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The Path of Life

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay P. Rowland on the second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017 at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN, Confirmation Sunday.  Scripture texts: 1 Peter 1:3-9 and Psalm 16.

The Path of Life

Once upon a time, a man was driving through Oregon when he found himself suddenly overtaken by a powerful winter storm.

Frightened and concerned he wondered what to do.

Just then, a snowplow approached and he impulsively decided to follow it.  He kept as close to it as he could while it removed snow from the road. At times the heavy snowfall nearly cut off his view, but he managed to keep following the snowplow.

After some time, the plow pulled over and stopped.

The driver got out and walked over to the man’s car.

“Sir, where are you going?” the plow driver asked.

“I’m on my way to Central Oregon,” he replied.

“Well, you’ll never get there following me. I’m plowing this parking lot.”

********

This story illustrates how vulnerable we are to fear and stress distorting and impacting our decisions which may lead us in the wrong direction or keep us going in circles and getting nowhere.

If only we could be calm and think clearly whenever we find ourselves in a stressful or frightening situation.  I suppose training and practice can enhance a person’s ability to think clearly under duress—examples include first responders and soldiers training for combat.  People can and do learn how to stay calm and think clearly in crisis.  But even the best trained and equipped people will hit a wall.  All human beings have limits and so I’m sure there are situations that overwhelm even the best-trained people.

Today we recognize and celebrate the confirmation class of 2017.  I’m thinking about how it is we can meet trouble with calm because we celebrate their beginning today.  My prayer is that each person in this class will develop a trust in Jesus Christ that’s able to withstand the most stressful, the most frightening, the most awful situations they may encounter in their lifetime.

I know we all want this for them—just like we do for one another.  But today of all days, as we celebrate the beginning their walk of faith, it’s especially true.  And it’s heavy on my heart and in my mind today.

When I think about situations I’ve faced just in the past few years (to say nothing of the difficulties and challenges since I started following the Lord) I’m astounded at how I made it through.  It was my relationship with the Lord that sustained me.  More precisely the Lord carried me and delivered me; I clung to Him and to His promises.  I didn’t “do” anything or experience anything “special”.  But like everyone, situations came my way that were overwhelming.  I was lost in the chaos and the uncertainty that came with it … with intense grief and loss.  O when I think of all that, I want so desperately to be able to give to these “kids” a persistent faith in the Lord, a relationship with the Lord they’ll rely on and turn to when life turns on them.

And yet I know that I can’t give that to any of them.  We all want what’s best for each of these confirmands.  We all want them to have a robust relationship with the Lord.  But that’s not something we can give.  Each person must develop their own relationship with the Lord.  All we can do is make sure we’re working on our own while we give them the freedom to meet the Lord in their own way and time, trusting the Lord in that process too.  They’re just getting acquainted with the idea of faith, what it requires and involves, what it means to trust the Lord.  How to “let go and let God” without being passive or utilizing “magical thinking”.

Whether or not any of them will ever develop a persistent relationship with Jesus is yet to be determined.  They’ve only just begun.  We support them. We pray for them.  We love them along the way.  But ultimately, whether or not faith takes hold and takes root for them is not up to us.

Which leads me to say that there’s only one problem I’ve found with “following Jesus”:

the lack of a well-marked, maybe even a literal “path” to look for and step onto.

If only, right? For all of us!

If only there were a clear, well-marked, easy-to-recognize “path” for us to take which keeps close to the Lord then we’d all breathe a bit easier.  And while we’re on that path, if only there was also a way to keep us from going astray.

But that’s just not how it goes

Believing in God and following Jesus doesn’t guarantee nothing bad will happen to us.  I suspect that’s when so many believers decide to go it alone, reject God, reject faith, reject the church, and decide never to trust God or “religion” ever again (or anyone for that matter).

The good news in all of this is that God understands how difficult life can be.  That’s why God acted decisively to come into this life and this world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  And so because God loves us SO MUCH that God decided to join us, it matters not whether or not we somehow keep on the narrow path with Jesus, because Jesus will divert from that path himself in order to stay close to us.  Indeed, as the Apostles’ Creed proclaims, Jesus descended into hell.  Jesus will go wherever we are in order to be with us!

Hear again the witness of the Apostle Peter that TJ read for us earlier. You remember Peter, the one who DENIED JESUS! Peter assures us that

[God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.  (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Let’s linger for a moment on a couple of key words/terms Peter mentions:

Living hope: Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, hope is forever alive as long as we live this life.  If we lose hope, there is always someone else nearby who can and will keep hoping for us when we can’t hold onto hope ourselves.  This is the gift of the community of faith.  In community we are more than we can ever be alone.

Inheritance is not something we get because we asked for it, an inheritance is something that is given to us.  Peter’s testimony is that enduring faith is the key to receiving the inheritance promised to us.  Our inheritance is RESURRECTION and, because of that, HOPE.  Hope which is held in common, in trust, by the community of faith.

