posted May 9, 2010

Text of 2010 Baccalaureate Sermon

Keeping Your Back to the Future

Isaiah 30: 18-21
John 14:5-7 

By the Rev. Kate Davelaar, Chaplain, Hope College
Hope College Baccalaureate
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Dimnent Memorial Chapel 

 

Therefore, the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice, blessed are all those who wait for him. 

Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, "This is the way, walk in it." 

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  
 

Having to utilize your critical thinking skills while driving is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Much to my chagrin, more and more cars are equipped with systems that will tell you precisely where to turn, suggest where you may want to stop to eat, how much you'll pay for gas to get there and how many minutes until you arrive. And if you somehow still manage to mess it up, a sultry voice with the accent of your own choosing will gently let you know that it is "recalculating... recalculating... recalculating" until you are once again on track to your destination.  

I am aware that by God's grace some people are born with an "internal compass gene" and might pride themselves in not needing a GPS. I realize that for others, the GPS is a lifesaver and can indeed be of assistance in dire situations. And, it's not that I am anti-technological-advances, it is that I believe that in some respects Global Positioning Systems are making us stupider. Or, put more gently, less wise. This was demonstrated a couple years ago in an episode of the Office when Michael Scott, despite Dwight's resistance, is convinced the sultry voice in their car desires for him to drive right into Lake Scranton. 

Ahh, but you say, I would never follow a robotic voice - no matter how sultry - that blindly. I concur, Michael Scott does not seem to possess the most developed set of critical thinking skills. But while I don't doubt your obvious brilliance, graduates, at the same time I concur, I also caution: never say never. For if we pause to think about it even now, we would realize there are many voices that we follow quite blindly.  

I cannot help but wonder what exactly it is that we are drawn to about the GPS. Is it indeed the security we find in the directions, or is it the pride of being able to be self-sufficient and independent? Is it the comfort of knowing our errors can quickly be recalculated, or the convenience of being told exactly where to turn?Somehow, GPS enables us to both nurture our quest to be independent, while making us completely dependent on technology. As Eugene Peterson wisely said, the "technologized world knows how to make things, how to get places, but is not conspicuous for living well." (1) Or, to put it more simply, our GPS might keep us from getting lost - but it won't keep us from getting lost, if you know what I mean. 

We come from a line of people who have desired to live well. The ancient Hebrews, the people of God, were a people who, much like us, found themselves in cultural currents of progress.  They were a people who were so committed to the pursuit of God that they continued to live life in a way that set them apart from the culture that beckoned them to join in the cultivation of new and great civilizations.  Despite the allure of some of the greatest world civilizations, they were a people who kept to their own ways and maintained a counterculture that marked them as God's people.  

Yet, despite their commitment, the ancient Hebrews, to whom the prophet Isaiah was speaking, were a people who struggled, much like us, with idolatry - placing their trust in ways and means that were not the ways and means of God. In our Old Testament passage today, we find the prophet calling the people of Israel to find their strength not in their own ways but in their trust in God.  They are promised that whether they turn to the right, or to the left, they will hear a voice from behind them saying, "this is the way, walk in it."  

To understand the deeper significance of this, it is important to note that the ancient Hebrews had a much different understanding of time than we Westerners. (2) Unlike our understanding of time as linear - past, present and future--time for the Israelites was not a line but rather a destination, a focal point.  This destination, this focal point, was God.  The people of Israel were not working to move ahead, farther down the line, but to orient themselves to God - God who is source of all life. Since, at this point, God had revealed Godself most profoundly to their ancestors: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and others, the Hebrews sought to return to the Source - the ancient times. While we face the future, they literally faced the past. In some of our translations of the Hebrew text we find references to "the coming days" - referring to the future - a literal translation of the Hebrew, however, would be "in the behind days." (3)  Because the Hebrews faced the past, the days yet to come were behind them.  The Hebrews, in a very literal sense, backed into the future.  

When you keep your back to the future a few things happen. One, you are constantly aware of God's faithfulness. Looking back gives us the perspective that God has carried us through before and this bolsters our ability to trust that God will indeed carry us through again. This bolstering is essential, because the other thing that keeping our back to the future does is requires us to trust.  

