Have you ever found yourself saying, “I need to make some changes in my life.” Oftentimes we’re brought to this conclusion by circumstances. For instance, my pants are uncomfortably tight. I guess I better make some changes in my eating habits. Or this one: I’m scaring my wife and my kids with my drinking. I guess I need to make some changes in my life and get help. Or, I’m feeling stuck in this job. I need to make some changes.
The truth is, we get to those kinds of places in life because we’re not very good at running our own lives. I know I’m not. I am a sinner, and when I try to do life on my own terms, which is what sin is all about (like the old song says, “I did it my way”), it typically leads to disaster. I’m just not very good at running life on my own; I’ve learned along the way that no one is. And we’re not very good at getting it fixed either as I try to do it on my own willpower, my own strength.
This is illustrated for us in a little children’s book, Frog and Toad Together. The two central characters discover their limits by merely trying to stop eating cookies. When frog bakes a batch of cookies, he says, “We have to stop eating these,” but they keep eating. “We must stop,” they resolve as they eat some more.
“We need willpower,” frog finally says while grabbing another cookie.
“What is willpower?” asks toad, swallowing another mouthful.
“Willpower is trying very hard to not do something you want to do very much,” frog says.
Frog discusses a variety of ways to help with willpower – putting the cookies in a box, tying the box shut, putting it high up in the tree – but each time toad points out in between bites that they could climb the tree and untie the box.
In desperation, frog finally dumps the remaining cookies outside on the ground and says, “Hey, birds. Here’s cookies.
Toad says sadly, “Now we have no more cookies.”
“Yes,” says frog, “But we have lots and lots of willpower.”
Toad replies, “You may keep it all. I’m going home to bake a cake.”
We’re just not very good at changing our lives on our own willpower.
Jesus told the story about a young man who tried doing life his way. He insulted his father by saying to him, “I want my share of the inheritance now,” which is the same as saying I wish you were dead. He put the family in financial jeopardy by taking away his part of the inheritance. He cut himself off from his family, his community, and his security, breaking his loved ones’ hearts.
He took his money, ran off to the far country, and spent it all. Then a famine hit the land, and he wound up in very sad straights working for a Gentile farmer tending pigs in the field. He would get so hungry, he was tempted to eat what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. No one cared for him. He was destitute and hit bottom.
He finally came to a senses. He had a wake-up call of sorts. He thought to himself, My life is heading in a bad direction. I had it made back home under my dad’s roof. What was I thinking? So he put together a little repentance speech to tell his father: I have sinned against God and against you, dad. I’m not worthy be called your son, but I’ll be your hired hand. Just let me do that and he headed toward home, not sure what he would find there. His father could very well, within his rights, have formally cut him off from the family.
As he drew near to home, he saw figure running toward him. As the figure got closer, he saw it was his father running like a fool toward him. The father did not care what anyone thought as he lifted up his robes and exposed his underwear to keep from tripping on the robe. We read that the father was waiting and watching for the boy to return, hoping. When he saw him, he lay aside all dignity and ran to him, put his arms around him and kissed him.
Then the son starts his speech: “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son . . .”
And before he could even get the rest of the speech out, the father broke in saying to his servants, “Quick, get the best robe for him. Get a pair of new shoes. Get the family signet ring. Kill the fatted calf. Invite the neighbors over to celebrate with me, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”
The boy went back into the house with his father. No arguing, no trying to make a deal to work for dad. He simply went in the house and was home again.
This story has been referred to as a repentance story. Repentance basically means making a U-turn. It means coming back home to live under the authority of God, under God’s roof so to speak.
By the way, Jesus points out that this father had another lost son who also needed to repent. He had been trying to live life on his own terms as well. It’s the elder brother. He stayed home but seemed to grow further and further away from his father. We see it all spewed out as he refuses to come into the house and celebrate his younger brother’s return. It turns out he wasn’t serving out of love and gratitude for his father but out of selfishness, trying to maintain control of his destiny. He was living with the attitude, The old man owes me. I’ve been good to him. He, too, is living in the far country. When he wouldn’t come into the house, the father gently, lovingly appeals to him, “Come on in.”
But Jesus doesn’t tell us if the brother went in or not. What you think?
