"Surprises along the way"

August 16, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Hebrews 11:1 - 12:2

How many times over do we tell the same story? I keep forgetting which ones Iíve already told in previous sermons. I guess I could go back and see, but you know, the box in which I keep those old sermons is pretty big. It would take weeks to look through them all. Besides, Iím not sure I want to. Whatís wrong with repeating stories, other than that people grow tired of hearing them spoken one more time? How often should we repeat Bible stories, for instance? Could we even say that this is one reason we gather together every week - to hear these stories of God and his people told once more?

We probably could stand to hear them again, and again, and again. After all, as that gallery of Bible characters was lifted up in this morningís reading of the 11th chapter of Hebrews, did you know who they all were? Cain and Abel, perhaps. Enoch? Do you recall who he was? Who could forget Noah and Abraham, but how much can you remember about Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph? Probably more than that Enoch fellow! Moses ... everybody recalls something about Moses, but what about Rahab, Gideon, Samson, and Jephthah? Some better than others, right? Beyond King David in that gallery of the faithful, the names fall away and only the stories remain.

What about personal stories, tales of how God has been at work in our lives? I forget how many times Iíve told of certain experiences, and then somehow feel that youíll grow weary of hearing them. Like that summer Karen and I spent in Alaska. Itís hard to believe it was 14 years ago. Like a few other periods in my life, that summer was a pivotal time in my journey. Iím sure youíve had life-changing seasons of your own. Let me tell, again, my story.

The summer of 1984 followed a rough year. In it, my father died, my wife underwent major surgery, a relative went through a bout of mental illness, my in-lawís home was broken into, my sister divorced her husband. On top of it all, that year involved major make-it-or-break-it exams for me in graduate school. Perhaps youíve had years like that. Maybe youíre in the middle of one right now.

Anyway, that summer we were given the opportunity to travel to Alaska and work with a small church in Anchorage. It was wonderful - like a breath of fresh air on an oppressively hot and dry day. Because we had to travel light in our little car, I didnít bring many resources - just myself and a Bible or two. I discovered an inner resource I didnít think I had, and I shared it with those folks in that fellowship. More than the work I did among them, the summer of Ď84 proved to be a time for healing in the land of the midnight sun. God is good.

It was about this time in August that our walk with those people came to an end. We gathered to talk about the experience. For that occasion I wrote a story for them, a story which tied together my own pilgrimage of faith and theirs. It wasnít the best story I ever told. I wrote a song for them, also. I think they liked the song better than the story. The story was dark. It revealed a lot of my pain from the past year. In it I quoted some dark words written by Dietrich Bonnhoefer.

Bonhoefer lived during the dark days of Nazi Germany, trying to walk by faith through that Valley of the Shadow. His earthly story ended in a hangmanís noose, for his words of faith were too much to be tolerated by the powers-that-be. I quoted some of his words to those folks in Alaska - words about the necessity of human "pipe dreams" dying in order for the newness of Godís Kingdom to be born in us.

Afterward, Ava, a very perceptive and probing teenager in the group, asked me: "Do all your dreams have to die?... If all my dreams had to die, Iíd be tempted not to dream at all." Though she was talking about the death of dreams, her words spoke to me of that elusive thing called "Joy." "Dreams come true" are the sort of material of which "Joy" is made, is it not? Certainly that summer God had interrupted my dark life with "Joy."

There is something about dark times that creates in us a longing for joy. However, joy seems all-too-elusive, it easily escapes us, doesnít it? Deep and abiding joy... Itís different from plain old happiness... It doesnít have to be accompanied by laughter. Happiness and laughter, though, often follow in the wake of joy.... Deep and fulfilling joy. Itís not something that we can grasp, nor can we really claim it, though we can make choices that turn us in its direction.... Deep and uplighting joy... It turns up sometimes in the strangest of places.

The opportunity for us to travel to Alaska that summer came very unexpectedly. The possibility opened up at just the right moment, giving us hope to get through to the end of that devastating year. Later, I was to discover there were other, more qualified candidates for this job. Surprisingly, we were chosen - not because I was better than the others, but because this fellowship of 23 people saw in us a way in which they could minister as they were ministered to. In the profile I sent them, I openly admitted the pain of the past year, and the question of how much I felt I had to offer, not the sort of stuff one should put into a resume. Surprisingly, they committed themselves to the task of healing. And we were healed. Joy.

