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Apr 23, 2017

True North | Faithfulness

True North | Faithfulness

Passage: Proverbs 3:1-6

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Weekend Message

As you may know this particular Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, has a plethora of different names. It’s sometimes called “Low Sunday” which I don’t really think originated because of the small number of people who come to worship compared to Easter, but it has come to signify that. It’s also called Holy Humor Sunday which is a fairly ancient tradition rooted in the church father’s talking about how God played a practical joke on Satan in getting him to think that Jesus had been defeated, when in reality he ended up being resurrected. And so, churches that celebrate that will have services full of jokes and practical jokes and even, from what I’ve heard, do things where people get water poured on them-which may also be a reason for a Low Sunday. (I kind of like this idea, so we may try it out next year!) My favorite name for this Sunday though is Associate Pastor Sunday. It’s called that because this is the most popular Sunday for senior pastors to ask the associate pastor to preach. I would have loved for Scott to preach this Sunday, but because I knew that I was going to Spain for a mission trip and would be missing a couple of Sundays I felt like it would be good for me to preach this morning.

But, if I can be so honest, I really was not all that excited about it. As you all might imagine, for someone who only works one day a week, having to work three days during Holy Week is really exhausting! In all honesty, it’s not helped out by the subject for today’s service: faithfulness. I mean you have all the excitement from the previous week with a packed out sanctuary, musicians, flowers, the subject of hope and then you go to this and the subject of faithfulness. Yipee. If we’re honest, it’s just a bit hard to get as excited about. There was a piece of me that thought early on that maybe I should have picked a different subject to try and spice things up a bit, but as I thought about it more I realized that perhaps this is actually the perfect Sunday to talk about the subject of faithfulness. In fact, maybe we should call this “Faithful Sunday." 

But before we get into that, let’s think about what faithfulness is. In some ways this subject is a bit like humility, as I said a couple of weeks ago, where it’s easy to say we need to be humble or faithful, but it’s kind of hard to know how to talk about it or how to get there. Being faithful can mean being loyal or persevering with someone. Perhaps though, what is easier than defining faithfulness is simply being able to see someone who is faithful. And, if we’re going to do that then the right place to begin, it seems to me, is by looking at the faithfulness of God.

This, of course, is what the psalmist is doing in the 129th psalm that I read. As he looks back on his life he sees that though he has been attacked, though he has suffered, though he has gone through trial and tribulation, that God has not allowed him to be overcome. That God has been with him, perhaps even in times when he hasn’t been aware of it. It’s been pointed out that when, in verse 4 it says, “The Lord is righteous,” that doesn’t mean that God is “right” versus being “wrong.” Instead righteous in this situation means being in right relationship. In other words, God is a God of right relationship and so he establishes a relationship with us and then he sticks with it, he perseveres, he doesn’t let go. I love what Eugene Peterson says which is that, “The mistake we so often make is thinking that God’s interest and care for us waxes and wanes according to our spiritual temperature.” We, of course, oftentimes believe that because that is how from our perspective our relationships with God and others so often look. When we are down and out we go looking for a relationship with God, but when we’re doing okay we tend to forget him. Or, when we feel like a friend is treating us well then we will stick with him or her, but if we’ve been slighted then it may not take much for us to turn our attention elsewhere. But, God continues to be faithful no matter our particular temperament or desire at the time.

It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see in scripture how God is continually faithful to his people, in spite of the fact that his people so often gave him reason not to be. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of people turning their backs on him and saying, “We know better,” and yet God continues to love and provide for them. God calls Abram, who repeatedly lacks trust in God and yet, God sticks with him. Moses continually complains to God and yet God persists in loving and listening and speaking to him. The Israelites, oh the Israelites, turn away from God with remarkable regularity-they complain that they were better off in slavery, they build a golden calf to worship, they idolize the various gods in the countries in which they live and yet, and yet, God continues to love them. Jonah hears the call of God and decides to run away and yet God swallows him up with a giant fish and with his love and says, “Not so fast, I have not forgotten you even if you want me to.”

And then in the gospels we see intimately the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ, as he deals with his disciples. Peter, of course, is the prime example as he makes mistake after mistake. Whether it’s taking his eyes off of God and falling into the water or, as we talked about on Maundy Thursday, telling Jesus that he should wash all of Peter’s body or, most poignantly, denying Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, and yet when Jesus is raised from the dead he embraces Peter. James and John are overly concerned with whether they will be the best in God’s kingdom, Thomas is uncertain of whether or not he has been raised and several disciples, as we saw last week, doubted, and yet Jesus seems to not lose faith, to not easily be flummoxed, to relentlessly stay in right relationship with them. He doesn’t lose interest in them, he doesn’t give up hope, he doesn’t start over, he doesn’t move on to something that looks better, he just keeps plodding on with them. He remains faithful.

