When needing directions, what app do you use? My Google Maps people, can you raise your hand? Waze? Apple Maps? I guess everyone else is still using MapQuest!
Now how many of you are like me and try to beat the estimated time of arrival? I’m always trying to shave off minutes. Especially if I’m familiar with the streets en-route to my destination; I turn down streets that I think would be faster, even if they’re not being suggested.
But sometimes that strategy gets me into trouble. I’ll turn down a street thinking that it will save me time, but it actually ends up adding time – it ends up costing me more time. There’s nothing worse than feeling like I’m being delayed, and seeing that path on the map turn red.
Let me ask you, have you ever taken a turn in life that just didn’t lead to what you were hoping for? Have you ever taken a turn that ended up costing you? We all have. Throughout this series we have been saying that God has a plan for our lives – a good plan. Now that’s all well and good – with a caveat – as long as we stick to the plan. But we don’t. Humanity’s struggle since the very beginning, even with Adam and Eve, has been that we reject God’s way – his plan – for our own.
But how well has that worked out for us? I don’t know about you but I have taken certain turns in life – certain paths – and where I ended up wasn’t pretty. They left me scared, addicted, with broken relationships, and worse.
I didn’t know that going into it. I was hoping for a better turn out. Listen, when driving, the reason I turn down certain streets even if they’re not being suggested is because I think I know better than Google (and their billions of data points); and that I can beat their estimate. Now, is that the reason I reject God’s plan for my own – because I think I know better than him? I don’t know. Maybe.
Or maybe it just goes back to what I was talking about a couple of weeks ago with freedom. As I taught on September 25th, God gives us a massive amount of freedom in making decisions. But as part of the freewill that we have, God also gives us the freedom to choose him or to choose something or someone else. And I don’t know why but there’s something very appealing to us about not needing God; of being independent of him. And with our freedom, unfortunately, we so often choose paths that leave us stuck. And more than stuck, they leave us broken, hurt, isolated, and scared.
But regardless of why we choose paths that are contrary to God’s ways, and regardless of why we choose paths that leave us stuck, here’s the question that I want us to tackle today: Can we get unstuck? The title of my message today is: Can God Make a Wrong Turn Right? What I love about Google is that no matter how many wrong turns I take it doesn’t give up on me. Even though I might be adding more time to my trip, it lets me know that there is still a path forward and that I can still arrive at my destination.
Does God work in the same way? Now you know the answer to that – at least the church answer. BUT DO YOU TRULY KNOW? Do you believe? Can God restore us when we have fallen to the lowest place imaginable? Can he redeem our poor decisions and wrong turns? And if so, how?
Jesus answers those questions in a beautiful way in his Parable of the Prodigal Son. What I love about this parable (this story) is that it came from the creativity and imagination of Jesus. Jesus is not simply recounting a factual story; but he created a narrative that depicts a spiritual reality. And so every detail matters. This is a long passage so we are not going to read the whole story right now – so let’s just take it section by section. Let’s just start with the first three verses.
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13“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.
Every commentary and every sermon that you will ever hear on the prodigal son is going to reference and make the point that the son’s request of asking for his inheritance before his father’s death is tantamount to wishing his father were dead. The magnitude of disrespect encapsulated in that request is insane. It’s a blow that I don’t know that we can fully comprehend with our modern and western worldview. The son is basically saying to his father, "I want your things, but I don’t want you. I want what you can give me, but I don’t care about you."
Do you think God ever feels that way with us? Do you think God ever feels that we just want his things and not him? Is God ever like, "Will, you just come to me when you need something – when you want the weight of guilt lifted off of your shoulders, when you need a word to preach – but do you really love me? Do you ever come to me JUST to be with me?" At one point, I do believe those were the questions God was asking me. In certain periods of my faith journey that was true.
But maybe that’s just me. You don’t treat God that way, right?! You never pray to God for a job and then forget about him after you get it? You never pray for a spouse and kids and then blame the spouse and kids as the reasons why you don’t spend time with him anymore? Listen, Jesus put that detail in the parable for a reason – WE ALL do this at some point or another!
