THE QUESTION THAT WE ALL WANT TO ASK
A sermon on John 14:1-14
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
May 10, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
As many of you know, back when our younger son Raleigh was a student at E. C. Glass High School, he played football for both the junior varsity and the varsity teams. (And sometimes both in the same season.) As good parents, Miriam and I attended all the football games—both home and away games. It was fun. We got to meet a lot of folks and usually had a good time at the games—as long as the weather was decent. (Snow and/or rain tended to put a damper on our enthusiasm for Friday night football games!…) We even attended most of the scrimmages as well—you know, the “jamborees” and the “seven-on-seven” practices that involved other schools. Speaking for myself, I not only enjoyed watching Raleigh play and cheering the Hilltoppers on, but I also enjoyed travelling to away games because it helped me learn my Central Virginia geography. It was a double benefit as far as I was concerned…
Anyway, one August Saturday afternoon, Glass was scheduled to play in a jamboree involving a number of schools that was being hosted by Blacksburg High School. It was a benefit event for some non-profit agency and so it made it even better. I was looking forward to going to get an early glimpse at how the Hilltoppers might fare that year and also to check out what the competition might look like…
There was only one problem. I had never been to Blacksburg before. I knew where the signs were on I-81, but that was the extent of it. So I needed directions on how to get to Blacksburg High School’s stadium. No one that I personally knew could give me directions, so I went “old school.” I looked up directions online at Mapquest.com and printed them off. (GPS wasn’t as much of a thing back in those days…) So map in hand, I set off to Blacksburg…
At first, things went well. I was able to get to Blacksburg without any difficulties. Once I got off of the interstate, I went down the streets and made the turns as directed by the map. So far, so good. But when I arrived at my destination in front of a sign that read “Blacksburg High School,” I could tell immediately that something was off.
As I drove up to the front of the school, I noticed that there were no cars in the parking lot. That seemed strange…And then it was obvious that the grass had not been cut in quite a while. There were weeds that were knee-high…Then I saw that a part of the awning protecting the sidewalk in front of the main entrance was hanging down. I thought to myself, “This couldn’t be the place—could it?”
As I drove back down the hill, I noticed two ball fields where people had gathered to play softball. I got out of the van and approached a 20-something year old standing near the bench. “Hi,” I
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said, “I’m looking for a football scrimmage that’s supposed to begin in about an hour at Blacksburg High School. Am I in the right place?”
He replied, “I don’t think so. It’s probably being held at the new high school and stadium across town over near Virginia Tech.”
“New high school? What happened?”
“There was a bad storm that blew through here about a year ago. It damaged the high school building so badly that the city decided that it would cost too much to repair. So they decided to build a brand new school instead. I am sure that’s the place you are looking for.” He then gave me some somewhat cryptic instructions that pointed me in the general direction of where I needed to go.
I thanked him and went on my way. After a couple of wrong turns, I was finally able to get there—just in the nick of time for kickoff. Apparently, Mapquest had not been updated to include the information that there was a new location for Blacksburg High School. Consequently it had directed me to the wrong location. I had received some faulty directions. I didn’t know the way…
Today’s sermon text from John 14 takes place in the room where Jesus and his disciples are sharing a meal. Our Lord knows that he will soon be betrayed into the hands of the Romans. His heart is heavy as he talks with his disciples and this is a record of part of the conversation that takes place.
Jesus speaks words of comfort to the disciples and then tells them that he is going away from them to prepare a place for them. He tells them that he will return for them to take them to that place. He reassures them that they know where he is going.
It all sounds a bit too vague and mysterious to the Apostle Thomas. So he blurts out a question that all those who try to follow Jesus want to ask from time to time in our lives: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Haven’t there been times in your life when you have wanted to ask the Lord that very same question? You really want to follow Jesus, and yet the way forward is unclear. The situation is complex. There are plusses and minuses to consider. Choices and options present themselves to you. In situations like that, it can be hard to determine which of these options you should take. What are you going to do? What direction should you go? As a matter of course, we might ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” But honestly, sometimes asking that question still does not produce any obvious answers of which we can be sure. So Thomas’ question still lingers: “How can we know the way?”
Thomas was in good company when he asked the question, “How can we know the way?” The Bible reveals to us that God sometimes asks people to follow him without giving them any clear instructions on which way to go or what to expect…
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In Genesis 12, we are told of an encounter between God and a man named Abram, the one who would later be renamed “Abraham.” In the first verse, God said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.”
That’s it. That is all there is. Those are all the instructions that Abram received before he embarked on this journey. Notice that God did not indicate a particular road for Abram to take. He did not tell him to go north…or south…or east…or west. Nothing. He did not give him any instructions on what to bring or what to expect. All he said to Abram was “Go.” It is pretty non-specific, don’t you think? And yet, in the midst of the ambiguity, Abram obeyed God. Though the Bible does not tell us explicitly, I am sure that Abram had plenty of questions and doubts as to what God was asking him to do. But he obeyed anyway. And for that, God blessed him.
