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The Voice of the Prophet: Walking by Faith

July 9, 2006

Isaiah 30:15, 18-21

Last Wednesday night, a representative of the choir, Dr. Dan Moore, asked me, “Could we have a service with all anthems?” I answered, “Dan, I need at least ten minutes.” I did want to have a message for you on this very special day. We are celebrating with Jackie her retirement. It is so appropriate that we should have wonderful music together.

Sometimes the congregation knows nothing about the rather humorous situations that occur here on this platform. We often say that we call audibles at the line of scrimmage, just as any good team must do. I remember one Sunday in particular that I seemed to be completely discombobulated. I got nothing right. At some point in the service, Jackie leaned over and whispered, “You have the wrong bulletin.” I looked and discovered I had been using a bulletin from the previous Sunday. Jackie and I have had moments like that over the last ten years that we have served together. She has actually been the Minister of Music at Morningside for fifteen years. Today is her last Sunday in that position, but she plans to remain as a Morningside member. Harry Morris, our interim Minister of Music, has already gotten her to agree to sing in the adult choir. Jackie will have some surgery first and take a trip to Alaska, but then she will return to take part in this wonderful music ministry.

It would not be normal if, on Jackie’s last Sunday as Minister of Music, we did not have at least one glitch. We did have one during the baptism at the 8:30 A.M. worship service. I got here quite early, walked up the stairs to the baptistry, and began looking the special robe I wear when baptizing people. It is a large robe, one made by Omar the Tent Maker. I could not find it anywhere, so I found the largest robe available and squeezed into it before coming into the water to baptize these young people. When the curtains opened and we began the service, I saw the first person to be baptized, a beautiful teenage girl named Laura Corley. She looked like an angel with long blond hair and… a huge robe. Laura was wearing my extra, extra large robe. Of course, we did not say anything about that. We just went right ahead with the baptismal service.

I need to tell you that worship services have gone very right many, many times. Jackie and I are sometimes amazed at how well the anthem she chooses and the sermon I preach fit together. We have tried to do that today with these wonderful, stirring anthems and hymns about faith.

Today, I want us to focus in the sermon time on the issue of our Christian faith, walking by faith. Turn with me to Isaiah 30:15, and let me read just a few verses here.

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel says:

“In repentance and rest is your salvation,

in quietness and trust is your strength…

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;

he rises to show you compassion.

For the Lord is a God of justice.

Blessed are all who wait for him!

O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes, you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

Sometime early in our lives, we learn that we have some power, some ability, to control things in the world around us. Maybe that realization comes when we learn that we can make things happen. If we throw a flat river rock sidearm, we can make it skip across still water. If we tie a chicken gizzard to a string and dip it in a creek, we might catch a crawdad. We can catch fireflies and put them inside a mayonnaise jar on a summer night. After a little practice, we can make a yo-yo climb back up the string into the palm of our hands. As children, we experiment with our newfound freedom; but very soon, fear creeps into our experience.

An eight-year-old little girl wanted to help clean up after a family meal. She knew that her mother had recently purchased a broom her size, so she volunteered to sweep. The little girl went to the closet but was not tall enough the reach the light.

She peered into the darkness and returned to the kitchen to tell her mother, “Mama, I don’t see the broom.”

The mother answered, “Honey, it is in the back corner of the closet.”

The little girl said, “Mama, it’s so dark.”

Overhearing the conversation, a kind aunt stooped down to soothe the little girl, “You don’t need to be afraid of the dark,” she said. “God loves you, and God is in all the dark places. God is in all the dark corners.”

The little girl returned to the closet. She opened the door, looked into the darkness, and said, “God, if you’re in there, would you please hand me the broom?”

We learn to face our fears. We learn that we can swim, even when the water is over our head. We learn that we can ride a bicycle, even when the parent who is teaching us lets go. As we become adults, this ability to control things guides and directs many of the decisions we make; but sometimes we become carried away by the discovery that we have power. We have the mistaken belief that we are actually in control of our lives. We open a bank account. We purchase the home of our dreams. We take vitamins. We work out at the health club. We develop the illusion of immortality, thinking that if we just eat right and work out, we will live forever. We make five- or ten-year plans. We try to space our children so that they are two years apart, which makes it easier, of course, when it is time to educate them in college. Some of the time, things actually work out the way we planned. That adds to this great illusion that we are in control.

Then something happens, something that absolutely knocks the props out from under us, something that shakes the very foundations of our lives. We lose a job, and the bank account evaporates. Our company decides to transfer us to another place, and we must sell the home of our dreams. A child develops a health problem and perhaps even dies. We may go to a physician and learn from an x-ray or an MRI that something is suspicious. It does not take much for our circumstances to change. When that happens, we realize that we are not in control.

