Immediate Action

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 13, 2016

Luke 15:20 AHA: Immediate Action

Embarrassing Myself
It is good to be back with you this morning. If you were here last week, you know Milan Johnson—a seminary student from our church—came up from St. Louis to preach while I was in St. Louis. The reason I was in St. Louis was for the Missouri Valley Men’s Basketball Conference Tournament. I went down to cheer for UNI. You might not have heard, but UNI won the tournament on an amazing last second shot that hit the back of the rim, bounced high in the air, seemed to hang there forever, and then fell through the net.

Those of you who watched it probably said to yourselves: “I bet Pastor Russell is going nuts right now.” You were right.

In fact, I have video. This is cellphone footage not from the final game, but from the semi-final game when UNI unexpectedly beat Wichita St. in overtime. It gives you a pretty good idea of how my weekend went. Roll tape…

[Video from St Louis]

So He Got Up
I can’t believe I just showed you that. I hope you will be able to concentrate on the rest of the message.

We are in the midst of a series of sermons on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. Most of you know the story. This young man comes to his father and asks for his portion of the inheritance. Then he uses it to leave the father’s house and travel to a distant country and wastefully spend it in wild living. Things get very bad for him, and eventually he finds himself tending unclean swine and fantasizing about eating pigslop.

That’s when he comes to his senses and reasons that even the servants in his father’s house have it better than he does. So he resolves to confess his sins to his father and beg for the opportunity to be a hired man. He goes back with a speech prepared only to find his father waiting with open arms. A huge celebration is thrown because the one who was lost had been found.

Our series is called AHA, based on the book and video series of the same name by Kyle Idleman. What we are focusing on is that moment of life change—the AHA moment—when we realize that where we are is not where we want to be and we turn back to the father.

And we’ve broken AHA into three critical components. There’s Awakening, when we wake up to the fact that things are not as they could be. The Awakening moment in Jesus’ story comes in verse 17, where it says “he came to his senses.”

Then comes Honesty. Honesty is when we admit the truth about our sin to ourselves, to others, and to God. That’s what the young man does in verses 18 and 19. He resolves to tell his father: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

Then comes Action, which is our focus for today. For the prodigal son, Action comes in verse 20:

So he got up and went to his father.

“So he got up…” This is so important. He didn’t just stay there in the pig pen. He didn’t just talk about needing to change. He didn’t just bemoan his mistakes. He did something. He took action. “So he got up…”

If we are going to have true AHA in our lives, if we are truly going to make a break with our sin and go back to the father, then we have to act. Idleman writes:

The Prodigal Son took immediate action. He recognized that it was time to get up. It was time to do something. And unless our story reads, “So he got up,” or “So she got up,” then nothing really changes. This is where AHA stalls out for so many of us. We have an awakening moment, we even find the strength to be brutally honest, but we never get around to actually doing anything different. We spend much of our lives stuck between honesty and action. (p. 144-145)

AHA in Corinth
Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians chapter 7. A lot of people don’t realize it, but Paul wrote at least three letters to Corinth. It’s just that we don’t have any surviving copies of one of them. But Paul talks about that letter in the letter we know as 2 Corinthians.

Apparently, there were some things going on in the church that were not good. They were being influenced by false teachers who were trying to turn the grace of God into a legalistic, works-based religion. So Paul wrote a letter—the one we don’t have—that was rather harsh. It took them to task for their errors, and urged them to mend their ways.

That letter, apparently, was an AHA moment for the church in Corinth. Paul talks about it in 2 Corinthians 7:8-10:

8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

You can see the elements of AHA here. The letter hurt them. That was their Awakening. That was the alarm they needed to bring them back to their senses. Then they “were made sorry.” That was Honesty. They admitted that they were wrong. And their sorrow led to repentance.

Repentance is really what AHA is all about. When we repent, it means we are changing our ways.

The Greek word is metanoia. You might recognize the root of the word “metamorphosis.” To have metanoia in your life means to turn around. It means a 180 degree change of direction. You were facing towards sin, and then you turn your back on sin and move towards God.

