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Many Happy Returns

Israel often turned its back on God, but God patiently kept calling his people to return to him. The same applies to us today.

Focus: Though we break our promises to God, he offers forgiveness if we repent.

James Robert Carlton was a fairly successful businessman. His father had been one before him, and he had inherited a great deal of business acumen by helping his father in the family lumber business. Jim's parents were also good people. The family business was closed on Sunday, not because of "blue laws" but because of their own commitment to one day in seven being a day for physical refreshment and spiritual renewal.

When Jim was 8 years old, his parents had him baptized and promised to pray with and for their child and to bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and they did a pretty good job. Theirs was not an overly pious family, but Sunday school and worship were part of their weekly regimen, and family prayers around the breakfast table were short but few verses of Scripture, a short discussion, and a brief prayer about the day's events.

When Jim reached 12 years of age, he went through communicants' class, made his own public profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and he answered yes when asked if he would support the church to the best of his ability by his talents, time, and gifts. When he entered high school, he didn't set any academic records or break any sports records, but he was good, and he lettered in football and baseball.

After graduating, he went to college, majored in business and minored in fun. That was better than some of his classmates, who reversed the priorities.

In his junior year, he met Sally Warren. She was no class beauty, but her spirit of caring, her love of life, and especially her love for Jim hooked him. He fell hard, and they were married three months after they graduated.

At the ceremony, Jim responded with a hearty "I do!" when asked by the minister, "Will you take Sally to be your wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of marriage? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor her, and keep her in sickness and in health? And forsaking all others, will you keep yourself only for her as long as you both shall live?"

Then Jim repeated his vows: "Sally, before God and these witnesses I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, in abundance or in want, in sickness or in health. I will love and cherish you according to God's plan and purpose until death separates us. To that end I pledge you my faithfulness."

Jim's older brother had already entered the family lumber business, so Jim decided on another route. The lumber company carried a modest supply of general hardware items, so Jim's father and brother agreed to break out the hardware trade into a separate company. Jim found himself up to his ears in nuts and bolts, screwdrivers, hammers, electrical tools, and all the other paraphernalia that go with them. He was also up to his eyeballs in debt to the bank. It was a big day when he secured the loan and signed on the dotted line, promising that he would make monthly interest payments and one annual payment on principal. And he loved every minute of it, though he was scared to death.

On Jim and Sally's third wedding anniversary, little Jennifer was born. Neither words nor photographs could capture the joy in Jim's heart as he held his precious child. When Jennifer was 3 months old, Jim and Sally met with the minister and received instruction on the meaning of baptism. The next Sunday, the two of them stood before the congregation reaffirming their faith and promising to teach their child all the principles of our holy religion. T years later they repeated this routine with a son named for his father.

Without either Jim or Sally's realizing it, life was becoming more complicated. Their city was growing. The opportunities for educational and athletic participation for their children were multiplying. Jim was received into the local country club, became the coach of his son's soccer team, and Sally joined a women's study club.

The hardware business provided a comfortable living, but they had to manage around the slow building times carefully. Jim followed his father's habit of keeping the business closed on Sunday, but because he was so tired come Saturday especially if Sally had committed them to a dinner party or to a friend's wedding was easy to get that little bit of extra sleep on Sunday morning.

Then the "blue laws" were repealed. The competition opened at twelve noon on Sunday, and Jim felt that he had to follow suit. This meant greater demands at work, less time for his family, and getting to church for both Sunday school and worship were a luxury that he felt he rarely could afford. Sally would usually take the children to Sunday school, or if she was too tired, grandmother Carlton would come by and pick them up.

After twelve years, life had become a rather predictable routine. Food, sleep, work, coach, occasional church, and rarely a night out with his wife. Come to think about it, why bother? Why bother to take her out? She had gained a little too much weight, and she took him a little too much for granted. And he was noticing how much more attractive some of the younger women were at the country club pool than they used to be. His imagination began to wander with his eyes.

