The Distant Country

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 21, 2016

Luke 15:13-16 AHA: The Distant Country

The Bad News
Today is the second in our series of sermons called AHA! Based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. We’re talking about spiritual awakening. When the light bulb comes on. When we figure out that it is time to stop running from God, and start running toward him.

It is a series we are doing in conjunction with a book and video Bible Study by Kyle Idleman and City on a Hill productions. Many of our small groups are working through the study, and even if you are not in a small group you can participate by purchasing a book at our info center and watching the videos through our church’s account with Right Now Media.

And let me just say: if you are watching the videos, you have probably noticed that they get pretty dark. The videos tell the stories of three people who fall into sin. And as it depicts how far they have fallen it depicts some pretty bad, pretty dangerous behaviors. Especially the second video. So much so, that as you watch it you may begin to wonder if you are still watching a Christian video. I’ll warn you: if you haven’t seen the second video yet, it will make you uncomfortable.

So why do the videos “go there”? Why are we having Bible studies that dramatize (dramatize, not glorify) adultery and stripping and drug use and worse? I’ve got a couple of answers.

The first, I’ll put like this: In order to understand how good the good news is, we have to first understand how bad the bad news is. Christianity is a religion of redemption. We believe that Jesus saves us from our sin.

But that means more than just that Jesus saves us from occasional bouts of impoliteness. Sin is more than just a character flaw. We believe that Jesus saves us from a desperate, deadly condition that we are completely incapable of fixing ourselves. If we fail to grasp how bad the bad news of sin is, we will never fully appreciate just how good the good news of the gospel is.

And the second reason these videos depict such dark and sinful behaviors is because that’s what Jesus describes in His story. Listen again to the first part of the story we call the Prodigal Son. Luke 15:11-16:

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.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.

This young man went to his father and asked for his inheritance, now. He essentially told his father he wished him dead. That he’d rather have his father’s stuff than him. Last week, we talked about how we can see ourselves in this boy. That sometimes, we want to get away from God. We talked about some of the things we tell ourselves to justify our leaving.

And now we see that this young man ended up in a “distant country.” We don’t know where, exactly, Jesus had in mind. And it doesn’t really matter. The point is that the distant country was far away from the father. Not just physically, but morally as well. This young man engaged in a style of living that clearly would not have been in keeping with him remaining in his father’s house.

The “distant country” then, becomes a metaphor for sin. It’s where we go when we run away from God. We may not physically change our location at all—but as we rebel against God and decide that we will make our own rules for living—we move deeper and deeper into this distant land.

Jesus doesn’t give us a lot of details about what this young man did (He kind of leaves us to fill in the details, which is very effective storytelling). The phrase He uses is “wild living,” a phrase that could be more fully understood as “a manner of life by which someone destroys himself” or “a wild and undisciplined life.”

Imagine an 18-year old getting a pretty huge chunk of money and going out to live on his or her own. I would imagine the wealth wouldn’t last very long. And that’s probably even if the kid is a pretty good kid. And this son doesn’t exactly live on the ‘straight and narrow.’ Later in the parable, the older brother says the younger one “squandered [his money] with prostitutes.” (Luke 15:30) We don’t know if the older brother knows that for a fact or if he is just guessing, but it gives us a pretty good idea of how the younger one was living.

The point is that the “distant country” represents a place far, far from God. And Jesus is saying that many of us have found ourselves in the distant country. We may not have meant to end up there, but we got there. We may not have intended to stay, but we stayed. And we may not have intended to take up permanent residence, but that’s exactly what happened.

There is a saying about sin that goes like this: “Sin always takes you farther than you wanted to go, keeps you longer than you wanted to stay, and costs you more than you wanted to spend.” That’s what this part of Jesus’ parable illustrates. It’s the bad news that we have to understand if we want to know how good the good news is.

So how bad is the bad news? There are three things we can say about life in the distant country:

Empty Buckets
First, the Distant Country will leave you empty. When we live far from God it leaves us broke. Look again at verses 13 and 14 in the parable:

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.14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.

Jesus says that the young man “squandered his wealth.” He “spent everything.” Remember, I said last week that this is what the word “prodigal” means. It doesn’t mean wild or rebellious, it means “recklessly extravagant.” This young man was out on his own and he chased every wild way of living he could imagine and he did so until the money ran out.

And then the worst happens: a famine. Suddenly, the whole country is suffering, but he suffers the most because he has absolutely nothing set aside for an emergency. He finds himself hungry and broke and “in need.”

