The Rev. Ian Emile Dunn
Stick to the Old Paths
A Homily for Trinity 19
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Job 24:2a
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
As I was reading the lessons for this weekend the phrase “some remove landmarks” caught my attention. The writer was speaking of the wicked act of removing markings either so that the evil person could claim someone else’s possessions as his own or worse so that the sojourner would wander off his safe path and into a trap.
As humans, we are prone to wander and get lost on our ways. In speaking of Israel’s sinful ways and by extension all of humanity’s tendency to turn to our own devices the prophet Isaiah wrote:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way;
We are inclined to choose our own glory, our own selfish desires, and yet we are called to live a life pleasing to God, a life walking with him. We are given landmarks to follow, but too often we move the landmarks to suit our own desires and needs.
We know how dangerous this can be, for there are pitfalls, and robbers on the foreign pathway. Still many have in the past and just as many in this day and age do move the guides to way we are to go. The great evangelical Anglican writer JI Packer wrote in his book “Rediscovering Holiness” about a poem he read as a child called The Way through the Woods, by Rudyard Kipling. It starts:
They shut down the road through the woods
Seventy years ago
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods…
Packer recalls this poem as he laments the loss of holiness, not only in our society, but more poignantly in the church. For we often fail to value the need to seek after Holiness.
What is worse still than the loss of the old road of Holiness is the fact that we have paved new roads not only in our secular culture but even within the church. We have created superhighways of pleasure and sin, of social gospels and self-serving movement that make us feel good, but lead nowhere or worse, that lead to death. These ways are much easier to drive down at high speeds; they are easier to find with their large flashing light, attractive road crews harkening us with megaphones, and clean aesthetic appeal. These roads are, as Hemmingway put it, a clean well-lit place, not peaceable, narrow paths through the woods.
Yet, as Christians we are given an incredible gift, we are given a road map, sign posts, and sustenance for our journey. We are given the Holy Scriptures, which act to guide our heart and mind. Act to show us the way. The scriptures are the word of God that are the food for our heart and mind. But, in our humanity we like to raise other desires above the way of holiness, above the way of following Christ. We make ways of distracting ourselves, or worse we take something good and hold it up as a new god.
We find ourselves distracted by every new issue that the news anchor ponds his fist about, making snap judgements about other people because their actions don’t fit our worldview which may, or may not have been shaped by the gospel. We live in a time where anything goes, but the socially acceptable pathways shift faster than quick sand.
The earnest Christian may find that she has succumbed to the rabble of the world. Caught up in some social cause, no longer caring about the body and soul of a fellow human, but instead yelling loudly for a skewed sense of justice, or a false gospel, quick to condemn those who don’t fit her worldview.
Or, that he has gotten caught up into some immoral act, lost along the way because it feels good. Justifying the act because self-pleasure seems better than that quiet voice in the back of his head tells him it is wrong. Justifying the act, because self-justification feels easier than repentance.
We find that we can get easily swayed by talking heads on the TV or the radio who appeal to our emotions, who kindle in us a righteous feeling anger. Or we’ve gotten lost in our own sentiments and feelings, letting them be a guide, letting them take over and direct us down some path, that may very well be a very bad road to wander down.
I tell you all of this, not to hold myself up in moral superiority, but because I too have fallen into this trap. I too tend to prefer myself over the other, prefer my own will over the will of God. I tell you all of this to lay a baseline, for it is where many of us have been, are right now, or may find ourselves at some point in the future, for even when we are on the good road, the devil may tempt us off and we may very well find ourselves lost in the woods again. I tell you all this, so that you know, if you’re calling out to God, calling out in the night because you find that the promises of post-modernity have left you feeling empty and alone, that you are not, that many before you have found the seemingly lost road that once ran through the woods, forsaking the superhighway sin for the peaceable pathway of Christ.
