“Are we there yet?”
What parent has not had to put up with that question from the back seat driving across town to pick up a treat or on a holiday road trip? These days, Gameboys and DVD players in the family van help a bit to keep the kids preoccupied. In my day, it was endless games of I Spy and tapes of Fred Penner, Sharon Lois & Bram, and Shel Silverstein.
It is also a question for those of us who are on a spiritual journey in our lives. That we are pilgrims – never settled, always restlessly on the move – is a consistent theme throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The signature story of the Exodus in the history of Israel, for example, makes that pretty clear. And calling Jesus “The Way” continues the theme of journey in the Christian Scriptures.
Are we there yet? Are we there yet – you and I – on our own spiritual journeys? What is our destination and how will we know if we have arrived? A popular phrase tells us that life is all about the journey not about the destination. “Mommy, Daddy, are we there yet?” “Settle in, kids; just enjoy the ride.”
Today’s Scriptures are so rich that I hardly know where to begin. Maybe I will just dive in and say a few things about each scripture reading this morning and then step back and try to offer, I hope, a few helpful reflections on them.
It would be hard to find a scripture passage more foundational to our faith than this one from the 12th Chapter of Genesis. It sets for all time the image of the spiritual life as a journey. This story is really about Step One on that journey. It tells the story of God’s call to Abraham, and Abraham’s faith to answer. The clan chief, Abraham, with his wife, Sarah, are older and fairly well established near Haran, a city in northwestern Mesopotamia. They are already somewhat of a nomadic people because they keep animals and move from place to place wherever there is good and safe pasturage. In the midst of this more or less settled life, God calls Abraham to leave it all behind and head south to unfamiliar territory in Canaan. Outside his experience and knowledge. Out of his comfort zone.
God’s call comes with three promises: first, a multitude of descendants, even though they are childless; second, that their descendants will someday be a great nation in Canaan, this Promised Land; and, third, that through this nation, a blessing will come upon the whole world.
In response, Abraham heads out. And the journey begins. A journey towards the foundation of the nation of Israel. A journey towards God’s redemption of the world. A journey that will lead to Jesus and the church. A journey that draws us in. A journey that does not truly end until the last grain of sand falls through the hourglass of time.
The passage ends with these words: “Then Abram journeyed on by stages to the Negev”. Our very early ancestors in the faith journeyed by stages but they never actually arrived at any fixed or final destination. What stage are you on, personally, in your own spiritual journey? If we think of the closing of St. Paul’s not as a conclusion but merely as a stage on a larger journey, how does that help us understand what is happening to us? Keep those questions in mind as we move on to our next passage.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is on a journey, heading for Jerusalem. His whole life since he left home, really, has been a journey. He has lived the life of an itinerant preacher and healer, moving from place to place, meeting different people, gathering followers, making a difference in people’s lives, trying to get his message out as far and wide as the times allowed. In today’s passage, we read that “he set his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem.” I wonder if his followers ever asked him, “Are we there yet?”
The passage does record that several people along the way want to join this pilgrimage, even though Jesus is skeptical about their ‘stick-to-it-iveness”. I guess his purpose is serious enough that he doesn’t want well-intentioned but basically thrill-seeking hangers-on to slow him down.
Well, this does seem like a journey with a destination: Jerusalem. Why does he want to go there so badly? Well, one reason is simple: It was approaching Passover and it would have been quite common in those days for faithful Jews to want to be in Jerusalem for their most important annual festival. Another reason is more strategic: He wanted to confront there the powerful leaders of the religious and political establishment, to convert them to his understanding of the true way of power, to the true way to order society, that he called the Kingdom of God, to call Israel back to faithfulness to God’s original dream for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. And a third reason he was determined to go to Jerusalem was to fulfill what he knew was his own destiny: To die because of the entrenched opposition to his message. Well, that would seem like Jesus did expect his journey to come to an end in Jerusalem. Yet, as he knew and as we know in retrospect, his work in Jerusalem and even his death was simply another stage in a much larger and longer journey.