Joy is a surprise of God, for so often it catches us off guard. It strikes when we least expect it, and it revives us, again. Surprised by joy. This joy, flowing from the very heart of God, is a faith-based power which helps us - one could even say it propels us - to walk the pilgrim path. Along the pathway of faith there are many witnesses who surround us, personalities from the Bible, from church history, from our own family trees, characters who have experienced the journey of faith, and were surprised by joy along the way.

My cloud of witnesses includes those 23 people in Alaska. A sadness of this present year has been the discovery that that fellowship in Anchorage is no more. It died along the way as people moved on. I was also saddened to hear of the divorce of one of the couples in that group, a marriage we thought was pretty solid. I mention this in order to move past the idea that this cloud of witnesses with whom God surrounds us are perfect angels. Far from it my friends. Just look at that list of characters the 11th chapter of Hebrews reveals. We could remember only those parts of the story that put each of them in the most positive light, but real stories arenít like that.

Yes, Abraham did the right thing when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he messed up royally on other occasions. It could even be said that some of the mess today in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs goes back to his mistakes. Still, Abraham is remembered for his faith - his wife Sarah, too, even though she snickered at Godís possibilities for joy from behind the door of a tent.... Yes, their son Isaac (whose very name involves the possibility of laughter and joy) was a trusting soul, but he was blind to the conflict between his sons, an ignorance that didnít just begin on his deathbed when his youngest tricked him into a blessing belonging to his elder son. Still, Isaac is remembered for his faith....

Yes, Jacob is remembered for the name with which God renamed him: Israel, a name which is carried even to this day by those who call themselves Godís people. But that name, and the first one who wore it, reveals a real character who contends with everyone, including God, constantly wrestling with the Almighty for a blessing - a black sheep of sorts. Still, Jacob/Israel is remembered for his faith.... Yes, Joseph is remembered, though not for his coat of many colors and his dreams and his wisdom that ultimately saved his troublesome family from drought. In the book of Hebrews, Joseph is linked to the exodus in the Bibleís memory, a dark page that our Jewish friends pay more attention to than we do - it was the success of Joseph that paved the way for the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt. He was no perfect character, himself. Still, he is remembered for his faith....

Yes, Moses and David are lifted up for their roles in leading Godís people, but they were real characters, full of flaws themselves, holes in their identity which the Bible does not hide. The story includes it all. Still, they are remembered for their faith.... And then there are all those lesser-knowns, with the name Rahab at the top of the list. Yes, she opened her Jericho window to the spies of Israel, and thus made it possible for the walls of this fortress to come tumbling down. You do recall, however, her occupation? She was a prostitute. Still, Rehab, along with the others, is remembered for her faith.... No, this "cloud of witnesses" spoken of in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, is less a collection of perfect saints, and more a cast of characters with a sign "God at work" hanging in front of each one.

God surprised them with joy along the way - even, or especially, in the darkest moments, amid the darker sides of their identity. Of course, thereís more to the story, a joy that they couldnít receive even with all their faith. God has a habit of saving the best for last, of fulfilling promises in ways greater than the imagination can conceive. Our faith includes another character, Jesus. Talk about surprises, in Christ Jesus, God didnít just bless his people along the pathway of faith, God actually walked with them - with us. In fact, Jesus is the pioneer who walks ahead of us, leading the way home, taking our imperfect faith and molding it - molding us - into something far greater than our wildest imagination can picture. After all, we are no better than all those characters who walked before us, are we? Still, in a last-shall-be-first fashion, this rogueís gallery becomes the body of Christ. Along the way, we are surprised, surprised by ... "joy." Deep, abiding, fulfilling, uplifting "joy."

So, let me repeat the punch line, if you will, of the story, which is our story, something we need to remember again, and again: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside those things that weigh us down, be they hurts from the past, or unresolved feelings, or sinful thoughts - those things which weigh us down; let us lay them aside (carefully), and let us run the race, let us walk the journey of faith, the pilgrim path, with perseverance, with stick-to-it-ive-ness. Let us tread the path of faith, looking to Jesus, the greatest of all witnesses, the pioneer and perfector of faith. Let us look to Jesus who, instead of keeping joy in his pocket, dispersing a little here and there like fairy dust, chose instead to walk with us the pilgrim path. He made it through the darkest hour of all time, a story we will never forget; and because he made it through, so will we, if we keep on keeping on, walking by faith, and keeping our eyes upon him. His joy surprises us along the way, often when we least expect it.

©1998Peter L. Haynes

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