Travel with me. You're northbound on I-476, the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. What's enjoyable is that you've taken this ride many times, and you are familiar with many landmarks at turns in the road. Like there's that Donate Your Boat billboard up there on your right, and just beyond that to the left is that red barn with the white trim and the horses in the pasture that winds itself along the road. There's that little tree farm that sells live trees to the right. And of course, there's the famous Lehigh Valley Tunnel.
Now I have an alternate route if you don't want to incur the expense of taking the toll road all the way up to Clarks Summit. Take exit 105, Wilkes Barre. If you're concerned about time and/or have deeper pockets, stay on the turnpike until the northern most exit, especially turning peak traffic times between Wilkes Barre and Scranton.
Now I'm cheap, and live for the adventure—the hustle and bustle of excitement—of having vehicles with me on the road. Somehow, it's seems less lonely. (I'm seeing my therapist about this! Okay, kidding. I don't have a therapist (and know I should have get one!) Remember, I was a Boston Boy for three years and Boston drivers, well, it's an experience all its own.
Now I'm northbound because I'm coming from the All Day Clergy Retreat in the Allentown area where I met the United Church of Christ's President and General Minister, John Dorhauer. (If you haven't yet heard conversation on that meeting, I'll share quickly now that our UCC head honcho is topnotch. To say the least, he's kindhearted, visionary, gently influential, and well-read.)
Now there are a gazillion UCC churches in the greater Allentown area, and all of them carry the name "St. John." I know, identity crisis! Or at least it's disconcerting for a northerner like me to find this specific St. John's church, so I do what you do: I plug in my GPS.
I know I'm dating myself by saying a plug in my GPS where so many of you have the device built-in to your super sonic super smart vehicles. Lucky you!
So, thank you Ms. GPS for getting me to this Saint John's church—and to this day I could not tell you where it was. When leaving, I had to use Ms. GPS again to get me out of this highly foreign suburban land.
I did something I usually don't do once I reach the turnpike. I leave her on. Usually her talking about upcoming directions is disruptive to the Broadway musicals I'm belting through, so she's silenced. Done. Pulled the plug.
But this time I didn't, and I take Exit 105, Wilkes Barre. Now she doesn't like that. She does not like this at all. In fact, Ms. GPS gets a little snooty, a little insistent, because she wants me to stay northbound on the pike. After she says in her now unfriendly tone "recalculating" three times, you know what she does. She redirects me.
Now I taught at Bear Creek Community Charter School which is right on Route 115, so Route 115 is completely familiar to me—it's home base—and the mountaintop view just as you descend toward Wilkes Barre IS beautiful—but she keeps pointing out these tiny little roads with these tiny little streets signs to my right. She says, "Turn here." Then five second later. "Turn here." Then seven seconds later. "Turn here."
"No, baby," I say. "We're going forward."
She tried to push me back, have me go back toward the road she knows. The road she thinks that's best for me.
I share this because our faith lives are like this. There are times on our journeys when pieces and places in our world call us back, or want us to turn around. They want us to take the safe routes, the roads we know.
But bust out of that.
The GPS story is a classic example you can apply to your faith life story. There is that moment—or there are moments—you can just back down from the new road you want to take, loop around, and take what you've taken before. And you know if your faith life that if you do that, you're not going to grow. If you do that, you're not going to expand your faith. If you do that, you're not going to reach higher potentials in your faith life.
Reach higher potentials in your faith life. Push forward. Open new doors, hold to what direct course you know is right for you, even when outsiders—or even the still, small voice inside your head—tells you differently.
Want to open the door to your faith life? Here's sermon point #1. Commit.
Commit to the path you want to take. Commit to the road you are currently on, no matter who or what tries to redirect you.
Here is sermon point #2. Go to church. Ha! I thought of that one all on my own! Brilliant, huh? Original? Bet you never thought of this one, did ya?
Of course you have. That still, small voice I mentioned just a moment ago can also lead to such good. You know this, so listen to this. Do you want to open the door to a better faith life? Do you want to open the door to a richer relationship with Christ Jesus? Listen to what your gut tells you. Listen to what your heart has to say. Go to church. Get involved in these religious activities—like Bible study and here's a good thought: truly invest in the committee or small group you're a part of here. Rather than wait until it's the day before your monthly meeting to get done what you "volunteered" to do, do it in advance, and then ask for more. Then do more. Don't think I am saying you can work your way to heaven because you can't, but you can open the door to your faith life when you who said "yes" actually follow through with it.
