“EACH ONE IS TEMPTED WHEN BY HIS OWN EVIL DESIRES, HE IS LURED AWAY AND ENTICED. THEN AFTER DESIRE HAS CONCEIVED, IT GIVES BIRTH TO SIN; AND WHEN SIN IS FULLY GROWN, IT GIVES BIRTH TO DEATH.” James 1:14
Of the many stories Jesus teaches, few have as much impact as that of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Charles Dickens once described it as the best short story in the English language. There are many reasons why; one is that the characters tell us about us – the choices we make, the things we run after, the values we enthrone. And a far more important reason - the story tells us a great deal about God.
Unlike a lot of stories there is no ‘happy ever after’ ending. Instead, the story abruptly ends – giving us no clue whether the elder brother joins the celebration or stays out in the field.
We enter the story with everything coming off the rails. The younger son, demanding and proud, has had enough. Whatever got him to this point is unknown. What we do know is that he is checking out but he has no intention of leaving empty handed nor is going to leave in any ‘feel good’ manner.
Those of you raised in a ‘shame based’ culture understand that this father-son encounter was a violation of the highest order. In essence, his actions saying to his father - I reject this family; I reject these people; and dad, I reject you and everything you stand for – your values, your rules and your God. In fact, the son’s inheritance demand was equivalent to wishing his father dead. If you haven’t already had the decency to die, just give me my money and let me get on with my life. And know this, my life has no place in it for you. From this moment on, all ties are cut. All relationships are over. The son’s entitlement, all that matters. His rights trumping relationship. Because now it was his turn to make his mark. To achieve. To enjoy. To indulge. And in doing so he would make one thing clear to dad – your best before date has passed. Now it’s my turn.
And that turn would be lived out in a “distant country”, enjoying places he had not been; experiencing pleasures he had not tasted. No restrictions. No rules. No responsibilities.
Many of us have known the temptation of the distant country. Some having lived there and some, being drawn there even as I speak. Where voices tempt - step out and taste. Experience pleasures that await. Sexual pleasures without restraint. Secret indulgences on the web or flirtatious exchanges with a colleague that tests what might be possible. For others, it’s the fantasy escape of emotional intimacy with someone who understands and cares like no one else has. For others, it’s a euphoric chemical boost, a mental affair or attendance at an event you know violates everything you believe. All calls of a distant country.
Whatever the means, it is the belief that there must be something better to run into that will bring happiness into our lives. You convince yourself, you’re only going to that place for a look. You certainly aren’t going to stay. But brief visits to this physical or electronic distant country become more frequent and longer until discomfort disappears. After all, given how straight you’ve played it, you deserve some ‘let it go and enjoy time’.
And at the heart of it is a voice that whispers, “What the Father has provided isn’t enough.” That in some way, He withholds pleasures we’re entitled to.
I’d guess perspective like these resonated with many of the publicans and sinners who listened. How present had their fathers been? And when there, criticisms aplenty and demands constant. With hurts like these, life is the distant country can look awfully good. Living on our own terms, with sufficient resources and enough distance to forget the past.
If anyone could identify with this ‘eat, drink and be merry’ son, it was the publicans and sinners who lived on the outside, some still on that journey - hoisting glasses and slapping backs. A good number, prodigals at heart deluding themselves they could change any time they wanted to; it was just that right now, they didn’t want to.
How they listened was determined in large part not by their identification with the son but how they understood the Father. And the same is true for you and me. Our experience with our earthly fathers can have a profound impact on our view of God. Does He really care? Does He really love? Does He protect and forgive? Does He disappoint? Questions far deeper than 1 or 2 experiences but questions about His character.
Character not so much by what’s said or even by what’s done but qualities that appear when no one sees. Qualities that determine actions. Qualities that squeeze out when life squeezes in
Like God’s character who loves when He need not have loved; who forgives what should not be forgiven. But that’s what God does even when we turn our back on Him. Even when we run from Him. This was a far cry from how the Pharisees understood God. Based on what the son did, the father had every right, likely the expectation that he would wash his hands of his son.
