For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.
This year’s books are:
Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers
This Is Not My Hat, by Jon Klaassen
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown
Playing from the Heart, by Peter Reynolds
Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessor, by William Joyce
It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Moses should have been back by now. If there is one thing that is clear, it is that. Moses has been on the mountain since chapter 24, when God called him up onto Mount Sinai. We–the readers–know it took seven days before God even spoke to Moses on the mountain (Exodus 24:16) and that Moses stayed up there “forty days and forty nights” (Exod 24:18)–that’s the way the ancients said “a really, really, really, long time.”
Again, we–the readers–can follow along through the next seven or so chapters, perhaps zoning out through the minutia of Tabernacle construction and the tailoring of religious garments.
But the Israelites are not so fortunate. Moses ascended the mountaintop that was itself clothed in cloud and mystery. Moses entered the presence of a powerful and dangerous God. And he has been gone too long.
You ever lose something? The other day when I was in Portland for our American Baptist Mission Summit, I was talking to my spouse and I lost my phone. While she was telling me all about what she and the kids were doing at her parents’, I unpacked my bag three times, looked under my bed, checked in the drawers where I was staying, and generally started to lose my mind. I got upset enough looking for my phone that she could hear it in my voice, and asked me if everything was alright. It was at that moment–as I opened my mouth to tell her I’d lost my phone, that I remembered she was 2500 miles away and I was using it to talk to her at that very moment.
I know, I’m an idiot. But sometimes, we’re all idiots. It might be your keys, or your hat, an important paper, or where you parked your car, but we all become idiots when we lose something.
That’s what this story is about. The Israelites believe they have “lost” Moses. He went to do something dangerous, he’s running late, so they lose it and start running around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off.
You see, when something goes wrong, we tend to make it worse. We make little problems into big ones. We can’t find our keys, which snowballs into risking being late for work, which snowballs into a speeding ticket, which snowballs into anger and being even more late, which snowballs into a conflict at work, and so on and so on and so on.
We make little problems into big ones.
We’ve lost our kite, and the next thing you know there’s a whale in the tree.
Moses is running late, so they build a new god and abandon everything they held dear.
Runaway Truck Lanes
Outside of Chattanooga, TN, Interstate 24 traverses Monteagle Mountain, a stretch of highway that is often referenced as one of the most dangerous stretches of interstate in the US. Like other stretches of road with significant gradients, the highway coming off Monteagle has what are called Runaway Truck Lanes. Many of you have seen these, I’m sure. I suspect some of our truck drivers might have even used one a time or two.
These look like exits off the highway, but they don’t go anywhere. They quickly turn to gravel that gets deeper and deeper–up to 48 inches or more in some areas. Their purpose is to slow down a large truck quickly in the event its brakes begin failing. And on Monteagle alone, I am certain they have saved countless lives and prevented incalculable harm that would have resulted from crashing into other vehicles or careening off the mountain.
This morning, as we’re thinking about little problems quickly becoming big ones–as we’re reflecting on things getting out of control at Sinai (or Atchison), I think there’s a metaphor here. Remembering that all truth comes from God, I think there are lessons these Runaway Truck Lanes can teach us.
1. We’ve Got to Be Willing to Slow Down
For instance, we’ve got to be willing to slow down.
We live fast-paced lives in a fast-paced world. Whether we realize it or not, most of us derive our self-worth from the things we do and have–so we think the more we do and the more we have the more we are worth. We’re workaholics, shopaholics, chocoholics… We road rage, so we can get to work, and do more stuff, to buy more things, so our life is worth more. We gladly pay with our health, our future, and our present wellbeing for the faulty illusion of obtaining these things at the end of our life.
Sisters and brothers, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but if you want to be delivered from the rat race, you’ve got to be willing lose it.
Are we willing to slow down?
2. We’ve Got to Turn the Wheel
But deciding alone to slow down isn’t going to save us. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to turn the wheel.
The Runaway Truck Lane isn’t in the middle of the road. You’re not going to accidentally be saved. You’ve got to grab the wheel. You’ve got to do something. The Runaway Truck Lanes are not going to slow us down if we don’t turn into them.
But you know…… These lifesaving pathways have been built close enough to the road that you don’t have to do much–you just have to turn the wheel a little bit–just a little bit! [motion]–to get yourself on the path of redemption and deliverance.
Now if you’re trapped inside 35 tons of runaway life, it seems like stopping safely is an impossibility. But you’ve only got to turn a little bit before other forces come into play. For a truck, friction and gravity and physics do the hard work. In our lives, we don’t have to turn very far towards God before God is able to do exponentially “more than we can ask or imagine,” to use the language of Ephesians 3:20.
We’ve got to be willing to slow down, and we’ve got to turn the wheel.
3. We’ve Got to Be Willing to Be Helped
You know what else we’ve got to do? We’ve got to be willing to be helped.
Runaway truck lanes work by getting you stuck. They are filled with gravel that pulls against the tires and mire you down. It’s bumpy, you lurch forward, and it feels like the very earth itself is pulling you underground. But when the ride is over, you will be safe–but stuck. The danger has passed, but you will be paralyzed to move. These lanes work by allowing a truck to get buried up to its axles; and you just don’t power out of that alone.
So what do you do? You have to wait for someone else to come.
Waiting, hmmmmm. Waiting didn’t work so well for those Israelites. Waiting doesn’t usually turn out so well for me, either. Waiting runs against our rat race society, our obsession with consumption, and our unending need to prove our worth through doing.
