September 25, 2016 “When the Journey Gets Rough”

(Psalm 22:1-5, 19-21, 25-26; Deuteronomy 8:1-5; Hebrews 12:1-11)
Mike Fargo, September 25, 2016

I have a friend who’s a retired pastor, and who’s used his retirement to provide pulpit relief to small-town pastors in central Idaho.  One time he was preaching at a remote church, and when he walked up to the pulpit, taped to the surface of the podium was a sign that asked, “What are you doing to these people?”  That’s actually a very good question!  It’s something I often pray about before I preach.  Pastor Steve gave me the freedom today to preach on whatever I wanted, but I want you to know that I didn’t pick my topic frivolously.  I’ve chosen a hard topic but an important one, and something that God has put on my heart.

We often hear people describe the Christian life as a “journey,” which is very true.  In fact, we learn in the Acts of the Apostles that before believers were called Christians they were called people “of the way,” or “of the path.”  But in saying this, I also want to add that this journey we are on can get very bumpy.  I assume you’ve all taken vacations where things didn’t go as planned.  Flights were delayed, cars had flat tires, kids got sick, hotels had noisy air conditioners (or none at all).  Truth be told, weren’t we sometimes relieved when the vacation was over and life could return to normal?

And yet the longer I follow Christ, the more aware I am that for me life on this side of the grave will never “return to normal.”  As the apostle Peter puts it in his first epistle, we Christians are “aliens and strangers” in this world; we’re refugees who are just passing through, enroute to our real home which is with Christ.  Which means we are always on a journey, always in transition, always living out of a suitcase and having to hold everything loosely, always in the process of growing into Christ, which means always being pushed and stretched and challenged.  And frankly, that kind of life can be hard.

Many of our difficulties in life, of course, are not a result of following Jesus but the result of living in a very broken world.  We share with all humanity a general kind of suffering that comes from the enormous stupidity, violence, greed, and immorality that floods this world, and we ought to work in whatever way we can, with anyone of good will, in trying to minimize this kind of suffering.

But there are many other struggles in life that are a result of choosing to follow Christ.  For one thing, Jesus calls us to follow a very different moral compass than what the world generally uses.  True north on our compass points to virtues like humility, peace-making, forgiveness, generosity, gentleness, fidelity, holiness.  In fact, such a compass can put us on a collision course with our world since we are moving in different directions.  As Jesus once said, “What is valued by men is detestable to God.”  In other words, we can’t let our culture, our nation, or our politics frame our values.  Only God has the right and the wisdom do that.

What’s even more disturbing, God’s moral compass constantly directs its needle at our own personal sins more than the sins of others.  And what’s worse, it points to those inner issues of the heart that we can easily hide from others.  We can ignore the compass, of course.  We can live a life of outward morality and resist the work of the Holy Spirit when he brings those deeper sins into the light.  But God won’t allow that to happen indefinitely.  He will use whatever it takes—even suffering—to bring us to our senses.

This is why in the gospels Jesus repeatedly uses such extreme language whenever he talked about how to deal with sin in our own lives.  He would say, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.  If your right hand causes you to sin, chop it off.”  Yes, this is metaphorical language, but it is also intended to teach us that we have to be ruthless with the moral dimension of our lives and this can be painful.  But Jesus knew that sin is toxic and will destroy us if we do not resist it.  But I also know that making a clean break with deeply ingrained attitude or behavior can also be very excruciating.  This is where the support and nurture of the whole church community is so important, since we are all in the same place.

But not only does following Jesus mean we struggle with our own sin, but it also may create conflicts with people with whom we might otherwise have a real rapport.  I remember in my early twenties I worked at the General Motors assembly plant in Fremont California.  Every day, nine hours a day, I worked opposite an extremely bright fellow who was a militant atheist.  But since I was also a fairly militant atheist at the time, we got along just fine.  But after several years of struggle I came to faith in Christ, and when this guy found out, he went ballistic.  Suddenly every day I faced ridicule, suspicion, and a steady effort to undermine my fledging faith.  It was a brutal time, a painful time, but one that God used to make me go deeper into what I really believed and why I believed it.

