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.