A Sudden Awakening

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 28, 2016

Luke 15:17 AHA: A Sudden Awakening

Blind No More
Pierre-Paul Thomas was born blind. One of nine brothers and sisters, he grew up about an hour north of Montreal in the 1940s, long before medicare became available. When it came to his vision, he endured the triple misfortune of congenital nystagmus—a condition in which the eyes move from side to side involuntarily—damaged optic nerves, and severe cataracts. His world was always grey, and all he could make out were blurry shadows. He learned to “see” with his fingers, and walked with a white cane.

Then, when he was 66, Pierre-Paul fell down the stairs of an apartment building and fractured the bones in his face, including those around his eye sockets. He was rushed to the Montreal General hospital with severe swelling around his eyes. A team of doctors went to work to repair the bones.

Months later, he was examined by a plastic surgeon renowned for her skills in micro-suturing. The consultation was about fixing the scars left from that terrible fall. The surgeon casually asked him, “Oh, while we’re at it, do you want us to fix your eyes too?”

Pierre-Paul was dumfounded. What did she mean, “fix his eyes”?

What she meant was that a lot of advances had been made in ophthalmology since Pierre-Paul had been born. What was once considered incurable blindness could now be treated. And so, during two subsequent operations, he underwent surgery to have the cataracts removed from his eyes. The operations, to put it mildly, were a success. And for the first time in his life, Pierre-Paul Thomas could truly see.

Suddenly, his grey world was a riot of colors and shapes. Simple things, like buds on trees in the spring or the vivid white of a snow bank, opened unknown worlds to him. In a newspaper article, he said: “It’s like I’m a child all over again.” (recounted in Idleman, AHA, pg.76)

For Pierre-Paul Thomas, it was a sudden awakening.

5 Words
Our main text this morning, from the parable of the Prodigal Son, is just 5 words. It’s the first part of Luke 15:17. It says, about the younger son in Jesus’ story:

He came to his senses.

That’s an interesting turn of phrase, isn’t it? To come to your senses. It implies that, suddenly, what you were not seeing, you begin to see. What you were not hearing, you begin to hear. What you were not feeling, you begin to feel. You come to your senses. You become aware of what is right in front of you. Like Pierre-Paul Thomas, suddenly you can see. Like a heavy sleeper abruptly yanked back to consciousness, you become awake to what is happening around you.

This is the pivotal moment in this story. Up to this point, the younger son in Jesus’ story has been leading a life of rebellion and sin. He told his father he wanted his share of the inheritance, now. When he got it, he used it to finance a trip as far from his father’s house as possible. Then he spent it all in a fit of wild living. He thought he was free. Free from his father’s rules, from his restrictions, from not being able to do what he wanted to do. He felt free—just like a sky diver feels free—until he realized he didn’t have a parachute.

His undoing came when a famine struck the land. Without any resources he ended up friendless and as a slave in a pig pen, fantasizing about the slop he was feeding to the pigs.

That’s when he came to his senses. That’s when he became alert to everything that was happening around him. He was able to see what everyone else had already been seeing: he had messed up. He had it good, and he blew it. He had traded a life of happiness and security and love for a life of chasing after one empty pleasure after another.

Bible scholars tell us that in the original language the turn of phrase Jesus actually used is one which could be translated as “he came to himself.” He came back to himself. He realized what he had had, and how far away from it he now was. John Piper writes:

When you are alienated from God, you are always alienated from yourself. You can't know yourself or relate properly to yourself if you are running from the one who made your self for himself. You were made by God in the image of God for God. These are the three main things about your identity as a human being; you are made by God, like God, for God. Therefore conversion is "coming to yourself" as well as coming to God. It is discovering where you came from and who you are and why you exist. Running from God is always a running from ourselves. Repentance is waking up to this truth. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/coming-to-yourself-and-coming-to-the...

The series we are in—focusing on the parable of the prodigal son—is called AHA. And this is the AHA moment in Jesus’ story. The moment when the light bulb comes on for this young man and he realizes he needs to make a change.

Our series is following the Bible study and book by the same name written by Kyle Idleman. And he says that every AHA moment has three crucial components. Awakening. Honesty. And Action. An acronym for AHA. If you leave any one of the components out, you’re not going to have significant change. If you have awakening and honesty, but there is no action taken, change doesn’t happen. If you have awakening and action, but you aren’t honest about your situation, then the whole thing will be short-lived.

