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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, September 14, 2007

1 Timothy 1:12-17 “Akaloo! (Part 2): Too Lost to Follow Anyone”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

How many of you have a GPS unit in your car, a Global Positioning System? Some cars have them built in. You can get them at Wal-Mart and plug them into that hole in your dashboard that used to be called a cigarette lighter. The last time I went to Atlanta, I borrowed a GPS. When I left the house, even though I still knew where I was, I punched in my destination. The GPS beeped and whispered with a satellite, and then announced in its robot voice, “Turn North on Alcoa Highway. Drive 8.6 miles.” I knew that. But hearing it from the GPS was cool. I also wanted to start up the unit close to home so I’d know if I could trust it before I got to Atlanta.

So, I drove North 8.6 miles and turned onto Pellissippi Parkway, just like I always do even when no robot is in the car telling me what to do. I guess I forgot about the GPS pretty fast. I must have been listening to the radio, or taking a nap. (Like you don’t do that on Pellissippi Parkway.) So when I got to the I-40 interchange, Mr. GPS scared the daylights out of me with his “Bing! Bing! Turn West on Interstate 40.” I would have done that anyway, but experiencing this little omniscient device beside me, with its gentle but commanding voice, knowing precisely where I was and exactly where I needed to go – it became a moment of spiritual awakening. Wow! I thought to myself, or may have said out loud. I called our friend who had loaned me the GPS and said, “This is amazing! It sees where I am, it knows what I need to do, it corrects me if I’m wrong. It’s like having God in the car with you.”

The whole time I was in Atlanta, I never once looked at a map. Never once stopped to ask directions – not that I would have, anyway. The only times I got lost I think were when I failed to obey the commands of the all-seeing GPS. I trusted its guidance. I had faith in its knowledge. I appreciated its discipline when it told me, “Drive 500 yards, then make a U-turn.” Even when I knew my way, it was reassuring to hear the GPS agree with me. Heaven forbid the GPS would have stopped working as I as was confidently toodling down some obscure short cut in deepest Atlanta. Heaven forbid it might have started carrying on with some Russian satellite. Because by the second or third day I was so arrogantly obedient, I might have been halfway to Orlando before I realized (or admitted) something was wrong.

We’re talking this month about following – following Jesus. The theme of this year’s Sunday School program is, “Akaloo,” which comes from the Greek word meaning, “to follow.” I would think – I would hope – you already come to church expecting to hear about following Jesus. That’s kind of what we do here at church. We talk about following Jesus and try to help you gain skills so you can become a better follower. We try to go out into the world and tilt it toward Jesus’ direction. But as I was thinking about this series, I realized for all our church talk about following Jesus, you’re not going to do it – you’re not going to follow Jesus – you’re not going to follow anybody unless one or two things are true. I think there are one or two things that have to take place deep down before we’ll follow anyone, even God. Especially God.

What has to happen before you follow?

We aren’t going to follow unless (1) following is comfortable, following is cool. We follow the leader because the leader tells us to do what we’re going to do anyway. Such as, drive 8.6 miles to Pellissippi Parkway. Of course we were going to do that. Why? Because that’s where the government put the road. Because that’s the way our friends do it. Because mom and dad did it that way, and if was good enough for them then it’s good enough for us. Because this way or that way looks fun, and unless there’s some compelling reason (which we’ll talk about in a minute), we’ll always choose a way that looks fun, or at the very least, comfortable. When someone tells you to do what you were going to do anyway (or what you’d like to do if you had the choice) – especially if that someone is God – life is cool. Following is comfortable, comforting, reassuring. You’ll play along. You’ll follow. Following is cool.

Or, we aren’t going to follow unless (2), we thought we knew where we were going, we thought we were cool, we were toodling along and then the positioning unit crashed. The leader we thought was taking us where we wanted to go turned out to be talking to the Russians. We got caught in the dark of night, taking some obscure short cut through a dangerous place, and we got lost. You, right now might have gotten yourself into a dangerous place in your life, and you don’t know how to get out. You want to be found, you’d love to be rescued, you want to go back home to the way things used to be, but you’re so deeply lost, you don’t even know which way brought you in. In this case, you will follow. You might be playing it cool, you might be smiling and keeping up appearances on the outside, but on the inside, you are desperately, hopelessly lost. Your internal GPS just died and you are scared to death. You’ll follow. Because you know you’re lost.

