Sermon: The Journey Of Faith: The End Is The Beginning
Scripture: Acts 16
Date: September 16, 2018
You know, I have recently realized that the biggest problem I have with God’s call on my life has always been that I’m never really sure where He was calling me to go. Oh I have certainly known the ultimate destination, of course. Heaven. Eternal life. The home that God has been preparing for me, really since the moment of creation. My problem is not with the ultimate destination, but rather in knowing exactly how I’m going to get there. When I set out on a journey I need to have every moment planned. I carefully lay out the route in my mind including a pretty good idea where I will stop along the way for meals and gas and where I’ll stay overnight. And if I don’t have everything laid out then I am likely to start worrying about things far in advance. I try to eliminate all the risks before I even start. My journeys always lack spontaneity. I have been so focused on the destination, that I have many times struggled with the path that my journey has taken me on. And so in my faith journey, time and again, just when I have thought that I knew where the path was going, God has stepped in and said, “you know, I think I want you to follow me down this path instead.” I love the poetry of Robert Frost and in his poem “The Road Not Taken” he wrote about a traveler that in his journey came to a crossroads, and his thought process in deciding which road to take. And finally he makes this decision and Frost writes:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
And then Frost concludes with these words:
I shall be telling this with a sigh.
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
When I was young and just starting out in life, I wanted that to be my epitaph. I wanted to live my life thinking that the choice would always be mine and that I would more often than not choose the less traveled road, but now that I am older and most of the crossroads of my life are behind me, I can see that the choice of paths was never mine to make. That whenever I came to a crossroads in my journey of discipleship it was really not my decision to make, but instead God always laid the path out for me. And the decision has never been which path to take when I have come to the crossroads. No the decision has always been to be faithful or not and when I have decided to follow God, no matter where He is leading me, that is what has made all the difference. Ultimately Discipleship is not about choosing a path to take. It is all about choosing to follow Christ along whatever path He has laid out for us. But the problem is that the paths that God chooses for us are usually the ones with a high degree of uncertainty when it comes to destination and so they are the ones with the greatest risk. Perhaps the prophet Amos expresses it best when he writes: “(The journey of faith is) as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or he went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him.” Consequently most often the journey of faith is full of danger and uncertainty, uncomfortable. Think about the Jews enslaved in Egypt. When they began to follow Moses, they had a vague understanding that somewhere out there was a promised land that their ancestors knew but the only concept of it were from stories told around the campfire. They had been enslaved in Egypt for more than 200 years. None of them had any first hand knowledge of what the land was like, or even where it was. For most, the hope that they placed in Moses to lead them extended little farther than the border of Egypt. Moses was their deliverer from the Egyptians. Lead us out of this wretched life of slavery in Egypt, Moses. And he did. But when they got out of Egypt and into the desert wilderness, many started to say, “This is where you have led us Moses? Out of enslavement in Egypt to death wandering in this wilderness.” You see, they thought that the hard part was going to be beginning the journey, rather than in the journey itself. But when they began to face the dangers and uncertainties of the wilderness, they started to question Moses’ sense of direction and his leadership and lament the choice they had made to leave their life in Egypt. And out in the wilderness, hungry and thirsty and scared, not sure where they were going, some began to say, “Let’s go back to Egypt.” Because, you see, on this journey of faith it is always much easier to see where we’ve been, then it is to see where we are going. But the truth is that when God calls us to follow, He cares nothing about where we’ve been. God is all about where we are. Because God knows that if we are faithful and willing to risk the journey, the destination will take care of itself in the fullness of time- in the fullness of God’s time.
When I was young, I believed that my life would ultimately be defined by the choices that I would make along the way, but now that I am older I have come to realize that the illusion of choice is in a sense the greatest barrier that Satan places in our path of faith, because ultimately there is only one choice that we will make that will make all the difference in the ultimate destination and that is to follow Christ wherever He leads us. Which brings us, I think, to this story from the book of Acts.
