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Note: This sermon was presented on September 25, 1960, at Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas. The text was published in a book of sermons, Lost and Found (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1963).
When historians and philosophers centuries from now will come to evaluate this age in which we live, what will they say? If time will last, so that men may look back on our age with the broader perspective of the centuries, what will they say was the dominant characteristic of our time? Perhaps we can do no more than speculate, for all of us stand much too close to our own age actually to see it as it is. Yet, even in our self-appraisal, we are not bound entirely by the extremities of our own time, or even the limits of our finite minds. For in the Bible, rightly understood and properly interpreted, we find the most accurate and realistic view of man’s true condition and abiding need. In the Bible we not only see ourselves in the perspective of its own recorded history, but we can see ourselves more clearly as God must see us. The Bible is a mirror which reflects what we are.
This understanding of what we really are comes into particular focus in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, to which we will be giving our special attention. Here we find four masterful parables from the recorded sayings of Jesus: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, The Lost Son, and The Lost Brother. Overlapping as they do at many points, they nevertheless present various aspects of the experience of being “lost and found.” Looking at our age in the light of these thirty-two verses, I would like to elaborate on this deduction about ourselves and about our age: that we are, all of us, a part of a “lost generation.” This describes most accurately and clearly what we are.
A generation or so ago, men were still basking in the sunlight of a false security. They were building on the shaky foundations of self-sufficiency. They were going to bring in a golden age of prosperity and enlightenment, mostly, if not entirely, without god! A certain young man during those years was reported to have said, “I’m note interested in religion for the same reason that I’m not interested in bird watching, stamp collecting, or chicken raising.” So God was reduced to a kind of local option, and religion to a harmless hobby for those who like it. Certainly nothing much was expected to come from it one way or the other. But a more careful observer, writing in the early twenties, said, “The world is taking a joy ride; it has thrown overboard the Pilot: it is an accident going somewhere to happen.” Well, it has happened, inside us, outside us, and all over the world.!
We must now own up to a very grim fact: that despite the comforts and conveniences which man’s ingenuity has made available, “never before have men suffered so much from every conceivable ailment of body, mind, and spirit as now.” You and I cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of human misery and the unbelievable suffering that is being endured across the world in our day. Alcoholism, gambling, juvenile delinquency, broken homes, divorce, and war and further symptoms of a deeper malady; they, too, are evidences of a spiritual emptiness; they are tokens of our failure to put life together without God.
You look into the lives of people in our day and you will find a wistful longing, an uneasy restlessness, an awareness, even though dimly felt, that something is not right with their lives. G. K. Chesterton put his finger on the matter when he said:
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
This is a lost generation, with lost men and women! This is our true condition and abiding need.
Now as we hold our own generation to the mirror of these four parables of Jesus, recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, we can see more specifically the way in which we are lost. In fact, these four parables illustrate four specific ways in which we are a lost generation, and in which we individually are lost men and women.
The Parable of the Lost Coin implies that we are lost when we are useless. The lost coin in this instance was worth about sixteen cents. In terms of purchasing power for those days, that was no inconsiderable amount. Nevertheless, any coin has within itself very little intrinsic value. It has value only in terms of that for which it can be exchanged, or in terms of that which it can buy. There, then, was a lost coin, a coin that was out of circulation. As long as it remained lost, it could be exchanged for nothing. It was useless. It was, in very truth, good for nothing.
Jesus repeatedly warned against the perils of uselessness in daily living. His sharpest condemnations were upon those who thought of their religion in terms of repression rather than expression—in terms of what they did not do, rather than in terms of what they did. The priest and the Levite on the Jericho road had done nothing wrong. Dives, who fared sumptuously every day while Lazarus lay uncared for at his gate, had done nothing wrong. Indeed. Those in the Parable of the Last Judgement who were cast into everlasting punishment had done nothing wrong. Rather they were judged because of what they had failed to do; this was the basis of their condemnation.
