Isaiah 30:18-21; John 14:1-7
1st Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s; 21.2.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
One of my brothers lives in the Highlands in Scotland and over the last few years has become something of a long-distance walker. He loves nothing better than to leave behind his pretty stressful job as a primary school head teacher and head off into the mountains to walk and camp. He recently completed a 350 mile round walk of the West Highlands, and is planning an even longer walk this summer, twice that distance. With each expedition he has learnt to further reduce the amount he takes with him. Initially he found he was taking things he just didn’t need – too many books, too much food. But now he has pared it down to the bare essentials. No tent or tentpoles, instead some rope and a light tarpaulin sheet to make a lightweight shelter under the trees; no groundsheet or camping mat – instead a hammock; less food – now he looks out for mushrooms and berries as he walks. He has learnt what are the key essentials for his expeditions.
We too are on an expedition, a spiritual journey if you like. We too may experience in life awe-inspiring mountaintop vistas just as my brother has in the highlands, as well as foggy valley bottoms; we may experience wonderful springy turf under our feet, giving us energy and life, as well as those sucking, damp bogs, that drain us and exhaust us. There may be times when our path seems clear before us and we can stride forward confidently, and there may be times of confusion when there are too many paths to choose from or no path at all. And on our journey through life, we need to know what essentials to take with us. Have we got what we need? Are we overloaded or under-prepared?
Lent is an excellent time to stop and review what we are taking with us on our journey through life, and over the next few weeks we are going to look at what essentials we may need for the journey, things that give us nourishment, wisdom, security and refreshment. And today we start with those things that help us to know our destination and our direction of travel, our map and compass for life.
When walking, especially out in the mountains, if you don’t have a clear sense of your destination, if you don’t have a clear sense of your direction of travel, it is very easy to get lost, to get disheartened, to give up and turn around. In our journey through life, the same is true. And thus the words that Jesus speaks to his disciples are ones so important for us to hear.
In our gospel reading, it is the evening of the last supper. Jesus has just washed the feet of his disciples, an act of staggering love and humility, but one the disciples struggle to understand. He then speaks of Judas’ betrayal, and how Peter will also deny him. One senses there is a heaviness, a disquiet, within the room, a sense of bewilderment too: “Where is this leading to? Where is the journey going to end?” And into that confusion Jesus speaks these words: “Do not be troubled; trust in me; I am going to go ahead of you to prepare a place where you are heading. Indeed, I will come back to you to show you the way.” In the midst of their confusion and despair, Jesus speaks of their final destination and how he will direct them to it.
Those words are for us too. Much of these last few months has been confusing and worrying, as we have sought to come to terms with lockdowns, infection rates, what we can and can’t do, as we’ve struggled with greater isolation and less contact with family and friends, as we’ve seen loved ones die. I know how real grief is for many of us at this time. There may have been times when like the disciples we may have wanted to shout: “where is all this heading, what is all this about?”
Well Jesus points us ahead to our final destination: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms”, he says. “I am going there to prepare a place for you.” Our calling, our final destination, is to be in the life-giving, joy-giving, awe-inspiring presence of almighty God for the rest of eternity. In the words of the 23rd Psalm, “to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”. Just ponder that for a moment. The life we live here is important, it does matter, but it takes on a different perspective in the light of eternity. Our struggles, no matter how great, are temporary; our challenges, no matter how long, are transient; in comparison to the life that awaits us. Death is not the end, but the doorway into the life that we were always made for: a life of worship, a life of relationship in the presence of God. Christ has gone ahead of us to make that life possible.
It has been my experience over the years that often it is those who have experienced most injustice in this life, those who have faced the grinding reality of daily poverty, who hold the clearest sense of their heavenly destination, who receive greatest hope in knowing that a place has been prepared for them in eternity. Its not about escapism; it is about finding perspective and hope.
For some of us, we may feel that we are approaching the end of our lives, whether that may be in 10, 20 or 30 years time. We are more conscious than we once were of our mortality. As we face that reality, we can take great hope in these words. Death is not our end; for our destination is dwelling in the very presence of God.
For others of us, maybe even for all of us, knowing our final destination, does not always help us to find our way in the day-to-day. The mist descends, or a ridge appears to block the horizon, or we find ourselves walking through trees obscuring our view. How then do we know the way? It is the question that Thomas asks.
Isaiah, speaking to the people of Israel at a time of confusion and lost direction, spoke of how God, their teacher, would say to them “This is the way; walk in it”. Jesus goes further. He answers Thomas not with “this is the way”, but with “I am the way”. Jesus is our compass. It is his life, his actions, his words, his example that continually shows us our direction of travel, even when the way ahead feels obscured. There are days when maybe we feel we just don’t know how to get through it, how we will find a path to the other end. In such moments, looking to the example of Christ can help us.
A few years ago at Christian festivals and events, it became popular to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on, standing for “What would Jesus do?” Simple though that message my seem, it holds an important point. When we are struggling to know our direction, what decisions to make, even in the day-to-day, to reflect on Christ’s response to our situation can be helpful. How would someone filled with love and compassion, abounding with grace, passionate about justice, prayerful and kind, how would they respond? What decisions, what choices would they make? We will rarely get lost in life if we follow the example of Christ. He is our way, our truth, our life.
The beginning of Lent as we acknowledged on Ash Wednesday is a time to remind ourselves of our mortality, but it is also a time to remind ourselves of our final destination, and to commit ourselves once more to following the example of Christ. For he shows us the way and will bring us to our Father’s home in heaven.