January 10, 2016
Pastor Joe Wittwer
What do you do when you get lost? Ladies—you ask for directions. Men—well, men don’t get lost. We always know exactly where we are. Here’s a great story.
ILL: As a bagpiper, I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. He had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper’s cemetery in the Nova Scotia back country. As I was not familiar with the backwoods, I got lost and, being a typical man, I didn’t stop for directions.
I finally arrived an hour late; the funeral guy had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the digging crew left and they were eating lunch. I felt badly and apologized to the men for being late.
I went to the side of the grave and I didn’t know what else to do, so I started to play. The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. I played out my heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. I played like I’ve never played before for this homeless man.
And as I played “Amazing Grace”, the workers began to weep. They wept, I wept, we all wept together. When I finished, I packed up my bagpipes and started for my car. Though my head was hung low, my heart was full.
As I opened the door to my car, I heard one of the workers say, “I never seen anything like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”
How many of you have ever been lost? Wandered far from where you are supposed to be? Some of you are better with directions than others, but all of us have this in common: we all have wandered away from God.
Isaiah 53:6 (NCV) We all have wandered away like sheep; each of us has gone his own way. But the Lord has put on him the punishment for all the evil we have done.
We’ve all wandered, and we all need to return to God.
ILL: In the great hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, there is a line that says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”
One my favorite professors, Dr. Bill Richardson, introduced that hymn in our college chapel by reciting that line, and then saying, “That’s me. I’m prone to wander. I wander often, and I’m constantly returning to the Lord.”
Honestly, I was shocked. Dr. Richardson was a wise, godly man, steeped in Scripture and a mentor and example to me. And he was saying that he wandered often and needed to return to God. I thought, “If he wanders, I must too.” Yep. I do.
And so do you. We all wander, and we all need to return to God. In fact, life is a series of returns—a series of constant corrections back to Jesus.
ILL: Think of it like driving. Driving a car is a constant series of adjustments to stay on the road and in your lane. If you’re paying attention, most of the adjustments are tiny, almost not noticeable. But if you don’t pay attention… Well, if you look away for a second, you might be ok. If you look away for five seconds, you may begin drifting. And if you look away 10 seconds, you’ll probably be in the ditch.
Following Jesus is like driving. If I’m paying attention, I’ll make lots of small corrections. If I don’t, I may have some bigger adjustments, or I may find myself in the ditch needing to return to the road.
Today, is #2 of a four-week series that I’m calling “Re—.” We’re looking at four things that rob us of joy and vitality in our relationship with God, and what we can do about them.
- When our love grows cold, we need to renew
- When we wander from God, we need to return to Him.
- When we become spiritually dead and dry, we need to be revived.
- When we get too busy and hurried, we need to rest and recharge.
Renew, return, revive, and recharge. This series is about rebooting your relationship with God, rekindling that fire and renewing your passion. Each week, I’m going to preach first, and then we’ll worship and take some time to respond to God. I hope you’ll come expecting God to touch you and revive you.
The Big Idea: All of us are prone to wander, so we need to return to the Lord. Life is a series of returns, of constant corrections back to Jesus.
I want to look at two things with you today, then we’re going to worship and return to God. First, ways we wander—we all wander but we do it in different ways. Second, God’s plea, which is, “Return to Me.” This is God’s cry for you today: “Return to Me.”
- Ways we wander.
Isaiah 53:6 (NCV) We all have wandered away like sheep; each of us has gone his own way.
We all wander, but we each of us goes our own way. We wander in different ways. Some wander just a little, and some a lot. Some go far away, and some just a little ways away, but all have wandered. This is illustrated beautifully in Jesus’ famous story of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15.
The Pharisees protested that Jesus was hanging out with irreligious people, and Jesus answered them with three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. Here’s that story about two wandering sons.
A father had two sons, and the younger one came and asked for his share of the family estate now. He was basically telling his dad, “I wish you were dead; all I care about is the money.” It was a shocking insult, hard to imagine anyone doing it. But the father graciously gave him what he asked, and the young man took the money and moved far away to a distant country where he quickly blew all the money in wild living.
