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The Day God Ran: A Reconnecting Sermon

Text: Luke 15

[Suggested to have a children's story earlier in the worship service about either the lost sheep or lost coin, emphasizing the great joy when reconnection happens!]

Recently I asked some young adults why Adventist members aren't coming to church any more. Their response concerned me because they said, "People aren't involved very much. That's why they leave."

We use the word “reconnecting” because it assumes there was a connection there in the first place. Who are the people once connected to the church? How many people come to church that never get connected. Are they connected spiritually with God? Are they connected socially? Unfortunately just because you have a warm body in the pew does not mean that person feels connected.

Another response the young adults gave me was, “there is a lack of interest in the church.” That answer doesn’t feel good, but it may be quite accurate I suppose. Maybe that lack of interest stems from hurt, or rejection. Who knows why?

So I asked these young adults a different question, “Why do people go to church anyway?” Their response, “My parent go, so I go with them. My girlfriend or boyfriend goes so I go. I’m convinced that the church is true, so that’s why I go. I had this powerful encounter with God there, and that’s why I keep coming back.”

Obviously the reasons why a person started coming to the church in the first place has a bearing on why they leave and may hold clues on how they could be reconnected again to the church.

I believe the one universal reason why people the church is disappointment. Disappointment with the pastor, the board, a school teach, an elder, or the custodian. The focus is on the human or social level.

Disappointments are bound to come. Some congregations are healthier than others. But ultimately our human disappointments spill over onto the spiritual dimension of our life. Somehow it gets transferred to disappointment with God.

I read a British theologian recently and he made a statement that really bothered me. He said, “One hundred percent of Christians will sooner or later be disappointed with God.” I quickly retorted in my mind, “Not if you’re mature. Not if you’re a good Christian. You won’t be disappointed with God.” One hundred percent will sooner or later be disappointed with God. Doesn’t that seem a little high?

Have you ever been disappointed with God? There may be a little difference between the polite answer you’re expected to give, and what’s really on your heart. But the follow-up statement of this theologian was what really got me. He said, “Ninety percent would never recover from their disappointments.” And I thought to myself, “That’s too high. That’s not right.”

But then it dawned on me that he wasn’t saying these people become atheists. It doesn’t mean they quit going to church. But it does mean our trust level; our confidence level is never quite the same.

My message this morning is that we must be careful to not set others up for disappointment with God.

We could focus on many areas of Scripture today, but I want to focus on just one. Sometimes I think we have unrealistic expectations about God. From the bedtime stories we read to our children, to the illustrations we use in our Adventist publications, we need to have a balanced view of God.

Several years ago, there was a union-wide prayer conference held at my church. This 10-day vigil ended on the second weekend they were with us. One of the girls who had attended the conference volunteered to tell the children’s story. In here story she said, “Our family was driving on a long trip that took them through the desert. She said she prayed for shade in the hot desert, and God sent a cloud that covered her family’s car the entire way through the desert.”

Later in the service, another couple told a story about their small son who was diagnosed with cancer. They prayed for his healing, but he soon died.

I’ve got to tell you, that as I sat in my church (where I was the pastor and up front normally, but that day was an observer) I asked myself, “Were they praying to the same God?” One God sends clouds to cool one family, but the other family prays for healing and the child dies! There’s a lot of dissonance in that.

You know, the Bible is very simple while at the same time very complex. A friend shared with me recently a significant insight into the three wisdom books he was teaching about: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. He gave me this rich and thoughtful analysis, “Proverbs talks about a reciprocal world….you do certain things and certain others happen in response. You know, you’re good and good things result. And that’s the way it usually plays out.

But Ecclesiastes say, “It’s really not quite that simple. You eat a vegetarian diet and exercise all your life, but your life is still cut short by a heart attack. You pay your tithe and attend church regularly, but you get in a plane one day and it crashes. That’s what Ecclesiastes is all about.”

Then the book of Job take us one step farther and explains to us why life is not all black and white. There is an enemy on the loose. Satan brings sin into the whole human family and that changes the entire dynamics of our world.

I want to be completely honest with you right now. We have to be very careful that we don’t set people up for disappointment in the church because it spills over into their relationship with God. And the devil takes advantage of that.