We welcome and celebrate four new members in church today. Amen! This is awesome! This is commitment! This is four people saying yes to church. Our longest standing members know this: we're not always right here, and we certainly are not nearly perfect here. We are an institution—gulp!—and sometimes institutions are slow or seem somehow so far from being Spirit-led. You can get a bit discouraged. No, actually, truth be told, you have at some point or points been frustrated—yes, frustrated, imagine that!—with this very church. But you build your faith life. You push beyond all those little voices like that GPS that tell you to take a different route. You commit. You go to church.
Here are the distracting voices you hear that keep you from church. "Well, my son is here. He's from out of state. I can't go to Bible Study or class. I mean, he's here! We should have yet another nice meal together—I mean, he's only here for a few days—and even though he and I essentially talk about the same things just with a different wrapping, why would I bring him to the place where my faith is strengthened?
So that you can build not only your faith life—but his, or hers, or theirs.
Go to church. Ha. My life is a mess. My career is stressing me out. My marriage this week, this month, this year, this decade is a downer. I am exhausted. My health is poor. My soul hurts. Do you know that I've had three trips this fall and I just wanna stay home? I was nice to that boy in the grocery store; that was my good act—my church—for the week. I am mad at how this church is spending its money. I don't like so-and-so and it's likely he'll be there with his grumpy face warming his pew like he always does.
Open the door to your faith life. Go to church. And bring your people with you.
Here's the third point. Surround yourself in the Word. This one is as obvious as the first two, but needs to be heard again. Build yourself, surround yourself, embed yourself in the Word of God. You've heard this from the pulpit before—and it is so true. You cannot know the will of God until you know the Word of God.
One of you sent me a message, a kind of a heads up. She wrote, "Our sermon notes are there by my dresser at home. I need them. I look at them." Another one of you said something so similar. "Will, I keep the notes I take on Sunday right at hand. Thanks for the space provided where I jot down the truths from God that I hear during our sermons. Don't stop, and I won't stop either. Those notes are important to me. The words I write here in church speak to me."
Surround yourself in the Word. To open the door to your faith life, get the Word any way you can—Christian radio, posters, daily pop up verses on your electronic device, Bible study, Christian community, faith-based activities, the Bible itself.
Finally, and most importantly—saving the best for last here!—to open the door to your faith life, here's sermon point #4. Look to Jesus, your greatest example of faith.
Jesus committed himself to the will and way of His Father. He was faithful to religious practices. Remember, as a boy he was known to be in and around the Temple, so while I say we go to church with point two, he went to Temple. Our third point was to surround yourself in the Word. Jesus not only knew the Word, he was sent here to fulfill the Word. Yes, to build a better faith life, to make it through the fires that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego not endured but survived, to get off the worship you have been on over some stupid 90 foot tall statue in your life, open the door wider to the faith life you know you have and do practice so well—and amen to this, right?—look to Jesus, your greatest example of faith.
Jesus was faithful to his Father, and the Garden of Gethsemane is our perfect example of this. "Not my will be done, oh Father, but Yours."
Jesus befriends us all the time. Jesus loves us all the time. Jesus is THE GPS of our lives because he is always guiding us in the right direction. Jesus is always telling us which was to go. Follow his faithfulness. Commit to him, or recommit to him this morning. I'll give us space for that. Go to church or stay in church, even when—and especially when you have company or if you're on Route 115 and keep hearing voices to get off the road, surround yourself in the Word, and, if you do get lost, if you do lose your way—and you will—just come back. Look to Jesus, your greatest example of faith.
Dear Lord, listen to us as we close our eyes now and pray silently as we who love you continue to look to Jesus....
Cole Swindell. Middle of a Memory
Baby, it just took one look at you
For me to change my one drink order to two
Like we already knew each other
Like we been talking all night
About a minute into our first dance
We got blindsided by your friends
All in a hurry like you had to go
Didn't they know you can't leave someone
Girl, you can't leave someone
We were gonna dance till they shut it down
People'd be staring while I spin you 'round
Thinking we were so in love, yeah
They wouldn't know we hadn't even hooked up
I'd get your number and I'd give you mine
And we'd be hanging out tomorrow night
But now I don't know where you are
I'm under these lights right here in the dark