Staying the Course (1 Sam. 1:4-20; Heb. 10:15-25; Mk. 13:1-8)
“Staying the Course,” is an idiom that means sticking with a task until it’s done. The most commonly suggested derivation of the idiom is from sailing a ship in the same general direction it was charted to go by its captain in spite of exigencies. This explanation recognizes the need for modifications in the course and for steadiness toward the goal and for keeping at it until the goal is reached. First Baptist has been sailing now for over 163 years. We’re the oldest church in La Crosse, and one of the smallest. We haven’t always been as small as we are now, but that seems to me to be like one of those storms that causes course corrections rather than the call to “Abandon Ship!” And I, for one, think we’re on the right course.
On the other hand, there are lots of folks who think that the only course for old churches today is to abandon ship and try something completely different. Their argument is that, with our world experiencing more rapid change than ever before, there is no place for steady courses. We must find completely new ways to navigate and sail. There is, of course, no denying that there is much in our world that we have never seen before. The digital/ electronic revolution is accelerating every minute of every day, and those who deny it, or fail to keep up will be out of it, and in fact, already are. I know this to be true of myself no matter how hard I try, and have come to peace with being a dinosaur in many ways. Nonetheless, I still think that we need to stay the course of spreading the love of Jesus into the corners of our communities, all the way to the edges of the world, so that, in the old words of Jesus, God’s kingdom may come, and God’s will be done here on earth, as it always is in heaven. We could call what I’m talking about “perseverance,” as long as we don’t get too hard-edged about that word but understand it to include patience, gentleness, faithfulness, and another old word, constancy. New methods may be used to meet old goals of human wholeness.
Today’s texts are rich, but one theme they share is staying the course on our sometimes leaky ship of faith in the tension between staying the same and changing. Our Lessons name things that might have seemed new in biblical times and, so, be misunderstood or threatening, much as many of us are threatened by new things in our world. And, these texts encourage us to think about both new and old, and to stay the course in our lives of discipleship in the space between the two.
First, our Lessons teach us that, when God works in the world, although new things do happen, these new things usually grow out of old ones, even if their specific forms are surprising or new. In the Old Testament: Samuel’s calling was to be a judge and prophet in a time of great change, the coming of the monarchy to Israel (something that hadn’t happened in Israel before). Yet, the People of God had been governed through leaders before. What was new was growing out of what was old. Or take the piece of our story when Hannah prayed in a way that Eli the priest misunderstood. Perhaps he’d never seen a woman praying in that way. But, surely, faithful women had prayed, and prayed for sons, before. What was new was growing out of what was old. Eli just didn’t get it at first. (He was neither the first or last clergy not to get what people were up to, by the way.)
In the case of Hannah, she faced the scorn of her rival, the “there, there, dear,” attitude of her husband, and that misunderstanding of Eli the priest. Even God seemed part of the conspiracy. Hannah stood in the face of all of this, and took her need straight to the top, into the shrine at Shiloh, to God, and she stayed the course, in God’s face, until something happened and she knew she’d been heard.
The Epistle to the Hebrews insists, from first to last, that Jesus is a new and better way of access to God. Yet, God wasn’t new, nor was having access to God. Hebrews was probably written after the Temple was razed and sacrifices ended in 70 CE, so that the point of all those sacrificial images we find so difficult wasn’t a history lesson, but a way of saying that, in the new non-Temple world there was a new access to God through Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection using some of that difficult old sacrificial language: the new from the old. Hebrews 10 cites a passage from Jeremiah 31 about a New Covenant which the author of this Epistle sees fulfilled in Jesus’ work. But it wasn’t as if there hadn’t been covenants between God and the people of God before. The author of Hebrews filled Jeremiah’s ambiguous words with specificity about Jesus. What was new was growing out of what was old. Since both Jewish and Christian tradition hold that what is new grows out of what is old and traditional, it is crucial that God’s people know our traditions well in order to discern what God is really up to and to differentiate God’s work from mere fad. We can get carried away with the newness of our situation and become convinced that no one has ever faced what we do or had it as bad, unless we know what is old. So, lesson one, before we decide to Abandon Ship, let’s stay the course and discern what is genuinely God’s work in today’s world by looking for its roots in the tradition. What is new grows out of what is old. In other words, God is faithful, and we can depend upon God to be faithful forever and ever.