There are many things I wished I knew about God. Many questions I have that may only be answered in heaven. But when I wonder how I can be inoculated from disappointment with God, I go to Scripture to learn about the heart of God.

You know, I can’t explain why the 28-year-old youth pastor contacted leukemia and died within 2 weeks. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I get some help from Job, but Proverbs doesn’t help me at all. I don’t know why God would leave that young family with two toddlers without a Dad. I don’t know why God wouldn’t answer the prayers of the youth of our church. But I do know the song we used at the funeral said, “When you can’t trace God’s hand, know His heart.”

I want to share with you a story this morning from Scripture that give us some insight into the heart of God. I hope in some way this story will reassure you as you experience your disappointments with God.

Throughout Scripture God is known as a mighty warrior. God is the liberator of Israel from the Egyptians. In Exodus 15:3 Miriam leads Israel in a song that says “The Lord is a mighty warrior, the Lord is a strong deliverer.” Not only does Scripture refer to God as a warrior, but also as the leader of great armies. The Lord is strong and mighty in battle. Psalms 24:8. And in Numbers 21:14 refers to the mighty wars of Yahweh.

That’s one picture of our God. But this morning I want to tell you about the day that God ran. God didn’t run because there were armies poised to oppose. God didn’t run because the innumerable odds were against Him. God ran because He saw me in my time of need.

Take your Bibles and turn to Luke 15. Here we have the story of the prodigal son. But I would like to think of it as the story of the loving Father.

Luke chapter 15, starting with verses 11 and 12. There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.

Jesus tells us a story of two sons. One was energetic. He was restless. The other was far more conservative and comfortable. Like many children, he really doesn’t know how his father is. He misunderstands his gentle and caring nature as weakness. So he perceives his father’s care as restrictive. He feels penned in by parental restraint. The younger son misinterpreted his father’s love, and so he sets out to follow his own inclination. The youth acknowledged no obligation to his father. Perhaps there was no gratitude for what he enjoyed at home. All he wanted to do was claim the privilege he thought was his to have. So he asked for space….for some breathing room.

I love to research the world of Bible times, and I’ve visited those lands quite a bit. And I’ve got to tell you that this son’s request was just about the deepest insult he could have placed on his father. We see in Scripture where other fathers gave sons their portion of the inheritance. David did this with Solomon. But this often revolved around the son managing the father’s possessions for him.

Not this younger son. He didn’t want to manage the family business. He just wanted to take the money and run! Now, knowing that culture as I’ve come to know it, you could be killed for even asking for such a thing. This was a major dishonor to the father and the family. But somehow amazingly, the father agreed to divide the inheritance.

In that culture, the younger brother received 1/3 of the family’s assets. The older brother was to receive 2/3 of the family’s assets. The Bible story tells us, he turned his assets into cash, and he took off for a far country.

Verses 13-15 tells us that he squandered his wealth in wild living. He had spent everything, when a famine came across the entire country and he began to be in need. “So we went out and hired himself to a citizen of that country who sent him out into the field to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating because no one gave him anything to eat.”

Well, the young man didn’t invest his funds from his inheritance. He left home and went to California if it were, where the sun always shines and the living is easy. He thought he was living the good life in the land of opportunity. He was short sighted and didn’t plan for hard times. His bank account seemed large and he was sure he would not exhaust it. The story doesn’t give us any details, but suddenly and unexpectedly his money evaporated. He was busted. He was broke.

Perhaps for a time he was able to do well with his good looks, his connections and his skills. But then the recession hit that country with full force and he was in deep trouble. And Jesus says, “A severe famine hit and the younger son began to be in need.” There wasn’t a safetynet for this foreigner, no social services to help him in troubled times. Life became hard. He was left to fend for himself.

Things got so severe, he had to sell his services to the highest bidder. And as often happens, all the good jobs went to the local people who had connections. And the only bidder for his services was a hog farmer. Now that was tough.

Do you know who Jesus is talking to here? Verse 1 & 2 of Luke 15 says, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to mutter, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” So Jesus told them this parable.

