Monday, March 7, 2011

Christ: King of the Road

Preached on Sunday, March 6, 2011
Scripture readings: Numbers 9:15-23; Mark 1:35-39

Jesus said, “Let us go somewhere else.” (Mark 1:38) When Jesus meant business, he kept on the move; and life for the disciples was a continual journey. The gospels, including the gospel of Mark, tell us this. When Jesus and his disciples stayed in a place, it wasn’t for long.

This was true of Jesus himself. He was born in Bethlehem on a trip his parents took for the Roman census. The only story from his childhood comes when he was twelve years old and on a trip with his parents to Jerusalem, to worship at the Temple for the Passover Holy Days.

The only times in his life when we don’t know about Jesus traveling are the years we don’t know anything about Jesus at all. I think this is because Jesus only moved when he had something important to do, and everything important that he ever did called upon him to be on the move to somewhere.

The disciples found out how true this was for themselves, even after Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. Jesus came back and gave his disciples these instructions: “Go into all the world, and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15)

The disciples tried not to do it. They tried to stay together in Jerusalem. But the Lord kept bringing things up elsewhere that demanded their attention, and Jerusalem itself got destroyed by the Romans, and they had to go somewhere else. So, most of them ended up doing what Jesus told them to do; going “into all the world to preach the good news to all creation.” Only the disciple John stayed in more or less one place; after Jerusalem was destroyed, he spent most of the rest of his life in Ephesus, a Greek city in what is now western Turkey.

If you are going to look to the Bible to learn about following Jesus (and I hope you do), the only stories you will find, to help you, are stories that happened on the road, or stories that Jesus told on the road.

There are certain stories we tell about the people and experiences that shape us and make us who we are. As we get older, these stories get more and more predictable, because we have told them hundreds of times.

Even in the Old Testament, the stories that created the identity of God’s people were the stories of their travels with God. God did his greatest work with them when they were on the move together.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had God going along with them on their travels, wandering along the fringes of the Promised Land, always looking in from the outside. The Israelites and Moses wandered with the Lord in the desert of Sinai for forty years before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land and make it their home.

It was all wandering, almost for the mere sake of wandering; travel for the sake of travel. Moses and his people followed the presence of God that took the shape of what looked like a huge column of cloud by day, and a column of fire by night. The Bible says: “Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out.” (Numbers 9:21-23)

The Lord was in charge of their journey. The Lord set the pace. They followed him. They stopped when he stopped, and moved when he moved, and turned when he turned. Sometimes they stayed, and they stayed, and they stayed, even though they had somewhere else to go. Sometimes they were led very quickly in the opposite direction from where they were going.

The Lord was in charge of their journey. And his people were, in many ways, shaped more by their journey than by their arrival. When God’s people stayed at home they went badly wrong. After generations in their Promised Land they seemed to be spoiled by it; and the prophets would retell the old stories of their wanderings in times long past, in order to show them the way things ought to be with them as people of God. The old stories of the road had the message to help them return to their right mind.

Isaiah said something about looking back to the old journeys to get things right. He wrote: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” That is how God works. That is how God shapes his people, through the stories of the journey.

The people of Israel followed the cloud exactly, but they did hardly anything else right. That also is part of the journey with God.

The disciples of Jesus were very much the same. They were shallow, and competitive, and cowardly. They were always arguing over which one of them was the best disciple. They were always demonstrating their lack of faith.

Sometimes their journey with Jesus brought out the best in them. It often brought out the worst. Maybe travel does that to all of us; and that is why we need to have stories of our journey with Jesus as part of our life story. These stories help define who we are and who God is.

The destination of the people of Israel was the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The destination of the disciples of Jesus was the cross where Jesus died; and the empty tomb where Jesus rose from the dead; and the earth, from which they saw Jesus leave for heaven with the promise to return. That was their Promised Land and ours. Our lives are shaped by traveling to the territory of the death of Jesus on the cross; and the tomb where Jesus conquered death; and to the hope of heaven, where Jesus ascended and waits for us; and to the earth that waits for Jesus to return.

Our life is a journey with God, in Christ. The people of Israel didn’t ask for their journey and they didn’t have the heart, or the stomach, for it. They often wanted to go back to Egypt.

The disciples didn’t really want to go on a journey either. They liked being in Capernaum, where a number of them had their homes already. They wanted Jesus to stay put. They wanted him to preach, and teach, and heal people, and set people free from the devil in a place where they could stay at home.

It would be so much easier. Let the people come to them. They wanted Jesus to come to them and stay for good.

Jesus didn’t want to come to them and stay. He wanted to take them with him for keeps; and so we have all of these stories of what it means to follow Jesus on the road; and most of those stories are about the first followers of Jesus who wanted him to stay put. This teaches us a lot of what we need to know.

For some people, the whole story of their Christian life is how they got saved. They can tell you what got them to that place in their life. They can tell you the exact place and the date; and that’s that.

I made my second commitment of my life to Christ (the one that really got me going) when I was eighteen years old, on October 3, 1970, at a Jesus Christ Festival of Light, in Chico California. I know the date because I wrote it down. Mario Murillo was the speaker. There was a group that sang: “To all who receive him, who believe in his name; he gives them the power to be children of God. He gives it to you. Share his body and drink his blood. He is the bread of life; that giveth life.”

That night was essential, but that night was nothing in comparison with what had to follow; which has been a long, long journey. That night wouldn’t have done me any good if I hadn’t kept dealing with the question: how am I going to follow Jesus next? What do I need to do in order to be his person where he wants me to be? The issue is the journey.

We expect our journeys to be easy because we live in America in the twenty-first century. All we need to do is plan an itinerary, or decide not to travel by itinerary. All we need to do is make reservations, and pack (I hate packing). We get in the car, or on a bus, or on a train. We get on a plane. We get on a cruise ship. And we go where we plan to go. What could possibly go wrong?

When I was little, I don’t think we ever went on a road trip where we didn’t have a flat tire or a boiling over radiator, but they make tires and cars better now than they used to. We would almost always go camping and, somehow, we would manage to find somewhere to camp where it would snow at the end of June. Or, if our plans included driving too far to camp for the night, we would end up driving around and around in the dark, looking for a motel that cost less than ten dollars a night for a family of five. Times do change.

Journeys are not supposed to be easy. They are supposed to be risky. They might take everything you got to get through them. But they are supposed to be worth all of that. Our ancestors took journeys like that to come to the New World, or maybe to cross the continent; maybe to come here.

Everything important is a road of some kind. Even if you don’t move a mile from where you were born, everything important is a road.

If you are a kid, you are on the growing up road. Have fun with it, but know that you can’t be a baby all your life. And, hopefully, when you grow up you will still have fun along the next road.

You have to take to the next road. There is the school road and the work road. There is the way of life road. Eventually most people get on the marriage road. Hopefully they get on that road before they get on the parent road. All of this helps them on the maturity road.

On the maturity road you learn that wisdom has nothing to do with being timid, and wisdom has everything to do with how you respond to surprises and interruptions. Jesus was constantly surprising the disciples, and interrupting their expectations. As they say, life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.

Everyone’s road has stretches of jungles, and mountains, and swamps, and canyons, and deserts, and rivers to cross. Some of these are our stubborn attachments, our determination to have things our way; as if you were a pioneer trying to carry a concert grand piano across the prairie in your covered wagon. Some things you can’t take with you on all roads.

Some of the hard parts of the road are your personal patterns of weakness and sins. You find you can’t blame everything wrong in your life on your upbringing or on other people.

Some of the hardest parts of the maturity road are the challenges of living in partnership with people who have different patterns of weakness and sins from yours; because your patterns are always more understandable and more forgivable than theirs: right? And, then, they have to live with your patterns.

I would propose to you that the road of the disciples’ travels with Jesus was a road of weakness on their part and grace on Jesus’ part. Only such a road as our weakness and God’s grace can prepare us for life with others, and only such a road can prepare us for heaven, which is the ultimate mountain of our weakness and God’s grace.

There is a peculiar strength that only a disciple of Jesus can experience. Only by knowing our weakness, and his grace, can we grow wise, and brave, and strong, and loving.

When we truly know ourselves, just as we are, and truly know God, just as he is, then we have the maturity of the children of God. Without our life together with each other, and with Jesus, we will not have the sufficient experience of weakness and grace to live a fulfilling life and carry us to heaven.

The disciples thought they had arrived, there in Capernaum. But Jesus said, “Let us go somewhere else.” This would take them on the road of their weakness and his grace. We think we have arrived, and then we are forced to grow, and growth is a road.

The very thing we don’t want to face looms up before us; and that is the next road. Can we do it with Jesus? Can we do it in such a way that our life looks like Jesus, and bears witness to Jesus? Can we do it as Christians?

The world-at-large in which we live, and our little corner of the world, are forcing us along roads that are fearful, and unwelcome, and hard. There are changes taking place in rural America that we are facing first-hand. Some people are facing these changes with Jesus, and some are not.

Such roads call for different measures at different times: guts, honest assertiveness, charity, and courtesy. Such roads call for forgiveness, and dignity, and humility, and prudence; tightening our belt and doing without; making necessity into the mother of invention; working for the kingdom of God with patience and self- control; living by faith, hope, and love.

Jesus prepared for a new road by praying. Jesus got up when it was still dark. Maybe he did this because it was urgent for him to find time alone with his Father, when all the people who were pulling him this way and that would leave him alone to think. Maybe Jesus got up when it was still dark because he was anxious and he could not sleep at all.
Either way, Jesus shows us the grace he can give us because he knows our life from the inside. Jesus knows us because he became one of us. Jesus decided, though he was (by very nature) God, to become a genuine human being like us, and to live, like us, by prayer. He would find his way along his road by prayer, so that we would know that we can do the same thing in his good company.

Jesus said, “That is why I have come.” (Mark 1:38) He came to preach and proclaim the good news. This doesn’t mean that Jesus came just in order to talk. In our own life of faith we can’t just do it by talk. We must proclaim Jesus by much more than our talk, or else nobody will care what we say. And Jesus came with a message that was much more than talk.

We have a summary of what he proclaimed earlier in this chapter of Mark: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) The kingdom was near (and is still near) because Jesus was and is near.

Jesus is the Christ, the King; and his kingdom is his ruling and reigning as king. Jesus was doing his kingly work in simply being there among his people: living for them, dying for them, rising for them, ruling in heaven as the victorious human (as well as God) who takes our place. This was Jesus’ journey and his journey makes him a fellow-traveler with us, and this is how he is our king. Jesus, through his life, and death, and resurrection, is king of our road.

There is servanthood in that. There is intervention in that. There is redemptive living in that. God is reaching from himself to us. God is reaching to our world, in Jesus Christ.

That is the road of the gospel; the road of the good news. Jesus was taking his disciples on that road, and that is what all the stories of following Jesus are about. Jesus is the message, and his grace in our weakness takes us with him on his mission to the world, and to the places we are right now.

We have a message that has to go along with the life that Jesus gives us on the cross. Our life provides evidence for the message. The message is the test that measures our life. The message and the way of life both test and prove each other.

The road with Jesus is a road that places love at the center of everything; a relentless grace on God’s part; a fearless repentance on our part; a patient faith. Our long road is Jesus himself, who is “the way and the truth and the life”. (John 14:6) Jesus is the king of the journey. Christ is king of the road.

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