Now put yourself in a patriarchal society two thousand years ago. When Jesus’s audience heard that request from the younger son, they must have immediately thought, "Such a kid needs a beatdown; or he needs to be outright abandoned and thrown out of the family for such a request."
But that’s not what the father in the story does. That’s not what our heavenly father does with us. He so often gives us the freedom and space that we so desperately desire.
And this is where our wrong turn begins. Our wrong turns always have to do with us walking away from God. They have to do with us charting our own path and living out our own plan. And that is what the essence of sin is. Check out what this commentator wrote about that: Of all the things Jesus Christ could have possibly done and all the stories he could have possibly come up with in order to show us the essence of sin, he didn’t come up with a murderer or a rapist or a thief. He came up with somebody who said, “Father, give me my life and just leave me the heck alone.” Be careful what you wish for. Because if what we want is space from God, he’s going to give it to us.
Last point in this section. In verse 13 it says that shortly after receiving his inheritance, the younger son …got together all he had, set off for A DISTANT COUNTRY (he wanted to be as far away from his father as possible) and there squandered his wealth in WILD LIVING. Now the phrase ‘wild living’ doesn’t really tell us all that the younger son did. But interestingly enough, do you know who sheds light on that? His older brother. Later on in the story the older brother tells the father that the younger son squandered your property with prostitutes (v. 30). Nothing like family airing out your dirty laundry!
But here’s what I find fascinating about the phrase ‘wild living’. You see, wild means out of control. Jesus is letting us know that the younger son was out of control. And here’s the great irony. I love what a commentator says about this: Whenever you try to get control of your life by going away from God, you end up giving control of your life to other things. For the younger son it was prostitutes, but let me ask you, To whom or what are you giving control of your life to? Is it pleasure like the younger son? Is it power? Money? Your career? Is it a child or a spouse? Is it your past? What is dictating your life; your reactions; your fears?
If we're being honest, whatever it is it might be enjoyable for a time (I’m sure the younger son had a blast), but as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Here’s what happened next to the younger son.
14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
Not only did he spend everything he had on prostitutes, but a severe famine hit the whole country that he was in. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the only job he could find was working for a man that had him feeding pigs. Most of you know this, but pigs are considered unclean animals to the Jews. And here you have a Jewish boy feeding them. And not only is he feeding them, but he is so hungry that he is longing for the food that they were eating.
Jesus is letting us know that this young man has hit rock bottom. As we are going to see in a moment, Rock bottom can be a gift. Trust me, it can. Some of you know that. But let’s be real, when you hit it and you’re living it, IT IS ABSOLUTE HELL. All you feel is hopelessness. All you feel is shame and guilt for allowing yourself to get to that place. And you can’t see a way out – you feel trapped.
But I’m here to tell you that you’re not! You are not too far from the grace of God, or the love of God, or the power of God for him to reach you and pull you out. There’s a way back. There’s a way forward.
But let me also say this. Many times we hit rock bottom because of our decisions and wrong turns; but sometimes we hit it because of wrong that has been done to us. Just think of the story of Joseph in the Bible. (Genesis 37-50) Yes, he was a little arrogant and annoying, but he didn’t deserve as a seventeen year old boy to be sold as a slave by his brothers. And he didn’t deserve to be accused of rape and thrown in prison. But even in the wreckage of the trauma and abuse that Joseph suffered and that we have suffered God can redeem and he can restore. God is over (and stronger than) our poor choices AND the terrible choices of others that leave us in horrific circumstances.
As my oldest son is on the verge of entering his teenage years, I’ve been walking him through a curriculum created by Jon Tyson, which is specifically geared to helping boys become men of faith and virtue. And in one of the lessons, this is what Jon wrote regarding what we are talking about here:
"Are my circumstances created by my own choices? Are they created by the choices of others? Does God play any role in the circumstance I find myself in? This is one of the most important questions a young man must settle in his heart, because they will determine the level of hope for the future he finds when things are hard. If life is only your choices, you will feel overwhelmed with shame when you make bad ones. If life is only other people's choices, you will feel powerless and trapped. But if God is somehow working in our circumstances in spite of our choices and the choices of others, it means that there is no place we will find ourselves that is beyond the reach of God's kindness and purpose." -Jon Tyson
If you have hit rock bottom, if you find yourself farther away from God than ever before, whether because of your own fault or no fault of your own, there is hope for you – you are not beyond God’s reach.