Somewhere around the year 50 A.D., the Apostle Paul heard the call to hit the road again. Now, I say again, because Paul had already made one journey in response to God’s call. And it had been an arduous journey. He had faced much opposition along the way. To the church at Corinth he described the journey that God had called him to as dangerous and hard. He wrote: “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.” And in perhaps the most telling statement of all he says, “I travelled a long way, never quite sure where I was headed, all to end up back where I had begun.” Because no matter where Paul went, he always found himself back on the Damascus road, and the choice he made to follow Christ wherever He lead. Often times in our journey of faith, we end up back at the beginning. I think that’s how it is with this journey that we’re on. The beginning and the end, are the same, because God’s call is not to a destination. His call is to follow, to journey with Him, wherever He leads. And so God calls Paul to follow once more. And once again Paul went. Left the comforts and safety and the certainties of his home in Antioch where he had returned at the end of his first journey and followed Jesus. Because for Paul the End was really just the beginning. And recalling Jesus’ words to one who said he would follow Him wherever He led “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Paul set out again, because for him this was not a new call on his life, but just the continuation of the journey that he had chosen on the Damascus road. You see, what we perceive as a new call, a change, a new path, is really a continuation of the journey that we began when Christ first called us. It is true for us and it is true for the church. And so Paul set out on what we have called his second journey, but for Paul there would have been no such distinction. It was the continuation of the same journey. For Paul, every ending was just a new beginning. And one of his first stops was at the city of Lystra in what is now Turkey. Paul had been to Lystra a few years before and had worked hard to build a Christian Community there. And when he left Lystra, he left behind a group of followers, most notably a Jewish convert by the name of Eunice and her mother Lois, who, legend has it, allowed Paul to meet in their home. And so as he came to Lystra this second time, he went to the house of Eunice and Lois, anxious to renew their acquaintance and to be reunited with the group of Christians that met in their home. But he was most anxious to meet Eunice’s young, teen age son by the name of Timothy. In the time that he had been away Paul exchanged correspondence with several of those who he had led to Christ in Lystra. Now though none of that correspondence has ever been found we can surmise that several had commended Timothy to the Apostle and had shared about his inquisitiveness and desire to know more about Jesus. So Paul was anxious to meet him. The bond was instantaneous and Paul addresses Timothy as he would a son. And so this second time that Paul traveled to Lystra, the Spirit led him to Timothy and Paul took him under his wing. And when Paul heard the Spirit’s call to continue the journey beyond Lystra, he wanted to take Timothy with him. But Paul would not have done that without first getting permission from his mother. And though we don’t have any record of the conversation I suspect it might have gone like this: “Madam, your son is a fine young man. Mature in his faith beyond his years. During these past days, he has become as a son to me. And when I leave Lystra I would like to take Timothy with me on my journey. But I would not do that without your blessing.” And Eunice probably said, “But Brother Paul he’s so young. Can you at least tell me where you are headed, Rabbi? Where will you take my son.” And I can only imagine that Paul might have gazed down the road and said something like this: “In the morning we will follow the Spirit of God down that road. I do not know what our destination will be. I only know that when Jesus met me on the Damascus Road several years ago, I said I would follow Him no matter where He might lead. And that’s what I must do.” You see for Paul it was the journey not the destination that had become his life. We think that we are presented with a lot of choices in life’s journey but for the Christian, for the disciples of Christ, there is really only one choice and that is whether or not to follow wherever He leads us. Several years later Paul, an old man writing from prison talked about the journey of faith as a race, and he writes to Timothy: I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, and now there is set before me a crown of righteousness. The writer of Hebrews said much the same thing in the 12th chapter of his writing he describes the journey like this: let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Now I’m going to say something shocking here that you might find hard to believe at first but I can assure you that it’s true: I have never been much of a runner. I have run a few sprints in my life but most often finished last, and I have never run a marathon. In fact, I probably have not run a total of 26 miles in my entire adult life, much less in one event. But I have known a lot of runners in my life. And I have never known a marathoner who talked about winning the race. Because the joy, the satisfaction, for most marathoners is in running the race that has been set out for them. The beginning and the end has little to do with the way we run the race. God’s call on our life is not to a destination. No. He calls us to the journey wherever the Spirit might lead. It’s a call to follow Him to life, no matter where the path leads. The journey of faith often has many starts and stops. There are many times when we think that we are facing new paths, new beginnings, but the truth is that there is really only one journey, only one path. We often don’t know the destination, or how we are going to get to where we think we need to be. All we know is that we are to follow. That’s why I love this story from Acts. From Lystra where Timothy joined the journey, Luke tells us that at first they “traveled from town strengthening the churches that Paul had previously established and the churches grew daily in numbers. Paul wanted to continue visiting places he’d been before. To visit with old friends. Walk familiar paths. But that wasn’t his choice to make and instead the Holy Spirit led them into the unknown territory in Macedonia and witness about Jesus. Every time Paul had a different destination in mind, the Spirit would intervene and call them to someplace else, most often into the unknown. Too often in my own faith journey I have decided that I am where I am supposed to be, God has lead me someplace else. What I perceive to be the end, is really just the beginning. And when I struggle, when I get lost, it is because I have become too focused on the destination rather than the journey.
The Olympic marathon is the oldest event of the Olympic Games. In our modern day summer olympics, it is always the last event contested. And here’s the thing, the place where the marathon ends is also the place where it begins. The journey begins and ends at the exact same place in the Olympic stadium. Usually the runners start and run a lap or two around the stadium track while the crowd roars, and they cross the start line with each lap they take, but those times are not new beginnings but rather a continuation of the journey. And then the runners head out of the stadium into the unknown and unseen countryside to travel a course that is laid out for them and for 26 miles they follow that course, no matter where it may lead. No shortcuts. They can’t decide to take another route or they’ll be disqualified. Unable to finish. The only choice to make is to start and after that the journey is laid out for them. Sometimes runners fall in exhaustion, sometimes they hit the wall and can’t go on, sometimes they take wrong turns. Because the journey is always hard, it goes up and down hills, around blind corners, to the unknown and back. It is full of risks. But twenty six miles later, those who persevere, who keep the faith re-enter the stadium the same way they left it, run a couple of laps around the stadium track to the roar of the crowd, and whether you are the first to enter the stadium, or the last, the crowd still roars, and they finish the race by crossing the start/ finish line. And often times it is when the last runner steps across the finish line that the closing ceremony begins. And the closing ceremony ends when the torch is passed to the next place where the olympics are going to be held. And so the journey continues and the call goes out to the athletes of the world to gather at the next stop along the journey. Because the end is the beginning, and ultimately it is what happens in between that makes for the journey, that makes all the difference in our faith, following Christ wherever He leads. And those crossroads we come to, those new beginnings we think we have come to, are really not, don’t really call on us to make a new choice, because we have already made our choice. The beginning and the end of our journey is in the decision to follow the path that God lays out for us.