I preached this sermon at Cornwall Christian Church on July 15, 2012. I am a leader at Cornwall Church and get to preach 2-3 times a year. I decided to take a risk with this one, and write a literary sermon that showed my Inklings influences–in this case, people like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Frederick Buechner. Most immediately, I have been reading A Horse and His Boy to my 7 year old son, Nicolas. I would typically preach from a lengthy outline, and give space to the oral-aural spontaneity I love about preaching. This time, though, I decided to try a full manuscript approach, and began writing about three weeks before (including this blog, Pilgrims and Slaves in the Valley of Contemporary Culture, a good false start). I think the sermon went well, and I’ve printed it here largely unchanged (including leaving in some specifically Cornwall moments). I’d love comments and critiques if you have them.
The Road Goes Ever On
I’d like you to imagine, this morning, that life is like a journey. As Christians this shouldn’t be too hard. Believers throughout history have always spoken of their faith journey. St. Augustine’s Confessions is a journey of faith, and in Pilgrim’s Progress—and some of us here performed the story as a play many years ago—the main character, Christian, is called from his comfortable life to an uncertain pilgrimage. Similarly, in C.S. Lewis’ fifth Narnian chronicle, The Horse and His Boy, the character Shasta is on a sort of conversion pilgrimage, where his literal journey from his fishing village, through the great city of Tashbaan, across the vast Calormene deserts and into Narnia through the mountains of Archenland is also a journey of faith discovery.
Both the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther were converted on the road, though it was the way they walked down that road that made the difference in the end. And Frodo and Sam, the innocent hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings set out on the journey of unlikely heroes. Their impossible road, which seems to go on forever, begins in a tight bond of friendship in a circle of heroes, but ends in the slow inching of two Halflings toward certain death and probable failure. It is in the Lord of the Rings, I believe, that we see most clearly in fiction the long journey of the Via Delarosa, the Way of Suffering of Christ as he stumbles down the Road to Calvary.
Christian artists have always imagined life as a pilgrimage, faith as an “on the road” experience. This idea of pilgrimage makes sense because our own faith began with a journey:
“Now Joseph [and Mary] also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:5, KJV).
The salvation history of the Jews begins with Moses’ iconic call to Pharaoh, the great oppressor of the ages,
“Let my people go, so that they may make pilgrimage into the wilderness to worship” (Exo 10:3).
And between the pounding hoofs of Pharaoh’s army and crashing waves of the Red Sea, God provided an unlikely path for the Hebrews to flee from oppression and find their God in the desert. The book of Numbers talks about their story of 40 years in the wilderness, but in Hebrew we call that book “Wanderings,” again an image of life as a journey, even if it is a detour.
In a real sense, the journey theme begins with the father of all our faith, Abraham. Then, just Abram, a pagan priest’s son, he hears the voice of the invisible God speak out of the Assyrian desert:
“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go…” (Gen 12:1a).
It is Abraham’s story—what his grandson Jacob would later call “the pilgrimage of my fathers” (Gen 47:9). It is the great unknown of Abraham’s story, that he is told by an invisible voice from the sky to leave everything he loves and “go”—he isn’t told to go to Canaan, but to “go to the place I will show you” (Gen 12:1b). And God’s voice is silent until, months or years after Abraham is called, after miles of trustful walking, he hears God speak again at the great tree of Moreh:
“To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen 12:7).
Such is often the nature of the journey of faith.
What can we learn from the journeys that have gone before? I think there are four key things.
1. We are Called to the Journey
While our experience of God might not be a voice from the sky like Abraham’s, or a voice from the light like Paul’s, or an angelic visitation like Mary or Joseph’s, we are all called to the journey. Augustine heard the calling, believe it or not, within the chanting of a children’s skipping song. And Martin Luther, frightened by a violent storm while following his father’s path for his life, found salvation beneath a tree. Shasta’s journey in The Horse and His Boy began by chance: an overheard conversation and an unlikely ally. And Frodo’s began involuntarily, as he was thrust into the road by the fate of all Middle Earth. What of Christ? His first steps on the Via Delarosa began with the first paving stones of the world.
What about you? How did your journey begin? Mine began by the story of a preacher, his face shadowed by the flickering light of a campfire—the preacher was here last week, actually. Some of you began the journey quite young, as children, within the rhythms and patterns of church and family. I’ll bet some of you have quite a supernatural beginning, something akin to a dream or vision or voice in the desert. Others of you were thrust on the road involuntarily, like Frodo, pulled into an adventure you neither wanted nor could even imagine. Some of you are just beginning, taking those first few steps; others of you haven’t yet begun in earnest.
