Pioneer Days

Message preached October 8, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Psalm 8 and
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

"Go west, young man!" I heard those words speak very personally to me half my life ago. The call was as clear to me as it may have been for the pioneers who made their way across this continent in a previous century. Of course, I had no visions of covered wagons and dusty trails, just a general sense of wanderlust to chart out new territory, to head where Iíd never been. Then I met my wife to be, who had already traveled about as far west as she desired. For her, the wind spoke, "return east, young woman!"

Today, we shared our "godspeed" with one of our sisters who is heading west this month. While I imagine there is a sense of excitement over new horizons on the Pacific coast for Maggie, her journey is not fueled by wanderlust but rather by necessity. Her health requires it. Though wanderlust and necessity can (and often do) walk hand in hand, they have very different roots. One is full of itself, marveling at possibilities, conscious that the only thing that gets in the way is an imagination which is too small. The other is full of the immensity of what lies beyond our control, very aware that we donít get to choose what happens to us in life. Instead, our decisions come in how we respond.

The eighth Psalm flows out of the well of wanderlust. It does so, however, in a way different from what we so often hear in the world around us. We have only to turn to the recent games in Sydney. In the background rang out the Olympic anthem. In the foreground were competitors reaching for the stars, each on their own journey toward perfection. A gold medal was placed around the best (at least the best on that particular day). We crowned them with glory and honor. They ruled, at least for a moment. In so doing, we celebrated the glory of our common humanity. The sky over Australia seemed to be the only limit ... for now, that is.

Psalm 8 is likewise full of itself - the glory and honor of humankind, the power that we have over this world. The earth is in our hands, the psalmist sings. Of course, there is a difference between the Olympic refrain as it is often portrayed and this scriptural song of celebration. Psalm 8 does not begin, nor does it end in the glory of men and women, but in the majesty of the One who created them.

"O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" The real glory, the real honor, the real power of this world does not originate, nor does it ultimately rest upon us. It resides in God, our alpha and our omega, our beginning and end. Yes, the sky is the limit for us, but the sky, as well as the earth, belongs to the Lord. "You have set your glory above the heavens," the Psalmist sings out to God for us, and this mighty fortress of a truth finds its echo in the most fragile form of human existence. "Out of the mouths of babes and infants" springs forth the awesome majesty of God, before which all are speechless, even those who doubt Godís existence. (8:1-2) Thatís the real beginning point of the journey - the pilgrimage called "worship," or the expedition known as "life."

We aspire to greatness, because greatness has called us forth. "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;" the Psalmist wonders (and we wonder also), "what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet..." (8:3-6)

This is the Magna Carta of manifest destiny, the well out of which flows the spirit of wanderlust. Our fore parents headed across this awesome continent as pioneers with this in mind, for better or worse, consciously or not. I may not have put it into such words in earlier days, but that was also what lay behind the calling I heard to "go west, young man." When youíre at the threshold of your life, the sky is the limit, and the world feels like itís in your hands. It needs to be added, however, that such a sense of "dominion" over the earth, of control over your destiny (the destination of your journey) is tempered in Psalm 8 with the same words ending this song as what began it. "O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (8:9) It all begins and ends with the glory of God.

Of course, as I said, itís not always wanderlust that leads us forward. In many cases, itís necessity that drives us onward. For our sister Maggie, itís arthritis and asthma that have caused her journey. For so many immigrants to our country, the harsh conditions in their homelands, as well as the scarcity of opportunity on the east coast led them to pile their possessions in a covered wagon and head west. Necessity and wanderlust sometimes walk hand in hand.

Along the way we discover or more fully realize that, more often than not, we are not in control, that "dominion" is but a word. Yes, those athletes in Sydney were at the pinnacle of their prowess. However, their "dominion" was but a brief moment in time, wonderful as it was. Other forces kick in - like aging, gravity, and the consequences of years of subduing the body to make it attain the heights. Not that a person shouldnít attempt such a journey, but every path exacts its own toll. And there is so much in life over which we have no control.