Jim had been asked to join a local civic club, and he never missed. They had strict attendance rules, and if he missed too often, he would be dropped from membership. Then the nominating committee from the church asked him if would serve as a deacon, and he agreed but with some misgivings. How could he make all of the meetings and still do his work?

So life became cluttered, predictable, and boring.

Then Jim's imagination, which had been following his eyes, gave way to action, and he had an affair. When Sally found out about it, she sued for divorce. Then Jim's life, which had been cluttered, predictable, and boring, now became even more cluttered, not quite so predictable, and utterly miserable. In the depths of remorse and depression, he went to see his minister and said, "Preacher, how could my life have gone so wrong?"

How would you have answered Jim?

When God's people turn away, he calls us to return to him.

The land of Palestine used to be a naturally beautiful land, full of variety and incredibly productive. When the nation of Israel occupied it, according to God's promise, it was described as flowing with milk and honey. God had entered into a covenant, an agreement with Abraham. He renewed that agreement with Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. The terms of the agreement were that God would bless Israel, give them a land of their own, protect them from their enemies, give them victory over aggressors, and bless the land with abundant produce. The people's part of the agreement was to honor God, never enter into idolatry, and keep his commandments.

God raised up Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments were the basic moral expectations placed upon the Israelites as their part of the agreement. And Israel prospered as a nation, reaching its political and social high point under the rule of King David.

Solomon had peace during his reign, and he held the kingdom together. He added beauty and culture to the land. But there was one flaw in Solomon's reign: he fell into the trap of Middle Eastern royalty, directly contrary to God's clear prohibition against interfaith marriages, and he married daughters of neighboring monarchs for political reasons. They brought their own religions with them and ended up corrupting Solomon and the people of Israel. Idolatry and strange religious rituals lured the hearts of God's people away from the true God and his commandments. Everything went downhill from there.

So God sent his prophets to call the people back to him and to his covenant. The message of the prophets was sometimes delivered like a preacher speaking to his congregation, and sometimes the prophets would quote God. Listen to Isaiah speaking for God: "I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me. I have redeemed you."

Again, Isaiah looking into the future says, "The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing. Everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away."

Jeremiah picks up the theme: "I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God; for they will return to me with all their heart. Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord."

Hosea continues the theme: "Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us. He has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds."

Listen to Malachi: "Ever since the time of your forefathers, you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. 'Return to me, and I will return to you,' says the Lord."

Do you hear the repeated refrain, the repeated word? Return. Return. Return. Return.

And you know something? Every return was a happy one.

I say happy because that was the end result, though the process of returning may have been emotionally traumatic and led through vales of tears.

The prophet Joel says, "Return to the Lord, for he is gracious and compassionate."

Why? Well, I think Joel puts it most clearly. " 'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.' Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. And he relents from sending calamity."

The occasion for Joel's message was an invasion in the land by a horde of , if you will. And he understood it to be the judgment of God upon the people for their disobedience, because they had forsaken his commandments. They had turned to worshipping idols.

People who have seen a plague of locusts report it is absolutely unbelievable. The sky is literally darkened by the swarming grasshoppers. It is impossible to walk without stepping on them and slipping. They eat every piece of vegetation, and when they have passed through an area, it looks as if fire has burned it, except it is not blackened by ashes. Here's how Joel describes it:

"A nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number. It has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white. What the locust swarm has left, the great locusts have eaten, what the great locusts have left, the young locusts have eaten. And what the young locusts have left, other locusts have eaten. Before them the land is like the Garden of Eden. Behind them a desert waste. Nothing escapes them."

That is exactly how Jim felt about his life. Something had come in and nibbled away at his life and left him utterly desolate. The commitment and the love he had felt for his wife and his children had been thrown away. Most of what he had acquired he lost in the divorce settlement. The momentary excitement that he felt in his adultery had been replaced by a deep sense of guilt. And the good name that he had acquired in the community had been replaced with quiet but deep disapproval and isolation. The locusts of lust had eaten it all.