But when God moves by his Holy Spirit to cause Awakening, Honesty, and Action, then it is possible to come home from the distant country and make real change for the good.

In the next few weeks we’ll talk about each of these components, but for today we are going to talk about Awakening. Specifically, we’re going to talk about 4 ways that God might be trying to wake you up about a path you are taking. If you find yourself in the distant country, these may be some of the ways God is trying to get you to come to your senses.

Don’t Forget What Your Face Looks Like
First, God might be trying to get your attention through His Word. That’s the first way we’ll talk about: His Word at just the right time.

One of the reasons we go to church, and read our Bibles, is to allow God’s Word to speak to us. Often it will happen when we least expect it: we’ll find ourselves in a specific verse or see ourselves in a specific character, and realize that God is telling us something.

A lot of times, when I’m standing by the back door there after the service, people will tell me that God really caught their attention during the sermon. Or maybe somebody will email me during the week. And I’ll ask what it was that struck them, and they’ll tell me, and I’ll think: “But the sermon wasn’t really about that!” Often it will be just a minor point, or a scripture that I used as a cross reference. But for that person, at that moment, it was just thing that God was using to gently shake them and say: “Wake up!”

This is actually something that is very near to my heart. I’ve mentioned before that I am working on a book, and this is what my book is about—listening to God’s Word. I want to call my book How To Eat a Sermon and I want to share some help for people who go to church every week to get the most out of the messages they hear.

Because—and probably you know this already—just being here physically on Sunday mornings is not enough. It’s not like there is some mystical benefit conferred on you for showing up in a church building on Sunday morning. For this experience to benefit you, you have to listen. You have to engage in the sermon. You need to be alert for what God wants to say to you.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel became known as a pretty good preacher. He was known for some dramatic object lessons and he used vivid and colorful language to communicate God’s Word. But people started coming for the entertainment value. They came for the show. But they weren’t really listening. In Ezekiel 33:30-32 God says to him:

30 “As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ 31 My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. 32 Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.

God was speaking through Ezekiel. He was trying to wake them up. But they weren’t listening. Not really. “They hear your words but do not put them into practice.”

Ken Ramey, who wrote a book on listening to sermons called Expository Listening writes this:

Some of you may never miss a sermon, but fail to put much of what you hear into practice in your life. As your mother might have put it, “it simply goes in one ear and out the other.”

I’m sure you’re familiar with the expression “practice what you preach.” Those sitting in the pew count on the one standing behind the pulpit to live out what he says. There is nothing more hypocritical and dishonoring to God than when a preacher doesn’t do what he tells his congregation to do…But as a listener, you need to realize that a preacher has every right to expect you to practice what he preaches, that is to say, to practice what you hear. (p. 86)

Jesus’ brother James puts it like this:

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

The reason you look in a mirror is so that you can see what’s going on with your face. It’s a way of coming to your senses, right? But if you look in the mirror and see that your hair is out of place, or maybe there’s a bat in the cave, or a smudge on your cheek…and then you walk away without doing anything about it—you don’t grab a comb or blow your nose or wipe the dirt away, then what good did it do you?

That’s what it is like when you come to church and don’t pay attention. That’s what it is like when you let it go in one ear and out the other. But James goes on:

25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

God may be trying to get your attention right now, in this sermon. In your morning devotions, He wants to speak to you. That radio preacher you listen to on your commute? God is talking to you.

The question is: are you listening?

Wounds of a Friend
A second way God might be trying to get your attention is through the people around you. We’ll call it the words of someone in your life.

Sometimes, God uses someone else to get our attention. It might be your parents, setting boundaries and holding you accountable. It might be a spouse, gently urging you to change your ways. It might be your child, asking you why you never have time to play anymore. It might be a friend, who asks the probing questions.

Proverbs 27:6 is a verse we looked at in the Taming the Tongue series, and it’s a good one to remember here. It says:

Wounds from a friend can be trusted,

The question is: do you have someone in your life that you trust enough to let them wound you? Have you given anyone permission to speak the hard truths to you? And if they do: will you listen?

One of the biggest issues in the early church—throughout the period when the New Testament was being written—was whether or not non-Jews—that is to say, Gentiles—could become Christ-followers without also becoming Jewish. It was a huge issue, and most of the letters we have in the New Testament were written in response—at least in part—to this issue.

The question was: is belief in Jesus enough? Did Jesus pay for all our sins on the cross? Or, is it necessary to keep certain laws in addition to following Jesus? There was a group—known as the Judaizers—that insisted that for Gentiles to truly follow Jesus they would have to keep Jewish customs—like circumcision and adherence to the food laws.

It was decided, fairly early on, at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, that it was good and right for Gentiles to follow Jesus and that adherence to the Jewish law was not necessary. And for that we can be thankful, since pretty much all of us here would be considered Gentiles. But the controversy lingered, and it was hard for those who were raised in a strict Jewish culture that considered Gentiles “unclean” to get used to the idea that they could mix freely with them.

So, even Peter, the leader of the disciples who was one of the first to hear God’s call to go to the Gentiles, struggled with this. When it was just him and a group of Gentile believers, he had no problem sitting at a table with them and eating with them and hanging out with them. But when others were around, people with a Jewish background, suddenly Peter would start to ignore his Gentile friends. He’d hang back. He wouldn’t sit with them.

You can picture it sort of like a Junior High lunchroom. Peter didn’t mind hanging with the nerdy kids as long as no one saw him doing it. But as soon as the cool kids walk into the room, suddenly Peter doesn’t notice that empty seat at the Gentile table. He takes his tray and keeps walking.

Well, Paul noticed. And Paul saw that it wasn’t right. So he called Peter out. Galatians 2:11:

11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.

You can about imagine how that must have gone. Peter was an aggressive, impulsive man. Paul doesn’t come across as one who minces words. But there was something Peter was doing that wasn’t right. And Paul called him on it. And Peter listened. God used Paul to wake Peter up. And we can all be grateful, because the gospel might never have made it to us if the Judaizers had had their way.

Kyle Idleman writes:

We all need a friend like that from time to time. A friend who will tell us when we’re neglecting our family for our work. A friend who will say something when our spending gets out of control. A friend who will challenge us to do more than just come to church a few weeks a month. A friend who will question a new relationship we’re beginning. (AHA, p. 40)

Is God using someone right now to get your attention? Are you listening?

**A Sneak Peak of Coming Attractions*8
A third way God might be trying to get your attention is by giving you a sneak peak of what’s in store if you don’t change your ways. We’ll call it a glimpse of future consequences.

Sometimes God gives us a taste of what lies in store for us if we continue down the path we are on: Like the chest pains that hint at what is coming if our diet doesn’t change; or the failed quiz that indicates what our semester grade might look like if we don’t improve our study habits; or the bounced check that can be a warning sign to get our spending under control. God often allows us to experience a sampling of what is coming, if we’ll just pay attention.

Sadly, many of us miss these warning signs. We assume they are just coincidental inconveniences. Or worse, we assume that God has it out for us, that the universe is against us, or that others are to blame. Instead of making the connection between our choices and the consequences we are experiencing, we grumble about how unfair life is.

Sometimes God is sounding sirens and alarms to warn us to turn around, but we ignore them or pretend we don’t hear them. Think about the younger son in Jesus’ story. How many alarms did he miss?

He didn’t hear it when he made his request to his father asking for his share of the inheritance. He was basically saying, “Dad, I can’t wait for you to die. I want the money now.”

He didn’t hear the alarm when, after a few raging weekends in the Distant Country, his wallet felt much lighter.

He didn’t even hear it when a famine swept through the land.

He didn’t hear it when he found himself taking on the job of pig-sitter.

It’s hard not to read this story and ask yourself: “How did he not hear the alarm? How could he sleep through that?” (Idleman, p. 33)

Do people ever look at our lives and wonder the same thing?

In the book of Deuteronomy God tries to get the nation of Israel’s attention by giving them a glimpse of what lies ahead. Near the end of his life, just before the people enter the promised land, Moses has all the people line up on two mountains. Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. And the people on Mount Gerizim are given a list of blessings to read out, while the people on Mount Ebal are given a list of curses. God says, if they obey, they’ll receive the blessings. If they disobey, they will receive the curses. Here’s a sampling of the curses, Deuteronomy 28:15-19:

15 However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:
16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
17 Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.
18 The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
19 You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.