Now Pharisees were a strange group of about 6,000 people. That’s the total number that lived at any one time. A very small group of people compared to the entire population. This group was so strict that they looked down on everyone. In fact they looked down on shepherds because they touched dead animals which made them unclean. But can you imagine what the Pharisees thought of this younger son who touched pigs? Their response would be off the charts!!!

This son became so hungry that he began to crave pig’s food. Now when I was a young man I grew up in Florida where my father had a restaurant. I had it pretty good because I had access to an unlimited number of cheeseburgers, french-fries and sodas. Sometimes I had to clean up. So we took the food that was left over and put it in a slop bucket. When the bucket got full, we emptied it into a big barrel behind the restaurant. Once or twice a week, a man would come by and pick up that barrel and he’d feed it to his pigs. You know, as I looked into that barrel, I never had the urge to eat out of it!

But verse 16 says, “The son was so hungry that he desired to eat what the pigs were eating.” Does anyone have the NIV translation? What does it say there? The son wanted to eat the pods that the pigs were eating. In the original language it reads, “little horns” and it’s not referring to the little horns of Daniel 7 either! The little horns, or pods refer to carob pods.

Do any of you like to eat carob?  Do any of you know what carob is? It’s a substitute chocolate and some people really like to eat the sweet beans that are inside an outer pod. Now this son wasn’t eating the beans, he was considering eating the pods left over after the beans had been harvested for human consumption.

Now the rabbis had a very interesting saying at this time. They said, “When a Jew is reduced to eating carob, he repents.” And in this story, what happens? Verse 17 says, “When he came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I’m starving to death. I will go back to my father and will say to him that I have sinned against heaven and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please make me one of your hired men. So he got up and went to his father.’”

When he finally came to his senses. Don’t you like that? For all practical purposes, he was out of his mind. But now adversity and brought him back to reality. And as he pondered his situation, he concluded how foolish he had been. Out there under the hot sun, smelling the stench of pig slop and manure he began to reminisce about his childhood home. That home that had seemed so strict now seemed like heaven.

Perhaps his mind began to play tricks on him. Maybe he smelled the homemade bread his mother used to make for him. Right there in the fellowship of the pigs, he began to cry out, “what a fool I have been. How could I have thrown away my inheritance?” With remorse, he cried genuine tears of loss. He had disowned and dishonored his father, and now he was reduced to being a hired hand on a hog farm.

The comparison of his position in that foreign land with the hired hands in his father’s home shocked him. He knew they had plenty to eat. Here I’m starving to death. With his money spent his pride humbled he saw himself in a different light. He decided to go home and beg for a servant’s job.

Now it took a lot of courage to go back. It was an accepted practice of the time that if the father didn’t kill him, then the older brother was to kill him. And if neither of them could do it, then it was incumbent on the entire village to kill him. It was a tough neighborhood in the world. It was a tough time in the world. Even today, it’s not uncommon for a child that brings dishonor to a family to be killed.

So it took a lot of courage to go back for that younger son. What if his life was spared, but his request to be a servant was denied? Crushed with remorse and anxiety, I can imagine in my mind that as he trudged mile after mile on the long road home, he began to rehearse this speech.

“Father, I have sinned against you and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please allow me become a hired servant on your estate.” Can you image how he feels? He knows how the village feels about what he’s done to he father. Can you imagine the anxiety that was in his heart?

As he entered his home town, I can just image that no one recognized this once proud young man now in his disheveled state. In verse 20, it’s so fascinating when it says, “But while he was a long way off, his father saw him, was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Is that powerful, or what?!!!

As quickly as he could, the son began to spill out his rehearsed lines, “Father, I have sinned against you and am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick, bring the best robe and put it on him, put a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and kill the fattened calf and let’s have a feast because this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

It’s an incredible story. I believe Jesus took great delight in telling it that day. The father knew his son so well. In fact I’m sure the father knew of the famine in the land that his son had gone to. In fact I can imagine that the father sent a servant to spy on the son to see what his situation was like. I’d do that with my son, and you’d probably do the same, wouldn’t you?