After he had spent everything, a famine struck that land, and the penniless young man had to take a job slopping hogs to stay alive. He was so poor and so hungry that the hog slop started looking good. One day, he came to his senses. He remembered home and his father, and he thought, “I’ll return to my father, and tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and you, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Please take me back as a hired hand on your farm.” And so he set out and returned home.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, this father had been watching every day, hoping his son would return. And so when he saw the boy far off in the distance, he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The boy began his speech. “Father, I have sinned against God and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father interrupted him. “Quick, bring the best robe for my son. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. And kill that calf we’ve been fattening up for a special occasion! Let’s celebrate for this son of mine was lost and now is found!” So the party began!
When the older son returned from working in the fields, he heard the sounds of a party, and asked one of the hired hands, “What’s going on?”
“Your brother has returned home, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
The older brother pitched a fit. He was angry and refused to go to the party. So his father went out and begged him to come in.
“All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never even ordered Chipotle for me and my friends! Yet when this son of yours who has squandered your money on prostitutes—when this son returns home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
His father tried to reassure him. “My son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours. But we had to celebrate because your brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now he’s found. He’s returned home.”
That’s the story—it’s a beautiful story. Who was the original audience? The Pharisees. So, who is the younger brother who wandered to a distant country? He represents the irreligious, the sinners whom Jesus is hanging out with. And who is the older brother who wandered far from the father’s heart even while he lived in the father’s house? The Pharisees. Religious people…like us. It’s possible to wander far from God and be lost in a distant country. It’s also possible to wander far from God and be lost in church, living in the father’s house.
We wander in different ways.
One brother wandered in open rebellion and blatant disobedience. He realized one day that he was far from his father and needed to return home. The other brother never left home, but wandered away in smug self-righteousness and pride. And we don’t know if he ever realized that he needed to return to the father too. Jesus leaves the story hanging, inviting the Pharisees to write their own ending. It was Jesus’ way of saying, “You have wandered too—can you see it? Are you willing to return to God?” Jesus gave them the choice of refusing to come to the party or returning to God.
Why did I take the time to tell this story which most of you know? Because many of us, like the Pharisees, don’t think we need to return. Others wander, not us. But we all wander, just in different ways.
What are some of the ways we wander?
Open rebellion. This was the younger son completely disrespecting his father and running far away. Some people run as far and fast as they can from God.
ILL: One of my best friends in high school was full on for Jesus, but in college, he completely abandoned his faith—he did the younger brother thing. I looked him up one day in our junior year of college and he told me, “I’m done with being a Christian. It’s too restrictive. I want to party and do whatever I want.” When I appealed to him to return to Jesus, his response was to threaten to beat me up if I didn’t leave his house! He was running as far and fast as he could from God. The next time I saw him was at our 20-year class reunion. He was still far from God. He took one look at me and smirked, “I see you’re still doing the Jesus thing.” I’m happy to tell you that he’s come full circle—a few years ago he returned to the Lord and is serving Jesus full on!
There are millions of younger brothers who want nothing to do with God and have wandered into the far country. If that’s you, it’s time to return to God.
The fact that you’re here today suggests that this probably isn’t how you wander. Here are other ways we wander.
Quiet neglect. This is the opposite of open rebellion, but it’s what happens to lots of us. We get busy and neglect our relationship with God. It’s not even intentional; it’s a quiet slide.
ILL: How many marriages end simply because of quiet neglect? They don’t fight, they’re not unfaithful, but somewhere along the way, they stopped paying attention to each other. They stop listening. They stop dating. They let the good habits slide. They neglect the little things that make a relationship thrive. One day they look at each other and think, “We don’t love each other any more.” The marriage ends not because anyone did something bad, but because neither did anything good. It died by neglect.
I’ve seen this happen to many people spiritually. They neglect their relationship with God—they stop doing the things that feed it and make it grow. Every relationship in your life requires some attention and effort to thrive. If you invest in it, it grows. If you neglect it, it dies. This is true of a marriage, a friendship, and your relationship with God. This is why I’m alarmed when I see people neglecting the basics. When you stop coming to church, drop out of your Life Group, or stop seeking God in daily PBJ—when you neglect these basic things, your relationship with God suffers. You wander through quiet neglect.