If you find yourself here, at the start of the road, either for the first time, or yet again, having taken a road of pleasure and emotional gratification, what are you to do? Come to Christ, not as the Pharisee came to God in the temple but as the tax collector. We all know the story of these two men who went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee proceeds to list off all the things that make him special, and how great he is. The tax collector on the other hand comes before God on his knees, and begs for grace, and forgiveness, he comes before God in complete humility.
When we come before God, whether we have been long on the journey of faithfulness, or if today is our first step, or if our hearts have been wandering, we come before the King of kings with complete humility. You have not earned the right to pray, but rather it is given to us freely through Christ. So, come before the Lord, not to tell him how great you are, but in adoration as a small child.
This is next step: it is not a big step from the humility of the tax collector but we continue to come before the Lord as a small child. What does it mean when Christ told us that to inherit the kingdom we must become like small children?
We live in a time that we are completely driven by achievement. While there is nothing wrong with looking back at your life and delighting in the good times; your degrees, achievements, and past accolades are not what earns you a place at the table in the kingdom of heaven. I know that can be a hard thing to hear, but coming to the table through the grace of Christ is a far better thing for it allows us to depend, fully upon Christ. It is through coming to delight in Christ, it through recognizing that there is nothing within yourself that allows you to come before the king, but rather it is through Christ that we can do this.
When we make ourselves small, we humble ourselves, so that Christ in us can become big within us. We give up all our achievements that we like to hold up in the public square and the temple and lay ourselves down before the king as the tax collector did. This is a hard thing indeed. We see how hard it is when the young rich man comes to Christ and asks him “how is it that I can inherit the kingdom of God?” And Christ tells him first that he must follow the law, the rich man feeling good about himself says “ah-ha! I have done this!” “Ah,” Christ says, “you have done this, but now go sell everything you have and follow me.” It is then that we see how poor this young man really is for he goes away sad. To give up everything for the sake of Christ is a hard call indeed. A call we often struggle with.
For the Christian, our achievements are insignificant. It is something I constantly struggle with. I believe one of the biggest struggles and dangers for a pastor is losing humility. It is easy for us to get proud, even over the silliest things. We puff ourselves up, and then out of that pride comes a whole plethora of other sins. We think because we have done this good work for God, that we are above the law of God. Yet, it is not only the pastor that struggles with this but all of Christendom.
In the pastor’s struggle, we see how important humility is for all the whole Christian family. For we cannot walk with God if our ego is too big to let him. We cannot seek repentance if we do not believe we need to. For this reason, we become like the little children who came to Christ in the humility only a child can possess.
We know that we are to come to God in humility, not through our own works, but through the work that has been completed in Christ. What is the next step? What is the next part of this journey? How do we find those old landmarks in in the din and clamor of the world?
There is a Christian song writer named Andrew Peterson, his songs are theologically adept, his lyrics are well written, and his melodies are beautiful. In one of his songs, I believe written to his son, he exhorts the boy who he is watching grow into a man with the following:
I know you’ll be scared when you take up that cross,
And I know it’ll hurt, ‘cause I know what it costs
And I love you so much and it’s so hard to watch
But you’re gonna grow up and you’re gonna get lost
Just go back, go back
Go back to the ancient paths
Lash your heart to the ancient mast
And hold on, boy, whatever you do
To the hope that’s taken hold of you
And you’ll find your way
You’ll find your way
If love is what you’re looking for
The old roads lead to an open door
And you’ll find your way
You’ll find your way
Peterson reminds his son, and us that he need to “stick to the ancient paths.” What are these ancient paths?
Human beings tend to look at other situations with rose colored glasses. Some look forward and think “If we could only change this, or that, everything will be better. We’ll be at harmony with our neighbors everything will be dandy.” The Church more often tends to look back and think “Ahh, in the good old days, things were just great.” Certainly, most churches have done things that God will say “well done good and faithful servants!” But, is this what Peterson, and Packer are talking about when they recall the ancient ways and the old paths? Are they aching for a time gone by? Or are they calling us to something else?
