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The Lost Sheep Syria and the Millions
My edition of Paradise Lost has the Gustav Dore illustrations and there is one showing them leaving the Garden of Eden. Michael the Archangel stands imperiously in the background his arm outstretched and his finger pointing down the path where Adam supporting a brokenhearted Eve walks out of the gates of Paradise through the dark tangled roots surrounded by ferocious brutes in their tattered rags.
And there is the picture in verse and etching of the Old Testament God, God of Law, justice, righteousness and punishment. We have been thinking of punishment lately on an international scale, governments, among them France, America and some members of our own have been speaking about punishing Syria for their actions and for infringing international agreements on the non use of Chemical weapons. I found this a curious idea; it was almost as if having found the real problems, the civil war in that country, the clandestine partisan support for government or rebels of neighbouring countries, the refugees, the politics, the theological divisions of the Sunni and Shia peoples, the catastrophic loss of life, injuries homelessness - having found all these way too complicated and intractable we found relief in grasping onto something simple: a wrongdoing had been identified and it must be punished.
The Pharisees regarded the Old Testament as their supreme rule of life but finding that the real problem of applying it to the society in which they lived complicated and intractable they took similar refuge in simplicity. One of their writings, the Pirke Aboth, opens with the idea “make a fence for the law”, by which they meant to surround God’s law with cautionary rules to act as a warning notice to stop people before they got within breaking distance of God’s law itself. And so for them Jesus’ association with sinners, his meeting and eating with prostitutes, beggars and tax collectors among others was inexplicable, he was crossing those barriers that should not be crossed. How could he preach that he knew God, that God was his father, if he behaved liked that? He should behave like a Pharisee and shun those who had sinned and who would be punished in everlasting fire and damnation. The Pharisees are grumbling.
Then we come to the fulcrum of the Gospel, the amazing turning point of Jesus Christ, who said, “I come not to call the righteous but sinners.” For punishment without the possibility of repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness in whatever circumstances, personal or international is punishment without hope. So Jesus tells the Pharisees the parable of the lost sheep. It is three years since my first sermon here, where I spoke about this story, about the time we lost our spaniel Wellington in a foreign land and how we left our work to call and look for him in the rambling forest of Rambouillet and how overjoyed we were to eventually find him and return him safely home. Jesus has come to gather in the lost sheep, to regain Paradise for all of us. Hold on to that thought please for we often focus on the one lost sheep, or dog, but how many lost sheep has Jesus come to find? Millions upon millions for in one way or another we are all sinners. Listen to Paul as he writes to Timothy:
And this is a stunning idea, that Paul so far from being even neutral about these things was rather a renowned violent persecutor of Christians should receive the grace and forgiveness and love. Certainly, this is far beyond the Pharisee’s understanding of the nature of God. But in the alternative post communion prayer that we sometimes use we say:
Here is the counterpoint to the Dore illustration, no longer a haughty angel high on a rock with arm and finger outstretched at the eastern gate but God himself, humbled to a form that we may recognise with arms wide embracing we lost sheep not even at the gate but right her, among us where we are.