Carefully they had upheld every restriction which they thought religion had placed upon them. But their lives had failed at the point of usefulness. They saw only the negative side of religion and missed altogether its positive side. People like that were, in Jesus’ view of the matter, lost, regardless of what their religious pretensions may have been. John Wesley caught the true emphasis of Jesus when he prayed, “Lord, let me not live to be useless.”
This is a fact that speaks to our generation and to our lives personally with great eloquence. For there are many people who are polite, amiable, talented, and attractive, and who, from one point of view, are regarded as being highly successful, but who make virtually no contribution to the life around them. They hold down a job, and may even do it satisfactorily enough; but beyond that there is not much that can be said.
People like that, however attractive and winsome they may appear to be, are nevertheless lost. They have missed not only the greatest stimulus of life, but also its greatest meaning: the feeling that they are needed, that their lives matter, that they are making some contribution to the lives of others and to the world about them.
When D. L. Moody was holding one of his many summer conferences at Northfield, Massachusetts, there was a girl in attendance whose name was Ida Scudder. She was a member of a famous missionary family whose members had been missionaries for at least three generations. Her life abounded with native ability and talent. But she was determined that she was going to live her own life and enjoy it. And, above all, she was not going to be a missionary.
So at the Northfield School she was full of fun and pranks, not necessarily bad, but not taking life too seriously. Then one day she was suddenly called back to India, where her parents were serving, because of the illness of her mother. During her brief stay in India she saw the abysmal suffering of the Indian women who, because of their belief, would not go to a male doctor. Again and again she saw where her own father, a doctor, could not help these women because of their taboos.
Finally the conviction grew upon her that, in a country where there were many thousands of people to every doctor, where only a fifth of the children born ever lived to be a year old, she could ill afford to waste her life in frivolity and harmless pranks. She was needed, and that was the stimulus that changed the course of her life.
The lostness of many people is in the fact that they are living useless lives. Their lives have no exchange value, above and beyond themselves. They contribute to nothing that will add to the welfare and happiness of other people.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep implies that we are lost when we are aimless. Few passages of Scripture move the heart with such deep feelings as do those which have their setting in the shepherd life of ancient Israel. For they bring to mind pictures of the out-of-doors, the hillsides and brooks, the rocks and gorges. Out of such pictures there comes the echo of words that have grown priceless with meaning. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” or the words, “I am the good shepherd.” The sheep is in many respects a stupid animal, utterly dependent on the shepherd to make his way across the difficult and dangerous terrain.
But our condition is that we are lost sheep. This is the way Jesus saw people, and this evoked His deepest compassion upon them: they were “as sheep not having a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). This is man’s true condition and abiding need—he is lost as a sheep is lost without his shepherd. He wanders about without purpose or direction; so, this picture says, we are lost when we are aimless.
Aimlessness characterizes so much of our living in these days. We work, but do we work for the right things? We move with great speed, but do we move in the right direction? We succeed, but are we succeeding in worthy goals? The fact is that with all our work, speed, and success, we are not clear as to what it is for which we are working, where it is we are going, or what is the goal toward which we would arrive.
An important speaker arrived at a certain city, and he was quite late for his appointment. He raced off the train and piled into a waiting taxi, saying, “Step on it!” And the driver did: screeching around corners, slipping under red lights, and weaving in and out of the traffic. Finally, after about fifteen minutes of this, the passenger asked the driver, “Aren’t we soon going to get there?” The driver replied, “Get where? You never said where you wanted to go. You said, ‘Step on it,’ and that is what I am doing.” This reminds us that progress has little do with speed, but has much to do with direction.
Directionless, aimless living is what characterizes our generation. And all our speed cannot hide the fact that being directionless and aimless we are lost, as sheep not having a shepherd. It is because of this fact that a man, successful in his profession, can come toward the end of his career and say in all seriousness: “Where am I after sixty years of living? What have I accomplished? What have I done with my possibilities? Where am I spiritually, mentally, and morally speaking?”