Now, I am going to do something quite unfair here, and move on to the next big point. This means I am only focusing on the “big picture” of the adventure we are called to. If any of you are like me, though, you are absolutely desperate to see around that next bend in the road, to know what God’s plan for your life is. As Sixpence None the Richer sings:
Yes, we, should like to see
A burning bush type sign
But anything would be fine
Their question, written before they had any musical success, was whether they should give up the band, “pack up our tents and shut down the show,” they sang. Intriguingly, this turned out to be their breakout album, but they couldn’t see that from the studio floor.
Wouldn’t we all like a Burning Bush type sign? I really do think these are important questions—jobs, kids, schools, travels, projects, hopes, dreams, fears—we will talk about them sometime. But the heartbreaking truth about life’s journey is that the road goes on in a way we cannot predict—we can never peak around the corner. I’ll return to this idea in the last point.
2. It Will Probably Be a Road Marked With Suffering
The second truth we find from the story of pilgrims is that the road we are on is, most likely, a road marked with suffering.
Now, there is a school of thought within North American Christianity that disagrees with me. They teach that God will, within fiscal timelines I’m told, repay twice or thrice or tenfold with actual financial blessing the obedience of the Christian. While I have no doubt that God blesses, I just happen to think that God may choose to bless us the way he chose to bless Job: if you recall God took away all his possessions, all his children, all his community influence, and plunged him into sickness. I suggest this is a subtly different blessing than the Florida pastors are promising.
Now let’s look at our pilgrims. Abraham was promised three things:
- He would father many nations.
- He would receive the Promised Land.
- He would be a blessing to the whole world.
When he died, many decades after this promise, he was living in exile from the Promised Land, with a small family of warring grandsons, completely unknown to the world. All he owned of the Promised Land was a field with Sarah’s grave—which he paid too much for. It was 400 years before his people became a nation, 450 years before they trickled into the Promised Land again, and 1800 years before the blessing to the nations began to show some promise. Abraham’s way was marked by suffering and the blessings of God took millennia.
The pattern is clear: Moses’ way was plagued by problems, Martin Luther spent his best years in hiding, and Mary watched on as the universe crushed her firstborn on Calvary. Frodo’s way to Mordor is a passion, a suffering like Christ’s, and Shasta’s way becomes increasingly painful as he races toward Narnia. And Paul, oh Paul:
24 Five times I received from the Jewish authorities the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (1 Cor 11:24-28, NIV)
Anyone what the job of apostle? I think the song we sing captures the way of Christ pilgrimage:
Blessed Be Your Name by Matt Redman
Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name
Blessed Be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name
Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say
Blessed be Your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s ‘all as it should be’
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name
It doesn’t sound very promising, but the thing that Christ promises us most is that our way will be hard. See, the Christian life is not about how much God blesses us, but about us blessing him. I mean, look at the cross—what can you and I do compared with that? (This idea is probably the most culturally inappropriate message I have ever preached.)
3. We Won’t Be Alone on The Journey
The way will be hard, but we are promised that we will not be alone on this journey. After Jesus finished commanding his disciples to go throughout the world—ah, see, the journey isn’t just promised, but commanded—he leaves them these words,
“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
Not just “I will be with you,” but “I am with you” … “always” … “to the End.” Sometimes it takes hearing things more than once to really believe it.
God was with Abraham and the Israelites in the desert, and with Paul as he floated a night and a day on the open sea. God was with Augustine at his desk, and Martin Luther in his Tower. In the stories of Pilgrim’s Progress and The Lord of the Rings, God’s presence is felt by the hand of Providence, happy accidents, chance encounters, water and help and friendship and hope found at just the last minute, and eucatastrophes, that invented word of Tolkien that describes how a disastrous event can be the hinge moment for good.
In Shasta’s long Narnian flight, he felt he was completely alone, but to Nicolas and I as we read the book, Aslan’s presence—Aslan is the Christ-figure in Narnia (I think most good books have a Christ figure, and in Narnia it takes the form of a lion)—Aslan’s presence was completely obvious. All throughout the book the characters meet exactly who they are supposed to meet, and overhear just the right information needed to be successful on their journey. Even more obviously, though, wild lions chase Shasta through the night and in his terror he meets new friends. A small cat stays with him in the darkness and fright of a night in a graveyard. A lion chases his fellowship toward a wise hermit’s house and gives Shasta the opportunity to be brave. And a lion walks beside Shasta in the dark fog of a wandering night, and only in the morning did Shasta realize he was on a cliff’s edge.