After all, shaming his father as he had done was unthinkable. Had their conflict remained behind closed doors perhaps private arrangements might have been made, but in order to meet the son’s inheritance request, ‘For Sale’ signs had to be posted. Generational property needed to be sold. Livestock would go to the highest bidder which in this case would be a fire sale low. Private discord was turned into public spectacle.
And after a flurry of transactions to liquidate the estate, the son, money in hand, sets off to enjoy everything life has to offer.
And left behind, a father wounded and in pain. His shame playing out every time he passed neighbours seeing possessions that were once his. Echoes of his son’s contempt replaying again and again no matter how hard he tried to bury himself in activity.
Meanwhile, the son was having the time of his life. The music loud, the liquor plentiful. New found friends many and women just a moment away from his bidding. No pleasure denied. He needed noise to quiet the alarm bells that had been ringing ever since he first thought of going to his father with his demands. That was the first time he heard the alarm,
Don’t set something in motion that will forever change your life. What you’re considering may promise happiness but it will only deliver pain.
‘DON’T GO THERE’. But the lure of the distant land was greater than the alarm.
He would have done well to listen to Solomon who in Prov 23:7 warns, “As a man thinks, so is he.” Get hold of the voice you are listening to. THINK about you are going to do. 2 Cor 10:5 Take captive every thought that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and make it obedient to Christ. Because if you don’t, James warns, “Each one is tempted when by his own evil desires, he is lured away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.” 1:14
It’s only a drink with a colleague after a hard day at work. Think! It’s only a quick glance at the website all your teammates are talking about. Think! It’s only some, ‘let’s get physical play time’, that everyone else is doing. Think! Because if you don’t, the voice you listen to will begin to make sense, ‘She understands me like no one else does’. ‘I’m only getting what others are getting.’ ‘What harm can it do?’
And then there were the alarm bells as he walked the road where he will step out of his own country and step into the distant land that so allured. That it was pig country tells us this was Gentile country. Once again, the alarm bells ringing loud and clear, you shouldn’t be here. These people are not your people. Their values are not your values. Their loves are not your loves. Their gods are not your God.
But a few steps in, that alarm is put on mute. These people are so accepting – there’s no judgement, no condemnation, no correction. Just acceptance and a wide open invitation to do whatever you want to do.
At first the invitation was just a place to be accepted. No conditions. No restrictions. What you hadn’t expected was to so quickly become accustomed to things once forbidden to you. Places that didn’t feel quite so wrong as you once thought. Before long you were fully immersed in a world that satisfied wants you didn’t even know you had.
These people know how to live. Freedom. A new life. New relationships. No spouse too tired. No everyday chores. No dirty laundry. Just never ending bliss.
And then things come to a crashing halt. Credit cards no longer honoured and the ATM is empty. Only then did he begin to discover that life wasn’t so glorious when no one else picked up the tab. And those newfound friends who egged him on for one more drink and one more hit? Disappeared into the night just like his drinking buddies who have moved on to another party, his name not on the invite list. No one told him that promises are never fully filled in a distant land. They just tantalizingly remain distant – one step out of reach.
Away from the party scene, life is no better. He has been evicted from his residence and can’t put together enough credit to get food. The one who lived as if there were no tomorrow, finds that tomorrow does arrive and demands for payment arrive with it. Now life is anything but a slap happy, liquor flowing, party scene. Devastating consequences ignored as he slept through alarm after alarm.
I wonder, is it possible you are sleeping through as alarms sound? A marriage falling apart while you extend your workday yet again? Wake up! The forfeiture of your children as they escape into a world of peers because you’re too busy to see? Wake up! Your relationship with God becoming deadly ritualistic? Wake up! Because that distant land we are heading toward is a lot closer than we might think.