And Jim wept bitter tears of repentance.

If you will read between the lines of our text, you will see the heartbeat of G heartbeat of God longing for the return of his people: "Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity."

Satan wants us to believe two big lies about God:

There are two big lies that Satan has been perpetrating ever since the Garden of Eden:

1. The first is that God is mean, vindictive, a spoilsport whose main role in life is to keep us from being fulfilled and we step out of bounds, he takes delight in making us pay.

2. The second lie is that God really doesn't care what we doesn't know. And if he does, his business is to forgive us. He'll always forgive no matter what, so it really doesn't make much difference how we live and what we believe.

Most religions err on one side or the other. If you look inside your heart, you may find that you lean one way or the other: "Really doesn't make any difference what I believe or how I live. We don't know what God is like. And if he knows about us, he probably doesn't care. But he probably doesn't know."

Or on the other side, that sense of constant fear that is based upon thinking that God is vindictive, a last thing he wants for us is our happiness.

I find great comfort in the words of the psalmist who said, "The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever. He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities, for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him." And I love this: "For he knows how we are formed, and he remembers that we are but dust."

But the truth is that God longs for the return of his children who wander away.

The heart of God longs for the return of his children who wander from him. When Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost son, he was saying that God is like the shepherd who leaves the in the fold and goes looking for the one that is lost. God is like the woman who loses one of ten coins, and she doesn't rest until she has turned the house upside down to find that one lost coin. God is like the father of the prodigal who rejoices and throws a party when his wandering son comes back home.

Can you feel the heartbeat of God in that? Can you understand what God meant when he asked, " 'Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born? Though she may forget I will not forget you,' says the Lord." The longing of God is that we keep our agreements with him, for he wants to forgive our wanderings and to pour out blessings greater than we could even imagine.

But God doesn't force himself on us. He invites us. He who stands at the door of our hearts knocking will never let himself in. We have to open the door.

When Jim looked back over his life, he was struck by all the agreements he had promises he had made that he hadn't lived up to. The report card of his life was rather dismal.

The agreement that he had made with God when he took Sally as his wife for better or for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, forsaking all others keep yourself only for SallyF.

The covenant that he had made when he stood with Sally and the children in baptism to pray with and for them and to teach them the truths about Christian faith and to live before them an example that will make them want to follow Jesus ChristF.

The vows he had taken when joined the church, vows to support the church by his attendance and his moneyF.

But what promises had he kept?

He kept his promise to the bank to pay his interest and principal.

He kept his promise to the country club to pay his monthly bills on all, the embarrassment of having his name posted when he was delinquent in his dues was pretty strong incentive.

He kept his promise to the civic dub. He was there every week, or he made up his absence in a nearby town.

Suddenly Jim realized where he had gone wrong. His preacher didn't even have to tell him. He had taken seriously only his financial and social obligations. He had not taken seriously his covenant with God. And there in the quietness of his minister's study he wept; he wept tears of remorse and repentance. And he claimed the forgiveness of his heavenly Father. And it was a happy return.

The rest of Jim's life has not yet been written. Will Sally take him back? Will his children love him again? When a person sows wild oats, God doesn't usually cause a crop failure. But at least Jim has returned to where he should have been in his relationship to God. There are some things about our past we simply can't can't unscramble eggs. But you can start where you are and go back to God and to the promises that you had made.

Where are you in your relationship to this heavenly Father, who wants so badly to bless you beyond all human imagination?

(c) B. Clayton Bell

Preaching Today Tape #212


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B. Clayton Bell, Sr. is pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas.

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Sermon Outline:


I. When God's people turned away, he called them to return

II. The prophet Joel says, "Return to the Lord, for he is gracious and compassionate."

III. Satan wants us to believe two big lies about God

IV. But the truth is God longs for the return of his children who wander away