And help rarely shows up immediately. There’s always some period of time where we’re looking around and waiting and wondering, like the psalmist in Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?”
As people of faith, I hope we can answer as does the psalmist in the next verse:
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalms 121:1–2 NIV11)
But you know, even God can’t do everything all at once. Part of that is because God chooses to work through human beings like me and you, who get so wrapped up worshiping the false gods of busyness and productivity and consumption that it takes us a while for God to get through. God keeps calling us, but keeps hearing a busy signal.
We’ve got to wait. We’ve got to stop and breathe. I love it where the psalmist says “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry” (Psalms 40:1 NIV11). But you know what makes me glad? You know what makes me joyful about God? It’s that God doesn’t require “patient waiting” as a condition of being helped. If God only “turned to me and heard my cry” when I “waited patiently,” I’d still be in the same hole I was in the beginning–if I hadn’t crashed and burned on the mountain long ago.
3.2 Being Helped
Help doesn’t always come right away, but when it does come, you have to allow them to help you out of your stuck place.
I don’t like having to be helped–Do you like having to be helped?–Nobody likes having to be helped. Of course not!
We all want to do it on our own. And why?–because having to be helped by you means I couldn’t do it on my own.
But you know what? God didn’t make us to do it on our own. God made us to be in relationship with God–and even that wasn’t enough. God saw we needed a partner to get through this, so God made us to be in relationship with each other too. We are not whole unless we are being helped by the other members of the Body of Christ.
Of course, we are not whole unless we’re helping them too, but that’s another sermon.
3.3 Paying for It
We have to wait……We have to let others help us……And another thing: being helped will cost you something. Of course, you’re all thinking about money here. And you’re right, that tow driver has got to eat and feed their family too. “The laborer deserves his wages,” as Jesus tells us in Luke 10:7. And there are plenty of other passages about unfair compensation and that condemn taking advantage of other’s labor for our own gain.
But when we submit to being helped by others, there is a cost of another kind. Being helped is harder than helping. It changes us.
We take communion–as we will this morning–because Jesus instructs us to do so in order to remember what it’s all about. As protestants, we talk about communion as being an “ordinance” because it was “ordered” by Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)
But there’s another practice–another ritual–that Jesus instructs even more directly and emphatically. In John 13, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and tells them: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). That’s not a ritual we baptists tend to do, even though it also was “ordered” by Jesus. Of course, our sisters and brothers in Christ among the other denominations aren’t rearing at the bit to do it either.
I used to think we didn’t obey this command of Jesus because people think feet are icky and they didn’t want to touch someone else’s feet. But I’ve been involved in enough foot washings to realize it is something else entirely: it’s not the washing but the being washed. Whether or not you’ve done it before, there’s something within us that is aware of the vulnerability of being washed by another person. There is a cost to it that we are unwilling to pay.
Being helped by someone else always comes at a cost. And sometimes, we’d rather be forever mired in the pull-off lanes of life than risk being changed by the gentle touch of God and others.
God at Work
It was a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
You know what I mean–one of those where it feels like our lives and world are careening out of control, where the decisions of your life create an unhealthy momentum that threatens to hurl you off a cliff, where you come face to face–eye to eye–with danger and death and hurt and betrayal and violence and hatred and all those things we encounter in the trenches of life.
But you know what? God is already there. God has been busy, church. God has been real busy. God has been making sure there are these “runaway life” lanes–already in place!–to slow us down. God has been making sure there are tow-truck drivers–already in the area–ready to haul the carcass of our emotional wreckage out of the pits of despair.
God has been at this work a long, long time. There was a day that was particularly terrible, particularly horrible, particularly no good, and particularly very bad. On that day, the Son of God–Jesus the Christ, the Messiah–was hauled before courts, slandered, subjected to an unjust judicial verdict, abused by those purporting to keep the peace, and hung on a cross until he was dead.
It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. But even as bad as that day was, our transforming God was at work. God was in the trenches, doing the dirty work of redemption, even when the people of God had turned against God’s own Son, even when the disciples had lost faith and scattered, even when the darkness fell and the earth shook and it felt like all of creation was coming apart at the seams.
Deep in the valley of the shadow of death, God had been building roads. As Jesus descended into the grave, he found a special lane had been constructed on the steepest, most treacherous descent of the journey. This lane was deep and wide, and filled with enough gravel to stop even the most impossible of runaway lives. It can catch you no matter how fast you fall, no matter how much baggage and cargo you’re hauling, no matter what mistakes you’ve made that led you here.
Jesus has marked this lane for us, as have thousands upon millions of the faithful before our time.
But we must be willing to slow down.
We must turn the wheel toward Jesus.
And we have to allow God and others to help us out; We cannot do it on our own.
[Segue to closing hymn and invitation]
Our closing hymn speaks to these things: Be Still My Soul.
It reminds us to still ourselves. To trust God to be faithful. To turn toward God so God can provide and protect.
But it also reminds us not to lose sight of what God is working towards, too. We should be encouraged when we think of Christ’s return. The song talks about it being a time “when disappointment, grief and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored…tears are past” and when we are “all safe.”
That’s a hopeful picture whether our life is stuck or careening out of control. It’s the reason the Gospel of Jesus is called the “Good News.” And it is why we are people of hope.
Thanks to author Judith Viorst for gifting the world with the language of a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”