The Way of Salvation - Way: Journey and Destination (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18) (Philippians 3:17-4:1) (Luke 13:31-35)
In the remote mountains in Northern Ethiopia, a Coptic Christian priest makes an incredible journey to his church every day. He doesn’t walk or drive to the church but “climbs” up to the church. And this climb is incredible because his church is not just somewhere on a hill or in a valley of the mountain. Rather, it is located above a staggering cliff. His church is one of the rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, which is carved into the side of a towering sandstone pinnacle. Can you believe it? Let’s find out.
Ethiopia’s Chapel in the Sky
Isn’t that inspiring? For the priest and the members of Abuna Yemata church, joining a worship service is, truly, a matter of life and death. On their journey, they have to climb one 35-foot steep cliff by only using carved footholds; they have to cross a few rickety bridges, and at the end of their journey, there is a narrow ledge with a 650-foot drop on its side, which finally leads them to the church. If this were a United Methodist Church, the church should do something for their handicap accessibility…but anyway, after watching the video, who cannot admire these Ethiopian Christians. What they demonstrate on their journey is their serious commitment to their faith.
How was your journey to the church this morning? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking this as a setup to eventually tell you, your journey is way too easy breezy. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. I think the journey each one of you had to take to come here this morning also demonstrates a serious commitment to your faith. I’m not saying this just to make you feel good, because it’s true. Yes, we don’t have physical challenges like climbing a steep cliff, crossing a rickety bridge or a narrow ledge. But we do have a different set of challenges here in North America on our way to the church this morning, and moreover, on our lifelong journey of salvation.
On our way, what kind of challenges do we encounter? I see the steep cliff of secularism. Many people don’t care about the church anymore. They don’t care about seemingly obsolete ideas such as discipleship and salvation. For them, the church should be consumer-friendly and at least entertaining with hip music and trendy messages. On our way, I see the rickety bridge of skepticism. Some criticize, Christian faith is irrelevant and unreasonable in this scientific age. Others denounce, churchgoers are intolerant, hypocritical, and judgmental. And on our way, I see the narrow ledge of individualism. Fragmented and polarized individuals don’t find a meaning of building a loving community with different people. It looks tiresome for them to accept and forgive one another, and love one another beyond political, racial, and cultural barriers.
Against all these critical challenges in our time, in our culture, today, you chose to come all the way to the church and to be a precious part of this church family. You chose to climb and navigate the mountains of our time with one another. So I thank God for that, for your commitment to your faith, for your willingness to be the church in times like this. Here, you may ask, “Did I? Really?” But let me tell you, “Yes, you did.” Each one of you are a living testimony of faith here today. Your presence here actually means much more than you think…to me, to the world, and more importantly, to God.
As we continue to be the church, to build a compassionate community against the tough challenges of secularism, skepticism, and individualism, there’s one more thing I should thank God for. I thank God for our forebears of faith, Abraham and Paul and our Lord Jesus Christ who showed us how to journey faithfully.
Abraham heard the call of God at age seventy-five. Then he left his home, all that he knew and loved. In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, he doesn’t even know where he is going. He has fears and doubts. Nevertheless, he is still on his way through the wilderness to the land that God may show him someday. Here, God reassures him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1). No matter what the challenges are, Abraham keeps on going on his way of faith.
Paul wrote today’s Epistle, the letter to the Philippians, in prison. From the letter, we see, even in a prison cell, he’s dearly worried about his friends in the Philippian church where some false teachers caused threats. He says, “I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears…their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven…. stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 3:18-20; 4:1). No matter what the challenges are, Paul keeps on going on his way with his friends in Philippi, the way of heavenly citizenship.
Jesus is warned by some Pharisees in today’s Gospel story. They say, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Hearing this threatening news, Jesus tells them, “Go and tell that fox for me…today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way” (Luke 13:32-33). Then, Jesus laments over Jerusalem that he tried to gather people together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they were not willing (Luke 13:34). Jesus has too many challenges to bear in his ministry. But no matter what the challenges are, Jesus keeps on going on his way to the cross.
Faithful friends in Christ, on our way forward, we will continue to face challenges. Your way to the church will be blocked off by so many mountains of earthly things, and the spirits of this age. The churches in North America in general have been already declining and losing members. A crisis, it is. And here’s what I want you to do this week. I want you to take a moment and think about the challenges that may keep you from this faith community and keep you from God. And I want you to pray honestly, find some hopes you may still have for the church, and hold on to them.
By God’s grace through faith, we are called out from darkness into the marvelous light. No matter what these challenges are, they cannot change our sacred worth and beloved-ness. Look around, look at one another’s face, because of you, there’s an undeniable hope for the church. There’s no cliff steep enough, no bridge rickety enough, no ledge narrow enough to keep us from climbing up the mountain with Jesus and to be the church with one another. So let us continue to trust God who is our shield, to focus on our heavenly citizenship, and to put our best effort to be on our way and to build a loving, forgiving, and life-giving family of God, here and now. Amen.