And the thing is, for repentance to take place, you have to do something. You have to take action. You can’t just talk about it, and stay sitting in the pigsty, you have to get up.

Paul talks about it in terms of “Godly sorrow” and “worldly sorry” in verse 10. Worldly Sorrow is when is when you feel sorry for something you did because it starts to backfire on you and leads to humiliation or punishment. Worldly sorrow is what happens when you get caught, and you feel bad because you got caught. This kind of regret really doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t mean you feel bad about what you did, but that you don’t like what you are experiencing now that it has been exposed.

You see, worldly sorrow is sort of like a stop sign. When your wrongdoing gets exposed and the consequences start coming your way, you feel bad, and you’ll probably stop doing whatever it is that you were doing. But if you only feel worldly regret, then you haven’t really changed. And once the consequences wear off you’ll go back to your wrongdoing, or manifest it in some other way. Worldly sorrow is just a stop sign.

Godly sorrow, on the other hand, feels sorry not so much for the consequences of wrongdoing, as over the realization that God and others have been hurt by our actions. Godly sorrow is the reflex of a conscience that realizes God’s name has been dragged through the mud. Godly sorrow focuses not on self, but on those that we have hurt.

So if worldly sorrow is a stop sign, Godly sorrow is a U-turn sign. Once your conscience is pricked and you realize how much you have hurt God and others, that bad feeling of guilt you have will lead you not just to feel bad, but to actually change your ways. You’ll actually change direction. You’ll take action.

And that’s the key: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.” Awakening leads to Honesty which leads to Action. And here’s the thing we have to know this morning: Repentance doesn’t take place without action. Nothing changes unless we act.

Knowing and Doing are not the Same Thing
But it’s hard, isn’t it? Knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it are not the same thing. Many of us stall out somewhere between being honest about our circumstances and making the changes we know we need to make. Idleman quotes from a magazine article entitled “Change or Die.” It says:

Change or Die. What if your were given that choice?... What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon—a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?

The article goes on to say that the odds are nine to one against you changing. 9 out of 10 of us, even in a life or death situation, will not be able to make the difficult changes required to survive.

Where does that statistic come from? A study from Johns Hopkins that did a follow-up survey of people who had coronary-artery bypass surgery—an incredibly expensive and invasive procedure that usually comes about because of lifestyle—too many calories, not enough physical activity. The survey found that two years after surgery, 90 percent of patients had not made meaningful changes to their lifestyle. They’d had the wake up call, they’d been talked to honestly about their condition, they’d been given a second chance, and yet 9 out of 10 did not make lasting change.

Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t. (p. 146-147)

Too often we come to our senses in the pig pen, we have an honest conversation with ourselves about what is wrong, and then… we don’t move. We stay right where we are. And nothing changes.

So the question is: Why don’t we make the changes we know we need to make? What is preventing us from making the leap from honesty to action? What keeps us from the repentance that leads to salvation?

In his book, Idleman suggests three reasons we find it hard to take action. I’ll run through them now:

“It’ll get better”
The first is Passivity. Passivity. We don’t act because we are hoping things will change on their own.

Idleman references a USA today article about a fatal wildfire in California:

The article quoted Sergeant Conrad Grayson, who was frustrated that people were not acting with a greater sense of urgency. He said, “We’re begging people to leave, and they don’t take us seriously. They want to pack some clothes, or fight [the fire] in the backyard with a garden hose…If people don’t move fast, they’re going to become charcoal briquettes.”

Jon Smalldridge told of frantically warning his neighbors only to have some disregard him or respond too casually. He told of those who tried to save their televisions and computers before escaping. He said, “They looked like they were packing for a trip. The ones who listened to me and left the area, lived. The ones who didn’t, died.”

What is it that keeps us from acting with a greater sense of urgency? Instead of being aggressive, it seems more natural for us to respond passively. Even when the fire threatens and much is at stake, instead of acting we tend to have an “I’m sure everything will work itself” out attitude. (p. 156)

The truth is, we tend to be comfortable with what we know. Even if our situation is dysfunctional, it is hard to make a change. We made the choices that put us into that dysfunction, they seemed like the best choices at the time, and it is just hard to imagine making different choices now. I found a blog article that says:

Even with the best intentions some people just can’t do better. It hurts to hold on, but you’re scared to let go because for so long it’s the only you way you’ve known.