I think one or the other – or maybe even both at the same time, to some degree – I think one or the other or both of these have to be true before we’re ready to follow. When I read this first letter to Timothy, I can see both of these things happening in Paul's life. Listen. And maybe you’ll hear things that you could say, or might want to say.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord. He has given me the strength for my work because he knew that he could trust me. I used to say terrible and insulting things about him, and I was cruel. But he had mercy on me because I didn't know what I was doing, and I had not yet put my faith in him. Christ Jesus our Lord was very kind to me. He has greatly blessed my life with faith and love just like his own. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." This saying is true, and it can be trusted. I was the worst sinner of all! But since I was worse than anyone else, God had mercy on me and let me be an example of the endless patience of Christ Jesus. He did this so that others would put their faith in Christ and have eternal life. I pray that honor and glory will always be given to the only God, who lives forever and is the invisible and eternal King! Amen.

(1Ti 1:12-17)

In this rendition of Paul’s life, early on, Paul was being cool. He was toodling down the road all successful professional persecutors traveled. He was following the money, or at least following a sense of satisfaction. He took pride in his work. He was respected by his peers. And here’s the kicker – he was sure he was respected by God, too. In Paul’s mind, God needed him. Paul was protecting God by persecuting sinners. Author and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.”1 Paul was lost and didn’t know it.

And then one day, God spoke to him. Literally. God struck Paul blind in order to get his attention. It worked. Paul saw the light. He saw how lost he was, even though he knew his territory like the back of his hand. It’s just he now knew the back of his hand was in places it shouldn’t have been. In retrospect, Paul confesses that when he thought he was most on-track, he was lost. When he thought he was on top of his game, he was in the wrong field. He was lost. Absolutely lost. The worst of the worst. The cruelest of the cruel. I don’t know if that really was the case – we’re rarely as bad as we think we are, if we’re inclined to think we’re bad. The point is, that’s how Paul felt. He felt corrupt, compromised, guilty – in short, lost. So, Paul was ready to follow God out of this hole he had so happily dug for himself. Paul was ready to follow.

So here we are, in church. Maybe you’re following, maybe you’re fixing to follow, maybe you’re still trying to make up your mind. You might think you are now or have been the worst of the worst, the cruelest of the cruel. I seriously doubt you really are. Maybe God struck you blind on the way to – I don’t know, Hooters – and you ended up here instead. Or maybe you’re here because you’re at the top of your game and you just want to hear God say, “Don’t go changin’ to try and please me. I love you just the way you are.” Away from the extremes of self-flagellation at one extreme and self-adoration at the other, I think most of you are here because you have this nagging sensation in the back of your mind that something is not right. You don’t know exactly what it is, because you’re doing about as well as other people. But deep down, your internal GPS is quietly signaling you that you might be… could be… probably are just a little bit… lost. Unless your parents or your spouse compelled you to be here against your will (and the strong hand of the Almighty works in mysterious ways), I’m thinking you’re here because your heart knows what your mind isn’t able to admit. You’re lost. Your heart knows you’re going to stay lost unless you find someone or something to follow. In your heart you know you need to follow God.

Listen again to what Paul says…

[God] had mercy on me because I didn't know what I was doing, and I had not yet put my faith in him. (In other words, he was lost and wasn’t following.) Christ Jesus our Lord was very kind to me. He has greatly blessed my life with faith and love just like his own. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." This saying is true, and it can be trusted [it’s worthy of full acceptance]. I was the worst sinner of all! But since I was worse than anyone else, God had mercy on me and let me be an example of the endless patience of Christ Jesus.

The endless patience of Christ Jesus. I wouldn’t advise you to test the endless patience of Christ Jesus. Not because he’ll smite you. But because testing God’s patience is self-defeating. It means you’re challenging God’s direction with your own, which is manipulating, not following. The endless patience of Christ Jesus isn’t put there so you can test it; the endless patience of Christ Jesus is put there because God knows our natural state is ‘lost.’ And so Christ Jesus, who promises to lead if we follow, has to be endlessly patient with folks like you and me.

So, how do you hear God’s direction? You’ve realized that you’re lost, you’re tired of bumping into the furniture, you’re ready to let Christ Jesus lead you – how do you hear his direction? O, that the voice of Jesus was a clear as a little GPS you could keep in your pocket. How do you hear God’s directions? That’s what we’ll be talking about in the coming weeks. (Little teaser there to get you back to church.)

If you feel lost, if you can give in to that sense that something’s wrong but you’re not quite sure what it is, if instead of suppressing it you can feed that yearning… what today’s scripture says is that if you do lift up your “lostness” instead of hiding it, you can then become fertile ground for the mercy of God. You can become an example of the endless patience of Christ Jesus. In the coming weeks, let’s think about what this means together.

1 Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 118, Adobe Digital Edition.