Not knowing the way precisely where Jesus will lead us much of the time goes with the territory of discipleship.

John 14:1-14

14“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 

The Way Home

An old Hebrew proverb has come to mind often: “We make plans. God laughs.”

In this story of Jesus and his disciples that John tells, things are not going the way they had planned. The Messiah was supposed to pull the rug out from under the Roman government. The Messiah was supposed to ascend to the throne of David and rule with power and love; crying would be no more, disease would be no more, death would be no more.

And here was Jesus telling his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. This was not going according to the plan of the disciples.

I recently found my journal from a mission trip many years ago in which about a dozen of our friends went with Nancy and me down to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico where our denomination had a partnership with a Mexican congregation.

Reading through this journal, long-forgotten events bubbled up in my memory.

We arrived to find that the administrator/ director/ translator had been called away and a college student intern would be our staff leader. We discovered quickly that she, young and newly arrived in the position, was in just a little over her head.

She stepped up and gave us all the support she could, but we found out very quickly that her Spanish language skills were not highly developed yet; that her ability to give driving directions to the work site was, well, not her special gift. (This was in the time before we had Google maps or iPhones.) We spent a couple of hours the first day humming “The Streets of Laredo” as we drove around looking for landmarks that would lead us to our work site.

The words of Thomas came to mind, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

We may be tempted to read about Thomas and Phillip and Peter and the other disciples as though they were just poor ignorant men who couldn’t see what was right in front of them. After all, they had followed Jesus, God in human flesh, for three years. He had taught and healed and preached and performed all sorts of signs and wonders, and yet, they still misunderstood. They still did not know the way in which Jesus would lead them.

If we compare ourselves to them and we come out looking a whole lot better and more faithful, I think we have missed John’s point.

Not knowing the way precisely where Jesus will lead us much of the time goes with the territory of discipleship.

This story of Thomas following Jesus though he says he does not know the way brings to mind how so many people’s plans have been completely upended by the pandemic. Every church and charitable organization has been scrambling to figure out how to operate in this new reality.

What we have seen is that those who have done it best are those who are clear about their purpose. We may not know the way, but we know the One we are following. As long as we keep our focus on following Jesus Christ, the way forward, the way home, will become clear in time.

I have never until now so clearly understood that metaphor of the path of discipleship: God’s Word is a lamp to our feet; it shows us the path, but not the destination. It does not light our way to the horizon, just the next few steps.

None of us can know fully what we may be called to do in the years ahead in service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No one who has made a profession of faith, or renewed it, has ever known the full implications of those promises. Nevertheless, one generation after another gathers around the baptismal font and promises to follow Jesus wherever he leads us. 

While the world bombards us with the message that life consists of acquiring as many things as possible, filling our lives with all the pleasurable experiences we can fit into this brief span of years, and living every day as if there is no tomorrow, we renounce evil and its power in the world and stake our lives on the promise of forgiveness and eternity in Jesus Christ. 

Such a life looks very different from the life our culture lays out before us as the “good life.” 

As much as we may want our children to grow up in complete safety, without taking any risks at all, we know that the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ cannot be risk-free. The One who called his disciples to leave behind their fishing nets and follow him, to go out into the world around them proclaiming the gospel with only one pair of shoes, not knowing where their next meal would come from, not knowing where they would sleep, he continues to call us and our children out of our comfort zones and into new frontiers of mission and service. 

“We do not know where you are going; How can we know the way?” 

Jesus lights the Way; but the Way is not a road map; it is not a set of directions. It is a person, Jesus Christ. When we profess our faith in him, we risk our lives on the declaration that he is the way, and the truth, and the life. We declare that we will find life, meaning, and joy not in our own power, but in his;

not in our own priorities, but in his;

not in our own path, but in his. 

A few years ago, Nancy and I attended the college graduation ceremony for our daughter Suzannah at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, near Atlanta. Oprah Winfrey was the commencement speaker. Many of the things she said in her address were things I had heard in commencement addresses before, just delivered with a whole lot more poise, style, humor, and skill. Her ability to stand in front of an audience of hundreds of people and make an emotional connection has been honed and polished over decades of work in front of television live audiences and many, many commencement addresses over the years. 

Agnes Scott is a Presbyterian college, but the student body is quite diverse in every way, racially, religiously, internationally. Oprah’s audience that day was not the congregation of Presbyterians it would have been forty years ago, so her speech was not the specifically Christian sermon it would have been forty years ago; and yet, I had to wonder if she had at least glanced at this gospel reading as she prepared her remarks. 

Much of her speech was given to the idea that we cannot know what the future will bring—rather we need to know what God is calling us to do and to be. When we are secure in that, our cup runneth over; then we have plenty of ourselves to give to others. Giving that self to the world, she told this graduating class, is what God made you for. Whether the people in front of you comprise a classroom, a congregation, a studio audience, or a commencement celebration, give to others what God has given you. 

In Oprah’s case, that has resulted in amazing success, a huge fortune, and all the shoes she could ever want. 

But, she said, all the pairs of shoes in the world will not fill you up. 

Only discovering your calling and following it will fill us up. 

After the commencement, Nancy and I took Suzannah and one of her young friends (almost 20 years old) to lunch. We asked her friend what her plans were after she graduates in a couple of years, and she laid it out in amazing detail. Graduation, marriage to George, 2 years teaching, then their first child, then another 2 years teaching, then her Masters’ degree and another child, then a Ph.D., college level teaching for ten years, then work for an educational policy think-tank, then retire to New Zealand and run a bed-and-breakfast with Lord of the Rings themed Hobbit houses. 

I resisted my urge to repeat the Hebrew proverb: “We make plans, God laughs.” 

Who knows? Suzannah’s friend may end up being the very first person in the world whose life goes exactly as she planned it as a 20-year-old. 

But for disciples of Jesus Christ, life is a mission trip, and like that trip to Nuevo Laredo, no mission trip ever goes as planned. We get lost along the way, we forget some of the tools we need, and we suffer losses we never thought we could bear. 

And yet, that is not what I ordinarily think about when I remember that trip to the Mexican border. I had to go back to my journal from the time to call up memories of the time wasted and the challenges of not having all the equipment we needed the first two days. What I remember most are the relationships we built--Ishmael, the hard-working construction manager who had once thrown shot-put for Mexico at the Olympics; his young helper he called Picasso because he spent his time off painting pictures on scraps of tin; the little children who gathered around us, brought us water, and shyly tried out their English on us;  I remember the worship services in which we participated in both Spanish and English, how, in my first attempt to preach in Spanish I brought the house down with my errors in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary; how I realized among all the laughter and smiles that it was God’s grace, not my Spanish language skills, that would communicate the Gospel that day; and I remember the skills we began to learn from Ishmael, the Olympian, mixing mortar and laying cinderblock.

A life lived without fear because we are following the One who has prepared a place for us looks very different from an ordinary life. We can speak up. We can lead others even from a very young age, if that is your gift. When Christ calls us to serve him in some extraordinary way we can find a sense of adventure and break out of the world’s expectations.

 We can discover the gifts God has given us, answer the call to use them well, and find the courage to follow Jesus Christ even through Jerusalem, through any amount of suffering on the way to the place that has been prepared for us.