Archive for April, 2012

When God Leads Us Where We Do Not Want To Go

April 29, 2012

We are currently living in the in between time between Jesus’s resurrection on Easter Sunday and his eventual ascension back to heaven. One of the conversations that Jesus had with Peter during this time is recorded by John at the end of his gospel. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him. Peter seems hurt that Jesus would have to ask the same question three times. Jesus tells Peter three times – if you love Me, feed My sheep. And then in John 21:18-19, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this He said to him, “Follow Me.”

I have been wondering lately what this verse means for us today. Obviously we are not Peter. Our deaths may be different from Peter’s death. But, do we find ourselves in situations where God is leading us where we do not want to go? How can that be a part of the good news? This does not sound like one of Jesus’ happier sayings! This rubs against us Americans. We have grown up in a culture that places high value on freedom, self-determination, and the “right” to have many different options to choose from. There is a strand of anti-authoritarianism in our culture. We don’t like people telling us what to do. We rebel against that. We have commercials that lift up the value of having “no rules, no boundaries”. Could it really be possible that the Holy Spirit might lead us where we do not want to go? Would God’s will really ever be different from my will? Would Jesus really send me into a situation that I didn’t want to be in? What does the Bible say?

In Genesis, we read about Joseph, whose brothers sold him to a passing caravan. He became a slave and was carried off to Egypt, thinking he would never see his family again. I don’t think that was where he wanted to go. But, many years later, when he was finally reunited with his brothers, Joseph said, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8) and “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

In the book of Jonah, we read how God called Jonah to go to Nineveh. But, Jonah didn’t want to go there, so he turned around and went in the opposite direction. Eventually, and reluctantly, he finally gave in to God, and went where he did not want to go. In the 23rd Psalm, we read “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, and “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” These are both places I don’t want to go. I don’t want to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I don’t want to sit down and eat a meal with my enemies. I don’t want to go there.

In the New Testament, immediately after Jesus’ baptism, Mark 1:12-13 says that “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on Him.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, right before His crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not what I want, but what You want.” (Matt. 26:39). Sometimes God leads us where we don’t want to go.

Sometimes we look around at our culture, our country, or our world, and we don’t always like the direction we seem to be going. We think to ourselves: I don’t want to go there. We look at our congregations, and we see the changes that are taking place, and some of us think: I don’t want to go there. We see how our presbytery is shifting or how our denomination is changing, and some of us think: I don’t want to go there. What do we do when this happens? Do we get angry and mean-spirited and cause trouble? Do we get sad, depressed, and discouraged? Or do we ask ourselves what God is up to in the midst of the disruption? Do we cannibalize and attack each other out our anxiety and fear? Or do we go deeper into prayer and the historic spiritual disciplines of the church? One of the recommendations of our Reformed tradition is that we would “actively concur, passively submit, or peaceably withdraw.” We are to consider the peace, unity, and purity of the church, and seek to discern what God wants us to do in the midst of some difficult and confusing times. How are we to behave in trying times, so that we can still be a witness for Jesus Christ?

In speaking about Jesus, Hebrews 5:8 reminds us that “although He was a Son, He learned obedience through the things that He suffered.” As Eugene Peterson says, perhaps this is part of the “long obedience in the same direction”. Philippians 2:1-11 reminds us of the humility of Christ, Who did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, was born in human likeness, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

So, like Peter, I believe that there will be times when God will lead us where we don’t want to go. We won’t always know why God is doing that. We don’t always know what God is up to. God’s ways are higher than our ways and we won’t always understand why we have to endure what we do. But, each time we do, it stretches our faith a little bit more. It enables us to learn to trust God a little bit more. We become a little more compassionate to the suffering of others. We become a little more like Christ. And after all, that is the goal of our lives – to become more like Christ. Can we learn to see the hand of God at work when we are being led where we do not want to go? To Him be the praise and the power and the glory forever. Amen.


