The Far Country

Luke 15

Do you hear it?  For some of you it is a faint whisper. For others it is a deafening roar. And some of you are already planning the trip. It is the call of the far country.

Let me set the stage: Only two accusations against Jesus had any substance – 1) he did not keep the Sabbath; 2) he kept bad company.

In Luke 5 Jesus attends a party where everybody who was a nobody was there; and in Luke 7, Jesus is invited to a dinner where only the proper people are invited, but a very improper person shows up – a woman of the street.  And now we come to Luke 15:1-2  Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

It is ironic that the worst people of the day were attracted to the holiest one who ever lived.  It was a credibility destroying contradiction to the Pharisees – Good men don’t keep bad company.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables about lost things: a sheep, a coin, a son.  We could look at them thru the eyes of an accountant.   He would say to the shepherd, don’t risk the 99 for the 1 – that’s just 1% - it’s the cost of doing business, we’ll have lambs this spring that will more than cover this loss.  And to the woman he would say, don’t get so worked up – it’s just 1 out of 10 – just 10%, and with shrewd investment we’re going to get that 10% back and then some.

But that’s not how the shepherd and woman felt, and that’s not the way God looks at them.  The 3rd parable is more than a lost sheep or a lost coin – it’s a lost son:

“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.  “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I 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 and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’  “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” Luke 15:11-23.

I have an intriguing question – it’s a question no one seems to deal with or answer: Why did he ever leave in the first place?  We usually start with the boy in the pig pen talking about how he can get back, and that’s important, but I want to know – why did he leave in the first place?

Why does sin appeal to us?  Why is he so eager to leave?  Didn’t he have the best dad a kid could hope for? Wasn’t he brought up in the way he should go?  Was he not warned about the far country? Had dad never warned him about the dangers there?

He didn’t wander absent-mindedly into sin – he chose it.  I wonder why.  I wondered just a few years ago as I sat in a coffee shop with a man who told me he was leaving his wife and three children to live with a woman he had met at work. I knew that five years down the road he would wake up and regret the decisions he was making today, but that day all he could think about was getting to the far country.

I think about it again every time I have a person come and tell me they have decided to choose a path they know is contrary to God’s will – but they are going to do it anyway. And I wonder, why am I always counseling people not to do what they already know, before they come to see me, they are not supposed to do, but are going to do it anyway?

The quest to be happy – most of us spend our lives in a vain search for this land called happiness.  Their journey may lead them to drugs or alcohol or promiscuity or a dozen other pigpens.  But notice this man made the mistake a lot of us make.  He thought that whatever happiness is – I can buy it.  With my share of the inheritance I can go to the far country and buy me some happiness.

The irony of it is that Jesus offers us happiness, but it has a tremendous paradox attached to it.  He says that the way for us to find life is to lose it.  That’s supposed to be the message of the church to the world – we know what you are looking for and where you can find it.  And what you need to do is go and lose your life in service to God and others and you will find what you’re looking for.  But I’m afraid that’s hard for people to believe when most people only know Jesus through church people who seem to be driven by the same set of hungers that are driving them, and don’t seem any happier than anyone else they know.

The appeal of sin – Why do people go to the far country?  Maybe because the far country has a great dept. of public relations and tourism.  Nobody publishes more appealing brochures than the land called sin.  The commercials never show beneath the glitter to the gutter beneath.  And by the way, sin does promise a temporary fix to the search.  For a time that boy was having a great time in the far country.  He was engaged in what the Bible calls “wild living” and you wouldn’t have gotten very far with him by telling him “you just think you’re having fun, but you really aren’t.”  He would have said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about – I’m having a great time! I found exactly what I was looking for.”

Listen now folks.  For a short time, sin delivers – or it wouldn’t be tempting.  Remember what the Hebrews writer said about Moses?  He said no to the temporary, fleeting pleasures of sin.  If there were no appeal, there would be no temptation.  And so we read the brochures and watch the commercials, “Come visit us and you will find what you’re looking for.”  And for the first few days, they seem to be right.  I think the hard truth is that we like to be lied to. 

You don’t believe it?  Go home this afternoon and turn on the TV. Sunday’s a great time because there’s lots of sports and after an afternoon of TV, they have you convinced that if you would buy the right car and the right tires and get you a six pack of the right beer or soda pop, your life would all come together – you will find excitement, pleasure, friendship and happiness.  And we want to believe it.

Ultimately, the boy makes the choice to go – The bottom line is, there seems to be something within us that rebels against the atmosphere for which we were born.  We don’t go to the far country out of ignorance – for most of us it is a conscious choice.  We have been warned, we know the dangers – we go anyway.  We go because we are as far away from God in character as we are in geography. 

The problem is that vs. 13 can’t stop vs. 14 from coming – “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.” And I want you know, folks, the famine always comes, sooner or later.  The money evaporates, the friends disappear, what seemed to be an endless flow of happiness turns into panic.  And in desperation he goes to a man there in the far country for help.  “I’m sorry son, but there’s a famine in the land and I barely have enough to feed my family.”  And in desperation, he becomes a useless appendage to a man who did not care for him, and when it came right down to it, the pigs were more valuable than the boy.  And so the farmer says, “Boy, don’t you go eating that food – that’s for the pigs, and if I have to keep one of you alive, I’d just as soon it be the pigs.”

Do you see how low Jesus takes this boy?  The one who ate with sinners had an absolute hatred for what sin does to people.