Sometimes we use the phrase “stuck in a rut.” Did you know that there are National Parks in the west where you can still see the ruts from the original Oregon Trail? All these wagons with wooden wheels rolled across the prairie and they left such deep marks that those ruts are still visible today. Imagine driving a wagon and getting stuck in a rut. It would be like being on railroad tracks. It’s not easy to get out.

When I hear that phrase, “stuck in a rut,” I imagine people who have been shrunk down to a tiny size, like in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, in this mudden valley, so that all they can see is just dirt walls around them. They don’t change because they can’t see what change would look like. All they can see is the edges of the rut.

I think that’s why it can be so hard to take action. We just get comfortable with what we know, even when it’s not comfortable. We don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different. So, we just keep doing what we’ve always done, and we hope—somehow—that we’ll get different results. That, of course, is a good definition of insanity.

In Ephesians 5 Paul writes:

11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Sometimes we stumble around in the dark, because the dark is all we know. We need to take the steps that will turn on the light.

“I’ll Get to it Later”
A second thing that keeps us from making the changes we know we need to make is procrastination. Procrastination. We don’t act because we tell ourselves that we’ll get to it later.

Sometimes we have the awakening that things are not as they should be. We take an honest evaluation and realize just where we’ve gone wrong. And that all feels pretty good. We start to congratulate ourselves on seeing the need for change. Maybe we even take the step of making a plan. And yet, nothing happens.

The problem is, we feel like we’ve done something. We’ve come to our senses. We’ve been honest. We made the plan! But we’re still sitting in the pigpen. We need to get up.

This is something I used to joke about with my running buddies (back when I was actually running, something I need to seriously start doing again.) We’d talk about how much we needed to start running again. We’d set a date. But then one of us would bail out. Then the next day it would rain. And we’d joke that least we were talking about running. We’d say that talking about it was always the first step. But the truth is, and we knew it, unless we ran, we hadn’t done anything.

Hebrews 3:13 and 15 says:

13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness… 15 As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.”

The key word there is “today.” Encourage one another, today. Do not harden your hearts, today. Do it today. Don’t put it off until tomorrow. If there is something you know you need to do, do it now.

So why do we procrastinate? There are any number of reasons. One is that we want to prolong the pleasure. We tell ourselves: “Tomorrow I will start the diet, but first let me eat half of this chocolate cake to celebrate my resolve.” “Tomorrow I’ll stop gambling, but tonight let me bet on the big game.” “Tomorrow I’ll end the affair, but tonight we need to sneak away one more time.”

Imagine the Prodigal Son, out on the pig farm, making his speech about going back to the father. But then imagine him saying, “Before I head back home, let me round up the old gang for one more bender.” How successful do you think he would have been at leaving the distant country?

Another reason we might procrastinate is because we want to avoid the pain. We can see what we need to, but we’re worried about how hard it is going to be. “I know I need to run, but I’m afraid my muscles will be sore.” “I know I need to get my credit card debt under control, but I’m afraid I’ll miss the lifestyle I’ve grown accustomed to.” “I know I need to apologize, but I’m afraid she won’t accept it.”

The Prodigal Son knew how hard making the trip back home was going to be. He knew that his father would be disappointed. He knew his older brother would be angry. Milan talked last week about how humiliating it would be to walk through the village, with everybody knowing what a disgrace he was. He knew it was going to hurt. But he also knew that putting it off wasn’t going to make it any easier. So he got up.

Or, again, sometimes we put off the changes we know we need to make because we want to plan it to perfection. Have you ever heard of “paralysis by analysis”? This is one the reasons organizations like churches or businesses have such a hard time changing. Every little detail of the change needs to be considered and debated. All the “what if…” and “what about…” questions need to be answered. No one dares move forward until every issue has been dissected at least three ways from Sunday.

And it’s not just a problem with organizations. We do this in our own lives. We hem and haw and try to think of every possibility before we act. And the result, of course, is that we never act at all. We just keep sitting there in the pig manure.