How many people are haunted by that ghastly feeling that all their lives they have been going nowhere, that all of their work and activity has added up to an unimpressive cipher. This is the bitter fruit of aimlessness. This is the nature of the lostness which characterizes our generation. Where, then, are you going in your life? To what worthy aim or purpose are you committed? Who is your shepherd? Have you ever taken time enough seriously to ask yourself these questions? You are lost when you are aimless.
The Parable of the Lost Son implies that we are lost when we are godless. We have just said that we are lost when we are aimless; and that we are aimless when we are as sheep without a shepherd whom we follow toward a steady and fixed purpose. But do say this more pointedly, Jesus changes the figure from the shepherd and his sheep to a father and his son, which describes the third aspect of our lostness. In a later chapter we will trace something of the spiritual pilgrimage of that young lad. Now let us observe that his life in the far country without his father is another aspect of our own lostness as we seek to manage the affairs of our lives without God.
We are made for God: we bear upon our spirits the stamp of His own image. Deep within us all there is a wistful longing, an insatiable hunger for the spiritual treasures which only God can give. Men will expre3ss these longings and hungers in many queer and unexpected ways. It may take the form of an excessive desire for material gain, as it was for the son who said to his father, “Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.” Or it may take the form of a quest for sensate pleasure, as west rue of the son in the far country who dissipated himself in riotous living.
But behind the erratic excesses, whether ancient or modern, there is nothing less than a spiritual hunger that has never been met. Man may run the whole gamut of sensate pleasure or material comfort only to discover that these things do not permanently satisfy. Through personal experience in these matters Augustine came to understand this for himself, that godlessness could never satisfy what is deepest in the human spirit. This understanding, which came out of his own bitter experience, was reflected in his own words from one of his recorded prayers: “Thou madest me for Thyself, and my heart is restless until it repose in Thee.”
We are lost when we are godless. But we can believe that there is a God and still be godless. We can address words to Him or sing praises to Him and still be godless. We can even be respectable and agreeable people and still be godless. Not that we should not do or be all these things, but the godly life is not a matter of surface appearance only.
Godlessness means that your daily life is organized, your important decisions are made, and your life goals are set as though God did not exist, as though He had no preferences in the specific choices that you make from day to day. Can you honestly say that you carry on the business of your life with God as an active partner in all your important affairs? Can you say that God is the center of your work as well as your worship? How, indeed, can God be truly the center of your worship if He is not the center of your work? We are lost when we are godless, and godlessness is much more common than we think it is.
The Parable of the Lost Brother implies that we are lost when we are loveless. In this fifteenth chapter of Luke we read further about a son who stayed at home—brother to the one who left for the far country. We will have occasion later on to look more deeply into his problem. But we can say here and now that he, too, was lost. He was lost, but not in the same way that his brother in the far country was lost. If we can trust his own self-judgment in the matter, he had not disobeyed his father or wasted his money; he had served his father all through those years.
But there is something more about this brother that we need to notice at this point. Here we observe not so much what he did or did not do, but we look beneath all that to the attitudes which he had. We can see it all in full color in the way Jesus tells it. When the prodigal returned, the elder brother was “angry and would not go in.” He was angry, both at his father and at his brother.
He may have had piety, but he had very little pity; he may have obeyed his father’s law, but he did not share his father’s love. He had drawn the circle if isolation around himself. He had cut the ties that bind human hearts in fellowship and love.
So we say that some are lost because they are useless, and some because they are aimless, and some because they are godless. But the elder brother was lost because he was loveless. And many there are who follow in his train. For there are many among us in our day who are lost because they are loveless. There are many among us—and would we not have to include ourselves a great deal of the time?—who are moved by a loveless spirit. But make no mistake about it, a loveless spirit indicates that we are lost and have cut the ties that bind us to one another and to God.
So, in these four masterful parables we find a realistic and honest portrayal of man’s true condition and abiding need. We are all of us part of a lost generation. As a lost coin we are useless. As a lost sheep we are aimless. As a lost son we are godless. As a lost brother we are loveless. In so far as these facts are true of us, we too are lost. Spiritual health and salvation come in facing the true facts about ourselves, and in finding our way back to God.
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