What is sin?  

1)  It is universal“all have sinned…”  

2) It is personal – It’s easier to say “all have sinned” than “I have sinned”.  But scripture insists that sin is an individual struggle.  

James 1:13-15 “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” 

Sin is personal“each one” / internal “by his own evil desire,” / fatal “sin when it is full grown, gives birth to death.”  What did the Father say when the son returned?  “This son of mine was dead.”

The point of Luke 15 is clear – sin destroys people –people that matter to God.  We need to hate sin like Jesus hates sin – in others, but especially in ourselves.

The son learned the hard way that the far country doesn’t deliver what it promises.  Gone was his pride, his fortune, his independence.  Every time I read that phrase, I think how many thousands of parents are praying every night for those 6 words “when he came to his senses.”  We’ve been there, we’ve prayed that prayer.

What did the son come to realize?  What did this boy decide when he came to his senses?  Two things – he realized:

He had believed the lies about sin.  Every time I sit across the desk from somebody who is thinking about going to the far country, choosing sin, leaving God, I wish I had the phone number of this young man to give to them.  After all, I’m a preacher – I’m supposed to tell them how bad sin is. But this young man has been there – he has lived the hell it can create.  This young man believed a bunch of lies and he came to his senses when he realized that’s what they were – lies.

He had ignored the truth about himself.  You know what people would do today?  They would blame everybody but the prodigal.  They would blame the daddy for being an enabler by giving him the money, they would blame the brother for being a hypocrite, they would even blame God for allowing the famine which caused him to lose all his fortune.  And if they could slip it in there somewhere, they would blame the government for not having a program in place to rescue him once he had squandered all of dad’s money.

There are a lot of prayers in the Bible I’m afraid to pray, but let me tell you the one I’m most afraid of – Ps. 139“Search me, O God and know my heart – see if there is any offensive way in me…”  I’m afraid of David’s “search me” prayer because I’m afraid of what God might find in here if he really started digging deep.

Now, I make this point to folks who are some of God’s finest.  I know you are here this morning because of a deep commitment to God and following his will.  But I think we do a grave injustice to Luke 15 if we read it and don’t see anything about that boy in our own lives.  Every one of us has that nature within us that at times has rebelled against God and gone our own way. 

I think the problem with the Pharisees is that they couldn’t see themselves like that at all.  If you are sitting here today thinking, “I could never wind up in the far country” – you’re half-way there already.  Your sin may not be adultery like the fellow I counseled with, but you are half-way there if you don’t think you could ever go.

What do you do about sin?  What do you do when you’ve messed up in the far country?  Let me tell you some different ways I’ve seen people deal with sin in their lives:

Hide it – Behind doctrinal correctness – cloak themselves with a sanctified smokescreen – people think “he’s so concerned with Bible things, he could never get caught up in sin.  Behind Emotionalism – they are really passionate about the Lord, they always seem so spiritual, but they’re not dealing with their sin. Some people just pretend it isn’t there (like the emperor with his new clothes). It works for a while – but it’s like carrying a dead fish in your purse – after a while everyone will know it.

Blame others – dad, brother, God – if he had he would have stayed right there in the pigpen.  I’ve learned that people who will not come to their senses are capable of turning any event toward a favorable impression of themselves to make themselves look blameless.  All you accomplish is to guarantee another cycle of brokenness. Bitterness is no more nourishing than husks, blaming others won’t get you out of the far country.

Work it off over time – It’s intriguing what the boy was ready to offer when he came back: “make me a hired hand, dad. I’m in your debt. Just give me the work and I’ll work my way back into a better relationship with you.”  All the work in the world can’t make up for the evil you’ve done.  Nothing I do can earn me a place in the Father’s house.

The Father’s solution  -- The Father loves us so much he runs to provide us another solution to dealing with sin – he sent his only son to die for us.  Rom. 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  There’s only one way to get back from the far country.

Can you believe there are some people who don’t like this story about the prodigal son?  They think it teaches that you can live how you please and it doesn’t matter to God.  They complain it’s all about love, but not about holiness – that there’s no cross in this gospel.  But if that’s the point you see we’re not reading the same story.  In this story Jesus tells us about a Father who suffers and agonizes and hurts over his lost son.  And in the homecoming we see a God who loves his son so much there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do to reclaim him, not any price he wouldn’t pay to have him back.

The story tells us that while the boy was a long way off, the Father was already looking for him, and when he saw him he went running, hiking up his robe, showing his bony knees. Men didn’t do that!  It was undignified, improper.

This is a surprise ending – Jesus didn’t make this story up.  It was a familiar story and it came with an anticipated ending. But this ending is scandalous – not one person in a thousand would have completed the story this way – the father taking the shame of the boy on himself.  What would not have shocked them is for the father to have turned his back on the son and sent him away for the shame he had brought to the family.  But this father took the son’s shame on himself.

Luke 15 is really a commentary on John 3:16 – that the Father loved the world so much he sent his own son.  I see in the Father’s run, the terrible sprint from heaven to Calvary where Jesus died.

The Pharisees didn’t believe God was like that, or they wouldn’t have asked Jesus, “Why do you keep that kind of company?”

The conclusion can be summarized in four words – People Matter to God – All people, every single one.  And what does it mean when a church values the same things God values?  We become ambassadors of God, modeling his nature, sharing his invitation to come home.