One of the best AHA stories in the Bible is the story of Zacchaeus. You’ve probably heard of him. He was a “wee little man.” And the thing about Zacchaeus, beside the fact that he was short, was that he was a tax collector. He had sold out to the Roman occupiers of Israel and he was making himself rich at the expense of his countrymen.

So on the day that he climbed the sycamore tree in an effort to get a better look at Jesus, it was shocking to everyone involved that Jesus singled him out and invited himself over to supper. Tax collectors were on the very lowest rung of society. Polite people did not spend time with tax collectors.

But that visit from Jesus was the AHA moment for Zacchaeus. He woke up to his sin. He was honest about the way he was cheating people. And, most importantly, he acted. Luke 19:8 says:

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

The key words there are “here and now.” For Zacchaeus there was no procrastination. He got up out of the pigpen. He acted. What changes do you need to make in your life, “here and now”?

"It’s Too Late Now"
A third thing that keeps us from making the changes we know we need to make is defeatism. Defeatism. We don’t act because we tell ourselves that it’s already too late.

We look at the mess we are in, we look at the mistakes we have made, we look at everything it would take to make it right again, and we decide it is just too late. Too much water under the bridge. Too many broken pieces to put back together. Too much hurt to heal.

For many of us, we look at the gap between where God wants us and where we are, and we decide there is no way we could make it up. We try to serve Him, we try to do more good than bad, but deep inside we know: “we can never do enough.” Idleman writes:

We can’t out-right our wrongs. Sure, we can make up for a few mistakes, but we can all look at our lives and admit that—in one way or another—we’ve done irreparable damage. There isn’t enough time to make things right, so we end up doing nothing. The time for action has come and gone. So with our head bowed and eyes low, we say “It’s too late now.” (p. 189)

I’m sure the Prodigal Son felt this way. His life was way past fixing. He’d insulted his father, turned his back on his family, ignored them for years, wasted their money.

But he didn’t have a whole lot of other options either. So he decided he’d go back and throw himself on his father’s mercy. He didn’t have any expectations. He didn’t figure he had any rights. But maybe if he went to work as a servant, he could make up at least some of the hurt. Luke 15:19, here’s what he planned to say:

19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’

He knew he messed up, and he was prepared to spend the rest of his life trying to make up for it.

But when he got up and headed home, he made a shocking discovery. His father didn’t need him to make up for it, he just wanted him home. Verse 20:

20 So he got up and went to his father.

“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.

If you’re not turning back to God because you think there is no way you could right all the wrongs you’ve done, you are right. You can’t make up for all your mistakes.

But you are wrong to keep sitting in the muck and mire of your sin.

Because the truth is: The Father doesn’t need you to make up for it, He just wants you to come home.

When is verse 20 going to be a part of your story? When are you going to get up?

Just Come Home
Allow me to close this morning with a story Idleman includes in his book. It’s an AHA story of a young man at college:

Eight years ago I left home and went to Colorado State University. I was in a fraternity and I majored in partying. For the first three semesters, I never stopped and thought about what I was doing. I wasn’t praying at all. After three semesters, reality came crashing in on me. I could no longer deny what was happening. I had flunked four of my five classes. It was a wake-up call. I knew I needed to make some changes. I needed to get out of the fraternity and lose some of my friends, but what I really needed was to make a change in my relationship with God—if he would still have me.

In the frat house there was no place with privacy to make the phone call to my parents explaining that I had failed, so I took the phone into the bathroom. I remember there was a stack of pornography, and I didn’t want to look in that direction, so I sat on top of it.

I called my parents and explained to them that I had blown it in a lot of areas of my life—not just my grades, but also in my walk with Christ. I had strayed from Him. And my parents listened to what I had to say, and then they said three words to me.

They didn’t say, “Turn things around.”

They didn’t say, “Make things right.”

They didn’t say, “Get some help.”

They didn’t say, “Figure it out.”

They didn’t say, “We love you.”

They didn’t say, “We forgive you.”

It was better than that.

What they said to me was:

“Just come home.” (p. 195-196)