September 27, 2022
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will a person die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated His own love for us by this truth: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.6-8)
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I AM is with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (Matthew 28.18-20)
I want to pause today and reflect, in light of these passages from Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s letter, on a personal aside which arises every September 27 since 1983. That was the day that my mother moved from life in this world to life in the next step of her journey toward her Father’s House. It would be too easy to say that her struggle with cancer for at least eight years was the journey through the valley of the shadow of death. I say “easy” when I know there was nothing easy about it. But, I could say it would be too simple to say it was her journey through the valley of the shadow of death. I would, but I wouldn’t want to oversimplify it either. It was a hard time and a difficult time to both “watch her go” and to “let her go.” Even now, thirty-nine years later, I feel the angst of that time in our lives. I hear the echoes of each footstep through the valley knowing there would be that moment when it would be said “Where I am going now, you cannot go.” (John 13.33) Jesus never meant that we could never go. Jesus admonished those who were listening to teach them “they could not go now.” It did mean, as they would reflect later, that the day would come for each of them to “go with Him now.” First, He had to go. He was the good shepherd and had to navigate the way, the truth and the life which led back to the Father. Once finding the path, He became the way, the truth and the life for each one of us. I have to keep this image in mind because all my hope rests on Jesus Christ and His righteousness. Without His faithfulness to the task at hand, we would have no hope in this world for what was to come next. Such faithfulness requires trust to “let go and let God.”
You see, when we are lost in the wilderness the field guide training highly suggests we follow a trail of water, or at least where we can see water would flow most naturally, downhill. Eventually the stream will lead to a larger body of water where some kind of civilization will be found. It might be a house in the woods. It might be a well-travelled path. It might be a road. Whatever it is, it is a sign of life and renews our strength like an eagle so that our spirits will soar and our hope endures. But, Jesus refused to take this path as He felt the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death looming before Him and around Him. He was extended the invitation to “let Yourself down, if You are the Messiah, the Christ of God, and save yourself.” A reasonable request, I suppose, if you wanted to prove that it was truly all about “you.” It wasn’t all about Jesus that afternoon on the cross of Calvary there on Mount Zion’s Golgotha’s Hill. Even saying it that way calls my mind to see that the hill belonged to the mountain and the mountain belonged to God. It was a step up that Jesus took and not a “falling” down that He would choose. Yes, Jesus chose the “upward way.” He followed the stream of consciousness in the Spirit of God’s Word as easily as if it were a literal stream of water as it ran down from the melting snows of Mount Hermon. He followed the trail of water up moving against the flow to find its source. Even when I hear it that way and then write it down, my mind watches as the salmon leave the ocean and begin their journey to higher ground. It will be the death of them but the opportunity to give life to the next generation. The shepherd would lead his flocks up the mountain in late spring and summer because the shadows would shorten and the days would grow longer. There mountain meadows and leas would literally spring up with life. But, as the shadows lengthened and the grass began to fade in first this pasture and then in that, the shepherd would lead his flock through the valley of the shadows of death back to the safety of the home pasture and winter sheep pen. This would be their life until the shadow would pass over them in its season and the light of life would begin to dawn more brightly over the mountains. It was a cycle of life that was undeniable. We can hear it in David’s song as he led his father’s flocks by still waters and green pastures. But, he knew that one day, the Good Shepherd would lead him up the mountain and reveal to him the greatest spectacle of all. That spectacle was not his father’s house but his heavenly Father’s house in which he would dwell forever.
It was a journey Jesus made in the “upward way” toward the higher ground where His Father’s House was. It wasn’t Jerusalem as had been built by Melchizadek or recaptured by Saul and David. It wasn’t the Jerusalem where the Temple was built by David and Solomon or rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah. Jesus moved past Jerusalem and the Temple and bore His cross to higher ground. And then He went even further to journey with His disciples to visit once again the Mount of Transfiguration. It was there that Jesus had revealed Himself in the company of Moses and Elijah to Peter, James and John. The others were left behind to “tend the flocks” that were gathering at the foot of the mountain. Now, all eleven remaining disciples were gathered together in that place. Matthew tells us that some worshipped (which means they broke out in song) and some doubted (which I suppose meant they hummed and mumbled along.) But, Jesus revealed Himself fully in the glory of God to them all as He had been revealed to Peter, James and John. There was a difference, however. It was in the response of the disciples. This time there was no mention of staying in that mountaintop experience and building shelter there to celebrate 24/7. Perhaps Peter, James and John benefitted from that first experience and knew better. It was there and then that Jesus commissioned them to go back down and do what He had done. In John, we hear a commissioning of Peter to leave behind the fisherman’s tale and take up the shepherd’s rod and staff. We might as well assume the very ministry Jesus commissioned the eleven to do had a similar shepherding identity. They were sent out as shepherds to care for the sheep amongst wolves. Wolves love the shadows. The shadows smell of death and the opportunity to steal, kill and devour. But, the disciples were empowered with the light of life. Their “rod and staff” as emblems of the cross stood as powerful as the staff of Moses around which an image of a serpent was affixed. It was done so to lead the people through the valley of the shadow of death where poisonous snakes abound. Those who kept their eyes on the cross were saved even if they were bitten. Jesus would declare “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so then the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (John 3.14) That is the preamble to the great profession found in John 3.16, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son so that whosoever would keep their focus on Him would not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus may well have been speaking beyond His crucifixion to the ministry of the disciples who would “lift up the Son of Man and the cross” before the people and lead them through the valleys filled with shadows of death. They would lead them on their way up to still waters and green pastures and then one day to the very doorway of our Father’s House.
And on this day for thirty-nine years, I reflect on the hope and truth that the Jesus who said “The way I am going now, you cannot go” came back down the mountain and told my mother, as I pray He has done for some many others who have believed on Him, “The way I have gone, you now can go…with Me.” While there is a sadness in such a reflection, there is a greater joy. That joy of the Lord is my strength knowing we, too, shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever as we cast our eyes, our hope and our lives on Him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God- not height nor depth nor life nor death nor anything above or below. Shalom.
Lord, it is with a thankful heart in the midst of a sorrow revisited that I can worship and praise You for the blessing of life which You have given to us all. I pray that as we each share this truth in our own lives’ reflection, others will see the joy of the Lord is their strength, too, and commit to following You all the days of their lives in an upward way. AMEN.