How is your relationship with God? If you are feeding it, it will thrive. If you are neglecting it, then it’s time to return to God.
Drifting. Most people don’t wander far from God all at once, like the prodigal son who left home and ran far away. Most of us don’t bolt and run; we just drift. We don’t fall away from God in a single cataclysmic event; we drift away through a series of small compromises.
Hebrews 2:1 We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.
Pay attention, or you drift away.
ILL: Ask a rancher how a cow gets lost, and chances are he’ll reply, “Well
the cow starts nibbling on a tuft of green grass, and when it finishes, it looks ahead to the next tuft of green grass and starts nibbling on that one, and then it nibbles on a tuft of grass right next to a hole in the fence. Then it sees another tuft of green grass on the other side of the fence, so it nibbles on that one and then goes on the next tuft. The next thing you know, the cow has nibbled itself into being lost.”
We can nibble ourselves into being lost. We can make one small compromise that leads to another which leads to another, and one day we wake up far from God and have no idea how we got here. These compromises can be neglecting to do what we need to do, or can be doing what we know we shouldn’t do—sins of omission or commission.
ILL: A few weeks ago, I was on a retreat with one of my mentor groups. We do an exercise where we take 2 hours to be silent and listen to God. We write ourselves a letter from God—what is He saying to us? Here is one of the things He said to me—this is a direct quote from my letter from God.
“Beware of small compromises. The tithe is one. (I made a commitment years ago to give the first 10% of anything I earn to the Lord. In the last few months, I had not tithed on some extra income I had received. My reasoning was that I give a tithe and an additional offering already to Life Center, and I give another 5% to a number of missionaries, ministries and sponsored kids. Since I was already giving 17% of my regular income to the Lord, I thought that more than covered it. But the Lord challenged me—don’t make excuses and don’t compromise. I don’t think it’s about the money—it’s about the compromise.) Your thought life is another. Don’t let any kind of wrong thought nest in your mind: selfish, proud, sexual, angry—none of them. As soon as you catch yourself, take every thought captive for Christ. These small compromises can lead to larger ones. You are strong, but you are not invincible. The enemy will try to win small battles first, which could open the door to bigger wins later. So no small compromises. Win the battle. Identify and reject excuses!”
I recognize in me the potential to drift. So no small compromises. No nibbling my way to lostness. Pay careful attention so you don’t drift. If you’ve been drifting, it’s time to return to the Lord.
Idolatry. When you read the Old Testament, what was Israel’s recurring sin? Idolatry. They kept wandering from God and worshiping idols. Many of these idols were fertility gods that were worshipped by having sex with temple prostitutes. You made an offering, had sex, and the gods would make your crops fertile. It was a money-making machine and appealed to…well, to men. Here was the challenge Israel faced: worship God who made high moral demands, or worship an idol by having sex. Hard or easy? Can you see why they wandered? This is why the first of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Is idolatry a problem for any of us? Do we ever have other gods? Do you ever put other things before the Lord? Do you wander from God because you’re attracted by something else, something easier? Idols are simply anything that become more important to us than god. They can be good things: friends, work, home, sports, even family.
ILL: I was challenged in my Bible reading on Friday. In our Bible reading plan, we were reading Genesis 20-22. Genesis 22 is the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, whom he loved. This boy meant everything to Abraham; his life, his future, all God’s promises to Abraham are wrapped up in this boy. God was testing Abraham: He was never going to let Abraham actually kill the boy, but He was testing Abraham to see whom he loved more. Abraham obeyed God. He tied his son up on an altar and raised a knife, and at the last possible moment, God stopped him and said, “I know now that you truly fear God.” (Actually, God already knew; this was for Abraham’s benefit, so that he would know who is most important.)
This made me think about my Isaac. What is most important to me? What if God asked me to sacrifice it? What if He asked me to give Life Center up, let someone else lead and do something else? What if he asked me to sell our home and move somewhere else, leaving our family and friends behind? Could I do it? Do I love God with all I’ve got, and everything else is secondary? Could I lay my Isaac down?
