Pastor Joe Wittwer
Back to God
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
The story starts eons ago when God created a good world, and created human beings in His own image to tend the world with Him. Each time God completed a creation cycle, like an artist, He paused to admire what He had made, and He said, “Ohhh…that’s good!” But when He had created us in His image, He admired us, and said, “Now that…that’s very good.” God made you good, and made you for Himself—He made you to live in a relationship with Him. You were made to love God! And when you do, then you are living life as God intended it. And it’s very good.
Such a good start—what happened? The world is so broken—war, poverty, disease and death, oppression and injustice, the Zags losing in the Sweet 16—it’s an ugly, broken mess. What happened? We did. We broke the relationship with God and wandered far away. Our first ancestors rebelled against God—decided they wanted to be their own gods—and left God. And human beings have followed them ever since. All the brokenness in our world—and the brokenness inside each of us—is the result of our rebellion against God, and our distance from Him. And that’s very bad.
So now what? The good news is that God didn’t abandon us, but came to bring us back to Himself! We broke the relationship, but God moved toward us to fix it. We wandered from God, but He came looking for us in Jesus. Jesus came to find us and bring us back to God. He lived a perfect life—the life that none of us could live. And He died a sacrificial death—the death that each of us deserved. He paid our moral debt and took our place, absorbing on the cross the just punishment that was due us. He died with a shout of triumph: It is finished! It is paid in full! And on the third day, God raised Him from the dead. In Jesus, death died. In Jesus, we and all creation are reconciled back to God. Our enmity with God is over—Jesus is our peace. ︎
And our enmity with each other is over too—Jesus is our peace. «︎ He not only reconciles us to God, but to each other, and sends us into the world as instruments of peace, as agents of reconciliation.
For the next several weeks, we’re going to be doing a series of talks on this, called “He is our Peace.” We will look at how Jesus reconciles us to God and each other—how every broken relationship in our lives can be healed by Jesus. And today, we start with this simple idea:
All of us have wandered. Jesus came to bring us back to God.
2 Corinthians 9:7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
I love this verse. Look what it says:
- Give what you decide. It’s your call.
- Don’t give reluctantly—don’t be sad or feel regret about it.
- Don’t give under compulsion—you should never feel forced.
- What you should feel is joy. God loves a cheerful giver. The Greek word is hilaron; we get the word “hilarious” from it. Giving ought to make you happy! Jesus said, “It is more blessed—happier—to give than to receive.”
And the very next verse begins, “And God is able to bless you abundantly.” You’ll never outgive God. Have fun giving!! Woohoo!
- All of us have wandered.
Where are you? I know you’re here, in church. But where are you in relation to God? Are you close to God? Or far away? We often say that you can be as close to God as you want to be. Are you close to God? Or have you wandered?
Life is not a straight line for any of us. If God is my reason for living, my life should look like a straight line toward Him. Instead it wanders here and there—sometimes in the opposite direction! We are prone to wander. This is true in every area of my life.
- I start a diet—and I wander. (I can resist anything except temptation!)
- I set a budget—and I wander. (Any impulse spenders in the room?)
- I know I should follow Jesus—but I wander.
Life is not a straight line for any of us. And we all wander in different ways. Let me tell you a wandering story.
Jesus was once hanging out with some notorious people—bad enough that the religious folks were offended. “Why is He hanging out with them?”
Jesus answered by telling three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son—and there’s a surprise ending to the last story.
A father had two sons, and the younger asked him to give him his share of the family estate now. It was most disrespectful thing he could say—essentially, “I wish you were dead; all I want is the money.” Dads, how many of you would have told this disrespectful ingrate to take a hike? Me too. But this father was a more generous man than me, and gave him the money.
The younger son promptly left for a distant country—he wandered as far as he could from his father. And there he squandered the whole inheritance in loose living, until one day he woke up out of money and out of opportunities. He was forced to take a job slopping hogs (the lowest job imaginable for a good Jewish boy), and he was so hungry that the hog slop started looking good. (You gotta be really hungry…) He had hit rock bottom.
Finally, he came to his senses. He thought, “My dad’s hired hands are living better than this. I’ll go home and apologize and maybe my dad will take me back, not as his son, but as one of the hired help.” He set off for home, rehearsing his speech as he went.
Meanwhile back home, his dad was watching every day, hoping his son would come back. And when he saw his son coming in the distance, this father ran to him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him, welcoming him home. In polite Jewish society, older men didn’t run, so why did this dad run? This son had dishonored his father and shamed his family, and he was no longer welcome in the village. What he had done was so outrageous, so disrespectful that if the other men in the village had gotten to him first, they would have angrily chased him away. So that father ran because he had to get to his son before the others could chase him off.
The son began his rehearsed speech: “Father, I have sinned against God and you, and I am no longer worthy to be your son.” But before he could finish, his father interrupted him. “Bring the best robe for my son, sandals for his feet, and the family ring for his finger. And fire up the barbie, slap on some ribeye steaks, and break out the Costco cheesecake, because we’re going to have a party. My son who I thought was dead, is alive; he was lost, and now he’s home!” A party broke out with music and dancing and lots of good food!