When we turn to the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, we get a better understanding of what was beyond the apparent end of his journey. We also get drawn back into the story of Abraham and Sarah as well.
The passage recounts several Old Testament characters – Abraham chief among them – who are not satisfied to settle down somewhere. The have a longer view in mind: The fulfillment of the original promise to Abraham that God will bring a blessing onto the whole world. They refuse to be satisfied with “good-enough” and continue to put their own security and comfort on hold in their restless quest for the more that God is offering the world. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking another home. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” As this passage ends, Jesus is held up for us as the one to emulate: “…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
What was the final destination of his journey? Well, it wasn’t Jerusalem. It wasn’t the Cross. It wasn’t even his Resurrection. It was, as the passage tells us, “to sit down on the right hand of the throne of God.” As I read it, this image is about the deepest desire in all our souls: the longing to live in peaceful intimacy with God. Hang on to that image; I will come back to it in a minute.
Well, that is a lot of Bible for this morning. I want to step back now – with everything I have said shaping our thoughts – and offer a few reflections on what I think is its current relevancy for us. Let me make three points briefly and leave them with you to flesh out for yourselves.
The first point, I think, is pretty obvious. Life is a journey. And the spiritual life is a spiritual journey. Whether or not we live in twenty different places over our lifetime or always in the same house, we are still called by God to be on a journey. An inward journey of growth, of transformation, of letting go of things that hold us back and make us stale, of unlearning things our culture has insisted we need to know, of healing from the hurts and disappointments in our lives. It is a journey in quest of the same destination Jesus sought: to live in union with God; to arrive at a place in our lives where we are immersed in the peace and intimacy of God’s constant presence beside us and surrounding us. And it is a journey that we need to be intentional about. Not simply settle into the familiar and comfortable routines of our lives, but, like Abraham and Sarah, say yes to God’s call, commit to the journey, and make conscious choices each day to attend to our personal spiritual growth, to tend our relationship with God, to fix our eyes on Jesus and forsake our normalcies for what we see of his adventurous ways.
The second point I want to make this morning is this: the journey has a social dimension. God has a vision expressed in the promise given to Abraham of a blessing for the whole world. It is a vision Jesus called the Kingdom of God. It is a vision we in our day often sum up in the phrase, “peace and justice”. Our restless quest is for such a world to exist now; for those who do not experience even the slightest taste of such a way of justice and peace to find hope. It is a commitment to hold onto lightly our own comfort and security as we seek to be agents of change in our local communities, across this nation, and around the world. It is to refuse to be satisfied that we are OK until everyone is OK. It is never to settle for good enough but always to let God’s promise, the visionary ideal, beckon us forward.
And thirdly this morning, I think we need to understand that the church is on a journey as well. Any image we might carry of the church is only one way the church has been at a certain time in history and within particular local social arrangements. The fact is that the church has been and is very different across history and around the globe. For the church is meant to be the advance party of the coming kingdom. The church is meant to be the crucible for the spiritual formation of the people of God. The church is meant to be a communal agent of change in its immediate neighbourhood and for the world as a whole. And as such, the church needs to be flexible, moving, adapting, to meet the challenges in a changing society. When God’s people get settled and satisfied, content with the familiar and comfortable, they become not agents of change but agents of regression. Should the church as we know it die, it is not the end of the Spirit moving in our lives or in the world. Maybe the church as we have known has to die so that something new and vital can grow out of its remains. Any treasured memory we have of the church is merely one stage in the journey of the church as it seeks to be faithful to God’s call.
I think what I am trying to say here is do not be afraid of what seems to be happening to the church in our times. The apparent end is not the end. It is actually its transition from one stage to the next in the church’s long and varied journey from the time of Christ – from the time of Abraham really – to the time of consummation when the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Whether this congregation closes or transforms itself into something else, that process will be empowered by people of faith who are willing to leave the familiar behind and journey with God to a new place God is longing to take us.
Are we there yet? Relax, folks, and enjoy the ride!
The Rev. Ted Hicks