It is a danger to look back and think “if only we could recapture what it was like in 2000, when we were all excited,” or “if only our culture could go back to this time or that, things would be so much better.” We cannot go back and recapture the way it was, and if we did we would find that things aren’t as dandy as we might expect.
No, this aching for the way things were, isn’t what it means to stick to the old paths. The old path is the path of holiness, the path that those in the church who are humbly seeking to Love God have sought for two thousand years. How, then, are we to live?
We are to live in the manner that St. Paul sets out in his pastoral letter to his friend Titus and these instructions aren’t limited to this portion of scripture alone, but throughout the entire tome; yet let’s look for a moment what the teacher says:
Teach what accords with sound[a] doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6 Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.9 Bondservants[b] are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. (English Standard Version)
The way he sets out runs counter to our culture and to the pride that we often want to dwell in. It is a simpler and quiet way. Preferring not to glory in ourselves but to let God’s glory shine forth. This humbler, controlled, and better way stems not out of our work, but is a reaction to the grace we find in Christ. We can will ourselves to be humbler, to be more righteous, but out of that will stem pride. No matter how hard we try to kill it, if our righteousness is built on our own work, it will always fail. Instead, we let righteousness grow out of the love of we find in Christ. We dwell in Christ and out of that we act in the ways the saint has put forth for out of the love of Christ the way of holiness grows natural so that we are: sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love and steadfastness, reverent, not slanderous or gossips, not drunks, that we teach what is good, that we are pure, kind, submissive, and given to good works with integrity. These things are near impossible without first humbly giving ourselves to Christ, so first we come on bended knees crying out to God in all humility, and then we strive for these things in the strength and power of the Holy Spirit. For this is what the saint is speaking of in the second part of this chapter:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
It is not enough for us to make ourselves a holy huddle but we are to declare these things boldly. It is always tempting and seems a great comfort to isolate ourselves from the world, but we have this great gift of grace, this great gift that has set us free from the pain and shame of our past, that has put us back on the good path. No, to hold up in our little huddle would be to fail our call as the church, leading to stagnation and eventually death. We are called to be salt and light in the world. We are called to be given to good works that glorify God. We are called to graciously make sound doctrine known. Let us not grow confused, for it is an easy thing to think that the good old days are the old paths. They are not. Instead the old path of holiness is a path forward it is a path that points us towards the coming kingdom. Let our hearts and minds be set on this way. When we fail in running this path, when we trip over some root we did not see, when we stumble and fall, let us come running back to the temple not as the Pharisee who explains to God how good he is, but as the tax collector who cries out in the corner, desiring to be welcomed back in. Let us come running back as the little child who comes running home to her father’s house again and again. Who doesn’t run declaring how perfect she is, but trusting that the Father will take her in because he is the father and he is very good. Kipling’s poem ends with this thought:
You will hear the beat of horse’s feet, And the swish of a skirt in the dew, Steadily cantering through The misty solitudes As though they perfectly knew The old lost road through the woods But there is no road through the woods.
Our hearts know that there is a good road through the woods, our hearts know that there is something greater than the promises of this world. The ancient theologian, St. Augustine, who wandered and fled from Christ for many years, wrote: “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee O Lord.” Our hearts know that there is something greater out there than what we know now, our hearts long for that peace and until they find it they will seek after every sign post, every shinny thing that might give it delight. So, let us be given to finding the old way, not moving the landmarks to suit our own needs, but following the old landmarks that have never moved, that have lead men and women into a deeper and deeper relationship with God. Let us be given to delighting in every word that God has set forth for our guidance. We are called and invited to come before the Lord in the humility of a small child or a tax collector, so let us therefore come with bended knees. Then from this place proceed out seeking to glorify him in the way of Holiness and being given to good works. That His light might shine with a burning brightness, and that we might walk deeper and deeper in the old ways found in holy scripture. Let us be constantly given to this task, so that others may see our good works, and not praise us, but come to praise our Father in heaven. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.