sermon

Searching the Wilderness

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

March 31, 2019

Text: Luke 15:4, O.T.: Joshua 5:9-12, N.T.: Luke 15:1-10

Near the tenth hole on Meadowink Golf Course outside Murrysville sits a stone monument. It marks the location of a log house that stood during the Revolutionary War. The log house had been owned by Michael Rugh.

In 1778, it was burned by Indians loyal to the British. Michael, his wife Phoebe, their four-year old daughter Mary, and an infant named George, were captured. The house had sat alone in the wilderness of Franklin Township. Settlers called the wilderness of Penns Woods the “Great Foreboding.”

It was time when mothers tied their children in bed so they could enter the virgin timber alone to find the family cow for their children’s breakfast milk. There were no fences. Nor were there neighbors to show the women where the cow had traveled. Mothers listened for the cow bell in the Great Foreboding. Their husbands were away hunting and trapping for the coming winter.

During this era, marriage was debated by colonial legislators as settlers tried to make families when the only people around were other family members. There was no militia in the wilderness of Pennsylvania’s frontier – no police to keep law and order. There was only the church, and there were few of them. Only one tenth of Pennsylvania’s frontier families were church members.

In the great wilderness were mountain lions, wolves, bears, and marauding Indians. Kidnapping was routine in the woods. Indian warriors took colonists to Canada for ransom.

The story of Michael and Phoebe Rugh, and their children is one of the great stories from Pennsylvania’s frontier. They were dragged with their daughter north into Upper New York, and across the St. Lawrence River. Their baby boy was snatched by a squaw in the war party never to be seen again.

They were separated after entering Canada. Michael served in a British barracks while Phoebe worked for a French lady. Their daughter Mary was taken from them and given to an Indian squaw. For three years the Rughs prayed for God’s help until they paid their ransom.

Michael sent his wife back across the St. Lawrence to safety. Then he went on a trek. He searched Indian village after Indian village after Indian village, looking for their daughter Mary.  He never gave up the search. His passion to find his seven-year daughter was endless.

He prayed. He cried. He forced himself to believe against doubt that God would reunite them. For six months he walked Canada’s wilderness. He followed hunches, reports, anything that might help him find his daughter.

God has the same devotion to find the lost. He is so deeply passionate about finding those lost in the wilderness that He commissioned His only Son to enter the wilderness to search for us. Christ put aside His own life to hunt in the darkness of the Great Foreboding for the one who is lost.

Jesus is relentless. He never gives up. He pursues us when we’re unaware of His nearness. He searches for us when we’re beyond reach. His heart is so full of us that He forgets about the danger involved in the search. He risks everything to recover us for His Father.

I’m sure you feel we’re safe in civilization. We’re surrounded by people. We’re connected to each other by roads, bridges, Iphones, Ipads. We’re protected by law and order, the world’s strongest government, the mightiest military in human history, the greatest technology of the human race.

We don’t need Christ to pursue us. There’s no wilderness for Him to search. We’re safe in the land of plenty.

Really?

Here’s a father who hasn’t heard from His children for years. There are parents with children on drugs. There’s a youngster who’s invested in athletic competition on Sundays. There’s a teenager playing violent games on X-Box, listening to anarchist music that promotes death and destruction.

Here’s a man whose life is making money without loving relationships. There’s a woman who’s obsessed with her appearance with no time for genuine care for others. Here’s a man perpetually gambling his life away. There’s a woman wed to incessant running regardless of the cost to her family. There’s no time for God, Christ, companionship with others in prayer and fellowship, or offering a helping hand.

All of them live in the modern wilderness – lost from their families, lost to faith, hope, and love, lost to humility and gratitude to God.   They’ve traveled into the Great Foreboding where they’re surrounded by death but are oblivious to it. They’re addicted to the adrenalin high of doing what God forbids.

Parents grieve their lost children. Grandparents wonder what happened to their grandchildren in the wilderness of America’s modern frontier. Generations are kidnapped by war parties of marketers and consumer promoters that carry them away from the God-given blessing of families into which they were born, and faith communities into which they were baptized.

Friends, there are millions of Mary Rughs around us. Each of them has a story, a past, a world of God’s love that they have left. God is giving them challenges, threats, obstacles, opportunities to encourage them to find their way back home from the wilderness. But they remain lost.

Some are living as slaves in foreign villages. Others are controlled by aliens who confiscated them from their families. Others are wandering – forever wandering – not knowing who they are, where they’re going, or what will become of them. They’re consuming each moment with an insatiable appetite for excitement without sensing time is slipping away from God’s purpose for them.

These are God’s children. So why do we as His community, His family of faith, live as if their situation is hopeless? Why do congregations give up their pursuit of the lost? Why do we count the cost of relentlessly pursuing these lost children of God’s family and believe it’s too expensive for us to be personally involved?

Why are we looking into the dark wilderness about us and remaining safe in the sanctuary of God’s house? Why are we afraid of reaching the lost? Why is this not the passion of every church member of Jesus Christ across this American wilderness?

We’re not alone in the wilderness. Jesus Christ is with us in the wilderness aiding us in the search. He is guiding us and protecting us as we look for the signs the lost leave behind for us to find them.

Here is a broken branch, there is a piece of cloth, there are footprints, here is a person with knowledge of the whereabouts of the person God is pursuing.

Michael Rugh could never have found his daughter if he had been afraid of searching the wilderness. Nor could he have found his seven-year-old if he had succumbed to hopelessness – that God wasn’t invested in reaching Mary, that God wouldn’t help Michael in the search.

Phoebe Rugh would never have permitted her husband to search for their precious child if she had believed his efforts were hopeless.

Both of these Christians entered the wilderness of Pennsylvania’s frontier relying on their faith in God. This husband and this wife knew that God was in the wilderness with them. Jesus Christ was their companion in the wilderness, their strength in the wilderness, their guide in the wilderness.

Those who believe in God aren’t afraid to search for the lost. Those who know Jesus Christ’s relentless pursuit for the lost will never give up searching the wilderness for the lost. They will leave the protection of God’s sanctuary and enter the Great Foreboding with courage – determined to find the lost.

It’s our duty. It’s God’s purpose for us that drives us to find the lost.

Christ has pursued us to bring us back to the home of His sanctuary. He has commanded us to do likewise. We are to search the wilderness with Him.

America may seem civilized. But it’s a cultural wilderness where people need a savior. They need Jesus’ men and women to look for them. They need followers of Jesus to be convicted about saving the lost. The need disciples who know Jesus to measure their lives and determine that no matter how old they are, they have a mission with which Christ has commissioned them.

If you’re lacking courage, Jesus Christ will provide it. If you’re lacking strength, don’t look for it in yourself. Your strength is Jesus Christ. He will give you what you need. If you don’t know where to look, the needy and lost are all around you. Stop ignoring them.

If you don’t know what to say, let Jesus be your spokesman. He has given you His Word. Let His words speak for what needs to be said. Study His Word so that you are ready to share what He has to say that saves another’s life.

I have had times in my life when God sent someone into the wilderness into which I had wandered. If it hadn’t been for someone commissioned by Jesus who was committed to search the wilderness for the lost, I wouldn’t be here before you today.

And frankly, neither would any of us. We are all here because someone was committed to search the wilderness so they could give us the Word of Life in Jesus Christ!

Amen.

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