When I was nineteen years old, my brothers and I traveled out West to numerous state and national parks. We drove a four-cylinder Pontiac Tempest and pulled a little pop-up camper. After several days of camping at the beautiful Yosemite National Park, we started back down the mountain. When the brakes on that little Tempest failed, I found myself hurtling down a mountain road with absolutely no ability to stop the car. The steering wheel worked, but I could not brake. I shifted into low gear to slow the car and finally guided it into an overlook. There we unhooked the trailer, chained it to a tree, and crept down the mountain in order to get the brakes fixed and continue our journey. I had such a horrible feeling of being out of control on that mountain road, such a horrible feeling knowing that we were hurtling without any ability to stop. That is exactly what happens in life. Events, circumstances, transitions like retirement, or maybe a crisis can put us into a situation where we feel that we have no control at all.

Bill Irwin from Burlington, North Carolina, found that he had no control over his life. It spiraled out of control for a number of years with a string of broken relationships and a habit of drinking. With his life and his relationships pretty much wrecked, Bill Irwin found the Lord. He became a recovering alcoholic, and he became quite involved in his church. At age fifty, he made an unusual decision to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile trip that begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and runs to Mount Katahdin in Maine. His plan to complete the journey in one stretch over a period of months is in itself quite an unusual decision. About 1,400 people a year decide to hike that particular trail, but only about 120 of them actually complete the trip. The dropout rate is very high. Fewer than ten percent of the people actually make the entire trip. His decision was particularly unusual because, at age twenty-eight, he had become completely blind.

Bill Irwin accomplished his goal with the help of his guide dog, a German shepherd named Orient. All along the way, these two experienced complications. They began their journey in March during a year of unusual flooding in the Georgia mountains. Bill said it was difficult staying on the trail; but finally, Orient learned how to sniff the trail and eventually recognize the white trail markers. Sometimes other lost hikers looked for Bill and Orient because they knew Orient could get them back on the right trail. Hikers along the Appalachian Trail often receive trail names. Other hikers named Bill Irwin and his dog “The Orient Express.”

One time, two sisters known as the “Blister Sisters” gave Bill a little package of food, beef jerky he thought. Though it had an unusual flavor, he ate the contents from one package and was eating from the second package when he asked one of the fellow hikers if he would like some of the beef jerky. The other hiker looked at the package and said, “That’s not beef jerky! It says ‘Dog Treats’ on the package.”

I have hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail, and I know how treacherous it can be. Bill fell dozens of times, and he broke a rib at one point. When traveling through Pennsylvania, he had blisters on his feet, and Orient had cuts on his paws caused by the sharp rocks. Bill had to take a week out for Orient to heal. In early October, park rangers encouraged Bill to go ahead and climb Mount Katahdin before the snows came. He did as they suggested, skipping part of the trail and climbing the mountain. Then he resumed the journey and completed the last section of the trail on November 2. Bill Irwin is the only blind person to hike the entire 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail in one stretch. He tells of his travel adventure without sight in the book called Blind Courage.

Why would Bill Irwin attempt such a journey? He explained his reason by referring to I Corinthians 5:7, a passage where the Apostle Paul says that we walk by faith and not by sight. Bill said that he saw this trip as an opportunity for his faith to grow, a way for him to demonstrate to himself that he could really trust the guidance and providence of God.

The Bible makes that point repeatedly. Here in Isaiah, we again read that a voice behind us will say, “This is the way. Walk in it.” God longs to direct us. When life is spinning out of control, we need somebody who is in control. We need God to guide us. To say that we walk by faith does not mean that we have all the answers that would allow us to see far down the road. It means that we have the courage and the faith to take the next step. You hike the Appalachian Trail by taking just one step at a time, again and again and again until the journey is complete. You live the Christian life exactly the same way, by taking one step at a time, one day at a time. You walk, not by sight, but by faith. If we learn the lesson of Hebrews 11:1, that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen,” we have a place to stand when events knock the props out from under us. We can stand on that solid rock, the solid rock of faith. We learn to listen, to pay attention to that unseen voice, the still, small voice behind us that says, “This is the way. Walk in it.” Living life in that manner translates into a life that is faith-full, full of faith.

Jackie has lived a faith-full life. She would be the first to say that her faith is far from perfect. None of us has perfect faith. When you live a life of faith, you begin to trust that God is going to see you through the difficult times. He will see you through the loss of a marriage partner. He will lead you to the happy place of discovering a new relationship. He will lead you through times of difficulty because you do not depend on your own control. Instead, you depend on the loving control, the loving guidance, which comes from God. If you live by faith, you will be faithful.

Clare and I have a favorite song, one Steve Green has written. Listen to these words:

May all who come behind us find us faithful.

May the fire of our devotion light their way.

May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe

And the lives we live inspire them to obey.

May all who come behind us find us faithful.

The Christian life begins when we profess our faith in Jesus Christ. If you have never done that, we invite you to make that decision today. Acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God. Accept his gift of salvation. Allow him to lead and guide your life. Perhaps you have already made that decision, and God has placed some other decision on your heart. If you have heard that voice behind you, saying, “This is what I want you to do.” If you have heard that, would you yield to that prompting? Maybe God’s message is that He wants you to become part of this fellowship. Maybe He wants you to make a rededication of your life. Perhaps God is leading you into an area of Christian service. Whatever that voice says, you heed. You obey. As we sing a hymn of invitation, “Lead Me to Calvary,” you are invited to respond as God leads.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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