The writer of this morningís scripture from the letter to the Hebrews makes this very point. After quoting the psalm, about human beings crowned with glory and honor, with dominion, with control over the earth, we are asked whether this is how we really experience life. Do we really see everything under our control? Of course not. If the truth be told, most of life feels beyond of our control.

Even when we take good care of our bodies, things still happen. My father, for instance, took excellent care of himself. He jogged every day, ate well, paid attention to his health. Even so, when he was 65 cancer was discovered in his prostate gland. Four years later he died. Things happen which are beyond our control. By saying that, I donít wish to imply that we shouldnít take care of our bodies, or that we should approach life as helpless and hopeless creatures. Neither do I wish to negate what I said last week about prayer and anointing. I believe, as brother James said, that "the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." (5:16b) Had it not been for a prayerful and hopeful outlook, my father would have died much earlier.

Nevertheless, there is much in life over which we have little control. The pioneers of an earlier era knew that full well. This journey called life has many perils along the way. We donít get to choose what happens to us. We do, however, get to choose how we will respond. This morningís scripture is helpful in this regard. It provides food for making choices.

This New Testament epistle, Hebrews, has been described as a Letter to Pilgrims, persons who are on a journey, whether by the demands of necessity or the spirit of wanderlust. Sometimes the two are one in the same. In itís original setting, Hebrews spoke to people who felt their world was controlled by unseen cosmic forces - angels. Now, mention of angels to us today brings to mind cherubic little figurines or beautiful women who glow with light from above when they speak. Thatís not how the original recipients of this letter saw things.

Yes, interest in angels is at an all time high at present, but these creatures are domesticated. Have you read any of the new age books on them? In most cases, angels are presented as benevolent powers which can be called upon whenever we need them. They almost seem to be under our control, existing just for us. Thatís not how the Bible speaks of angels. Thatís certainly not how the original readers of this letter saw them. If anything, angels were feared. Practically every step in lifeís journey was seen as controlled by some unseen force that could trip you up at a momentís notice.

We donít necessarily see angels, good or bad, at every crossroads in our lives today, but we do seem to live at the mercy of forces beyond us - an accident waiting to happen, an unforeseen demotion just around the bend from a major purchase, an illness lurking ready to pounce, the uncertainty of raising children who grow up and make their own choices (good and bad), the unfaithfulness of a spouse... The list could be endless, and if we focused our attention upon all the ways things can and do go wrong, weíd never get out of bed in the morning.

"As it is," the letter to the Hebrews say, "we donít see everything under (our) control." As our youth might say, "Duh!" Thatís an understatement. "However, we do see Jesus." With this focal point, Hebrews reinterprets Psalm 8. The writer places Jesus at that vulnerable point, the place at which we all exist, where we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control - contrary to the picture the Psalmist painted. "We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels. He is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone." (2:9)

The writer of this letter adapts Psalm 8, a song of God-inspired wanderlust, into a song for those who find themselves on the road by necessity, who feel their lives are anything but under their control... Remember that old gospel song? "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace." (by Helen H. Lemmel, ©1922, by Singspiration Music) Thatís a guiding light for the journey. Think of the lighthouse that kept ships of old off the unseen rocks which threatened to end their voyage. Think of the land ships which crossed the west in the 19th century by focusing upon a high position down the path, like Chimney Rock in Nebraska. Better still, think of the scout who traveled ahead of the wagon train, checking out the terrain, marking the path, pointing the way.

Thatís what Hebrews says about Jesus. As is written later in this epistle (12:2), Jesus is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (NRSV), "the author and finisher" (NKJV), "the leader and instructor" (Living), "the source and the goal" (Philips), "on whom our faith depends from start to finish" (NEB).

Indeed, we donít see everything under our control. Often, itís very little that we have "dominion" over. Now, we can choose to become out-of-control ourselves, or to give up the journey, or allow ourselves to be controlled by other powers than the majesty of God. On the other hand, however, we can choose to stay focused upon Jesus, to follow the path upon which he is leading us, knowing he has already paved the way. Interestingly, when we choose this road, the sky is the limit. Furthermore, the only thing that gets in the way is an imagination which is too small.

©2000 Peter L. Haynes

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