When I was 11 years old and living in a rural part of West Virginia, I and my younger brothers were walking home one day along a mile-long strip of dirt road.
To the right of the road rose a hill covered with various hardwood trees. To the left of our road was a deep ravine, a gash in the earth carved by a small stream that could, with almost no warning, turn into a raging whitewater with just a little bit of rain.
As my siblings and I plodded the familiar path towards our house, we were stopped in our tracks by a sound like someone beating on the bottom of a kettle. We peered cautiously over the side of the ravine and saw 14 feet below us the skeletal form of a small terrier dog staggering about blindly. Its head was completely wedged inside a plastic barrel which it was beating upon the stony stream bed.
The poor animal was clearly in a sad state. As we looked down upon it, I couldn’t tell if it would first die of suffocation or simply succumb to the starvation that obviously held it in its grasp. It weakly weaved about, vainly trying to dislodge its head from the container again and again by placing its puny paws on the barrel’s rim.
My brothers looked at me and I looked at them. We then looked at the spectacle before us, wondering what to do. Finally, after giving a heavy sigh, I turned and began to clamber down the ravine’s side while my brothers continued to look on. When I reached the bottom both of my brothers began to shout suggestions like, “Grab its tail!” or “Jump on it and pin it down!” Keep in mind that one brother was 9 years old and the other was 6. These seemed like perfectly reasonable ideas to my enthusiastic siblings.
Instead, I managed to get one arm around and under the animal’s stomach and, with my other hand, was able to pop the barrel off the dog’s head though it thrashed about in terror.
Once the dog was free, I let it go. It leaped forward a few feet and then turned and looked at me, its big eyes staring intently into my own. It hesitated a moment and then walked to me, its ratty tail waving enthusiastically and its head lowered contritely. I looked up at my brothers who were now shouting more suggestions like, “Let me find a rope and we’ll haul it up!” and “Just toss it up here and we’ll catch it!” I was fairly sure that I couldn’t toss the dog up that high, but was also sure that the dog would have not enjoyed that experience, especially if my brothers missed. Again, ignoring them, I just tucked it under my arm and slowly began to climb back out of the ravine.
Once I and the dog were safely up, I put it on the ground and nudged it in the direction of some houses, one of which I assumed was its home. I shooed it on and then turned away towards our own house. Glancing behind us, I saw the dog padding along after us. We tried to shoo it away and it would back up a few steps quizzically, but would then follow us anyway, determined to go with us.
When I think of that little dog, I’m reminded of the mission of Christ Jesus. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in order to find the one that is lost. He doesn’t describe the degree of that sheep’s “lostness” but one can conclude that it is profound. It is lost and cannot get to the shepherd on its own.
So the shepherd finds it and rescues it from its plight. Jesus goes on to say that when the shepherd finds the sheep, he joyfully puts it on his shoulder and goes home to celebrate with his friends.
Like that dog, when we try to live our lives apart from God, we get stuck in situations that are too dark and too strong to escape. We’ll make choices based on what seems right to us at the time, way off the path of faith in Him, and get ourselves trapped in predicaments that are too difficult for us to escape on our own. Hungry, blind and at the bottom of the ravine of fear and discouragement, we wait for a flood of sin, pain and grief to drown us in destruction.
Why did Jesus tell the story about the lost sheep and the shepherd? He was describing the nature of His own mission to a world of people who feel forgotten by God. Yes, we do indeed get ourselves into trouble and into situations that we’re not able to fix on our own. But there is One Who will climb down into our messes to set us free. He longs to lift us up, give us spiritual nourishment and have us walk with Him if we’ll stop running.
If we’ll trust Jesus to set us free from sin and self, we can know personally what He meant when He said in Luke 19:10 ESV, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” We’ll know personally the beauty of the words penned by Robert Robinson in the 1700s, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood!”
Pastor Thom Mollohan leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.