And that’s what happens to us. When we willfully and deliberately walk away from God and pursue a lifestyle of sin, we are going to find that those things leave us empty and broke. It might not always be money that it costs, but it’ll be something:
• The distant country might end up costing us our reputations.
• The distant country might end up costing us our jobs.
• The distant country might end up costing us our families.
• The distant country might end up costing us our integrity.
• The distant country might end up costing us our self-respect.

This is what Jesus is saying about sin: we can chase it and think it is fun and it is freedom and it is fabulous, but eventually it is going to leave us empty and broke.

In the second chapter of Jeremiah, God is frustrated with the nation of Israel. They have repeatedly left Him in order to worship “worthless idols.” (2:5) The nation “changed its gods.” (2:11) They “exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.” (2:11) So this is what God says, in Jeremiah 2:13:

My people have committed two sins:
they have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

God is saying here that we are all thirsty. That we all have a longing, deep inside us for meaning, contentment, joy, or whatever you want to call it. We are thirsty for a relationship with Him. But when we choose to chase after sin God says we are making two mistakes: we are forsaking the spring of living water (leaving the Father’s house) and we are attempting to drink from broken cisterns (wild living in the distant country.)

Think of it this way. A cistern is basically a bucket, something that you store water in. So God is saying that we all have a bucket that we drink out of. And the fuller our bucket, the happier we are.

So we need to go to the bucket store, and get a bucket.

And the world has this really fancy, up-town bucket store. Like a Bed, Bath and Beyond for buckets. It has all this glitzy marketing and slick advertising and you walk into the world's store and you see all these high-end buckets. And they all look so good: self-indulgence, laziness, lust, and so on. Fancy buckets that promise instant happiness.

And God has a bucket store too. Only His is nothing fancy. Just a humble little main street shop. And the buckets at God's store are not too exciting: obedience, trust, worship. Putting God first. Loving others like you love yourself. Stuff like that. Sturdy buckets, but not exactly high fashion.

So the buckets that the world offers look so much better. But, here's the thing, you buy one of the world's buckets and you try it out, and it fills up your capacity for joy for a while, but then it springs a leak. It always happens. The world’s buckets can't hold water. And so you always have to go back for more, and more. And in the end you have a shriveled-up, dehydrated soul.

God's buckets, on the other hand, might not fill up as fast, but they are always reliable. They always hold water. Our capacity for joy when we draw from the spring of living water is always so much greater. We find that our thirst is always quenched.

So the question is: which bucket do you want to drink from? The younger son in Jesus’ story chose a bunch of leaky buckets—the distant country—and in the end it left him empty and broke.

How to Lose Friends
So, the distant country will leave you empty. Second, the distant country will leave you all alone. When we live far from God we are left without friends.

This sermon has been kind of heavy so far, so let me give you a little breather. I did an internet search for “fools losing friends” and I got an interesting hit. It was called “25 April Fools pranks you’ll probably lose a few friends over.” Here were some of the suggestions:

Wet cotton balls stuck on a car in cold weather.

A Febreeze grenade. Pull the zip tie and run.

An aerosol can of shrimp bait spray relabeled with a Glad fresh scents label.

Frosting filled Bismarks filled with mayonnaise.

An air horn for a door knob stopper.

Those are all pretty good ways to lose friends. But Jesus says if you want to lose friends, there is another way: head to the distant country. What I’m thinking of here is in verse 16:

16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

What I want you to notice is the last phrase: “no one gave him anything.” Again, we don’t get a lot of details, but we can read between the lines. When this young man was living it up and spending daddy’s cash, he probably had friends galore. There were all too many people willing to join him in wild living. But then the money ran out, the famine hit, he took a job slopping hogs, and suddenly all those so called friends were nowhere to be found.

The book of Proverbs says something about this. Proverbs 19:4:

Wealth attracts many friends, but even the closest friend of the poor person deserts them.

Sometimes wild living seems like a great party, and there are all kinds of people willing to join you in it. But friendships build around patterns of sin are not going to last. Here’s another Proverb:

When wickedness comes, so does contempt, and with shame comes reproach.

The farther down the road to the distant country we travel, the more the people who really care about us are driven away.

Here’s something we need to understand about our decisions to leave the Father’s House: our sin doesn’t just affect us, it affects those who care about us. The younger son’s decision deeply wounded the father, it hurt the older brother. We don’t know if there was a mom around, but if she was she was surely heartbroken.

There’s a TV show called “Intervention” that’s been around for several years now. The show follows somebody who is severely addicted to drugs or has an eating disorder or is consumed with alcohol, and then the show culminates in that person’s closest friends and family members telling that person how they have been affected by their friend’s struggle.