Let’s pause there for a moment. This boy wandered. Far from home; far from his father. And some of us have wandered like this: far from God. Some of us have wandered so far that we’ve hit rock bottom. This was the direction I was headed when Jesus found me—running away from God as fast and far as I could. We all wander, and some of us wander like this.
Back to the story. The older brother came in from the fields and heard the sounds of music and dancing and asked what was going on. “Your brother is home and your father has thrown a party—he even brought out the ribeyes and the Costco cheesecake!” The older brother had a fit and refused to go in. His father came looking for him, begging him to join the celebration.
But he said, “All this time, I’ve slaved for you! I’ve never disobeyed you; I always did what you wanted—but did you ever throw a party for me? Yet when this son of yours comes home after squandering your property, you break out the ribeyes and cheesecake!”
The father begged him to join the party because his lost brother was found. And…the story ends there: with the older son on the outside looking in. We don’t know if he ever decided to come in or not. This is the big surprise! The story ends with the bad boy inside enjoying his father’s grace, and the good boy outside resenting his father’s grace!
Where are you? Inside enjoying the father’s grace? Or outside?
It turns out there is more than one way to wander. The older son, even though he lived at home, was as far from his father as the younger son ever was. The younger son wandered far into sin; the older son wandered far into self-righteousness—but both had wandered. You can be lost in a distant country, or you can be lost at home. You can be lost in church! There is more than one way to wander and end up far from God.
ILL: This week, I was wondering why I didn’t feel close to God. Do you ever wonder that? I asked Him to show me. I realized that I hadn’t spent much time talking with Him lately. My PBJ time (Prayer, Bible and Journal) had turned into reading the Bible, writing in my journal, and saying a quick prayer—then off to the races. I wasn’t taking any time to be still and listen—to have a conversation with God. This is not rocket science. If I don’t have good conversation with my wife, I don’t feel close to her either. I had wandered into…busyness. There are lots of ways to wander and end up far from God.
Where are you?
700 years before Jesus came, a Jewish prophet named Isaiah wrote this about him:
Isaiah 53:5–6 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
We’ve all wandered—each of us in our own way. But Jesus came to find us and bring us back to God, no matter where we wander. Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, borrowed these ideas from Isaiah and wrote:
1 Peter 2:24–25 (NCV) Christ carried our sins in his body on the cross so we would stop living for sin and start living for what is right. And you are healed because of his wounds. 25 You were like sheep that wandered away, but now you have come back to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
We all wander, but Jesus came to bring us back to God.
Where are you? Are you close to God? Or far away? Jesus came to bring you back to God.
- Jesus came to bring us back to God.
Just before He died, Jesus told His followers that He was going back to God, back to His Father. Jesus said:
John 14:4–6 “And you know the way to where I am going.”
5 “No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.
Jesus is the way to the Father. Jesus is the way back to God. It’s why He came, it’s why He died, and it’s why He rose again. He did all this to be the way back to God. Paul put it this way:
Romans 5:10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
We were God’s enemies. God was never our enemy, but we were God’s enemies. We were the ones who broke the relationship, who rebelled, who wandered. I saw a bumper sticker that said, “If you feel far from God, guess who moved!” We were the ones who moved away from God. Yet He was the one who moved toward us to fix the relationship, to reconcile us and make peace in Jesus. We are reconciled, brought back to God by the death of Jesus. And we are saved by His life, by His resurrection power!
Let me tell you a story of someone who was saved by Jesus’ resurrection life.
On that last night of His life, Jesus told His disciples that He would be arrested, beaten, tortured and crucified—and that all of them would run for their lives. Peter protested. “Even if everyone else leaves you, I never will.” Jesus replied, “Peter, before this night is over, you will have disowned me 3 times.” Peter was horrified. “Even if I have to die with you, I’ll never disown you.”
I think Peter meant it. But when faced with the possibility of arrest, torture and death, Peter chickened out. Three times that night when he was asked if he followed Jesus, Peter denied even knowing him. And after the third denial, Peter locked eyes with Jesus, then ran away crying and ashamed.
Fast forward three days to Sunday, resurrection day. Here’s what happened:
Mark 16:1–7 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ”
Look at that last verse. “Tell his disciples and Peter.” Why was Peter singled out? Because Peter had wandered, and Jesus was coming after him. The story is in John 21.
Peter was so discouraged about his failure, and so uncertain about his future as a follower of Jesus that he decided to go back to fishing. He told the others, “I’m going fishing,” and six of them said, “We’re with you.” Back to the old life. Back to the familiar. Back to the boat and the nets. Jesus had called Peter to leave all that and start catching people for God. But Peter’s failure was so spectacular that he believed his days as a disciple of Jesus were over. He had denied Jesus. Better to let others catch people for God—Peter was going back to catching fish.
Then Jesus shows up. He stood on the shore and called out, “Did you catch anything?” It’s the universal question among fishermen—“How’re you doing?” Nothing. They had fished all night and caught nothing. Jesus said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find some.” They did and suddenly they had so many fish they couldn’t haul the net into the boat.