One of the biggest joys for me as a United Methodist pastor is that I have good colleagues. Through our connectional church system and our clergy small groups, we get to know one another quite well. When we meet, honestly, we don’t always spend time praying or meditating on the Bible, but we always eat, and we talk and talk and talk…and talk too much. Yes, because we are preachers, I guess, it’s quite natural for us to talk and share stories. Among those chatty meetings, there was one that was exceptionally chatty meeting I remember. It was filled with stories after stories; we were so into them that we didn’t even recognize how fast the time passed. Can you guess what kind of stories we shared that day? Believe it or not, they were the stories about our funeral experiences.
As you can imagine, these stories were quite heavy. One of the stories I can’t forget came out while we were talking about the smallest funeral we’ve ever officiated. A very seasoned pastor said that he officiated a funeral with only one person. One day, he got a phone call from a funeral home in town urgently asking him to officiate a brief funeral. Fortunately, he was available so went there right away. He didn’t know anything but the name of the deceased. As soon as he entered the room, he was quite surprised that there was nobody but one person sitting in the room. The person was the daughter but she seemed not to care that much about her father’s funeral. Then, the pastor got even more surprised as he looked at the casket. That casket was just a pure plastic box. He said, even the word casket felt too luxurious for such a thing. It really was a shabby box made with thin plastic panels. Composing his mind, he somehow finished that funeral. But he said, that experience was deeply engraved in him. And as he recalled the experience, he again and again asked one question on “how to live and how to die.”
How to live and how to die? This fundamental question about human life is always before us, even though we usually ignore it or we are too busy to reflect on it. But here we are, today, in the Season of Lent. We are in an opportune time to ask this question in all seriousness. How should we live and die? What would be a Christian answer to this question? As our way of looking for an answer, I invite you to see Jesus Christ once again. Especially today I invite you to the all-too-famous story about his temptation in the wilderness once again on this first Sunday in Lent. And it is my hope and prayer that from this short story, we find the way of salvation.
In today’s Gospel story, we see Jesus walk into the wilderness. Following his baptism, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness where he goes through three temptations. You remember, every time the devil tempts Jesus, he turns it down with such inspiring words. This conversation between the devil and Jesus clearly depicts the contrast between our human way of life and Jesus’ way of salvation. Let me tell you about these temptations and Jesus’ answers one more time. The first temptation is targeted at Jesus’ hunger, his human desire. To Jesus who is so famished, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds obvious, “A typical way of human life is to strive for satisfaction of their hungers and desires. And for this, you use whatever means at your disposal.” But Jesus teaches us, “The way of salvation is to find the lasting joy and fulfillment in God. And for this, we shall empty our hunger and desire to give room for the Holy Spirit.”
The second temptation is targeted at Jesus’ ego, his human will. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promises that if Jesus worships him, all the glory and authority will be his. Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds sweet, “A typical way of human life is to worship and seek power, authority, wealth, and fame—something that inflates your ego and inflames your will.” But Jesus leads us, “The way of salvation is to follow and carry out not my will but God’s will. And for this, we shall humble our ego and surrender our will to give ways to God.”
The third temptation is targeted at Jesus’ fear, his human nature for survival. The devil places him on the pinnacle of the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, God will commend angels to protect you.” Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds so enticing, “A typical way of human life is to ensure safety amid fears even by taking extreme measures.” But Jesus guides us, “The way of salvation is to hold on to faith in God’s steadfast presence in our lives, to believe without doubt, we are beloved children of God no matter what.”
These temptations show us the contrast between human life and the way of salvation. Through the devil, the story reveals the nature of human life—hunger-driven, ego-driven, and fear-driven. But here we gathered to find and live the way of salvation as Jesus proclaimed. We want to empty our hunger and desire, surrender our ego and will, and trust God’s steadfast presence more and more so that we can be more like Jesus. How to live and how to die? On this way of salvation, we live our new life as we die to ourselves and live only with Christ who leads us into everlasting life. We struggle to make our small victories over the constant temptations, on our journey through the wilderness of life. Then, someday, we will die. But we will die to be alive evermore in peace of Christ.
In this season of Lent, Jesus calls us to the forty-day journey on the way of salvation. Jesus calls us to a spiritual wilderness, a time of solitude and a space away from our familiar routine to see God and see our life more clearly. He calls us to an intentional time of prayer, listening to God as we search for guidance and direction. He is sending us a wake-up call. We are asked to take the journey leaving where we stand and write our own stories of victory with Jesus. How would you live and how would you die? Are you ready to take a step on his way of salvation today?
