Into the Unknown, Part I: Following Jesus..
Well, can you believe that September is here?! Every year around this time I always feel this sense of: “Where did the summer go?” But this year, with COVID-19 having shut so many of our “normal” activities down for nearly six months and counting (the last “in person” worship service at my church was March 8!!), the coming of fall and “back to school” is even more poignant than usual. Students of all ages are embarking on new adventures in learning, much of it virtual. I don’t think many of us imagined, when “in person” gatherings ceased in the spring, that there would still be restrictions on “in person” gatherings by Labor Day.
What we at first assumed was going to be a temporary inconvenience has morphed into a complete disruption of life as we knew it BC—before COVID. As of today, we still don’t know when this will end—but whenever it does, we can be pretty sure that we’re never going back to exactly how things were BC (more on this later). That can be discouraging and unsettling because as human beings we like our predictable routine; we like to know what’s coming next, so we can plan accordingly.
We now find ourselves in a liminal space. The old BC world is gone; the new PC—post-COVID—world is not here yet. We can be in more than one liminal space at once. In fact, it seems like the very fabric of life itself is composed of overlapping liminal spaces. Nevertheless, the space in between two or more emerging worlds is never an easy place to dwell.
The current sermon series at my church is called Into the Unknown. The name is a play on Elsa’s song from the movie Frozen 2. We are following the story of Moses as he leads the people of Israel through their own liminal space—from slavery in Egypt toward the land God has promised them. They are in the wilderness, between worlds—and they struggle. Even Moses himself is not immune; he is after all human.
In the Scriptures God often promises God’s people a good and hopeful future (e.g., Jeremiah 29:13). However, never once does God promise them that the path to that promised future will be easy, nor does God ever specify at the beginning how long the journey will take. Israel took 40 years to complete a relatively short journey to the Promised Land. I’m guessing the people of Israel never expected it to take as long as it did—which probably helps explain their behavior along the way! Later in history, after the Babylonian invasion, the people spent 70 years in exile before they could finally return home to Jerusalem and fulfill Jeremiah’s prophecy.
We may wonder: Why did they take so long? I think it was because there were lessons the people needed to learn before they were ready to move into the place God was leading them.
Likewise, Jesus’ message to his first disciples was simply: “Follow me.” He didn’t provide them a detailed a travel itinerary at the beginning of their adventure. They simply followed him wherever he went, learning whatever lessons the day revealed. The first followers of Jesus trusted their teacher to show them the Way.
While much is different about our world than the world of the first century, the core call upon disciples of Jesus hasn’t changed. If we would follow Jesus, the path will lead us out of comfortable and familiar places into the risky and uncertain future.
To be a disciple (or student) of Jesus is to follow him into liminal space, as we commit to an open-ended journey of lifelong learning from Jesus how he would live our life if he were us.
No aspect of my life is outside that mandate. If we are paying attention, Jesus will constantly use the circumstances of our life to teach us—even, maybe especially, the events we don’t voluntarily choose. Jesus doesn’t offer pithy platitudes from a safe distance. He is Emmanuel, “God with us” and he lives up to that name! Through Jesus, God stands in solidarity with the human race; he walks with us in all that we walk through. Paul says that God rejoices when we rejoice and weeps when we weep (Romans 12:15). The book of Hebrews calls Jesus the “Great High Priest,” who can sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:14–16). James says that Jesus offers us strength to endure trials and temptations with joy (James 1:2–4). God also offers us the Holy Spirit to help us moment by moment to live as Jesus did (John 14:16–17).
Like the haunting siren song that repeatedly calls out to Elsa in Frozen 2, God beckons to each of us to take the next step into the unknown on our journey of faith. Maybe the start of a new academic year is a good time to embark on a new course of study with Jesus. We don’t need a map to where we’re going before we can begin our journey; if we know Jesus, we already have the Way (John 14:9).
—Alan B. Ward