Who would like to come and join our party? Because this story is about a party.
You can eat the cake and drink the lemonade, provided mum or dad is OK with it, so long as you listen to me at the same time!
We heard the story of the lost sheep.
But it is a silly story.
It is about a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep 'in the field' in order to go after the 1 that has got lost.
No shepherd would do that.
It is about a shepherd who, when he finds his sheep, joyfully puts it on his shoulders and carries it home.
Well I'm not like that. I remember when we lost our children in the supermarket. You search everywhere for them. They are not in the aisle with the snacks. They are not in the aisle with the chocolates. They are not in the aisle with the toys. You are worried and it turns to panic. And then you see them. They are sitting in the middle of the aisle with the cereals playing with a car.
At first there is an amazing sense of relief. I've found them. They're OK.
And then, what do you do?
Rejoice? Lift them up and put them on your shoulders? No. You tell them off for getting lost and putting you through it!
And this story is about a shepherd who finds his lost sheep and then goes home and throws a party - for a sheep! Well I would not do that! What a silly shepherd.
So why is our shepherd so different?
We need to realise that this is not really a story about a lost sheep. This is a story about a rejoicing shepherd.
Jesus is saying several things
a) God is like the shepherd in the story and he loves you
b) God is like the shepherd in the story and he will go to extraordinary lengths to find us
c) God is like the shepherd in the story and when he finds you, he has a great party.
God is like the shepherd and he loves you
You are of massive value to God. You are beloved.
How much? (stretch arms open wide)
And God longs that each one of us will be part of his flock.
He wants you to know him in the same way that he knows you.
He wants you to spend time with him, to listen to him and trust him.
He wants you to come under his protection, to grow into the person who God made you to be.
He even, and it is astonishingly intimate language, wants to live in you and for you to live in him.
People say that when you pray you should put your hands together. But God does not want to be like that with us. Close beside us. He wants to be like this (hands clasped) with us.
And God is like the shepherd. He has gone to astonishing lengths to find us.
He has left the 99 in the field in order to come and find you (he's God and he can do that for you, and for you and for you and for me).
That is what Christmas is all about:
Jesus, the Son of God, leaves heaven and becomes one of us. He gives up heaven, and is born in a cowshed. He lives as one of us, he suffers as one of us and he dies as one of us. He left heaven and he came to earth to look for us.
And that is what Good Friday is all about:
Jesus dies on the cross. He loves you so much that he gives his life for you. He dies for us so that we might be forgiven. He dies so that the door to heaven is opened.
And when the good shepherd, Jesus, finds you, you discover how much he loves you.
He doesn't tell you off for disobeying and walking off.
He doesn't make you walk home and send you to bed with no supper.
Instead he places you on his shoulder and he carries you home.
And then there is the party.
Who likes having their birthday party?
It is great having a party put on for you. It makes you feel very special.
Tony Campolo, who is a Christian minister in the US, tells of the woman who he met when he was working in a difficult part of a large city. She was in a bad way. She was very lost. He discovered that her birthday was soon. He decided to put on a surprise party for her.
He took over a local bar, put up decorations, blew up some balloons and ordered the biggest cake you have ever seen. He invited the people who knew her to come to the party. And when she came in, she broke down in tears. She said, 'Nobody has ever put on a party for me'.
But when a person is found by God then God puts on a very big party for them. He is so pleased that you have become part of his family.
What about the 99 righteous people in the story?
I don't know who they are. I'm certainly not one of them.
And looking around here I don't see many of them here!
I was lost and occasionally I still get lost - when I walk away from God.
So I'm very grateful that God sent Jesus to come and be the good shepherd who looks for lost sheep.
But I also know this. That the truly righteous people will never grumble when God puts on a party because someone who was lost has been found.
A truly righteous person will party with God. They will share his joy, because someone who he loves has become part of the family.
One of the earliest pictures that Christians drew was the picture of the good shepherd. He carries the sheep over his shoulders.
At our other services, you will see that the ministers wear robes. And with our robes, we wear a scarf.
We don't wear it because churches are cold and we need to keep warm!
Some people say that we wear it because it is like a towel, a symbol of service. And that we are here to serve.
But I like to think that the scarf is like the sheep over the shoulders of the Good Shepherd. The scarf reminds me of how much God loves his people.
So we have a party gift. We will place these scarfs on your shoulders. They are like the sheep over the shoulder of the good shepherd. They remind us of how much God loves you, of how far the good shepherd went to find you, and of how happy God is when someone becomes a member of his family.
You are so special to him that he throws a massive party for you.