But there is another, even more difficult dimension to journeying with Christ.  It’s one that I want to spend most of my time this morning looking at.  Both our Old and New Testament readings talked a lot about the “discipline of God.”  They both try to help us understand what this means by viewing God as a Father.   Yes, scripture also tells us that God is far more than just our Father; he is our creator, redeemer, sustainer, and Lord.  But when it comes to really understanding the trials we have to endure in life, it’s important that we understand that they come from a Father who loves us even more than we love ourselves.

To put it as plainly as I can, God sometimes brings difficult events and circumstances into our lives not because we are sinning, but because he wants to mature us, stretch us, foster new growth.  Think of that metaphor Jesus used in the upper room when he said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  He’s obviously using this metaphor to tell us we can only bear the kind of fruit God desires when we are in union with him.  And I get that.  But then he goes on to say that the branch bearing no fruit at all will be cut off and thrown into the fire.  It’s a worthless branch that’s only consuming energy the other branches need.  Okay, I get that too.  But then he goes on to say that even the healthy branches, that are already bearing fruit, God will prune so that they will bear even more fruit.  And the image of pruning is not a painless image.  In other words, God has much higher goals for us than we often have for ourselves.  When he says he is going to transform us into the image of Christ, he really means it.  And he is perfectly willing to use painful circumstances to get us there.  This is why virtually every author in the New Testament—Paul, Peter, James, John, and the anonymous author of Hebrews all tell us to rejoice when we encounter difficulties because God is using them to build us up.

The apostle James opens his epistle by saying: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  Or Paul, in his magnum opus, his great epistle to the Romans, writes: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  But not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  Or Peter in his first epistle writes: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”

I am grateful that Peter describes our struggles as a “participation in the sufferings of Christ.”  Too often we forget that our struggles were also his struggles, and likewise his struggles are ours.  The author of Hebrews tells us that “Christ was tempted in every way like us.”  In fact, Hebrews tells us that Christ learned obedience through the things he suffered.”  The only kind of faith that God cares about is a practiced faith, a faith that can exist in the real world, that has learned how to discern good from evil, and how to lean into the power of God in order to actually do the right thing.  I know it sounds trite to say that “adversity builds character,” but for a Christian that’s exactly what God is doing, building a Christ-like character.

For me, the most compelling and realistic example of this very thing is from the life of Christ, when he was tested in the wilderness.  We are told in Matthew 4 that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit, by God himself, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  I have walked that very Judean wilderness and there is no more god-forsaken place on this planet.  The text next tells us that because he followed this leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was forced to go without food for 40 days.  We have documented accounts of people fasting that long, and what it does to the body is to completely immobilize it and reduce a person to mere breathing.

And so when he is most vulnerable and staring death in the face, a temptation comes along in the most subtle, rational, and compelling way conceivable.  He is suddenly faced with this suggestion: You, Jesus, are the very Son of God, beloved of your Father.  And yet you find yourself in this miserable desert, starving to death!  This can’t be from God.  Oh no.  God created food.  And he’s given you the power to make food for yourself, so how can he fault you for that?  So in the name of all that makes sense, Jesus, feed yourself!

Can you feel the power of this temptation?  What’s so wrong with a lousy loaf of bread? What could be more natural and necessary to human existence than this?  What’s in it for God when he deprives us of things like this?  What does God possibly gain when he takes away our job or our health or a loved one?  What’s God doing?

I’ll tell you what he’s doing.  God is after one thing, and one thing only.  The very scripture that Jesus responds with in his temptation, which was read to us this morning, gives us the answer.  God is forcing us to dig deep and ask ourselves the single most important question of life:  Can God be trusted?  Does God have good intentions when he brings us to this place in order that we might learn that life is bigger than filling our stomachs or satisfying any other natural need?  After all, what is life’s greatest evil?  Is it physical death?  Or is it losing our connection to God?

And because Jesus learned this at the beginning of his ministry in that terrible wilderness, then at the end, as he hung there on the cross in utter agony, feeling completely abandoned and loaded down with the sins of the entire world, he could honestly say with his last breath, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  And then die.

We are all—each and every one of us here—surrounded all day long by perfectly legitimate desires and needs that clamor for our attention.  And our natural instinct is to grab as many of them as we can.  But to be a follower of Christ means to imitate Christ.  As he said to the disciples in John 4, ”This is my food, to do the will of him who sent me.”  And so it should be our food, to submit to God’s Lordship and guidance, including his discipline.  And should God lead us to a place of undeserved deprivation—to a place of wilderness where our basic needs are not being met—can we submit to him in trust and without complaint?

Now my wife has told me for years that my sermons lack personal examples, so I am going to give you one this morning that is very hard to share, even twenty-plus years after the event happened.  As many of you know our oldest son left home when he was still just a sophomore in high school, and for an entire year he bounced all over the place.  It was, without question, the darkest year of our lives, for both Joy and myself.  During that year we would periodically receive tiny bits of information about where he was or what he was up to, and the news was often very dark and scary.  There were times we even feared for his life.

Now we weren’t perfect parents.  There are always things all parents would like to do differently if they could go back in time; but neither were we bad parents.  We had invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and love into raising all three of our kids.  And so this whole experience with our son felt deeply undeserved and unfair.  And as week followed week, our grief and worry slowly began to wear us down.

I worked mostly out of the office at the time, which meant I spent long hours driving out in the county.  And I vividly remember feeling so depressed one day that as I drove by a field full of dairy cows, I actually wished deep in my soul that I could be one of those cows with nothing better to do but to chew on grass and graze in the sun.  Now life has to be pretty low if you find yourself wanting to be a cow!

It so happened that during that year I had been invited to teach a bible class to the congregation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Over time I became friends with the Rector and eventually shared with him what was going on with our son.  He asked if he could help in any way, and I told him that what I really needed was a private space before work each day to really pour my heart out to God.  He graciously offered that little chapel at St. Paul’s and instructed the church sexton to unlock the doors at 6am, Monday through Friday, just so I could use it.

And so every morning on my way to work, I would quietly slip into that chapel, kneel in front of the altar, and just weep before God.  I would visualize my son lying on that altar, which was my way of just surrendering him to God’s care.  It was always an intense time—very raw but very real—lasting maybe 30 to 40 minutes.  But each day by the time I left I was restored just enough to get through that day.  And by the next morning I was back praying again—for days and weeks and months.

After a year, Matt returned home.  He’s now 37 and doing very well.  And although he lives in Tokyo, he works very hard at staying connected with the whole family.  But when I look back on my life, and I consider all the times when I have experienced significant growth in my faith, nothing compares to that one, dark year when circumstances forced me to really lean into God and learn to trust him.

What’s more, when I consider all the other times where I have experienced real growth in my faith, none of them came from simply reading a book or having some great mystical epiphany.  Virtually all of the growth came in the midst of some difficult circumstance, in situations where I had to dig deep and really ask myself, “Is God real?  Can he guide and strengthen me through this?”  And every time—every time—he has shown himself more real and more powerful than I could have ever discovered without going through whatever trial God had sent my way at the time.

As our readings this morning point out, our parents’ discipline may have been erratic at times or poorly conceived, but God’s discipline is always perfect in every way—just the right amount at the right time and in the right manner.  Regardless of how painful or underserved it may seem to us at the time, God knows what he is doing.  He knows the beginning from the end.  He knows what we need and just how far to push us.

And most important of all, he loves us with an everlasting love that extends far beyond this mortal life into eternity; he knows far better than we do that even physical death for a Christian is merely a door, a transference from this world of mere shadows into that brilliant reality of Christ.  And should his discipline take us though that final door, we, of all people, can enter into it with genuine joy and hope.

Over forty years ago I heard a sermon I’ll never forget, given by a great preacher named Ray Stedman.  Ray’s text had been the account of the storm on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus and the disciples were in a small boat together.  The disciples freaked out at the storm and pleaded with Jesus to save them.  Jesus sits up, calms the storm, and then gently chides them for their lack of faith, for not realizing that he would take care of them.  Ray closed his sermon by saying that even when chaos and suffering seem ready to overwhelm us, when events seem ready to swallow us alive, always remember that we are not aloneJesus is in the boat with us.

And if Christ is with us, the boat will not sinkThe storm will not last forever.