It’s so boring…and yet so remarkably beautiful. And it’s so different then what we are used to. We as a worship team were talking about this subject of faithfulness and someone brought up the phrase that, interestingly enough was coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, but then used as a book title by Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson. It’s the phrase, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” It’s really a great image for faithfulness. It’s not flashy or sexy, it’s just faithfully beautiful. A long obedience in the same direction.

Randy Frazee points out that oftentimes when we think of faithfulness we see it in the context of marriage. When I think about my relationship with Megan, without question some of the first things that come to my mind are the exciting experiences that we have had together. Our first dates, our honeymoon in Victoria, British Columbia, a trip to Niagara Falls or Paris or last summer celebrating our 10th anniversary in Santa Barbara. Those experiences are cherished and serve as important markers in our marriage.

That said, if our marriage was defined by those fun and exciting experiences then, truth be told, we would be in trouble. While it might appear to others who merely saw pictures of our explorations, that all was well, the reality is that a healthy marriage is shaped, not by those exciting excursions, but by the much more pedestrian and every day faithful actions. Faithfulness, that long obedience in the same direction, looks like listening and committing time to one another, and not allowing our children to usurp our relationship with one another and gentleness and enduring in times of struggle or pain.

One of the greatest, and most difficult parts of our marriage, was the first year that we lived in Grove City, Pennsylvania- a time when we left sunny San Diego for the cloudy domain of western PA. A time when we struggled with a newborn baby, relentless gray days, cars that kept breaking down, feelings of isolation, relentless gray days, questions of where God had gone, relentless gray days. Experiencing Megan’s continued faithfulness to me and love of me even when my job took us someplace she didn’t want to be was more beautiful than the most exotic trip we could have taken together. That doesn’t mean that we were walking around with great smiles on our faces or that we didn’t mess things up from time to time. It just means that we didn’t stop that daily grind of commitment. As Peterson says, “Perseverance doesn’t mean perfection, it means we keep going.” Faithfulness keeps going.

As I thought about the sermon this week I was reminded of what we talked about last Sunday. I mentioned that it was more than 80 miles from Jerusalem, where Easter occurred and where the disciples were, to a mountain in Galilee where Jesus told the disciples to meet him. Hope that they would be able to see the resurrected savior was what gave them the energy, joy and passion to keep going, keep walking, toward Galilee. But I would say that that journey is what we call faithfulness. The journey, the commitment to keep walking, whether we see God clearly or whether we are shrouded in clouds and darkness, is a long obedience in the same direction. It is faithfulness. That doesn’t mean, as we saw in the disciples last week, that there won’t be times of doubt or fear, but it does mean that in the midst of that we trust that God is with us and we keep walking toward Galilee. That our righteous God is the one who is committed to our relationship and will not leave us alone.

I hadn’t really thought about it like this before, but I think faithfulness, this journey to Galilee, is the reason why I continually talk about the importance of our faith being about more than just what happens in here on Sunday mornings. After last Sunday someone talked to me about how exciting that day was and how we can build off that excitement into the future. And what I realized was that while I loved the Easter services and the celebration that they were (and I really do!), that I know that much like the vacations a married couple might take, if that’s all our relationship with God is then it might look good in pictures but, quite honestly, it is unsustainable in the long run. What I look at when it comes to the health of our congregation is not how many people come on Easter Sunday or even on a more typical Sunday worship (though again those aren’t unimportant), but what kind of relationships are being formed in our community, how much are we connecting what we do in our jobs with who we are as Christ followers, how are our neighborhoods and world being shaped differently because of our witness.

Those are longer-term, enduring, not always immediately seen results. Those are steps of faithfulness. We come in here on Sunday mornings, we celebrate things like Easter and Christmas Eve because those things fill us with hope and joy, but then we start walking to Galilee and those are steps of faithfulness. We do this as a reflection of how God has been faithful to us. And Proverbs tells us that this faithfulness is something that we are to bind around our neck and write on the tablet of our hearts. As someone has said, this means that faithfulness (and loyalty) are to become a part of our nature. But that is not easily done. As Peterson says, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue…”]  

He is right, of course. Faithfulness is not something that comes naturally for most of us nor is it something that our culture encourages. In our psalm the psalmist talks about grass on the housetops that may grow up quickly, but then because the soil on the roof is so shallow the grass withers quickly when things get hot. It’s been said that this is much like our culture that is peppered with brief enthusiasms, but then quickly fades away. We like to go from one exciting experience to another and seem to have cultivated an inability to stick with something very long before being distracted by something else that is shiny and new. Patience and endurance are so difficult to come by. And so many things around us shape us to grow, not in faithfulness, in impatience and a lack of endurance and we may not even be aware of it.