Here's something I've realized about myself: I'm a careful stepper. Even when I'm walking forward. I have found on various hiking excursions - or even in simple walks around the block - I tend to be pretty cautious - particularly when the path in front of me is rocky, steeply declining or it is dark out. Some might say that I am simply a slow mover, but I prefer cautious stepper. You see, deep down inside I know that I actually am physically capable of moving faster...it's just that I am chicken. My mind is undoubtedly faster than my body, and so as I am gingerly moving down the path my mind has already envisioned a plethora of unnatural angles my joints will make with one simple misstep.  

Some of you might relate to this, and others of you are able to bound ahead of me without a care in the world. I am willing to bet, however, that if we were all traveling down the path backwards, the playing field would be leveled. We would all be equally disoriented.  I would imagine our steps would all become a bit more ginger and cautious. And, I would imagine, we would all equally welcome a voice to lead us on the way. 

The text tells us, "Your eyes shall see your Teacher, when you turn to the left or you turn to the right, your ears will a word behind you saying, this is the way, walk in it."

Could it be, that this voice is the voice of the very One who claims to be the way, the truth and the life?  

Often we skip over the way of Jesus to get to the truth of Jesus, but as author Eugene Peterson points out, "the way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus." (4) The way of Jesus is one that is participatory, one that we discover as we live Jesus in our homes and in our workplaces, with our friends and family. (5) The way of Jesus is one that is an alternative to the dominant ways of our world. The way of Jesus is a way of dependence, humility and obedience to God alone.  

And this way - the Way of Jesus - calls to us at the very core of our being. There is something about Jesus, about the Way of Jesus, that resonates with us and prompts us to wonder, to hope, to believe that this Way is indeed the truth and the life. That the true life is a life of peace and justice, that the real world is a world of beauty and spirituality. We long for this world and when we are given glimpses of this Way we long for it even more.

Keeping our back to the future and our eyes on Christ helps us to drown out the persistent voices that lure us to believe the truth of another way - that we are to do whatever it takes to get ahead, be the best, the smartest, the wealthiest, the most beautiful. And to seek after these things no matter the cost to our sanity and our health, no matter the cost to those around us, no matter the cost to God's good creation. Voices that do not calm but rather stir fear in us that we will never be good enough, that we will get left behind, that we will fail and never be loved for who we really are. Voices that leave us paralyzed in our decision making for fear of making the wrong choice. Do I take this job or that internship? Is this the person I am supposed to marry or not? Is it better to go to graduate school next fall or defer for a year? Should I live in this city or that one?  

The Word says, however, that when you turn to the left or when you turn to the right you will hear a voice behind you saying, "This is the way, walk in it." It is less about questioning whether it's this job, that program, this person, or that city, and more about trusting that you do know the way - and that Way is not simply a path, but a person.  

I know from conversations with many of you that some have a clear view of where you are headed--your bags are packed, your plans have been made and you have a only a few things to cross off your list before you settle into what is next. And others of you are not so sure. Your bags are also packed but your plans are still shifting and making it impossible to even write a list of things that need to get done. The challenge for all of us - all of us - regardless of plans we may or may not have, is to continue to keep our back to the future. Keep our eyes on Christ. For when our eyes are on Christ, though we may not always know where we are going, we can know who we are. Whose we are. We listen to the voice that has shown us that another way is indeed possible. That while the future is not ours to make, nor is it ours to fear for the One who is the Way has gone ahead to prepare the way.  

I am going to ask you to humor me one last time. I want you all - all of you, not just the graduates - if you are able to stand, now turn around and close your eyes. Listen again to the trustworthy and true Word of God: 

Whether you turn to the left or to the right, you will hear a voice behind you saying this is the way, walk in it. 

How can we know the way? They asked...Jesus replied, "I am the way, the truth and the life."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

 Footnotes:

(1)  Eugene Peterson, "The Jesus Way" (Eerdmans Publishing Co.:  Grand Rapids, MI, 2007), 28.

(2)  I am indebted to my colleague and teacher, Travis West, for the insights that follow regarding the worldview of the Ancient Hebrews.

(3)  Isaiah 2:2

(4)  Peterson, 4.

(5)  Ibid.