The far country, where is it? Actually, it’s a picture for when we’re distanced from God, our heavenly Father and His will for our lives. We’ve all been there. It’s very easy to get to the far country on our own. It’s actually part of our nature. Like the old hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” says, Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.
For some, it’s an intentional rejection of God’s authority over their life, a rebellion of sorts. It is the attitude I don’t need some God telling me how live my life. It’s too restrictive! Maybe you are living like the older brother and it’s been a turn off. You don’t want to live like that and look like that. Maybe you are upset with God because you feel He has let you down. He has turned His back on you when you needed His help during a bad time. So you’ve run away.
Sometimes it’s the distractions of life, chasing after all the trophies of what the world might call “the good life,” accumulating status and wealth, pleasures and wonderful experiences. These are good things but they can become idols in our lives. They take over and lead us to the far country, away from God, as we chase after them. We are like sheep who nibble themselves lost from the Shepherd.
The far country can happen right in our very own hearts as we sit in our church pew. The attitude that I can earn my way into the Father’s good favor or God owes me for trying to maintain my independence. Symptoms of living in the far country can be self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and legalism. This is living in the far country.
By the way, I found repentance is something I need to do every day. Martin Luther tells us daily repentance is like my daily baptism. I’m drowning in my old sinful self, which keeps rearing its ugly head up telling me I can do this life myself, on my own terms. I can do it my way, which is nothing but a lie.
The truth is, I need to turn around every day, confess, and surrender again and again. For it is deadly to stay long in the far country. Staying there can lead to a sad waste of life. You miss out on what Paul calls the kingdom of God’s righteousness, peace, and joy of living with the Holy Spirit. You miss out on having a right relationship with God, being at peace within when you know you have a Father who loves you, and the joy of the Holy Spirit working in you. You miss out on God’s purpose for your life, which is to glorify and enjoy Him forever. And you miss out on the power God offers to turn things around and live a healthy and truly happy life, even in tough circumstances. Still, it happens to far too many people in this world. They stay in the far country.
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus tells us it doesn’t have to end that way. You see the real prodigal, (the word prodigal means lavish and extravagant) in the story is the father who is ready to give his all to his children welcoming them back home, trying to get them back in the house with him. That is lavish and extravagant grace.
The holier-than-thou Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus actually is our good news for today. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. This is good news for this sinner. Jesus is God’s open door for those who want to come home. He went to the cross so you could come home. He paid for our sinfulness at the cross so you could come home. He rose from the dead so you could come home eternally. In Him is the welcome to the loving promises of God.
He holds the power, and He alone, for making positive changes in your life. As you come to Him and surrender your being to His care and leadership, as you follow Him, trust Him, obey His word, and live with Him, you’ll soon discover He knows what makes your life work best.
Another parable. A man riding on a train noticed a young man across the aisle who was highly anxious and agitated. He kept looking at his watch, glancing out the window, and was unable to sit still for more than a few seconds at a time. The man asked the young person what the problem was and was told the following story.
Several years earlier the young man had run away from home simply because his parents had not given him his own way in some matter of minor importance. Though he knew it would break their hearts, he stubbornly persisted in not writing to them so that for several years they had no knowledge of his whereabouts or his activities.
Finally one day, he was filled with remorse as well as homesickness. So he wrote to his parents to say he’d like to come back home if they were willing to have him. In order to know whether or not they would forgive him and welcome him back to the house, he suggested they tie a cloth to a pear tree in the corner of their orchard, which he could see from the train window as he went past the farm just before arriving at the railway station. The cloth would indicate their willingness to forgive and receive him, and he would then get off the train. If no cloth appeared, he would know he wasn’t welcome home and would continue on. He confided to the older man that they would be passing the farm soon, and so he was filled with agony and suspense wondering what the answer would be.
The older man said he’d look and if the answer is negative, he’d try to soften the announcement for him. So the younger man agreed, described the characteristics that would make this farm recognizable, and told the man they would pass it in about one minute.
The older man looked out the window as the train rolled past the family farm. Smiling, he turned to the young man said, “It’s all right, son. You are forgiven. A cloth is tied to every tree in the orchard.”
Come home. This is the message today. Turn your heart toward home and know this: your Father will never turn you away. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer