Monday, October 14, 2013

The Great Story - Wandering: Our Road to Life Is a Detour

Preached on Sunday, October 13, 2013

Scripture readings:  Numbers 13:1-2, 13:17-14:4; Deuteronomy 30:11-20

Around the Palouse River, September 2013
For many years when I was a kid, my family owned a 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon. It was a station wagon with an extra seat that could be folded up in the back. At first it was our only car.
When my mom learned to drive it became our second car. It became the car my dad drove to work.
When I got my driver’s license it became my car. By that time it shimmied a lot, if I drove it fast. So I didn’t drive very fast in those days. I make up for that now.
While the car was still good enough for adults to drive, it was our family outing car. When my Uncle Don and Aunt Joyce came over with our three cousins, we could squeeze all ten of us into that car. We would go for picnics and sight-seeing together, and we would sing while we drove.
  C                                                              G7
I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track
                     C                      G7                     C
And as I go I love to sing, my knapsack on my back

            C          G7         C         G7          C
Chorus: valderi, valdera, valderi, valder ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha
         G7       C       F                  G7    C
valderi, valdera, my knapsack on my back.

(By Friedrich-Wilhelm Moller)
It’s a song about a happy person who hopes to wander until the day they die. “Oh may I always laugh and sing, beneath God’s clear blue sky.” It’s a happy song. It’s a song about the love of God’s creation, the love of people, and the love of life.
When my family sang this song we were in the same good spirits. We were loving life. We were lively. We were happy wanderers.
In our reading from Deuteronomy, God tells his people to choose life. “See, I set before you today life and good, death and evil (or life and prosperity, death and destruction).” “Now choose life.” (Deut. 30:15, 19)
He means life with God: life that leans on the covenant and the promises of God; a life of love with God. The truth is that the other kind of life is not truly life; not fully alive. To choose something other than a life of love with God is to choose death.
The danger that God’s people were in was that they were not happy wanderers. They had not truly chosen life.
Yet they were on the brink of entering the Promised Land. It was the land where they would have the freedom to live fully as the people who were faithfully loved by God. But they wanted something else.
They were loved by God, but they weren’t happy with God; at least not unless they could change him into the kind of God they wanted him to be. This is part of the reason why, all the way to the Promised Land, and all through their long detours, they were not happy wanderers.
The great story of the Bible is full of wanderers. Abraham and his family wandered around the edges of the Promised Land, but never really entered in to make it home. But they wandered the edges of home, as if they were spying through the windows of someone else’s house. They had been told that the house would belong to them, someday. They did their spying while they wandered with God, in faith and hope.
The evidence is that they were not always happy, but they always remembered that they belonged to the God who described himself as belonging to them. He was the God who was never ashamed to call himself “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. When they were restless and unhappy it was only because they dearly wanted to see the promises of this God come true in their time.
The people of God who wandered through the desert with Moses were restless because they dearly wanted to go back to their lives as slaves. They didn’t want the freedom and the risk that comes through faith, and they wanted to be owed something by someone.
That is why they were attracted to idol worship. The gods represented by the idols were gods you could bargain with. They would owe you something if you gave them something.
The first time God’s people stood on the border of the Promised Land they got scared. The freedom of a land of faith was almost within sight. But God gave them no other way to enter that land except by the risk that seems to come with faith. They were too scared to choose faith and the life that comes with it.
The land itself was a covenant. It was a promise. They had to enter the promise as if it were a gift through faith, and not as the gift of something that was owed to them. They would have to choose to live their way into that land, and not just walk into it. They would have to choose life.
Instead they chose fear, and grumbling, and anger. They would prefer to choose the life of a slave: the fear of the lash, the grumbling under a task-master; and the anger of injustice and being forced to be, in some essential way, less than human, less than themselves, less than alive.
The only good thing about slavery was that it didn’t demand you to go forth and live. It didn’t require faith, or hope, or love.
The odd thing about human nature is that, according to the Bible, we went wrong, back in the beginning, when we wanted to be like God. We wanted to have the knowledge of good and evil so that we could choose our own standards and choose our own way in the world.
The wish to be a god doesn’t seem like the wish to be a slave, but the desire to be free from the need to have faith in another, or hope in another, or be bond in love to another is a kind of slavery. Doesn’t it ring true that being your own god is the same thing as idol worship? And they did worship idols when they were slaves in Egypt? (Joshua 24:13)
Running away from the choice of faith, hope and love based on another (the choice of commitment) is a way of running from life. It is a way of choosing death.
I think that the people who seem to wander away from God and from others (even when they seem to choose to live with an intense and ferocious freedom), are often simply reacting to something. They are reacting with a kind of fear, or grumbling, or anger at what they think that a relationship with God or with others might require of them.
I don’t understand wandering very well. I never rebelled against my parents, and so some people may be right when they see me as a perpetual pre-adolescent. I was never a rebel at all (although, for most of my adolescence, I tried to love Jesus at the same time that I wanted to not listen to what he wanted me to do with my life).
In the Bible, choosing life means choosing faith that works through love and loyalty. If we simply look at what happed to Israel, we see that fear and faith are enemies. Choosing to serve their fears instead of choosing faith and life required God’s people to take a detour. It required them to go back and learn forty years of hard lessons, and still not be very good at the life of faith. Fear was a real obstacle to entering into faith and life.
I am shy. I’m timid. Fear is a problem for me. I can see how fear has stood in the way of my choosing life. I merely lay that before you.
For Moses, the problem proved to be anger. In a story that we have not read this morning, God’s people were being led through a part of the desert where there was no water.
Even though God had taken care of them in thirsty places before, they were afraid, they were angry, and they grumbled. They said they wanted to go back to slavery.
God told Moses to take his walking staff, and speak to a big rock, in the name of God. He promised that the rock would open, and a spring would flow for the people and their livestock. Instead of talking to the rock, Moses got mad and said to his people, “Do you want me to give you water? I’ll give you water! Take that!” (Numbers 20:11) He struck the rock instead of speaking to it. God told him that, because of this, he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
This seems harsh. Moses had been angry many times. The truth is that he had always been angry for God’s sake (for the love of God). He had never taken the fear, and anger, and grumbling of his people personally; at least not out loud.
Suddenly, something in Moses snapped. He became angry for his own sake, not for God’s sake: not to honor God, not in faith. I think he must have been keeping this bottled up inside him for some time. Personal and loveless anger and a lack of faith often go together.
God meant to give his people the grace of water. Moses, in his anger, did not give them grace. Moses responded in a way that did not give his people life. So he did no choose life. He chose anger. He chose death.
Anger can stand in the way of life. It can stand in the way of our being what God wants us to be. It can stand in the way of doing what God wants us to do. It stands in the way of the promises of God, to us and to others.
I have known of people in the ministry who did not love their people. They harbored anger in their heart towards God’s people.
Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I try to find refuge from my anger in being willing to simply be confused and mystified. Better than that, I try to find refuge from anger in faith and love. I think, so far, I have succeeded.
Grumbling is the other thing we see so much of in the People of God who were with Moses in the wilderness. With fear and anger (and the people were often angry at Moses, as he was at them), grumbling was part of the cause for forty years of detouring from their arrival at life.
Grumbling is a form of self-brainwashing. It is a way of conditioning yourself and others. Grumbling is like never opening the curtains on your windows.
I like music set in a minor key. That music can be grand and strong and wild and fierce. It can also be sad. Sometimes I have to be careful about my choice of music. Grumbling is like listening to sad music all day long, day after day, and making others listen to it as well.
Grumbling is a subtle way of carrying your independence from God under the radar. It seems like a little thing. There is no drama to it. You can’t see that you are actually doing anything bad or wrong. No one can accuse you of anything directly.
Grumbling is just an absence of love. It’s an absence of hope. It’s an absence of faith.
It is the determination to not be happy. It is the determination not to be fully alive or to choose life.
It stops good things from happening to you and to others. It stops you from being what you could be, and from doing what you could do, for faith, for hope, for love; for God; for others.
God was never far from his people. They always could see his presence. God was never far from them, but they were far from him, in their attitudes, their thinking, their heart and will.
The surprise is that, when they didn’t want to go where God wanted them to go, and when they wanted to go back to slavery, God did a third thing. God led them by detour. Instead of going forward, God circled with them. He led them forward by leading them back.
God led them by delay. God led them by reversal. God, in his grace, may lead us away from life because of our fears, our angers, and our grumblings, but he is always ready to steer us back to life if we will let him; if only we will see what we have lost and surrender our fears and angers and grumblings to God, in faith.
The fact is that, when God’s people wandered, he kept wandering with them. This is in his nature, because God’s love is faithful. This is something that we can see. We can find him wandering with us in our wanderings. He quietly puts up with us over, and over again.
This is what our life in this world is about. Our world was made for life with God, and we vandalized the human heart so that it became our nature to shut God out. When we vandalized our heart, we also vandalized the world we live in. So God changed our world from being a main road to life into being a detour to life.
The history of the world, ever since the human race became a rebel race, is all about God winning us back by coming to wander with us, and living in us by grace. The whole history of the world, as we know it, has been one long, horrific detour on the road to life.
When I am taking a detour, it isn’t strange for me to wonder whether I am really on the right road. I wonder if one of the signs is missing, or if I have missed one of them by mistake. We need to know that this is the way of a faithful God, to make our life in this world a detour that we can take with him.
This detour is the road where we must learn to choose faith, or not. This detour is the road on which we learn to choose life or death.
This is what God showed us, when he came down from heaven to show us his face in Jesus. He took the same detour as the whole human race. He became a wanderer in Jesus, even more than when he wandered with Moses and Israel in the desert.
Jesus said this about himself. “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
In the end the only places where God, in Jesus, could lay his head were a cross where he was willing to be the sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the world, and that niche inside a stone tomb where he let sin and death do all they could. He laid his head where all human wandering would lead us, if not for him.
Then he got up again. He got out. Even though he sits on the throne of heaven, he also continues to wander with us, through the power of his Holy Spirit. He lay down his head in the midst of our sin and separation from God, where we were so determined to shut him out, so that he could get in and stay with us wherever we may go.
Where does Jesus want you to go? If you stopped choosing fear, where would he lead you? If you stopped choosing anger, how might he change you? If you stopped choosing grumbling what would he give you to do?
I have obstacles that stand in the way of my choosing life, even when I live with a crucified and risen savior. So do you. Maybe we have these obstacles in us as a church: fear, anger, and grumbling. Maybe we all share fears, angers, and grumblings that blind us to what we could do together, if we were willing to choose life by choosing faith, and hope, and love.
We need to repent and surrender to the life that only God can give us in Jesus. Only through what God has done in Jesus can we be free from our obstacles to life.

Then we can become the happy wanders; full of life. Then we can wander with a purpose, until God leads us home.

1 comment:

  1. Oh boy, I feel like this sermon is just for me. I tend to grumble quite often and I know that not only is it not welcomed but against what I should be as a Christian.
    Also, I read somewhere that instead of hate being the opposite of love, it is fear.