On the Road (Ps. 77; Gal. 5:1,13-25; Lk. 9:51-62)
Years ago, the CBS Evening News used to have a weekly human interest feature called On the Road in which Charles Kuralt introduced viewers to unusual stories and people, out in the highways and back roads of the USA. Kuralt is long gone, but, in more recent times, on Fridays, the correspondent Steve Hartman (not the one who was a minister in Wisconsin) has revived the “On the Road” segment. He always seems to be going somewhere. In the old days, Kuralt was happy enough sometimes to introduce viewers to quirky, or odd folks. The newer ones almost always have a “feel-good,” sometimes almost moralistic tone to them. In both the case of the old and the new segments, however, it’s the correspondent who’s really on the road, and simply invites viewers along for a look at what he’s found, and before long, at least this viewer finds himself inside the lesson of the story.
Well, the Bible is also full of stories about life on the road to someplace other than where we are. In many of these stories, we are asked to look and listen to the characters at first, but before we’re done, we’re also asked, at least in our imaginations, to go with them. In the Bible the main character is usually God, although the human co-stars sometimes attract more attention. It all began, in a way, when the first couple were sent out of the Garden of Eden to – well, we’re not sure just where – but it’s someplace other than where they were. Later, Abram and Sarai were called to leave their country and kin and go to the land God would show them, and even to change their names along the way. Their family, their descendants, lived there in that land for a long time until, they went down into Egypt, and spent a long time there, not all of it pleasant, to be sure. As I said earlier, God was the prime-mover in all these biblical “on the road” segments. Next, God brought them out and led them back to that land, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of Canaan, where they established themselves as a nation, and King David set aside Jerusalem to be the centre of that land and his son Solomon built a Temple to the God who moved them all and went with them. But, then, they were divided into two nations, and each was conquered and sent someplace else again – into captivity, some to be heard of no more. But some from the little kingdom of Judah did want to go back home to Jerusalem. From their exile, a Psalmist sadly sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not place Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Psalm 137:5-6).
Now, in the New Testament, Jesus sent his disciples to be his witnesses outward from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. At the close of the Christian Bible, John the Seer spoke of the climax of things as centering on a heavenly Jerusalem, coming down to earth, so that the dwelling of God could be with humans for eternity (so much for life in heaven forever). It seems as if most things and people in the Bible are either headed from somewhere to Jerusalem or from Jerusalem to somewhere. And, as I said, as we really read these stories, we may participate as journeyers in our imagination, from there to here and back again. And God is along all the way.
The implication of all that is that all roads either lead home or away from home, sometimes by very round-about ways. The singers of the 77th Psalm lived somewhere in a hard time and place a long way from home it would seem. Their song is hard:
I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that the LORD might hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
You and I know that song, although our specific words may be a little different. We know what it’s like to be under pressure every day with one thing or another, with aging or sickness, or trouble in the family or at work or at home. Whether it’s our trouble or someone else’s, it continues. If we continue to read of these singers’ journeys, we can also understand how all this trouble on the road can cause people, even godly ones, to raise questions with and about God. The Hebrews were inveterate questioners of God and God’s ways. “Have I done something? Is God punishing or ignoring me? In Psalm 77 it goes this way:
Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favourable? Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever? Are God’s promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Will this nightmare-journey ever be over. Our pew Bible politely translates verse 10: “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” Let me translate this a little differently: “It makes me sick that the goodness of God seems to have changed.” And, maybe, I can add, “And I don’t know why.” “How did it happen that I thought I was following God, and, now, it seems like I’m in the wilderness by myself – away from Jerusalem, to keep the biblical figure of speech going.”
For those of you who were here last Sunday morning, you know that I lamented from the pulpit the kind of journey we’re on as a nation as concerns violence. On a different level, week by week, we share things together, some in this hour, some over refreshments around the tables. Some of it is about the difficult places in which we our families are walking now. Week by week we name those who are in need, and I am conscious, as we do it, we leave out more than we name. Some weeks I see ten or more people who come to the church door needing assistance of one kind or another, rarely less than 5 or 6, plus phone calls. The journey is not easy.
In our Gospel lesson we read, in Luke 9:51 that Jesus…”set his face to go to Jerusalem,” or, in other words, made a conscious decision to go there. Now, Luke’s first readers would have known that Jerusalem was the centre of the Jewish world, and, above all, where Jews were “home.” They would also have known an uglier side of Jerusalem, the side that murdered God’s prophets, who were those inconvenient voices from the outside that told the people and their leaders that they were on the wrong road. They would have also known that Jesus met his death there in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish world. Well, in spite of this ambiguous nature of Jerusalem, Jesus “set his face” to go there, as the right place for the Messiah to go. Luke’s Gospel is unique among the four in gathering many of Jesus’ deeds and words that the other Gospels settle in a town, as learning for the road to Jerusalem. Luke is telling readers not to be too content with settled, tranquil life, with building institutions. Rather, follow Jesus to all that awaits in Jerusalem. Later on, in Acts, it’s, of course, from Jerusalem that the disciples, full of the Spirit of the Resurrection and Pentecost, set out on another journey to the ends of the earth. The life of discipleship is lived “on the road,” and Jesus’ teaching is bread for the journey. Faith, trust in God through Jesus, is found on the road. The road to Jerusalem becomes a metaphor in Luke.
