Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Recognizing a higher way"

Message preached March 11, 2007
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 55:1-13

Order of Worship

            When I was a teenager, my family attended the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren. Since then that congregation has built a new facility. Unlike the new one, however, the old sanctuary had a balcony, which is where I often sat when I was a teenager. That is, once my parents released me to sit where I wished on a Sunday morning. Going to church every week was a given in my family, you understand, but with age comes more freedoms, as well as responsibilities. For me, at age 15, "freedom" was the balcony.

            Now, the back row of the balcony - which is where I often chose to sit - is about as far as one can get from whatís happening up front, and still be among the gathered faithful. I must confess that I was not a very good listener. I cannot recall a single sermon I heard during those years. Then again, can you? There are times nowadays, when this inner teenager still wonders why anyone would listen to him. If the truth be told, this preacher is still trying to reach that teenager up on the back row of the balcony.

            In order to do so, over the years Iíve tried different ways of delivering the message. The latest, as youíre witnessing, is through the use of "power point" and images projected upon a screen. But there have been others - story sermons, dramas, portraying Biblical characters, leaving the pulpit and a manuscript behind, music. Speaking of which, when a song connects with scripture - like with "Isaiah 55," which I sang just a few minutes ago - it touches me deeper than my intellect. When it flows from within me, composed with my pen, even, I hear the voice of God.

            Hearing Godís voice. Did you know that in the Old Testament the word for obedience literally means "to hear." F.W. Young in the Interpreterís Dictionary of the Bible writes: "translators of the Bible are constantly faced with the problem of when to translate (this word) by Ďhearí and when by Ďobeyí" (III:580). Perhaps this confusion between the two can be helpful for us. You see, "obedience" is not a very popular word in our present vocabulary, especially when we link it up with the word "blind." We are frightened by zealots out there who live in "blind obedience" to what they perceive to be the truth. How else can one explain a terrorist who commits murder for a righteous cause?

            Closer to home, obedience is in ill-repute because we live in an age where each person must find his or her own way. "Be yourself," we tell our youth. Thatís fine advice in relation to peer pressure, but in the confusing experience of adolescence itís virtually meaningless. "How can I Ďbe myselfí when I donít know who that Ďselfí is?"

            Two weeks ago our Lenten focus was upon "Servanthood as Identity." The major point of my message on that day was that Jesus Christ is our magnetic north, so to speak. We orient ourselves in relation to him. Thatís the beginning place for our sense of identity as servants of the Lord. When it is said, "to thine own self be true," as Christians we discern this true self in orientation to Christ.

            Iím not sure the identity question is only for the high-hormone years of adolescence. I think we all struggle with it. However, to speak about obedience, now, I must interact with that boy-man who used to sit up in the back row of the balcony. During those teen years it was hard to figure out to whom I was accountable. Surely my parents back then were starting to recede into the background. Yes, I was still accountable to them, but a new day was dawning. There were my peers, some a good influence, others not so wise. What we call Ďpeer pressureí is really the beginning of a new sense of accountability. As a parent now, I recognize that peer pressure is not always a negative.

            By the way, the focus of my sermon last week was upon accountability, in our Lenten journey as servants of the Lord. Are you able to see the flow of this "Servanthood" voyage? We cannot speak of obedience until we ground ourselves in identity and accountability. All of us are accountable to God. The purpose of accountability, though, is not to get by with as much as you can without being penalized. Thatís how our society often views it. From a Christian perspective, the goal of accountability is to become like the One to whom we ultimately are accountable.

            A common thread woven through the patchwork of identity, accountability, and now obedience is the voice of God. When we say Jesus Christ is our magnetic north, so to speak, this is not some abstract concept. There is a voice - a very real voice - that draws us, like a magnet. Likewise, when we say that our goal is to become like Christ, there is a voice involved - a very real voice - that pulls us toward Godís future. This voice also attracts us to one another. In this blessed community we discover who we are and whose we are in a deeper way, supporting and challenging one another, helping each to hear the voice of God - perhaps even to speak for God.