Daily the father scanned the horizon, anxiously waiting for his son to return. He wanted to be the first one to greet his boy. And so it was on this day that he recognized a familiar form walking down the road. The tattered clothing could not eclipse the familiar step of his barefooted son. And Scripture says that while he was a long way from home, the father jumped up from his seat and ran to meet his son. And he threw his arms around him and he kissed him.

The first words out of the father’s mouth were, “I still love you.” Can you imagine it? The father, dignified, hugging and kissing that filthy boy that smelled like a pig farm. And while that boy was trying to get out that rehearsed speech his father installed him as a son again. The robe covered his filth. The shoes signified him as a son and not a servant. The ring gave him family authority again. And the party showed him love and joy again.

He should have been killed according to the custom of the day. That’s what the older brother wanted. That’s what the villagers wanted. But the father said, “There’s only one thing I can do. I have to provide a covenant meal that everyone eats so that they accept this boy back as I accept him again as my son.” So the villagers come, and they eat this meal and by doing so they enter into the father’s acceptance of the prodigal son.

The feast was wonderful. The rejoicing was exceptional. This son who had come back from the land of desolation and despair was home again. Now there was no lecture on how stupid can you be to leave home. No sharp words about the foolishness of the son in dishonoring the father and the family. The father ran as fast as he could to throw his arms around his son so he could hug him and kiss him and tell him he loved him still.

You know, this story is really about how great God is. He’s the mighty and divine warrior. He’s defeated armies of incredible numbers on the battlefield of Israel’s day, but the day that I remember is the day that God ran. He didn’t run from his enemies, but he ran to me, put his arms around my neck and said, “Son, daughter, I still love you.”

When do you think that father forgave that boy? Do you think it was when the boy confessed his sin? Do you think that was then this father forgave him? Do you think it was when the servant came back from his secret mission from the far country and reported how pathetic his son looked. Do think it was then that he forgave him?

I like to think that it was before the boy ever left home that the father forgave him. But reconciliation happened when the son accepted his father’s forgiveness. The hostility didn’t exist in the father’s mind, it existed in the boy’s mind. No longer could he see his father as mean and self-serving, because he saw his father for who he really was.

And Jesus said, “That’s the way it is with our Father too. Your Father has forgiven you before you ever sinned. You only have to come to yourself and realize that gift of Grace is yours at all times.”

When Abraham Lincoln was asked how he would treat the Southerners after the Civil War, and he said, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” And that’s how God treats us….like we had never been away.

A boy asked for his inheritance so he could enjoy the good life in a far-off country. Life was really great until the famine came. And you know, most people can get along fine without God in their life until hard times come. Until some loss occurs. Until some tragedy comes. Knowing and loving God doesn’t preserve us from disappointment or tragedy but it does prepare us for it. In a time of plenty, they’re all right. But when sickness, death or divorce come, they’re undone. True freedom comes when we know we are children of God.

There’s a song that was written by Benny Hester. It’s a song that speaks to my heart. I want to share it with you:

Almighty God, The Great I am
Immovable rock, omnipotent, powerful
Awesome Lord, victorious warrior
Commanding King of Kings and mighty conqueror

But the only time I saw him run,
Was when he ran to me
Took me in his arms
Held my head to his chest
And said, “My son’s come home again”

He lifted my face
Wiped the tears from my eyes
With forgiveness in his voice said
“Son, do you still know that I love you?”
He caught me by surprise
When God ran

The year I left home
I knew I had broken his heart
I wondered then if things could ever be the same
But one night I remembered his love for me
And down a dusty road ahead I could see
It’s the only time
I ever saw him run

Was when he ran to me
Took me in his arms
Held my head to his chest
And said, “My son’s come home again.”

He lifted my face
Wiped the tears from my eyes
And with forgiveness in his voice said
“Son, do you still know that I love you?”
He caught me by surprise
He brought me to my knees
When God ran

I saw him run to me
And then I ran to him
I was so ashamed and all alone and far away
But now I know
He’d been waiting for this day

And then he ran to me
Took me in his arms
Held my head to his chest
And said, “My son’s come home again.”

He lifted my face
Wiped the tears from my eyes
And with forgiveness in his eyes I could hear him say
“Son, do you still know that I love you?”
He caught me by surprise
He brought me to my knees
When God ran

[End with a prayer]