-nine out in open country to pursue the one who’s lost his way. No woman in her right mind would fixate on one measly coin lost in a dark, windowless house with a dirt floor. But the God who views us as priceless treasure will go to the depths of hell to retrieve us.
And surely a God who is running the world doesn’t have the luxury of calling time out for a celebration in heaven over any and every person who runs back to him. But the Son of God assures us that when even one person is saved from self-destruction and saved for eternity the Maker of heaven and earth carves time out of this busy schedule to throw a party fit for a king.
Now I ask you—does this sound like a God who could care less about the lost? Or who despises the lost and can’t wait to see them fry in hell?
So let’s get one thing straight today. God is head over heels in love with the lost. He loves the lost so much that he searches for them relentlessly, even obsessively. They don’t just show up on his list of priorities. It turns out the lost of this world are his number one priority. And he isn’t going to rest until every last lost person has had a chance to respond to his love.
And it’s a good thing, because all of us are lost at some level. Yes, you heard me right. Even those of us who have accepted Jesus as our Savior and Lord struggle at some level with lostness.
Suppose we define “lost” this way. Lost does not mean being stranded on a tropical island. Lost means being in rebellion against a God who loves us more than we love ourselves. And saved means being an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
People who have never committed their lives to Christ obviously qualify as lost. Somehow they’ve become convinced they can have abundant life apart from the one who gave them life in the first place. Until or unless they see their mistake, they have lost their way in life.
No less than the Apostle Paul admits he was utterly lost before he came to know Christ. Despite his intellectual genius, and religious passion, and sterling reputation, Paul was lost. And without Christ, so are we.
When we invite Jesus into our lives, we take a gigantic step from darkness into light. Now, we are following the one who can lead us off whatever island of lostness we’ve been stranded upon and lead us home into salvation, or what the Bible calls abundant, eternal life.
But the truth is, until the day we die we are still dealing with some level of darkness and lostness. We still rebel against God in myriad ways; we never quite free ourselves from sin in this lifetime. That’s why it’s ludicrous for us to look down on the lost like the Pharisees of old.
Now, I want to give you a prime example of our continuing lostness. We behave like we could care less about the lost.
Years ago before Fred Craddock was a famous preacher, author, and preaching professor at Emory University’s Candler Divinity School, he was a student pastor of a church in East Tennessee. It was a beautiful little church, a white frame building, pretty as a picture. They were good people in that church, too, a warm, friendly congregation.
But when Fred Craddock arrived, he noticed something. He noticed that none of the new people in town—the people who had come to work on the big government project over at Oak Ridge and all those people living in trailers and hastily built shanties with all those children—none of those people were in that church.
Craddock called the church board together and said, “We need to reach out to those people who are all around us. They are so close. Here’s our mission.” And the chairperson said, “Oh, I don’t think so. They wouldn’t fit in here.” Craddock protested, “But they need the gospel. They need the church.” “No, I don’t think so,” said the chairperson. And the next Sunday night the board passed a resolution, “Members will be admitted to this church only from families who own property in the county.”
Years later Craddock took a trip back to that little town. He searched out the church and found it. It was still a pretty place. But out in front of that pretty little church was a sign that read, “Barbequed chicken, Ribs, and Pork.” It wasn’t a church anymore. The church had died. It was a restaurant now and was full—full of all kinds of people, sitting in those pews, eating barbeque. The building was packed, and Craddock said to his wife, “It’s a good thing this isn’t a church anymore. These folks would not be welcome.”
Stanley Hauerwas, a Professor at Duke Divinity School, made the shocking statement that God is at work in the decline of the mainline church. He notes that most mainline denominations and churches are shrinking. But instead of sympathizing with those churches, Hauerwas makes the following observation—the inward focus of these churches has already made their existence irrelevant.
Now folks, I don’t know about you. But that statement by Hauerwas is enough to keep me awake at night. The story about the pretty little church in Tennessee full of good friendly people that eventually died is enough to keep me tossing and turning. Because I can’t help but wonder if you and I have become like the Pharisees who eventually forgot about lost people and in their place substituted lots of religious activity with the already saved.
Here’s what I want to know. We have a mission statement in this church that reads, “We are a family faith seeking to know Christ and make him known.” I want to know when we are going to live up to that phrase, “make him known” that mission statement.
Last year, we spent a month talking about “walking across the room” to invite others to follow the same Christ we know. When are we going to live up to that? A few months ago, we did a spectacular job of hosting 1300 already saved Baptists for a General Assembly here. When are we going to be equally spectacular in reaching the lost in this church?
We have an Evangelism Team struggling with these very questions, and they don’t pretend to have all the answers. But they do know we are called to get outside the sheep pen of these walls and go after lost people far from God. And they do know we have an opportunity to do just that next weekend when thousands of people will be in downtown Winston-Salem for the Rock the Block event.
I don’t know if what they’ve planned will work, and neither do they. But this much I do know. If we do our best somewhere in heaven the angels of God will be throwing a party and saying to each other, “Isn’t this great. The folks at First Baptist Church finally get it. We love lost people. And so should they!”
What do you say we give those angels something to party about?