Jeremiah 15:15-21; Matthew 16:21-28
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 03 September 2017
As you all may know, Krystal, Clarice, Eli, and myself like to hike trails. I liked to hike and explore long before moving to Alaska. There is, however, a difference between walking and walking with children, especially when your legs are as long as mine.
I of course am not really complaining about kids. They are ready to explore almost any time. The long walking isn’t even that big of a deal for them. When you join their pace of walking and exploring, everything is fantastic.
The issue is that I, and likely you as well, are not always the best leaders.
Going somewhere as a group has two dimensions to it. It insinuates that there is something or someone leading, maybe many, and as we can see with Jeremiah, he seems to think that the one leading has lost concern for the one following. When that happens, then following becomes a chore worth complaining about.
Following also insinuates that the follower is paying attention. It assumes that complaints are out of genuine care for where we are all going, not just self-interest or unwillingness to face difficulty. It takes at least two committed and active participants to pull the whole thing off.
Last Sunday after church, we went on a hike. We went to the trailhead of the Winner Creek Trail just outside of Girdwood. It was beautiful. Many of you have been there, and told us to go. Keep in mind next time you suggest a trail that more instructions would have helped, at least for us.
I took pictures of mushrooms with vibrant colors as they ate the layers of decaying matter under foot. I walked on pillows of soil covered with carpets of soft moss and grass.
I listened as the stream rushed in a mad race to get through the rocks. I listened later as the same stream gently washed along the rocks with what seemed like all the time in the world.
I scrambled through the brush, looking for heavy shrubs full of plump wild blueberries. We were not disappointed. I would share them with you, but we ate all that we could carry. I have much to learn from Chris and Jim Walker about sharing the literal fruits of our hiking labor.
It was a wonderful day. And then we made it to the Hotel Alyeska.
It was then that Krystal and I realized our fate. We had walked the entire trail, with all its beauty and gentle persuasions, and had failed to consider the direct path away from our vehicle that we had just finished.
One option was to turn back. But when children’s feet are already tired, old pathways hurt all the more. So we began the 5 mile walk through Alyeska and Girdwood, back to our vehicle.
Well, almost. I took Ranger with me, and we walked as quickly as my legs can travel, back to the pickup, while Krystal, Clarice, and Eli walked a similar, yet much shorter path to the Double Musky.
It was a long walk, and in a hurry so as to make it back before the restaurant closed. As ranger and I walked, he hit high alert on a couple of occasions, which was confirmed when on our drive back down the same road, two bears came bounding across the road in front of us.
I had a beer at the Double Musky.
When I read through the Jeremiah reading for today, I could immediately relate. Well, not quite. He was concerned with the destruction of a city. My legs burned. But nonetheless, I could have said his words in a prayer of utter complaint.
“Why is my pain unceasing, my wounds incurable? Truly God, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
Honestly! It was the water that lead us astray. After all, the trail traveled along water much of the time. Of course then God said to Jeremiah. “If you turn back I will take you back.”
Yeah, that seems great, and obvious, but I still have to walk back, and this time even farther than I came! And there was a sign warning about a moose kill. Turning back is not without its own risks.
Jeremiah is a notorious whiner, much worse than my children. But I am sure that whining is something I know nothing about. I can hear his complaint to God. “Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
It is okay to not know whether what God is leading us to do will work out or not. How do we even know we are heading in the direction best suited for the situation? We don’t, and in those moments when it seems God must have checked out, and it seems that we have lost connection with the pervasive presence of God that rests with us, complaint is maybe the correct response. Even a fair bit of whining is in good order from time to time.
That is because this faith is not all roses. The gospel, the good news of Christ, never committed to being a constant comfort. It can even be quite offensive at times. There is bound to be suffering and turmoil. It reveals things in us we would rather not deal with.
The Gospel might even reveal that parts of our lives and us which have given us great pride, may be at least less honorable than we would have hoped.
Jesus cared for pretty much everyone, but he didn’t necessarily just let people off the hook. Caring for someone does not always mean that they are right, or that in the caring for people, they won’t be offended and even disgusted.
Can you imagine how people felt when Jesus told them that if they wanted to follow him, they must take up their own cross, and carry the suffering of their community on their own backs. And not so that they will lose their life, but because this sacrificial service was the only way they could find it.
Keeping a straight face is not the fullest sign of this kind of faith. Happiness as we often think of it is not directly connected to God’s love being present. Welcome to the Way of Jesus. This is your good news. Try to advertise that in the paper.