But there’s a part for you to play. Look at what happens next to the younger son.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
Here’s our part in making a wrong turn right: We have to come to our senses. That’s what happened with the younger son – he came to his senses. He’s like, "Hold up. Back in my father’s house his hired servants have food to spare; and here I am starving. I’m going back."
Now that might sound opportunistic to some of us, but I think what Jesus is describing is something deeper than that. The biblical word for coming to your senses is repentance. Repentance is turning away from something in order to turn back to God. To repent, or to come to your senses, is to have a change of perspective – it’s to see everything differently. To come to your senses is much more than just to say, "I’m sorry." But it’s to say, "I was blind." It’s to say, "I was ungrateful." It’s to say, "How could I have missed the obvious?"
And this is the obvious that we so often miss. If you look at the son’s planned script – what he is rehearsing to say to his father when he sees him – there is no mention of squandering his inheritance or of prostitutes. What does he say? Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. What the son has come to realize is that home is not a place; but home is a relationship. He was trying to find home where there is no home – in pleasure, and possessions, and independence. But thankfully he came to his senses and went back home.
The invitation to you today is to come back home. Come to your senses and come home! And this is the type of welcome that you can expect.
“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.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “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. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Because of our wrong turns, we think we have to settle for less than the best. We think we have to be relegated to the status of a hired servant. But that’s not what the father does. I like how one commentator put it: GOD’S COMPASSION IS EXCEPTIONAL. The father is so full of joy that he drapes himself around his lost son’s neck and welcomes him back with hugs and kisses of affection.
Why is it so hard for us to picture God giving us that type of reception? Maybe it’s because we have never known a love like that. We can’t comprehend it. But it’s real; and it’s for you!
Now, one would think that God starts to make a wrong turn right when we come to our senses and we give him the opportunity to respond favorably. One would think that we are the initiators. But no, it started way before that. Let me show you. Verse 12: The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Don’t you see it? By the father giving the son something he didn’t deserve (which is grace), and withholding the punishment he did deserve (which is mercy), he was letting him know, I still love you. I believe that act from the father, in the face of the son’s disrespect and blatant rejection of the father, is what brought the son back. It’s what gave him hope that he just might be received.
Now look at Romans 5:8; But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. While we were still far off, while we were still engaged in wild living, while we were still trying to find a home where there is no home, Jesus died on the cross for us – Jesus loved us. Come on, you don’t have to worry about what type of reception you will receive if you turn back to him. He’s not going to give you the cold shoulder. All of Luke 15 is emphasizing how there is celebration in heaven when children who have been far away come back home. So come back home!
Yes, that means you still have to repent. You still need to do your part. But don’t see that as drudgery – as the worst thing you can possibly do. Remember the one you are coming back to and the type of reception he has promised you. Check out this quote: It’s a little easier to say something to a person who has already jumped on you, already hugged you, already kissed you, already slobbered all over you, and stands back about six inches with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. Then you don’t mind asking for something. The love of God was not caused by the repentance; the repentance was caused by the love of God. God loves you; so you can come home.
Can God make a wrong turn right? Absolutely! Not only did he do it for this prodigal son but he has done it for many of us in this room; including myself. When I hit rock bottom educationally and failed my first year of college and lost all of my financial aid, I never thought I would go back, and much less end up getting a masters degree. When I hit rock bottom and was engaged in all sorts of wild living as a teenager, I never could have imagined that one day I’d be going to church, much less be a pastor at one. When we hit rock bottom in our marriage a decade ago, I honestly didn’t know whether we would end that year together. But who knew that things could turn around and us end up having a wonderful marriage that brings so much joy to my life? I had no idea – I could never imagine – but God knew!
And if he did it for me he can do it for you. But you have to come home. Here’s what that looks like for some of you: