If God is what you describe him to be, if God is so huge and powerful and capable and loving and caring and concerned and involved and all of these other attributes of God, if God is this kind of God, then why does he treat the world like he treats it? Why doesn't God do something about the spot we're in? Why doesn't God come down and solve some of these problems that they keep telling us about on these television telethons? Doesn't he understand anything about the creeping Sahara? Doesn't he grasp the medical problems connected with Muscular Dystrophy? Doesn't he have any compassion for children caught in leukemia? Do we have to wait for Jerry Lewis to do God's work? Who is this God? Why doesn't he do some things? And I think the people with whom we work, secular people, some of them not evil people, some of them are unable to jump across that fence to believe in our God because there is a sense in which to jump over that very great ethical fence simply to save their soul is a kind of selfishness they cannot personally stomach. And so they live longingly desiring to know God but feeling they aren't going to condemn the rest of the world just to save their own soul.
I personally feel that the question is attacked with greatest insight in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Now I say that Luke 15 speaks to this very large question I pose, and I say it speaks as you see it as a unity. Now I wouldn't ask you to start a new denomination on this particular idea. But the idea is this, that I think Luke 15 is better understood as one parable than it is understood as three parables. We've all heard messages on the lost coin or the lost sheep or the prodigal son. In fact, probably the prodigal son is one of the most common figures of speech in all the language of the earth. You can just read in a sentence in a piece of literature the word the prodigal and you understand that…you get a whole message there. It's understood almost universally worldwide. But the chapter does begin by saying "And Jesus spoke this parable unto them saying," and then he told three stories.
Now, "suppose a man," it says, "had 99 or a 100 sheep and he left 99 in the wilderness and he discovers that one is lost. He searches for this lost lamb." I suppose every church in the world has a piece of religious art some place in it where there is a picture of a man reaching down into a hole to pull a sheep up with a crooked stick. Children have pictures in their minds of a sheep over a man's shoulder and so on. This story of the lost sheep is very familiar.
Then I think probably the less familiar of the three stories is the story about the lady. Some commentators feel that it was actually a necklace, even perhaps a headband. It had 10 pieces or silver coins in it. She lost one piece of it making the rest of the necklace of the headband, perhaps, of less or no value. She looked all over the house, lit a candle, looked under the furniture, found the thing, put it back where it belonged, called her neighbors together and the neighbor ladies had kind of a little coffee klatch and were grateful that she had found this piece of jewelry.
Then the longest story and the most familiar, the story is about a man who has two sons. And in essence, the younger son says to his father, "I know someday the inheritance is going to be mine. But it's unfortunate that these inheritances usually come after we're too burned out to enjoy them, so would you give it to me now while I still got enough pizzazz to use it?" And the father whether wisely or not gives the inheritance to the boy in his youth, and the boy goes off into a far country, wastes the money, makes a fool of himself, and yet the father stays home.
The sheep's lost; the shepherd goes out and at the risk of his own brings it back. Coin's lost; the lady searches for it until she finds it and puts it where it belongs. The boy's lost, and the father stays home. Is a lost sheep more lost than a lost boy? I don't think so. Is a lost coin more valuable than a lost boy? Then why when a boy is lost do you let him be lost and when a sheep is lost you hunt for him and when a coin is lost you put it back in the box? I think in answer to that question is a very much larger idea, and it's probably something that's practiced by virtually ever parent in this room.
I've talked to many thousands of parents in my lifetime, and the great concern that most parents have is something like this: If I put too much pressure on this boy, tighten the thumbscrews down too tightly is it going to create a compressed situation and he's going to react? And is he going to throw over the traces, and am I going to lose him? Or if, on the other hand, I don't tighten it down tightly enough and I tend to be indulgent, will I be guilty of contributing to his delinquency? And I think all parents live in that tremendous tension; but they understand something very deeply, and that is, there is a difference between a sheep and a coin and a boy. And the difference is an inanimate object like a coin has no will toward its destiny. A sheep is an animal. By definition, I think one could say an animal is something that is pawn to its environment. A human being manipulates his environment toward social ends and personal ends. But an animal can't do that.
When a boy is lost a father knows there are certain limitations to what he could actually achieve with it. For instance, this father has money. He has servants, for instance. Later he calls them into the story.
Now he could have said, "Hey, I made a mistake. I gave the boy the money, sent him to the far country. I'm getting news back he's making a fool of himself and everybody else. I want you to do this. Big servant, I want you to get some of the boys, go down to the far country, and get junior and bring him back home." "Fine, we'll do it." They go down, they find this fine Jewish boy in this pigpen feeding pigs, in fact, envying pigs. He wants to eat what the pigs are eating. So the big servant grabs him by the wrist and he puts his wrist behind his back, shoves it up between his shoulder blades and says, "You're coming him, junior."
And he marches him home. "Wait till your dad gets a hold of you." Brings him in the house, shoves him in the living room and Dad says, "Look at you. Good Jewish boy, you smell like a pig. I tell you what you're going to do. I'm going to put you in your back bedroom and you're going to sit on the edge of the bed, and you're going to think about it. You sit there and you think about what you have done. And when you are ready to get out of that bedroom and play right, you come out of there and tell me how sorry you are you've wasted your whole inheritance."
The boy's put in the back bedroom, sits on the edge of the bed. You know boys. He sits there and he says, "Son of a gun. Dad's right. Yes, sir, I wasted it all. And, boy, I'm a fool. I need to really straighten." Not the boys I know. He sits on the edge of the bed. Just like my dad. Just about the time I was going to make it big in pigs. I was going to be the Oscar Meyer of the far country. I was going to be Jimmy Dean. I was going to sell sausages all over the world. You just wait till I get out of this bedroom. I'll do what I want to do because I want to do it, and he's not going to make me do what I don't want to do.
So fathers, most of them, are smart enough to understand that. This picture is a figure of the relationship of God to man. That is, the God we talked about. Here is the picture. God made the heavens and the earth. There is the biggest statement in literature. He made the earth, one of the planets around a very inferior star. On this little dust speck that compares as favorably to all the rest of the planets as one grain of sand to all the sands of all the beaches of all the earth lives these little creatures, and they're running all over the place.
Now, what do you suppose God, who made the heavens and the earth, will do to someone who says, "I'll do what I want to do because I want to do it, and you just quit bothering me? But the point is he doesn't do that, for some reason. You can say, "I'll do what I want to do because I want to do it" and what does God do? He lets us alone. Why? There's a difference between sheep and coins and men.
The created world glorifies God. For instance, in our part of the country we have a lot of rain. The rain, through the law of gravity, falls to the earth. Through the business of absorption it goes into the earth, percolates down into the earth and comes in contact with a little membrane that surround the rootlets on the trees. Through the process of absorption it goes into those and through capillary action, it capillates its way up into the tree and out into the leaves. This is going on right now while we're here. Now these trees are out there glorifying God. They are in the morning before you even get up they are doing this thing called photosynthesis. The sun comes up and their leaves keep turning toward it. You don't notice this, but they do this. While they're doing that simultaneously while rubbing their stomach and patting their head they are doing something called the carbon dioxide cycle. We are busy taking in oxygen and corrupting it into carbon dioxide. They are out there breathing in carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen. They give it back; we give it back to them. We're cooperating with these trees doing a thing called the carbon dioxide cycle. This glorifies God. It's a beautiful thing to observe. In fact, if you go to a college campus you can find ten professors in the science department to sponsor an InterVarsity or a Campus Crusade club for every one you can find in the social sciences, because they've watched this and it glorifies God.
You take a telescope and you look at the heavens. It's not just kind of a random thing up there like I toss a bunch of balls in the air in the lottery. Men guide ships by these stars. In the morning, it actually isn't this way, but for we laymen, the sun comes up in the east; it goes down in the west. We don't up in the morning and say, "I wonder where it will be today?" Or we have summer followed by fall followed by winter followed by spring followed by summer followed by fall, and we've gotten used to that. We don't say two springs, four summers, throw in a winter, throw in another spring.