You might remember that when Jesus first called Peter to follow three years before, it was after an experience like this. Peter and Andrew had fished all night, caught nothing, and were cleaning their nets, getting ready to go home when Jesus showed up and said, “Push out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter had protested at first—after all, he was a pro, and who was this guy? Obviously not a fisherman—you don’t fish in the middle of the day. But Peter relented, pushed out and caught so many fish that their nets were tearing and their boat was sinking, and he had to call his partners James and John over to help. Peter had fallen on his knees before Jesus, and Jesus had said, “From now on, you’re catching people for God.” That had been Peter’s last fishing trip until now—you think he would have remembered. Dejavu all over again!
But it was John who remembered, and said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Peter heard that, he put on his shirt (he had been stripped for work) and dove into the lake and started swimming for shore. You gotta love Peter.
When the boat got there, there was already a fire going with fish cooking, and Jesus invited them all to breakfast. It was a very quiet group that sat around the fire eating that morning. Awkward! They had all wandered—and none more than Peter.
So after breakfast, Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” Jesus used his old name, Simon, instead of the name that Jesus had given him: Peter (the Rock). It might have been Jesus’ way of asking, “Who are you going to be? Simon the fisherman? Or Peter, my disciple?”
“Simon, do you love me more than these?”
What were “these”? Jesus might have been referring to the other disciples. Peter had promised, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I won’t.” It’s as though Peter had said, “I love you more than these. I’ll never let you down.” But he had. So maybe Jesus swung his hand toward the other disciples and said, “Simon, do you love me more than these?”
Or maybe Jesus swung his hand toward the boat and the nets and the lake and the fish. “Simon, do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than your old life?”
Peter answered, “Lord, you know that I love you.” But Peter used a different word for love. Jesus had used agape, the love that does what is best for another no matter what it costs, the love that would sacrifice everything for the good of the other. Peter answered by using the word phile, the love between friends, warm affection—“I really like you, I have deep affection for you.” Perhaps Peter was wary of making promises he couldn’t keep. Maybe Peter didn’t want to promise sacrificial love and fail again. So he opts for a lesser love. “I really like you.”
“Feed my lambs,” Jesus said.
A second time, Jesus asked, “Simon, do you love me?” Agape love?
And Peter answers a second time, “Yes Lord, you know that I really like you.”
“Take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
Then a third time Jesus asks, “Simon, do you like me?” Jesus used Peter’s word. And Peter was hurt that Jesus asked him, “Do you like me?”
“Lord, You know all things. You know that I like you.”
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus said.
What’s going on here? Peter had denied Jesus three times and wandered away. Jesus went after him and brought Peter back to God, back to his calling as a follower of Jesus. “Feed my sheep, Peter. Come back to God and get back in the saddle.” There were three denials, so there are three questions. Jesus wants Peter’s restoration to be as complete as his fall.
I love that Jesus only had one question: do you love me? He didn’t ask Peter, “Why did you deny me? Why did you lie? Why were you such a pansy? And for Pete’s sake, why are you back here fishing?” Jesus didn’t ask any of that. Only one question: do you love me? Because if you love Jesus, that’s enough. If you love Jesus, He can do something with you. It’s your love He wants, and if He has that, He can do anything!
And isn’t it cool that Jesus accepted Peter’s love as it was. Peter never got to agape, to the sacrificial love, the all out love. The best he could do at this moment was phile, warm affection. And it’s as though Jesus said, “Ok, let’s start there. Let’s start where you are and we’ll go from there.”
The failure was all Peter; the restoration was all Jesus. Peter is saved by the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was Peter’s way back to God. He is your way back to God.
Where are you? You may have wandered like Peter. You may feel that you are beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond coming back to God. Jesus has come for you, and He is asking one question, “Do you love me?” And if there’s even a spark there—even, “I’m interested. I think I want to love you.” He can do something amazing with your life.
2 Corinthians 5:18–20 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”
That is our appeal to you today: Come back to God! You were made for this. You were made to know Him, to love Him. Jesus has come to bring you back to God.
Prayer: say yes to Jesus.
Gift for you: New birth certificate in Welcome Center.
Baptisms and worship
We are going to celebrate with people being baptized. 91 people signed up to be baptized today. Read the names each service. If you are friends or family of someone being baptized, when you see them getting into the tank, you are welcome to come stand and celebrate with them.
Why are they being baptized? They have said yes to Jesus, and this is the act that publicly declares, “I am a follower of Jesus.” Baptism is a picture of death, burial and resurrection of Jesus—explain. In baptism, you publicly identify with Jesus. “I died with Jesus, my old life is buried and gone, and I’m raised with Jesus to live a new life!”
If you said yes to Jesus today, and would also like to be baptized, we’re ready for you. We have a change of clothes and towels, and people ready to help you. When we begin to sing, head right over here, and we’ll get you ready to be baptized. We’ve got about 20 minutes till the service ends, so get cracking!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Prayer team down front.
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