July 23rd, 2018 was one of the saddest days in my life. On that day, I was on my vacation in Acadia National Park in Maine until I got the shocking news. The news was about a South Korean politician and activist whom I had admired for a long time; he took his own life. I was devasted. I couldn’t believe it. He was a person of integrity who dedicated himself to making a better society for the working class, for the poor, and for the marginalized. He graduated prestigious schools; in the past, it was a ticket to an affluent elite-class life. But he chose to live as a welder in a steel factory sharing his life with manual workers until he became a politician. I deeply respected him. I even met him a few times as a member of his party. He was my hope for South Korean politics. But that hope was completely lost that day.
Broken hearted and saddened, I went out to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia next morning. I just tried to compose myself watching over the sea from the summit. But the mountaintop was surrounded by thick cloud and fog. So as getting to the top, I couldn’t see anything. It was frustrating. But as soon as driving down the mountain, I could see some sunlight gradually coming through and the cloud and fog began to clear away. Right then, this wonderful view caught my eyes. The cloud was passing by the islands around Bar Harbor. To me, it felt like the cloud was comforting the islands struggling in a sea of suffering. It felt like the cloud was consolingly patting the islands on their shoulders and saying, “it’s alright. It’s okay. Carry on.” While I was looking at the view, there was one Taize song playing in my car. It was Da Pacem Domine, which means, “Give peace, oh Lord.” The song played, “Da pacem domine…give peace, oh Lord, give peace, oh Lord…” At that moment, I felt the Spirit moving in my heart and mending my wound. It was an extraordinary moment of profound comfort and peace beyond words.
As we live our lives in faith, we sometimes experience small extraordinary moments when we feel God is with us, comforts us, and guides us. We may sense this presence of God in our prayers or worship services, when reflecting on the Scripture and having holy communion, in the love and care from our family and friends, or at some unexpected events. Life sometimes knocks us down on our knees like it does to anybody else. But we Christians can somehow muddle through sufferings and pains in our lives and keep on living in faith, because we have those inspiring and spirit-filled moments, and because those small extraordinary moments lead us to this simple assurance: our living God is with us always in our ordinary lives.
From today’s Hebrew Bible and Gospel stories, we see Moses and the disciples experience not just small but huge extraordinary moments on the mountaintops. They directly encounter God and the divine epiphany. Moses was on his way down from the Mount Sinai after he personally met God and received the two tablets of the covenant. His face was shining because he was with God and in the direct presence of God’s glory, so he had to put a veil on his face. It’s incredible.
How about the disciples of Jesus? Peter, John, and James went up to the mountain with Jesus. While Jesus was praying, they were sleepy but suddenly, their eyes got opened up wide. They saw the appearance of Jesus change and his clothes become dazzling white. And they saw Moses and Elijah talking to Jesusabout his upcoming passion. Peter, trying to stay in this ecstatic moment a little longer, said he will make three tents for them. But then a cloud came and overshadowed the disciples. And from the cloud, they heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
The mountaintop experiences of Moses and the disciples…these are truly extra-extraordinary moments of divine wonder. Although they are so amazing, Moses and the disciples cannot stay there forever. They need to come down from the mountaintop. And they have to go back to their ordinary lives and face their reality full of challenges. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the people of Israel are waiting for him in the valley with weary and tired hearts. On their long journey to the promised land, they have been complaining all the time and recently, they even made an idol, a golden calf, and worshipped it. Moses knows well. Still, it’s going to be hard to lead them.
When the disciples of Jesus come down from the mountain, they face a great crowd in the valley with a child seized by an unclean spirit. The disciples struggle and fail to cast it out. So Jesus has to do it. Even it is right after they experienced the divine glory revealed in Jesus on the mountaintop, the disciples are still unable to bring good news to the crowd in the valley. They still are the same humans with doubts and fears. And the reality before them is still tough to deal with.
The mountaintop experiences were of divine majesty. But as soon as Moses and the disciples come down, they face their mundane reality. But, needless to say, that’s where they belong to and that’s where their lives and ministry go on. So what should they do? They should keep on muddling through the valley of agony with the assurance they have from the mountaintop of glory. Our Christian life is exactly the same. We should keep on living our lives in faith, keep on our journey of salvation through our messy ordinary life as we faithfully remember small extraordinary moments that we experienced our God of Immanuel, God with us. Then, only then, we will be gradually transformed and transfigured by the Spirit and become more like Jesus day by day.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, today, I hope we may remember and even newly experience another small extraordinary moment of God’s presence here and now. Therefore, as we continue to worship and share holy communion, it is my prayer that we may be deeply mindful of the Spirit moving in our hearts and filling us with the grace and glory of the mountaintop. So as we leave this place, we may be inspired and empowered to keep muddling through the valleys in our lives. Until we reach the glory of Jesus through our journey of transformation and transfiguration, may the light and joy of Christ be in our hearts always and enable us to keep on muddling through any shadow or brokenness of the world. Amen.