It’s possible to love something good more than we love God. When we do, we wander.
When someone skips church to watch a football game, is that idolatry? Jesus, Seahawks; Jesus, Seahawks? Hmmm? I’m just asking. (Obviously, the people who need to hear that aren’t here—they’re watching the game.) When we spend all our time and attention on our work, and have none left for God, is that idolatry? When we spend our time and money on our favorite hobbies, and have no time or money for God, is that idolatry?
Friends, idolatry is alive and well. Anytime someone or something is more important to you than Jesus, that’s idolatry, and you’ve wandered. It’s time to return. One more way…
Religious criticism. Remember, Jesus told this story about the wandering sons to the Pharisees. They were the older brother. They were the ones who were critical of Jesus and all the younger brothers who were coming back to God. In fact, they were always critical.
- When Jesus healed someone, they criticized Him for doing it on the wrong day. Think about that: Jesus had just healed someone and they wanted to argue about when he did it!
- When Jesus freed someone from demons, they criticized Him and said He must be doing it by the power of the devil.
- When Jesus forgave someone, the criticized Him and said, “Who does He think He is?”
- When Jesus hung out with the prodigal sons and daughters, they criticized Him and asked, “Why do you hang out with such riffraff?”
They had wandered from God into religious self-righteousness that expressed itself in constant criticism.
So, are you a follower of Jesus, or a critic of Jesus? Are you a worshipper of Jesus, or a critic of Jesus? You can’t do both. Here’s an example.
Churches everywhere are embroiled in what’s often called “the worship wars.” People are critical about worship.
- It’s too loud; it’s not loud enough.
- We don’t sing any hymns; we sing too many hymns.
- The songs are all new; the songs are all old.
- We like it the way it was; we’d like something different.
- Turn the lights down; turn the lights up.
No matter how we do it, we can’t please everyone. Someone will be critical—and believe me, our worship team hears it all the time. But here’s my challenge to you. You can’t be a worship critic and a worshipper at the same time. So what are you going to do? Are you going to worship or be a worship critic? You can’t do both. I made up my mind a long time ago to be a worshipper. Guess what? When I set my criticisms aside and just worship God, I love it. In just a few minutes, we’re going to worship. I hope you’ll join me and pour out your heart to God. That’s what it’s about. All the other stuff is just personal preferences. We’ve got to realize that worshipping God isn’t about me and my preferences—it’s about worshipping God!
When we get critical, we lose sight of what’s really happening. We lose sight that people are finding God, following Jesus, and getting healed. We wander.
So here’s the universal: we all wander. But we wander in different ways: open rebellion, quiet neglect, drifting, idolatry, religious criticism. However we wander, we need to return to God, and renew our love for Him. And this is exactly what God longs for.
Introduce and pass out communion here.
- God’s plea: “Return to Me!”
In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people wandered a lot. The whole story is one of God pursuing them, they respond, and then they wander and God pursues them again. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” That’s the story of Israel in a nutshell.
But what is amazing is that God never stops pleading with them, and His plea, expressed through almost every prophet is, “Return to Me. Please, return to Me.”
I want to wrap this up by reading just a few of the verses on your outline, and I want you to hear the heart of God. This is God speaking to Israel, but it’s also God speaking to us. “Return to Me.”
Isaiah 44:22 I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.
Jeremiah 3:12-14 Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will not be angry forever. 13 Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the Lord your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the Lord. 14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband.”
Jeremiah 3:22 “Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding.”
Lamentations 3:40 Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.
Hosea 6:1 Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.
Hosea 14:1–2 Return to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! 2 Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.”
Joel 2:12–13 “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
Zechariah 1:3 Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Malachi 3:7 Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.
“Return to Me.” God says it over and over. “Return to Me and I will return to you.” When you return to God, you’ll find His arms open wide to welcome you. He’s waiting for your return.
Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to sing, and I hope you’ll use these songs to remember Jesus and what He’s done for you. Every time we take communion, we remember Jesus and His sacrifice, and we return; we correct back to Jesus. So use these next two songs to remember and return to Jesus. I’ll come back up and lead us in prayer and in taking communion, and then we’ll end with a final song.