The chapter goes on to talk about their army being defeated and their children being carried into captivity and more. Things which, in fact, eventually happened to Israel after they failed to keep covenant.

The point is: God will give us a taste of what is in store if we continue down the path we are on. The question is: will we listen?

Don’t Do This
Fourth, God might be trying to get your attention by showing you what has happened to others who have travelled a similar path. We’ll call this the example of others before us.

The first murderer in the Bible is a man named Cain, son of Adam and Eve. Cain was a crop farmer, his brother Abel raised livestock. And once, when they both made offerings to the Lord, Cain perceived that God was more pleased with his brother’s offering. So he became jealous and angry.

God warned him not to be angry. God warned him that sin was crouching at the door. But Cain did not master his anger, and in a fit of rage he killed his brother. God marked him, and made him a restless wanderer of the earth.

From that point on, if Cain’s name comes up in scripture, it is as warning to us to not walk the same path. For example, 1 John 3:12:

12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother.

Scripture points to Cain as an example of what will happen if we ignore the alarms and continue on our way to the Distant Country. In fact, the Bible is pretty frank about the sins and failings of its main characters. Those stories are told so that we can see what happens to others who have wandered away from the Father’s House. They are alarms, urging us to come to our senses before we experience the same tragedy.

If you are letting your drinking become habitual, do you notice what happens to those who have been convicted of drunk driving? If you are thinking of cheating on your spouse, have you paid attention to the wreckage in the life of a friend who has had an affair? If you’re thinking about quitting school, have you noticed the struggles of others who never got their diploma? Their experiences can serve as a warning: if you keep going down this path, you are going to end up in the same place.

I read this week about a mass burial that took place in Los Angeles in December of 2015. The ashes of 1,379 bodies were buried. The only thing they had in common was that they all died in 2012 and there was nobody to claim their bodies.

Apparently, every major city in the U.S. has to do this. If you die in any variety of circumstances—

if you kick the bucket at home and you have no family, or if your body is found on a park bench, or if you step in front of a train and no one can recognize your remains — what’s left of you becomes the property of the county where you left this mortal coil.
Your body is found. It is stored. If no one comes forward to claim you, you’ll stay in storage. And you’ll stay in storage. And you’ll stay in storage. Then you’ll be burned and turned to ash. Then you’ll go back to storage. Eventually, the county moves your ashes into a mix with all the ashes of everyone else who died in your same calendar year. You will be anonymous carbon, inseparable from your fellow man, and on a weekday morning you will all be laid to rest in the ground by a few government employees.

As I read about that, it struck me that most of these people represent prodigals who never went back home. That is to say, they lived their lives in such a way that when it was over, they were all alone. “No one gave [them] a thing.” Can you imagine anything more sad than coming to the end of your life and having no one to claim your body?

And yet, there is something even worse: to come to the end of your life and be cut off from God. It would be better to die unknown by every human in Los Angeles than to die unknown by God. But the farther we go into the distant country, the longer we stay there, the greater the chances that we will die friendless and far from God.

Look at the example of these others and take heed.

Is God using the example of someone else to get your attention? Are you listening?

A Prayer for the Sleeping to Wake
Where is God trying to get your attention right now? What habits or patterns of behavior need to change, before you find yourself in a distant country? What alarm is God sounding to wake you up? Are you going to listen, or hit the snooze bar and keep sleeping?

Kyle Idleman ends his chapter on “Coming to your senses” with a prayer for the sleeping to awake. It goes like this:

God, open her eyes, and let her see that though he walked out on her, you will never leave her and she is not alone.

God, open his eyes, so he can see his wife is cold and hard only because she doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable with him.

God, open his eyes that he may see he is living his life to impress others and glorify himself, which leads only to emptiness.

God, open her eyes, and let her see that a beautifully decorated and well-kept house has become more important to her than a joyful and peaceful home.

God, open his eyes, and let him see the single mom who lives next door with a young son who doesn’t know how to throw a football.

God, open our eyes, and let us see the hungry and the hurting living just a few miles down the road.

God, open our eyes, and let us see the pride that has blinded us, the sin that has hardened us, and the lies that have deceived.

Lord, we pray for AHA. Awaken us. (p. 45-46)