Furthermore, resurrection our inheritance is kept in heaven for us until it’s our turn, ever ready to be revealed even at the last possible moment (“in the last time” v.5).  Between now and then, it shall remain imperishable, indestructible, undeniable, unfading. Between now and then, in the meantime, the promise is that you and I, we are being PROTECTED by the POWER OF GOD!

Peter is saying (and he should know!) that God’s love for us will always make a way, no matter what we do or don’t do.  Our human failures, our poor decisions and choices made during crisis are assumed by God’s plan of salvation.  A plan of salvation not only for YOU and for ME, but for all of CREATION.

Now, this is not to say “go on and ignore God, live your life; if you follow Jesus great; if not, whatever.  In the end God promises you’ll be okay.” No that’s not what all of this means.  Of course we all have that freedom. We’re all free to ignore or reject God.  We’re all free to make our own god.  Millions already have.  They’re not struck down by a bolt of lightning.  They don’t suffer the “wrath of God” for doing so.  But take it from me, there’s already enough difficulty and suffering ahead for us without bringing more on ourselves.  The wrath of life is worse than any wrath attributed to God.  Psalm 16 puts it simply, “those who choose another god multiply their sorrows.”  In my experience, to go it alone without God is to endure sadness and suffering without hope.  And to me, life without hope is hell here and now.

God won’t hold it against us if and when we get lost along the way, because our FAITH is precious to God. Our willingness to believe and trust in God even if or when everything falls apart inside of us or around us is precious to God!  Crushing, perilous situations come our way from time to time.  These situations test our faith.  But God does NOT.  That’s how I see it. Life in this world puts faith “to the test”.  But I do not believe that God unleashes difficult situations upon us in order to test our faith.  That sounds more like Zeus and the Pantheon of Greek/Roman “gods” as well as the myriad of “gods” conjured up in the Ancient Near East which surrounded God’s Hebrew people before, during and after the Exodus.

Are there references in the Bible to God testing the faith of people?  Yes, predominantly in the Hebrew Scriptures and also in the New Testament letters.  If these references nurture your faith, then well and good for you.  For me whenever there’s controversy about the nature of God due to conflicting references in scripture, for clarity and resolution I defer to Jesus in the Gospels; his mission, his movements, his actions and his words.  And what I see is that Jesus never tests anyone’s faith.  He does examine people to see how much and whether or not a person has faith.  And Jesus typically then connects any good, any well-being experienced by people to their faith in God.  Jesus’ actions and his words, his mission and ministry, whether it’s with the disciples or with the multitudes or the religious antagonists harassing him, is to REVEAL God.

And whether we’re looking at life today or life as it existed in Bible times, in either case life is filled with times which do put a person’s faith in God to the test.  When our trust and faith in the Lord endures trials and suffering, it’s not as if this is in order to change GOD’s mind about us from adversarial to favorable.  NO!  God loves us and promises to save us no matter what.  But if and when our faith and trust in God’s love endures our suffering and the trials we endure, something which can change is … we ourselves … we can become more compassionate toward one another; more willing to listen, to help, to pray, to join with God to care for the least and the lost the way God cares for us through every valley of shadow and darkness, for Peter says:

even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.             (1 Peter 1:6-7, emphases mine)

And so because the path of life is rocky, so also our life of faith is bumpy and turbulent.  There are no guarantees.

And that’s what makes our faith more precious than gold.

Everyone along the way, those who have gone ahead of us and those who will come after us, that great “cloud of witnesses” all have endured suffering and sadness and trials.  And yet, all have also come to count on God and to experience joy, the so-called “outcome of our faith” .  Which is what inspired the Psalmist to say in Psalm 16 (New Living Translation),

I know the Lord is always with me.

I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.

No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice

My body rests in safety.

For GOD … will show me the way of life,

granting me the joy of GOD’s presence

and the pleasures of living with GOD forever.

Joy is the outcome of our faith in the Lord, faith which endures suffering and trials, which put our faith in the Lord to the test.  Joy is our companion along the way, because of faith.  Joy is our destination.  Such is the path we share—the path of Life.

Thanks be to God!

1 Peter 1:3-9 (NRSV)

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

 

PSALM 16 (NRSV)

1Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.

2 I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;

I have no good apart from you.”

3 As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,

in whom is all my delight.

4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;[b]

their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out

or take their names upon my lips.

5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;

you hold my lot.

6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

I have a goodly heritage.

7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;

in the night also my heart instructs me.

8 I keep the Lord always before me;

because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;

my body also rests secure.

10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,

or let your faithful one see the Pit.

11 You show me the path of life.

In your presence there is fullness of joy;

in your right hand are pleasures forevermore