Often unseen, painfully invisible, seemingly absent, and surprisingly providential, God is with us on our journey. For Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, Christ is the 4th figure walking with them in the fires of persecution. For Jacob, Christ is the angel wrestling with him as Jacob fights through his issues of identity and calling. For Elijah, Christ’s voice is in the silence.
I know many of you feel like you‘ve been walking this journey alone. Like Frodo, your fellowship has broken. Your family doesn’t understand. Your friends have moved on. Your church has let you down—I know, I know: we’ve let you down. But you are not alone. I don’t know why, but it has to be like this sometimes. It seems that God does great things in the desert: it was in the desert that he called Abraham, and formed the nation of Israel, and turned Paul into the man who brought Christianity to the Western world. God works in the deserts, in the detours. But why we feel so alone sometimes, I don’t know.
But we are not alone, not any of us. Christ is in our accidents and our chance meetings, our coworkers and friends and even in our enemies, and he is even with us in our tragedies, turning them into the twist in the story where things go good. If you feel like you are walking alone, I’d encourage you to reach out to another. But know this: you are not alone. You never have been. Shasta was found as an infant floating next to the sea and raised as a near slave in a fishing village. It was Aslan who had pushed the child’s boat close to shore in the first place.
4. Our Path Will Change the World in Ways we Never Could Have Predicted
Finally, and some of you will find this last Pilgrim’s lesson unbelievable, our path will change the world in ways we never could have predicted.
In a way, this statement is unfair. We are looking at the great stories, after all, and not everyone will be an Abraham, Moses, Paul, Augustine or Luther. History is filled with largely two-bit actors, people who lived and raised children and made soup and then died. I think that’s a fair critique: most of us will die without altering the path of the entire world in a dramatic way. Even our pilgrims: Abraham died a nobody, Moses didn’t get into the Promised Land, and Luther saw more blood than faith. When Paul died—he was beheaded by Nero in Rome—there couldn’t have been more than 60 or 70,000 Christians in the whole world. And if you read his letters, things didn’t seem to be going well in his own churches. Usually the world changers don’t ever see the world change.
But it is the principle that I think matters: we cannot see the path the way that God can. I don’t think Moses had much of a plan passed “Let my people Go!” Abraham and Christian’s journey had no known destination, just the calling. Paul rarely had an exit plan when he went into a city. And Frodo begins the great march to Mordor saying,
“I will take the ring, though I do not know the way” (Book II, “The Council of Eldrond”).
In all things though, Providence is in the know. God can see all paths, and I don’t think any one of ours is insignificant. C.S. Lewis once said, “you have never met a mere mortal”—every one of us is eternal, essential, immortal. Certainly the people who have changed my life were pretty mundane: camp leaders, youth group volunteers, friends and office workers. And I stand up here with the insane hope that I will change your life—not in vanity, but in the realization that we are all being worked into a grand story. All of our journeys have a purpose: they are both pilgrimages and adventures in that we are going somewhere and meeting Someone.
This is why we cannot peak around the corner, look past the bend in the road. If we do—if we try to choose the path ourselves—we may be successful. But God’s imagination is much bigger than ours. Shasta’s journey to escape his village was the catalyst to save an entire kingdom. We are all, in our own stories, like small stones that begin an avalanche. We never know where our story will go.
As we round the bend on this journey, all I can do is encourage you to launch onto the path with trust, and persevere through hardship. I can promise you that it will be worth it, and it will shape the future of humanity, but you might not live long enough to find out if I’m even telling you the truth. Instead, I will leave you with a benediction … of sorts.
Often our benedictions sound something like this: “May every valley bow beneath you and the road rise up to meet you.” It is a blessing of safety and ease. I don’t believe in this benediction, simply because it rarely happens that way, and ease and comfort are surely the enemies of the Pilgrim. Instead, when I give benedictions, I pray that “God will be with you as the path slips out beneath your feet and as the valleys threaten to choke you out.”
There is one prayer, however, that is for me an alternative to the anti-benediction that rises up in my heart. It is the lively song of Bilbo Baggins—Frodo’s uncle—as he releases the ring of power and walks away from his life in the Shire:
The Road Goes Ever On by Bilbo Baggins
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say
The road goes ever on. See you on the road.