            Helping each other to hear the voice of God. God was speaking to that teenager in the balcony so long ago. He still is. God is reaching out to all of us. Always has been. At this moment the Word is coming through Isaiah, chapter 55. "Word" ... "Voice" ... For all the wonderful things that happened with the invention of the printing press, one of the down-sides of moving so totally to ink on a page was the loss of a sense of Godís voice in these words. Printerís ink can become embalming fluid, as Eugene Peterson - author of The Message - once wrote. (Reversed Thunder, p. 13).Of course, we can also listen with our ears and still not hear God speak.

            Remember the confusion between "hear" and "obey" when translating the Old Testament? Well, this passage from Isaiah uses that word, "Shama," three times. In fact, at one point it is repeated for emphasis: "Shama shama." How would you translate that? "Listen carefully" ... "Listen as if your very life depends upon it" ... "Listen with your ears as well as your hands" ... The link between hearing and doing becomes obvious in the words that follow: "Listen, Listen to me and eat what is good, delight in my rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me. Listen, so that you may live" (Is. 55:2b-3a).

            This is the very same word that in Jeremiah 7:23 is translated as "Obey my voice and I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in the ways that I have commanded you." Obedience is intimately connected with listening. You cannot have one without the other. In our common walk with Christ, have you ever noticed that whenever we fail to listen, we stop following his voice? Likewise, when we quit seeking the Lord, when we no longer are trying to walk the walk of Jesus, we arenít listening to his voice. The two go together. Obedience is listening and listening is obedience.

            In this day of equal rights, we have a hard time with obedience - because it implies an inequality. After all, itís a slave who obeys the voice of a master, isnít it? The problem is, for all our talk of equality, we are slaves of whatever captures our attention. Listen to Isaiah talk the talk: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" (55:2a) To quote a song my teenage rock band used to sing, "I canít get no satisfaction." Not the best grammar, but thatís the inner place to which Godís voice is speaking. We are slaves of whatever captures our attention, whatever gives us some satisfaction.

            As Iíve said many times, to be obedient to God is to listen so intently that our body is leaning in the direction of Godís voice. Itís hard to lean without that foot just automatically stepping out, and before you know it youíre moving down the path in which God is leading you. But walking that walk depends upon hearing that Voice.

            As I see it, "blind obedience" is obeying without really listening. Listening can be a troublesome thing, for we may hear conflicting words. Sometimes obedience is standing still until the truth becomes clear. Many times obedience is an uphill climb, going against the flow, not following the crowd. More often than Iíd care to admit, true obedience can be "blind," trusting the voice when every other sense registers nothing. The path takes a turn around a bend and there is no guarantee what lies beyond it except that voice which beckons onward... Just make sure itís the right voice, folks!

            One more thing about obedience, to which I alluded last week. Obedience is a direction not a conclusion. When we Brethren speak of baptism, we call it an ordinance, not a sacrament. By that we imply a listening to Godís voice, a divine command, a marching "order" (an "ordinance" is connected to an "order"). We hear Godís directions, and step out into Godís direction. Thus baptism and the other ordinances, are not ends in and of themselves. They are not conclusions. They are not the goal, the end of the journey. Instead, through these ordinances and through Godís Word we hear the direction in which God is leading us. We harken - that is, we listen with our whole being - to Godís Voice and follow in the Way of Christ.

            Obedience is thus a direction in which we travel. The compass exists not merely so that we know where we are. Our compass helps us to journey toward where Christ is leading us. Along the way, we "trust and obey." There really is, as the old hymn says, "no other way to be happy with Jesus." By faith we lean into the voice of God drawing us forward, pulling us onward, calling us upward. Obedience is a direction, not a conclusion.

            That teenager in the back pew of the balcony? He still is there inside me, you know. Just because Iím a preacher now doesnít mean Iíve graduated to the front pew. Hardly. But you know what? God speaks in the balcony also. Always has, always will. By the way, next week in our Lenten journey through Servanthood, weíll visit a distant, "balcony" sort of place and wonder just how far a person can wander from God. Not only is Servanthood a direction instead of a conclusion, it also is a two-way street? Our listening, our obedience is not a Pavlovian experiment, with God conditioning us to salivate whenever a divine bell is rung. Servanthood is an intimate relationship with Someone who loves us enough to let us go. This love is what makes obedience possible. Shall we continue listening together?

(para traducir a espaŮol, presione la bandera de EspaŮa)


©2007 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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