The singer of Psalm 77 discovered and reminds us that the road is not always smooth. It contains ruts and bumps, washed out places, hills, and sharp curves. In Luke 9, almost immediately Jesus encounters bad road conditions when he meets opposition from the Samaritans, those kin of the Jews who had followed a different path. They were miffed that Jesus didn’t settle down with them, and insisted on being on his road instead. And we, too, may encounter those who are more interested in settled life than in walking the ever changing road of discipleship, and are miffed when our agenda doesn’t match theirs.
In Luke’s story Jesus and the disciples also meet some folks who say they’d like to come along, but discover they cannot either because they don’t want to face the inconvenience of life on the road. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Don’t expect the road to Jerusalem to be a picnic. Those of us in a small congregation know that some folks would rather come to church to hide and just sit. It’s hard to hide on the road.
Jesus also meets folks who, again, say they’d like to come along on the journey, but have got more pressing things they need to do somewhere else on another road. I get mail and phone calls quite frequently from folks who want us to have a very different kind of work that we have found to do on this road. Such experiences are common to disciples on the road. Keep on the road and don’t give up.
To change our view to the Apostle Paul. He, too, was a man of many struggles, and he, too, was on the road for much of his Christian ministry. He knew of the difficult places of life, the rough spots in the road. In his day Paul was a great champion of freedom in Christ. In our Epistle from Galatians 5, he spoke passionately against the danger of settling into what he called bondage to rules and regulations, rather than life with Jesus for others on the road.
To write these things couldn’t have been easy for Paul who, we know struggled with his former life when he, without the bat of an eye, divided people into eternal categories. He described himself in the interesting words of Romans chapter 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (v. 15). And, most of us can identify with Paul. We struggle with our own humanness. We not only read these texts, but they read us.
The bottom line of all these passages is not to be fooled by the road conditions. The passages all say that following Jesus does not mean a static, stable life, but life on the road, with changes, with ups and downs, life in which institutions are less important than people. They all contribute to the idea that, in spite of the difficulties, we are still together on the road to the right place. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the way.
On that road we also need to remember that Jesus refused to call fire down on those who wouldn’t come along on the road. He basically said only that the outcome of not joining in the journey was not going on the journey or arriving with him in Jerusalem . I don’t think that this was intended to be ominous or threatening, but, rather, an encouragement to those who are on the journey to keep on toward the goal, sometimes just a step at a time. And it’s hard to see the goal sometimes.
From Paul in Galatians, we can learn that beyond the struggle to reduce life on the road to a list of rules to follow, is the hope of the freedom in the Spirit’s nine-fold fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. But the fruit only comes by patient cultivation.
About halfway through Psalm 77, the psalmist stops singing about the difficulties on the road and turns to a reflection on the traditions of Israel’s faith – namely familiar words about God’s work of subduing chaos in the interest of well-being at creation and God’s saving act of bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt at the Red Sea. As the psalmist remembers these familiar traditions there is a transformation. Now, when Hebrews remembered something it meant that they internalized the tradition and re-imagined it in the present. Although the psalmist’s external situation was not changed, the internal situation was altered by imagining how it could be if God both created and liberated anew today. In this transformation was the discovery that the psalmist was, as it were, still on the way to Jerusalem, to wholeness, to a new orientation, a new way of seeing things, a new vision of hope and light, even though none of that was apparent. And we can follow that path. We’re not in Jerusalem yet, but we’re on the way.
I love the way the 77th Psalm ends. The psalmist has just remembered the old words about God’s creative power in the creation of the mighty waters and the dividing of the mighty waters of the Red Sea as freedom came from slavery. The Bible says much of these things. In this recital of them, however, there is a unique feature, found nowhere else in the Bible so far as I know. At the end, the psalmist addresses God:
Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
I think that the words “Yet your footprints were unseen,” speaks to the reality of the stony road, and the need for faith to risk ourselves that this very road still leads home to Jerusalem. We may think that the road of faith was easier to walk in Bible times because God’s acts were so visible. We forget that the Bible was written by people who are reflecting afterwards on the basis of faith. The psalmist is certain that God’s way had led through the sea, but who can see footprints in water? Even in Bible times God’s “footprints” were not seen by physical eyes, but by the eyes of faith, just as they are now. The last words of the text imply that God’s invisible footprints are made visible in company with those who share the journey with us, in this case, with mentors like Moses and Aaron. God has given all of us, mentors and one another as those who, together, make God’s footprints through the sea visible, and help us to trust that we’re on the way; on “the road where faith is found.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.