Consider one road walked on that leads to great damage. Matthew Walther, a national correspondent for The Week, writes about the once immensely popular, Game of Thrones. “My goodness. I've just spent an hour watching to see if a guy who raped a teenage girl at bow-and-arrow point is going to be eaten alive by the animals he has spent the last few seasons subjecting to forms of cruelty …. or beaten to death in the freezing cold by his victim's half-brother. Thank goodness the guy who set his terminally ill daughter on fire in a pyromaniac oblation to a heathen god at the behest of a witch who never seems to wear any clothes is not around to prevent justice from being carried out here! His quote goes on, but you get the point regarding alarm bells no longer heard.
He goes on to say, “One of the most persistent liberal myths is that art has no moral content, that reading or watching or listening to something can never be in itself evil. This is something that can only be true if, conversely, art does not have the power to affect or change us for the good. It is only possible to believe this if you think all art is essentially meaningless. You can only watch so many decapitations and eye-gouges and rapes and brother-on-sister grope fests before you either give up on the wretched proceedings in disgust or decide to pretend that "Lol, nothing matters"
I cite this not to wage a war against the entertainment industry, rather to wake us up to God’s ‘You shouldn’t be here’ alarms. Turn around before the places we find ourselves, anaesthetize us to the fact that their values are becoming our values; their loves are becoming our loves; their gods are becoming our God.
Linger, and those values will be ours. Linger, and those loves will be ours. Linger and their gods will be ours. No matter how long we have been a Christian.
Interestingly, when the money was gone and the ‘morning-after’ fog wouldn’t life, the son still wasn’t prepared to turn off the, ‘You shouldn’t stay here’ alarm. As far as he was concerned he still had time to cover his tracks and get his feet back under him again. He still deluded himself that the laughter would return and the soul loneliness would end.
He didn’t want to think about all he had lost. The people he once had loved. Those he once called friends. The resources he enjoyed. You don’t think about these when you are enjoying the pleasures of sin that last for a season Heb 11:25. But as far as he was concerned, he had dug himself in, so he would dig himself out.
Perhaps like you? You’ll work harder. You’ll decide better. You’ll choose wiser. And so once again, you reach over and try to turn the alarm off. Only this time the alarm isn’t turning off.
He never imagined that life could go like this, the can’t miss kid, with money to burn, now scavenging food scraps. Instead of being everyone else’s meal ticket, he now dines with pigs – the 4 legged variety, battling them for whatever husks are buried in the dust. Sharing accommodation with pigs wasn’t a place any Jewish boy could see himself.
But here’s the thing, he didn’t respond to the alarm until an old sow dug his teeth into his hand as they wrestled over two niblets of corn. Only then did he realize that he had spent a lifetime hiring himself out to pursuits that would never satisfy.
Hiring himself out to other gods - gods of pleasure and gods of achievement; gods of making something of himself and gods of being someone who would make his mark.
And where had those gods taken him? Into the pigpen, scratching out an existence trying to figure out who he was and what he lived for.
Here’s the question this morning, is it possible that God is ringing alarm bells in your life this morning? You may not have reached dead end like the prodigal son had but you’re on the same journey. Could it be that there are places where He is warning, ‘Don’t go there’? because the voice that is calling you to distant place living only destroys. Where the alarm bells God puts before you are His truth that is blood validated and His love that is blood proved.
Are there places where He is warning, ‘You shouldn’t be here’? Where He is calling you to step back and step out. To disconnect and unbookmark. To stop driving past a forbidden place. To get off the path you are walking on because it is leading to a place that only brings pain, only brings heartache.
And finally, are there places where He is warning, ‘You shouldn’t stay here’? Where He reminds, it is NEVER too late no matter what pit you are in. Stay and you will be devoured. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but make no mistake, the devouring will come. As God’s word, says, “God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap.”
But the first step toward home begins with you.