In fact, you can go down inside yourself and there are little armies of antibodies waiting to attack the enemy when he comes into your body, and they run over and they attack him. And they throw their little bodies on him and they commit suicide on top of him, and they kill him and they protect you, and you are well. There's a wellness machine in man. In fact, the miracle is wellness. It's a fantastic thing happening inside. All this glorifies God.
The macrocosm glorifies God. The microcosm glories God. The laws of physics glorify God. But in his creation on this dust speck there are a group of beings who are able to stand in the midst of it all and say I'll do what I want to do because I want to do it. Now why do they get to do that? Why doesn't he make them do like the trees? A tree doesn't sit there and say I am sick and tired of carbon dioxide. I will not participate in the carbon dioxide cycle. No sirreee! I'm tired of people. They expect me to do it with smog all over you, and I won't do it. A tree cannot refuse to do this. Now supposing God begins to treat people like trees and you and I had strings on us and we became puppets or automatons. What happens? Suddenly he has blurred the distinction between sheep and coins and men. Man has not distinction.
God has created man in his own image and has taken a fantastic risk, apparently, in doing this in that he has voluntarily limited himself in direct proportion to how much freedom he's given to man. Now in the economy of doing this, apparently, God restrains himself from stirring in the pot and allows us to operate with moral principles. In fact, he makes us in his redemptive and creative process for some larger reason than we understand, and restrains himself from reaching down and doing things and stirring and, thus, turning us into automatons because something in the nature of the hierarchy of value says that voluntary allegiance is of greater value than compulsory allegiance.
Love is voluntary and reciprocal, and there is no human pain really like offering it and having it rejected. Love is a powerful thing and on this hierarchy I speak of it's such a high thing and it's voluntary, but it's worth so much that one voluntary response called love brings more joy to the human spirit than all of the slavery the world's ever known. All the poets try to get a hold of it. All the songwriters try to get hold of it because it is such a marvelous thing when one says to someone I love you. But it's a tremendous thing but you cannot force it on someone. In fact, in all languages, in the English language the ugliest word, the most obscene words are opposite of love. There is no obscenity that can be perpetrated on another human being so great as the obscenity of forcing oneself on someone else. Rape, assault are the ugliest words and the ugliest acts that human beings are capable of because they violate the difference between sheep and coins and men. God will not do that to the human race. He is bigger than us. He is more powerful than us.
A couple of Thanksgivings ago we were invited to the White House for Thanksgiving dinner. Little place dropping, little namedropping. I bought myself a new suit. Choose one that was just like my regular suit, but I bought another one. I didn't want any shine on the knees. I bought new shoes, shined my shoes. And I practiced. "Mr. President." I want my hands dry. So I keep wiping my hands and saying I'm next. And they got a guy there who stands next to the President and whispers in his ear "This is Joe Shmoe from Kokomo." And then he says, "Hi, Joe Shmoe." And you ? this guy with the notebook. But, anyway, we're going through this, and so I get myself all ready. What do I do? I say, "Hello, Mr. President." I sound like Mickey Mouse.
Let me tell you. If meeting a mere President will bend a grown man so out of shape he acts like Donald Duck, what do you suppose would happen to human beings if God started lighting up your bedpost and talking to you? You would turn into something worse than a sheep or a coin.
I believe in these stories we have the beginning or the glimpses of the fact that God is carrying on in the human project a value system that cannot be carried on with inanimate objects and with animals. It has to be carried on with equals, people who are made in the image of God and can reciprocate voluntarily their love. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." He does not have a battering ram knocking down the door of our life. He doesn't force his way in. We have the picture in the Bible of God himself, hat in hand, knocking at our door, seeking entrance by our permission.
Now in this particular story this father understands this principle, and so he waits. And there's some indication that he waits and looks down the road to see the boy, looks for the boy. At a certain point the boy does what? He comes to himself. He sees what the difference is between living in the far country and living at home under his father's roof, and he says I will arise, I will go to my father and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee." Which is true. "I am no more worthy to be called they son," probably true. "Make me as one of thy hired servants." Good groveling statement, religious sounding.