The Gospel reading this morning also reminds us that what is new grows out of what is old, but goes on to teach us to persevere and stay the course when the uproar all around us makes us afraid that our world is ending. We only read the first 8 verses of Mark 13, which are hard enough, but the rest of Mark 13 gets worse. It deals with the end of the world in a way similar to many documents from its time did. Mark used Jesus’ prediction that the Jerusalem Temple would not long survive him to speak to his congregation that lived just as or after that event had happened. Many thought that the end of the Temple meant the end of the world. In fact, Mark does use the end of the Temple to talk about the end of the world. In our reading, Mark’s Jesus encouraged disciples to be careful about mistaking the end of an institution for the end of everything. It’s easy to be fearful when institutions we depend upon are threatened. Jesus said, “Don’t be fooled by wars, rumours of wars, struggle, and earthquakes.” These things always threaten us in one way or another. In essence, Jesus said, “”Stay the course. Don’t be afraid of these things. God’s faithfulness is not tied to institutions.” The lesson for us really is that uproar is normal in the world. If we focus on the uproar and not on God, we will fear that the end of some things means the end of all things, rather than realizing that God is in charge of both the uproar and the end. And God is faithful to the end.
I have no doubt that the first readers of Mark feared that the fall of the Jerusalem Temple meant the end. It didn’t. Another generation thought that the end of what had become the Christian Roman Empire meant the end of the world. It didn’t. Another generation thought that the end of the first Christian millennium in 1000 CE meant the end. Nope! Another generation thought that, just over 50 years later, when the Church split East and West (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox we call them now) meant the end of the world. No end there. You will well remember that some people thought that 2000 was going to be it. In 2012 there was a silly movie that sent the nutbars scurrying to the Books of Daniel and Revelation to talk about the end. In much less grand ways, as we look around us at our small numbers, we worry about the end of our congregation. Jesus says, “Forget about it! Stay the course, the end is not yet. Life is messy. It always has been.” God knows that, and chose to come into the midst of our mess to dwell with us. The Hebrew words Immanu-el mean “God is with us,” which is how God chooses to be. There is no doubt that all of us long for an end to the mess – and God has promised that one day the Kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, but, until then, no matter how bad our particular version of wars, rumours of wars, struggle, uproar, and earthquake seems to be, we need to hear Jesus saying, “Do not be alarmed, this must take place, the end is not yet.” As far as our local congregation is concerned, we need to stop being afraid that “unless we do this, that or the other” or adopt this plan, or that style that the end will come to us as people or a church. We actually do pretty well at this. The call is still to look to God who is faithful, and in light of that, to look at ourselves and our world, and determine to minister in it as we can without fear.
A third lesson from this mornings readings is this: specific people and institutions may change and even pass away, but some things stay the same. Here we come back to that difficult reading from Hebrews. As I have said, the overarching theme of this Epistle (which is really more like a sermon than an letter), is that Jesus Christ is a new and improved, living way to God. The author sums it up by saying, since we do have a new and living way to approach God in Jesus, we should continue to trust in One who is faithful and constant. Let us draw near to God by holding fast to our conviction that Life is found in Jesus. That’s a wonderful internal goal for any congregation in any age.
At our Annual Meeting soon back 12 years ago our congregation adopted five basic values that define us. One of them has to do with our commitment to sharing our spiritual journeys together in order to help us draw near to God and to hold fast to our hope – trusting in God’s faithfulness. That’s one thing we can do no matter what the uproar or what’s new “out there.” We do not all have the same journey (thankfully), nor are we at the same place in our journeys, but seeing our pilgrimage as a shared journey of the Spirit is a basic key that doesn’t change. Stay the course together as we share our spiritual journeys together.
This interior journey has always been important to Christians, but the writer of Hebrews went beyond this internal goal, and encouraged us to go outward as well. Listen to these words:
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The word translated “to provoke” can mean “to irritate,” but it more often means to “stir up, encourage, rouse to activity.” Let’s think carefully about how we can encourage and spur one another on to love and good deeds. “Love and good deeds” have to do with mission out there in the world. Stay the course, with self-giving love, actively encouraging one another to do what makes for wholeness out there. God empowers us for this mission, as we gather to worship and to share our spiritual journeys together. Worship, by the way, is another of those five Core Values that define us as a congregation. We are committed to worship together, no matter what. As we worship God together, we also see one another face-to-face. Without seeing one another we forget one another rather than encouraging one another. We can do all these things even in the face of an end to familiar things. We should stay the course of being an encouraging people.
We never sing one of my favourite old hymns because, it is not easy to sing. It was written by John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, and one of it’s titles is “To Be a Pilgrim.” Here’s a version of the words:
They who would valiant be, ‘Gainst all disaster,
Let them in constancy, follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make them once relent
Their first avowed intent: To be a pilgrim.
Whoso beset us round with dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound, our strength the more is.
No foes shall stay our might; though we with giants fight,
We will make good our right to be a pilgrim.
Since, Lord, you do defend us with your Spirit,
We know we at the end shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! We’ll fear not what they say,
We’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.