On second thought, why not share this good news, in the words of Jeremiah:
“Is your life troubled? Do you sometimes wonder why difficulty seems to win so often? Why no matter how hard we try, life remains a struggle? When complaining is the last word on your lips, maybe you are really following God. Join us on Sunday mornings as we worship the un-flowing and deceitful brook with moaning complaints.”
I do not approve of this message, but there is a kind of truth in it.
It seems to me that what God said to Jeremiah, that he just had to turn around and head in a different direction, is very much like what Jesus is to have said in Matthew. He said: “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
There are different ways to hear this quote. Some scholars consider Jesus to be an apocalyptic preacher, that he was teaching in a Jewish tradition that believed the end of the age was near, and that many present would live past that ending time.
Paul’s letters hold some similar ideas. If you read first and second Thessalonians with this in mind, you can see it. In first Thessalonians, Paul is writing to a new gathering of followers of Jesus, and he himself seems to be of the mind that Jesus will return very soon.
Of course, that did not happen in the way they anticipated, so when Paul wrote again in response to the church’s concern when some of their members had already died, Paul had to expand his understanding, or at least explain it more fully.
He said that for those that had already died, when Jesus returned, they would rise with the gathered church. Of course , as we know, that didn’t happen in any of their lifetimes in the way they apparently assumed it would.
So maybe there are other ways of imagining what Jesus was saying, other ways of thinking about the return of Jesus besides the ways we may have been taught as children, what is called under various names, millennialism. Millennialism claims that at some future date Jesus will come back and conquer the world and defeat the forces of evil.
But that isn’t the only way to think about the return of Jesus, and not the only option given in the Bible either.
In the same gospel story of Matthew, we can read that people saw Jesus after the resurrection. They didn’t always recognize him at first, but at some point, some of them did. Jesus sent Mary Magdalene from the tomb, the first to see, to tell the others. As she was speaking to others, Jesus appeared to them also. In other gospel stories, people do not recognize Jesus until they eat with him.
There was also a guard in Matthew, who went to tell the religious leaders what had happened, what he had seen. But they could not or maybe would not allow themselves to see it. They convinced the soldier that they must be wrong, or at least paid them enough to forget.
There were some who did not taste death before they saw the return of Jesus. There were those who were not at the tomb, who upon hearing the good news, saw it themselves.
What exactly did they see? We are not certain. What does seeing really mean in this instance? Did they see and experience the presence of God returned like they did when they were with Jesus? Apparently so!
The realm of God is happening all around us, but we just don’t notice it most of the time. Sometimes we get a glimpse, and as sure as I can see you here today, we know the presence of God is right here. But words to explain are inadequate, and we can’t force that present knowing feeling to return on demand.
It is like we are similar to Jeremiah. It depends on our perspective in the moment. Maybe if we just turn around, we will stare straight into the eye of it, and see it clearly. Sometimes, as with Jeremiah, it might even take a verbalized complaint to motivate our turn.
Walks with children can turn from a leisurely stroll into a sort of child death march very quickly. That may seem to be an exaggeration, but I suppose that depends upon who’s perspective you are more sympathetic to.
Living the gospel is difficult. It requires carrying our own figurative and literal crosses. Yet it is no thing at all. It is pervading creation all around us, and we just struggle to see it. Jesus is under no illusions as he speaks to his followers. “Are you willing to take up your cross?” “Are you willing to question everything you think matters?” “Are you willing to let go of your own pride and share the burdens with others who need help with their own burden?”
It’s not about being a martyr. But if we think following Jesus will confirm all of our current ideas and always make us comfortable, then we have not been paying attention to what Jesus was saying. Sometimes we have to stop and turn around. Then begin walking back the other way, relinquishing all we have made self-important in our current direction.
Honestly, if the living out of your faith doesn’t compel you to the point of complaint at times, to a moment of letting go of your current direction, of groaning under the weight of the cross you are called to bear, then maybe you need to turn another direction, turn back, just as God said to Jeremiah.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing the wrong things. It doesn’t mean that our work towards, and our faith in, the Way of Jesus is in vein; quite possibly to the contrary.
The struggle is sometimes where this fullness of life Jesus speaks of is found. It is often in the disruptions and difficulties that we face while striving to follow Jesus that we pause for but a brief moment, and see the realm of God all around us and throughout us.
The question is whether we have the eyes to see it, the ears to hear it, the faith to believe it, and maybe the caring enough to call out in a loud complaint for God to revive us and head us in an ever new direction.
Following and complaining depends on one’s perspective. Jesus as the example and fullness of our faith, leads us, struggling and complaining, rejoicing and hoping, proclaiming that through it all, God is always within our grasp, and the sting of death can never break that embrace. Amen