I err therefore I am

April 4, 2012

Walking The Road To Emmaus

April 2, 2012

What would it be like to invest every minute of every day for three years in something, only to watch it all collapse before your very eyes? Have you ever given yourself to a higher cause, a noble venture, or a key initiative, only to see someone or some group come along and eliminate everything you have done? Have you ever had that empty, helpless feeling that something you care very deeply about is falling apart and you are absolutely helpless to prevent it from happening?

I think that is how the first Easter Sunday might have begun for the two disciples who were walking on the road to Emmaus. They had walked away from family, friends, and jobs to follow Jesus of Nazareth. They had spent every waking minute of every day for the last three years following Jesus wherever He went. But now, He was gone. He had been crucified, killed, and buried. Their opponents put together a plan to remove Jesus and they had succeeded. He was forcefully taken from them and they had been powerless to stop it. Everything they had worked on for the last three years had been washed away like a sandcastle that falls apart when the wave comes onto the shore. They had nothing to show for their lives. Nothing from the last three years was left standing, except for that empty, sinking feeling inside that asked, “What went wrong? What happened? What the heck do we do now?”

As we walk through Holy Week this week, we are reminded of how hard the Christian life can be. We are reminded how fragile life is and how quickly the tide can turn. We live in a world of discontinuous change, where things can change dramatically and overwhelmingly with only a moment’s notice. We don’t always see it coming. Much of life is beyond our control. And we are pushed into a reactive position, trying to catch up to life-altering events that we didn’t anticipate. We wonder if there is any security in our world anymore? In the last 50 years, some North Americans have been able to achieve job security, financial security, and retirement security. So much of that seems to be disappearing today, like water slipping through our fingers. Where can we find security these days? How can we live in hope?

As the two disciples walked down the road to Emmaus, Jesus joined them, although they weren’t able to recognize Him at first. He asked them why they were so downcast. They asked him if he was the only one in the area who hadn’t heard of the events of the recent days, sounding like people who had just had the wind knocked out of them. They told him that they had hoped that this Jesus of Nazareth would be the one to set them free. But, then they watched all of their hopes evaporate on the cross. “Had hoped” is past tense. They used to have hope. Their hope had passed. It was behind them. Hope was not a part of their present tense and they couldn’t see how hope could ever be a part of their future tense. But, they were mistaken.

As Jesus began to walk them through the scriptures and open their eyes once again to the teachings of the law and the prophets, a miracle began to happen. Hope began to return. Their cold hearts were warmed. They began to walk with a spring in their step. The words of the scriptures began to lift them out of their depression in a way that they did not think was possible. When finally their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus, their whole attitude changed.

They had failed to understand what God was up to in their world. They didn’t understand how God could allow the tide of public opinion to turn against Jesus in just one week. They didn’t understand what God was doing as Jesus hung on the cross and died. They didn’t realize what God was doing on Saturday, as they mourned and grieved the loss of a loved one Who had meant the world to them. But, now their eyes were opened to a new reality that God was birthing right in front of them. It was not something they could have even begun to imagine just two days before. They had no frame of reference, no paradigm, or no previous experience to compare it to. They could not have anticipated what God was going to do next. All they could do was watch and marvel as it began to unfold.

Easter is the key, pivotal day in all of Christian history. It is the day that changed everything that has happened since. Easter is a day that fills us with hope and joy. But, it is born out of great pain and discouragement. It is a hope that replaces our hopelessness. Our sorrow is turned to joy. Our discouragement is replaced with a new imagination. And we realize that God can redeem every single person who responds to His Son Jesus Christ. It’s not about what we can accomplish. It’s because of what we are unable to accomplish. Sometimes all we can do is keep our eyes open, keep our ears open, and discover what God is up to. God can redeem every broken situation, every broken relationship, and every broken heart, if we will walk the road with Jesus and listen as He explains life to us in new ways.

The joy of Easter does not come to us out of a vacuum. It is not an unrealistic, pollyanna, “let’s just hope things will get better” holiday. The good news of Easter is rooted in the real, ordinary, everyday world that we all live in. It emerges in the places we do not expect. It redeems situations that we believe are unredeemable. It is a deep, profound change that can impact us for the rest of our lives. Every one of us can experience Easter. It is the good news that we did not think was possible. Hallelujah.