He starts home on his own. Scripture says his father sees him when he's yet a great way off. And what happens? The father runs down the road to meet him. The father runs down the road to meet him. He throws his arms around him. He kisses him. The boy starts to do his speech. "I have sinned against heaven and before thee." True. Then the father interrupts him in the middle of his speech. He isn't interested in his groveling little statement Make me as one of thy hired servants. Turn me into nothing. I'm a worm. Step on me. No interest in that. He's saying, "Listen. Get a robe. Put a robe on the boy. Put a robe on the boy. Get a ring. There's no ring on his finger. Go out and kill Spotty and let's have a party because my boy is home." I mean, that's the most tremendous idea.
In fact, the story ought to be called "The Waiting Father" not the Prodigal Son. It's a story about the Father. The Father… We must help our neighbors to understand that God has given us a terrible freedom, a marvelous freedom. The songwriters when they wrote about this freedom, they understood it because if you resist turning him into a sheep or a coin, he is capable of acts so hurtful there is no sheep, elephant, rhinoceros, chimpanzee who can do what human beings can do with the freedom.
I raised a grand champion spotted Poland China Barrow for the Indiana State Fair. A hog. If you want to go with me to New York City and walk through Times Square, I will show you things that will embarrass a barrow hog. They won't do that with each other.
Why does God let us do it? Because he looks down at us and realizes there's a capacity for something greater than inanimate world, all the sun and the stars. Now what's he going to do with all of that? He's going to some day wrap all of that up like an old garment and put it away. But you and I are going to live for all of eternity because we're qualitatively different than sheep and coins, and God wants to relate to us voluntarily and reciprocally. And so valuable is that relationship that God himself runs down the road to throw his arms around any man who even makes a move.
I was watching a Walt Disney television show. They were showing us the animals of Africa on the Veldt. They are in this helicopter showing us all these animals, and they're fantastic. This herd of rhinos is running along, and they're saying, "The rhino weighs two tons. She carries her young for twenty years." But these rhinos are seeing this helicopter coming down and so they're running just terrified.
This one rhino breaks off from the other rhinos, kind of an independent thinker, and he takes off on his own. The Disney people chase this one independent rhino. And they're down just four or five feet above the poor guy, and they're talking about him. He's looking up, running like mad. He runs through this hedge. There's this big hedge. He landed in this bog, and he was helpless.
The Disney people aren't without conscience. So they got out of their helicopter and radioed a 4 drive. And these Africans arrive with the Land Rover with this winch. The Disney people are taking pictures of this whole thing, and the African people made a lasso like cowboys use, only they made this out of like 3/8" cable. These Africans are trying to put this over the rhino. The rhino is really mad and he's scared. The more he churns, the deeper he gets. The deeper he gets, the more frightened he becomes. The more frightened he becomes, the more he churns. The more he churns the deeper he goes. And they show in this reduced film where they clip it all together they show a whole rhino disappear below the mud. And they last thing they show is his head. In fact, he has done so much throwing of his head that it was dry right around his head. And the last thing we saw is his nostrils disappear below this.
Now when I saw that I thought What a picture of mankind. He's powerful. He's got muscles. He can make jet airplanes. He can make atomic bombs. He can make penicillin. Tremendous animal to look at him. But they're caught in a moral bog. And God says you're in that moral bog because you have chosen to disobey, and you've run into this. You've gone into the far country. And God says Let me offer you this cable. And the picture is God is offering the help, but man has to…Why does he have to? Why doesn't God do it? Because there's a difference between sheep and coins and men. And if we destroy that difference, we destroy the human project.
Luke 15 helps us with that question. It doesn't solve it, but it helps me. If you are not reciprocating, dear friends, he's not trying to scare you. I would encourage you to find a place where you say, dear God, thank you for not making me a sheep and thank you for not making me a coin or a rock or a tree. And, dear God, help me to exercise. I want my faith to reach out to you. That's all you can do. "For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourself. It's a gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast." God will come whatever distance he needs to come to meet you there.