Think about something like Netflix where instead of having to endure 8 or 9 months of a television series season all of the season’s episodes come out at once so that we can binge watch the whole series in a day or a weekend and never have to wait a whole week just for a new episode. Or we as a family record House Hunters and House Hunters International, never watching them live, because who can sit around 2 whole minutes to watch commercials! And then not long ago I ran into someone with an aol email address and it brought me back to the time when, to get on the internet, we would have to wait for it to dial up (make noise) and we’d wait and wait knowing that it would take a few minutes. Now, if my computer buffers for more than 2 seconds I start pulling out my hair. My point is not that we should watch commercials or shut off Netflix or see if we can get a dial up connection to the internet, but it is that we should be mindful of how we are being subtly shaped by the nature of our society to move from one exciting thing to the next and shapes us to crave instant gratification. The culture around us is not cultivating the long growing grass of faithfulness, but the grass that grows in short soil on the roof and is quickly burned up.

So then, how do we as followers of Jesus patiently cultivate the virtue of faithfulness? First, I think we do exactly what the psalmist was doing which is that we spend time reflecting on our lives and how we have experienced the faithfulness of God. Again, our faithfulness is steeped in the faithfulness of the Almighty who reveals to us what it means to persevere in right relationship. Perhaps this afternoon you can take a few minutes to remember the times when God has clearly been with you. As we say from time to time it is frequently in looking back that we see the hand of God in our lives. The more that we see how God has been faithful to us, the deeper our love and trust in him grows and the more our lives and our relationships become shaped by him.

I also think that we grow faithfulness by being mindful of how often, as I just said, the culture around us is cultivating the opposite- moving from one experience, one relationship, to the next and doing everything in a great hurry. This is the reason that Sabbath-slowing down-is so critical in our faith journey. When you go from one thing to the next you leave little time for reflection, little time for deepening. Where are those places in your relationship with God and with others where you are leaving space for listening, for being in the presence of the other? Meditating on the word for a few minutes each day may not be as exciting as Easter and putting down your phone to listen intently to your spouse or a friend may not be as thrilling as vacationing in Hawaii with them, but doing those things will lead to deeper, more faithful, more beautiful relationships. A long obedience in the same direction will not occur if you are skipping from one place to the next rather than taking the slow, sometimes slogging pace, of one step after another to Galilee. 

I also believe that we can grow in faithfulness by surrounding ourselves with those who have been found faithful. As most of you know I come from a divorced family and so I didn’t necessarily have the example growing up of what a faithful marriage looked like. And so, one summer during seminary and even for a period after I graduated I intentionally lived with older cousins of mine who had been married for 30 years or so at the time in order to experience what a healthy, faithful marriage looked like. To breathe it in, more than just reading about it in a book. What I discovered, much like the quote I used earlier, was not that this couple was perfect, but that man, they were lovingly committed to one another. And the experience of eating with them, laughing with them, seeing them disagree with one another in a healthy way, had a remarkable hand in shaping my marriage, in shaping how I understand faithfulness. I think that intentionally finding a mentor in the faith or getting engaged in home groups or simply developing relationships with others who are mature in their relationship with Jesus can help us to grow in our ability to experience what it means to be faithful, what it means to persevere in our relationships, what it means to go a long way in the same direction, what it means to walk to Galilee.

Whether we call this Low Sunday or Holy Humor Sunday or simply the 1st Sunday after Easter, I do like the sound of Faithful Sunday. I like it because it shows in short order the importance on one hand of celebrating the resurrection, of partying because of the hope we have in the risen savior and then on the other hand the critical nature of now walking toward Galilee, of being faithful to that hope that we have. Hope and celebration, Faithfulness and consistently walking-these are not things that stand in opposition to one another, but things that desperately need one another. To have one or the other is like hopping on one foot rather than running on two legs. So yes, let us be filled with the hope of our risen savior, but then let us faithfully walk with him and to him to Galilee, day after day after day. And in so doing will we reflect his faithfulness to us as well as experience the beauty of having gone a long distance in the same direction. May it be so. Amen.