One sister said to her brother: “All I wanted was to be around my big brother. Things are different now. I’ve gone from always wanting to be in your presence to being fearful of being alone in a room with you.”

One son said this to his father:” Dad, if I had one wish I would wish that you would get better. Please get better for our family.”

One mother said this to her daughter: “I hope you will always remember the good times we had. But everything changed since you got sick. You are very disrespectful and very rude to us. We will not take this anymore, and we want our daughter back.”

The difficult truth is that life in the distant country doesn’t just affect us, it affects everyone around us. And, often, choosing to live there very long ends up leaving us all alone.

Slopping Hogs
So, the distant country will leave you empty. And the distant country will leave you all alone. Third, the distant country will leave you at the bottom. When we live without God we are destined for death.

Back to the parable. Verses 15 and 16. Jesus says:

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.

This is rock bottom for this young man. He’s living in a non-Jewish country, and now he has to subject himself to a citizen of that country. It would have been a serious blow to national pride to be compelled to go to work for a pagan.

Worse, the job was feeding pigs. Pigs, of course, were non-Kosher. Jews consider them to be unclean. So having to work in the midst of them would have been humiliating.

Even worse yet, to be reduced to the point of possibly eating pig slop would have been beyond the pale. Few people in Jesus’ audience would have been able to imaging a scenario worse than this.

For us, the equivalent would be something like living in North Korea, tending cockroaches that were being raised for food, and seriously considering eating the cockroach food to stave off our hunger.

Sin has truly taken this young man farther than he wanted to go, kept him longer than he meant to stay, and cost him more than he ever intended to spend.

And that’s what the Bible says about sin: it is a deadly snare that wants to pull you in deeper and deeper. In Proverbs 9 Solomon compares sin to a beautiful woman named Folly. This is in keeping with his earlier warnings to his sons to avoid the adulteress. He pictures this woman sitting on her doorstep, beckoning passers-by to stop in for some fun. She promises sweet water and delicious food. But where it all leads is rather horrifying. This is what Solomon says:

13 Folly is an unruly woman;
she is simple and knows nothing.
14 She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the highest point of the city,
15 calling out to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way,
16 “Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
17 “Stolen water is sweet;
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
18 But little do they know that the dead are there,
that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.

“Little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.” It all looks so inviting and fun. Like the best party ever! But that house that is pulsating with life and excitement? It’s actually a morgue.

The truth is, it is virtually impossible for a Christian filmmaker or author to describe a life of sin and make it as dark or dismal or deadly as the Bible does. When it comes to describing sin, nobody gives a more stark portrayal than the Holy Scriptures. In Proverbs 5 Solomon says of the adulteress: “Her feet go down to death her steps lead straight to the grave” (5) Isaiah 64 compares our sin to bloody rages (6). In John 8 Jesus says that our sins make us children of Satan. (44) And Ephesians 2 says that we are all “dead in transgressions and sins” (1)

Perhaps no verse in the Bible says it more plainly than Romans 6:23:

23 For the wages of sin is death…

When we walk away from the Father’s House, when we choose to go off and live in the Distant Country, when we put ourselves on the throne of our lives and kick God off of His, when we believe our way is the best way and we don’t need God or the Bible to tell us what to do, then the paycheck we have earned—the wage we deserve—is death.

It may start out as just another innocent decision or change that seems like no big deal. It’s my life, right? They’re my choices.

But when we live apart from the father, it starts to hurt. The bucket is leaky and it leaves us thirsty for more. We burn bridges with people, and we become so much of an island that no one is around to help.
• Once the new fling is over and you realize you’re all alone…
• Once you climb the corporate ladder, but then realize you have no family, no friends, and nothing outside of the office…
• Once you’ve stored up all the money you thought you could ever want, but all you want is more…
• Once everyone knows that all you care about is yourself…

Before you know it, your life has begun to hurt more than you ever imagined. The distant country will always leave you at the bottom. It doesn’t matter what made you leave the father’s house, the alternative is eventually the distant country, and the distant country will take everything you have and leave you with nothing but death.

But thanks be to God that Romans 6:23 doesn’t end here. There’s a second line to the verse:

but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is a way home from the distant country. There is road to redemption. There is a savior.

This is the good news, and it is so very good. The bad news is bad, but the good news is good.

Jesus made the long journey from heaven to earth so that He could help lost sinners find their way home from the distant country.

So if you find yourself paying rent to a life of sin—trying to drink from a bucket that won’t hold water, losing friends, heading for the bottom—look to Jesus and find hope. He paid your wages at the cross. You can come home again.