Such an experience was also something that was known to happen in the early church as well. In Acts 6, we are introduced to a man named Philip. He is described as a man “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” He was one of seven who were chosen to be the first deacons to serve the church in Jerusalem.
A little bit later in Acts 8:26, we are told that “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” Those are all the instructions that Philip received. (In contrast to Abram, at least he was given one specific direction! The road referred to runs south of Israel into the desert wilderness,) But again, Philip receives instructions are pretty vague. He is not told how far down the road he was to travel. He was not told the nature of his business on this road. Nor was there any mention of what he would need or how long he might be gone. However, in spite of any misgivings that he may have harbored, he obeyed what the angel told him.
You may remember what happened. While he was on his way, Philip encountered a government official from Ethiopia who was riding in a chariot and reading from the book of Isaiah. After being invited up into the chariot, Philip explained to him how the writings of Isaiah described the life and ministry of Jesus. And he led the Ethiopian to faith in Christ there in the chariot.
This brings us back to the question that Thomas asked our Lord in John 14, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Look at what happens. Jesus does not give Thomas and the disciples a road map for spirituality. He does not hand them a tract titled “Ten Ways to Know the Will of God in Your Life.” He does not give them a set of guidelines to help them discern God’s will. He does none of those things. They probably would have preferred to receive something like that that was easy to digest. They might have considered it to be easier if he had. But Christ offered nothing like that to the disciples. Instead he offered something way better…
He offered himself to them. He did not point out the way. He stated to them that HE was the way, the truth and the life.
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I think that what Jesus was getting at was that finding one’s way in Christ is not accomplished by adhering to a set of rules or guidelines. It is not by making sure that all of our spiritual “i’s” are dotted and all our “t’s” are crossed. It is not accomplished with correct theology or right belief. As important as those things are—and let me be clear that they are important—the essence of following Jesus is not to be found in them. Right theology and right belief cannot take the place of right relationship. The essence of finding our way in Jesus—the essence of the Christian faith—is to be found in relationship.
When we cultivate our relationship to God in Christ through prayer, worship and deeds of love and mercy, then we have the inside track of knowing what the way forward in Christ is—of knowing what God wants us to do.
Form time to time, mistakes will be made as we do our best to follow Christ’s way. That should not surprise anyone. In fact, mistakes are to be expected from time to time. Even Abram made some wrong moves as he was trying to follow the direction that God was leading him. Genesis 12 tells us that Abram took a few wrong turns and wound up in Egypt. While he was there, he tried to palm his wife Sarai off as his sister. That was certainly not a very godly thing to do. And then a couple of chapters later in Genesis 16, when the child promised by God seemed to be late in coming, Abram took matters into his own hands and had a son by Sarai’s maidservant Hagar. In retrospect, it was another really poor choice on Abram’s part. Yet Abram’s faith in God never wavered. He believed God and did the best that he knew how in following the Lord’s direction. And God honored his dedication…
And perhaps that is the lesson for Thomas, for the rest of the disciples and for us today. Knowing the way is dependent upon knowing Christ because he himself is the way. We depend upon his indwelling Holy Spirit to guide us and give us direction when we humbly and earnestly seek it. And we move forward in Christ’s way in the full knowledge that, if we misinterpret the Spirit’s leadership, if we get sidetracked into some dead-end, or if we somehow manage to let ourselves get in the way of how God wants to lead us, then we can be assured that God –through his infinite love and mercy—will gently nudge us back into the way that we should go. Because God recognizes that it is the attitude of our heart that is the most important thing. Once we nurture that in our lives, then what we have to do is listen. And what we need to do is to desire to love God and others with all that we are…
Perhaps no greater concise interpretation of Jesus’ answer to the Apostle Thomas’ question in today’s text has been written than this one from the hand of Thomas à Kempis. This 15th Century monk is best known as the author of The Imitation of Christ, a spiritual classic that has been called “the most exquisite document, after those of the New Testament, of all that the Christian spirit has produced.” I invite you to read over these words a few times slowly and carefully. Let God’s Holy Spirit speak its truth to you through them as this sermon comes to a close. In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis wrote:
You follow me. I am the way and the truth and the life. Without the way there is no going; without the truth there is no knowing; without the life there is no living. I am the way which you must follow; the truth which you must believe; the life for which you must hope. I am the sacred way; the infallible truth;
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the never-ending life. I am the straightest way; the sovereign truth; life true, life blessed, life uncreated. If you remain in my way you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free, and you shall lay hold on eternal life.1
To God alone be the glory! Amen.