The painstaking search for lost sheep

Every fortnight people from a farming background, or who have a heart for the countryside, offer a personal reflection on faith and rural life. They hope that you will be encouraged by it.

February 2001 is a month I will never forget.

The final semester of my third and final year at Queens University had just begun. Lambing was underway at home and the weather was pleasant enough to turn some ewes and lambs outside, easing the workload. But that all changed when, one Sunday night, the snow arrived. Belfast received just a few inches, but it was a different story back home.

The lower Mournes usually manages to escape the heaviest of snowfalls, but not this time. Driven by high winds, the snow began to drift, leaving gates and laneways barely recognizable. As the sheep headed towards the stone ditches seeking shelter, they instead found themselves buried in snow drifts up to five feet deep.

Dr Ronald Annett, AFBI, Hillsborough whose research was selected for support by NI farmers through AgriSearch will deliver a paper at the British Grassland Society Research conference in Co Down.

When I returned home the following weekend, several of our ewes and lambs were still missing. So, armed with spades and shovels, we spent several days digging through the snow drifts, hoping to find them. Whatever love for snow I had from my childhood quickly vanished at that point. Progress was slow and painstaking, and for long periods, unrewarding. But the joy of finding most of our missing animals alive made the hard work all worthwhile. Having been cocooned in their ‘igloos’ for almost a week, the sheep were tired and hungry, but alive. And they appeared as glad to see us as we were them.

Having had this experience, I have some sympathy with the shepherd described in Luke chapter 15. He too is involved in a painstaking search for just one missing sheep. We’re not told how the sheep got lost, or if it had a habit of doing so. Perhaps it had fallen asleep, or wandered off, or maybe got caught up in some briars and couldn’t break free. Whatever the reason, the shepherd is deeply troubled by the knowledge that one of His flock is facing certain death. So he leaves the other ninety-nine behind and painstakingly searches the entire countryside until he finally finds it.

No doubt tired and hungry after his searching, and probably thinking of the other jobs he should have been doing, you wouldn’t blame the shepherd for wanting to punish the sheep for all the hassle. But he doesn’t – in fact, “he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15v5). Was this because the sheep was too weak to walk, or the shepherd was in a rush back to the others? No, it was because he loved his sheep so much. Indeed he was so thrilled to have it back safe that “when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’” (Luke 15v6).

Jesus told this parable to help us understand the depth of His love for us. Within months of its telling, His shoulders would bear the weight of a heavy wooden cross on which He would be crucified. To us it was a cruel and shameful death, but to Him it was a rescue mission, to save a lost mankind from sin, and the certainty of death.

Perhaps Jesus is searching for you today. Whatever has happened in your past is irrelevant because there are no levels of ‘lost-ness’. The Bible says we are all lost: “no one is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3v10). But Jesus wants to find you, not to punish you, but to forgive your sin, to transform you, and to make you more like Him. He wants to be your Shepherd, and He will carry you on His shoulders through whatever lies ahead. So why not respond to His calling today.

Ronald Annett works for a local animal feed company and helps out on the family farm in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains. He is a member of Mourne Presbyterian Church in Kilkeel, County Down.

If you would like to talk to someone about this article, please email Rev. Kenny Hanna at [email protected] or call him on 028 9753 1234.