And everyone went to their own town to register.
The lost and found bin.
Every school, church, and fitness center has one. This is the place where Nalgene bottles, monochrome sweatshirts, and three-ring binders go to die.
At one time, everything in the lost and found bin was valued. That charm bracelet was once the token of a new fifth-grade friendship. Those headphones had been specifically chosen to coordinate with a new jogging outfit. The umbrella? It had been a lifesaver one morning in Seattle.
But now, owing to a hole in the backpack or to general inattention, these items were left behind. Not discarded, but detached. Not trashed, but certainly not treasured.
They’ve gotten lost.
“Lost” was an important word to Jesus. In fact, the Teacher once described his mission in the world as about “seeking and saving the lost” (Luke 19:10).
If you check the context, you’ll discover that Jesus spoke those words on the occasion of his encounter with Zacchaeus, the wee little tax collector from Jericho. After Jesus dined with Zacchaeus in his house, the taxman was so moved by Jesus’ kindness that he decided to donate half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back four times what he had overcharged.
ASIDE: Wouldn’t it be nice of the IRS did that, by the way? Like, all tax refunds would be four times what you overpaid? Anyway.
After Zacchaeus announces that things will be different, Jesus says “Salvation has come today to this house, for the Son of Man (Note: when Jesus says “Son of Man”, he’s always talking about himself) came to seek and to save the lost.”
Now, think about that quote for a second. Was Zacchaeus actually lost? Of course not…he was in his own home!
So what does Jesus mean by “lost”? He must be talking about something else. Being lost must refer to something personal. Something spiritual.
It happened over and over again in his ministry: Jesus saw the lostness in people. In an accused adulterer. In a poor family. In a group of lepers. Jesus could mark a man whose politics were over the top and know that man was lost, too.
Because lostness is not about location. Lostness is about where we stand in relationship with God and with each other.
All around us – at school, at work, at the table next to you at supper – there are people like this. A long time ago, somebody cared for them. They felt valuable. But something changed, and now they feel like they’re living in the bin of underappreciation and exclusion.
Why is Jesus such a great friend to the lost? In part, it’s because Jesus came to the world in a form of lostness himself.
Listen to the Christmas story: Luke chapter 2, verses 1-7:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Many of us have heard this passage before. We’ve read the story at our family gatherings and watched Linus recite it on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. But despite our familiarity with the story of Jesus’ birth, I sense that we’ve too often ignored one very important clause in the text. It’s just two words long: Own Town.
Now, it’s certainly the case that Joseph took his expectant wife on the hundred-mile journey to Bethlehem because of the Imperial Decree. Nobody wants to face the consequences of disobeying Caesar. But I think that Joseph also felt comfortable bringing Mary because he believed that things would be fine once they got there. Bethlehem was, after all, his own town.
Surely, Joseph figured, someone would be there to care for them. There would be a guest house. A capable midwife. Some hot water to boil.
They had to have talked about it, right? Joseph, are you sure this trip is going to be alright? Because little Jesus in here is kicking and my feet are swollen and right now I’m craving nothing but Klondike bars and cranberry juice. And man, if this thing goes bad…
You can pretty much imagine the mansplaining that would follow: Mary, Mary, this is Bethlehem! This is my own town! know Bethlehem like the back of my hand.
But when they got there – when they did finally arrive in Joseph’s own town – they were more lost than ever.
There’s no room available.
This inn is full.
This house is booked.
Things did not go as planned. Mary and Joseph were right where they thought they needed to be, but the doors were all shut. Opportunities were absent, relationships that they counted on weren’t available.
Have you ever been in that place in your life? Where you thought you had gone about things the right way but then woke up one day to discover you had gotten lost?
Your job is the same. Your family hasn’t changed. You go to the same church as before. But something isn’t quite right anymore. Eventually, life becomes a perpetual stumble through wearily familiary but ultimately inhospitable territory. You are standing in Bethlehem but no one will allow you to register.
The German language has a word for this feeling: sensucht. It means something like “intense longing” or “impairment”. In his book Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis says that sensucht is “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.”
You need restoration but you don’t know what will fix you. You are spiritually hungry but you can’t bring yourself to eat. You have to tell someone something but you don’t know what to say.
That’s why the good news of Christmas is that Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
Born out of the way in a dank and dirty cave, he identifies with the exiled. Beaten and scarred, he brings hope to the oppressed and the handicapped. A victim of treachery and false accusation, he is light to the oppressed and discouraged. The Lost One is now all about finding.
For some, this Christmas gospel will sound too good to be true.
But I’m too lost, they say. I’m too far gone to be brought back. I’ve said terrible things. I’ve driven people away. I’m messed up to the core. I deserve the lostness that I’m getting.
Listen. Jesus doesn’t stop seeking the lost or saving the homeless just because of their track record. It’s not like he turns over a couple of couch cushions and then gives up. Jesus leaves 99 safe sheep behind to save the one that has wandered far from the fold.
And Jesus is awesome at finding lost persons.
Have you made huge mistakes in the past? Jesus is better at saving than you are at sinning.
Have you driven people away by your behavior? Jesus is better at including than you are at isolating.
Have you been avoiding God’s invitation and call? Jesus is better at rescuing than you are at running.
Have you made a mess out of the last few years of your life? Jesus is better at forgiving than you are at failing.
It doesn’t matter if you are kinda lost or totally gone. You’re still lost. And Jesus Christ came to seek you and to save you.
Jesus has come to make sure that you are found. And more than that, that you are found by him.
Come back to the lost and found box with me for just a moment. See that jacket there? That jacket needs a home. It’s lost.
Now, anybody who walks past can take it. But if that happens, the jacket remains lost.
Why? It’s because nothing that’s lost is ever really found until it’s found by the one to whom it belongs.
You belong to Jesus. He made you. He planned you. He formed you. He designed you. He died for you. You belong with him!
Jesus became one of the lost so that you might be forever found. He became poor so that you might inherit spiritual riches. He was a refugee: injured, cast out, despised, and abandoned, all so that none of those things would ever keep you from coming home to the Father.
Praise God for the Great Seeker, the Last Finder, Jesus Christ.