Message for Sunday, May 14 (Mother’s Day), 2017 at Vestal UMC
Today’s passage from John 14 takes place the night before the crucifixion, the evening of the Last Supper. They’re gathered around the table, Judas has already left the party, it’s night time, and we find Jesus trying to comfort his disciples. He’s told them once he’s going someplace they can’t follow on their own, he’s already told Peter that Peter will deny him three times before morning, and now he’s trying to reassure them, telling them, “Don’t worry or be afraid – I’m just going ahead of you to make a way for you. I’ll come back and get you when the time is right. You already know the way to where I’m going.”
Normally when someone gives a message about this passage, they talk about verse 1 – Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me … or the first part of verse 2 – My Father’s house has many rooms … or even verses 6-7 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Yet those are not the verses that called out to me when I studied this passage to prepare today’s message. What struck me was that at least two of his disciples seemed doubtful about what Jesus was telling them. Thomas is up front about it. He’s like, “Wait, what? We don’t know where you’re going.” Philip’s a little more subtle. He doesn’t admit it. Instead, he says, “Look, just draw us a map. That’s all we’re asking.”
Now, you’d think after three long years of being with, traveling with, listening to Jesus, these folks would be able to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them, that they had learned enough from him to understand what he was saying … But they didn’t … instead some – at least two – seem confused at minimum, and doubtful at most.
Doubt or some variation of the word appears in English translations of the Bible around 49 times. Reading closely, though, there are instances where people seem to be in doubt and the word isn’t used – like Thomas and Philip in today’s Gospel passage. Normally when we hear or even use the word “doubt” or when we are “doubtful”, it’s because we don’t believe something … we don’t believe something will happen, that what is being said is true, that whatever it is can be done, that whatever has been decided is the right decision. When we doubt another person, we are, in a way, saying we don’t trust them to do something. At least that’s how I feel when I doubt.
The Bible, however, was not originally written in English. Wait. You didn’t know that? Sorry, it’s true.
Something you’re more likely not to know is that, in the original Koine Greek language of the New Testament, the most common words translated into doubt are distazo (di-stah-dzoh) and diakrino (dee-ahk-ree-noh). The words mean to hesitate or to waver. Distazo is used twice in the New Testament, and diakrino is used nineteen times.
The revelation for me in what I learned from all that was that it meant most people weren’t doubting after all – at least not the way we define doubt … they didn’t not believe … they … hesitated.
Now, Please understand … hesitation or doubt, whichever you call it, is not a sin. The poet, Khalil Gibran, wrote “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know it has a twin named Faith,” and a theologian named Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”
Doubt or hesitation can cause you to sin, but only if you let your hesitation reach the point of being that pain too lonely to remember your faith. On the other hand, if your hesitation causes you to question and, through your questioning, you remember your faith and you learn and strengthen your ability to face what it is you’re doubting, then your initial doubt becomes a beneficial element of your faith.
And don’t give yourself a hard time when you find yourself hesitating. Those with faith as true as John the Baptist can sometimes hesitate. In Luke 7:18-23, John the Baptist is in prison and has begun to doubt, to hesitate. He’s getting so worked up, he sends two of his own disciples to Jesus, asking “Are you the one who is come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus sends them back to John with a message that ends with “Blessed are those who do not stumble on account of me.” Jesus was clear: Don’t let your hesitation cause you to stumble … to fall away … to fall by the way.
And even Jesus himself hesitated twice there in the garden …
Mark 14:32-29 reads: “They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Once more he went away and prayed the same thing.”
And understand that there is probably no one in this building that has not hesitated at some point in their lives when they were faced with something that seemed insurmountable, unbearable, undo-able, unattainable,and/or unfamiliar. Or that won’t hesitate again in the future.
That’s why my message today is “To the Hesitant”, and I’m including myself in that group because I, too, have hesitated … I too, hesitate …
Maybe you’re hesitant to seek a promotion at work, or to accept a leadership position in your community or here at church or to volunteer for a special task or committee or … maybe even to answer God’s call to ministry … because you’ve never done that before, because you don’t feel qualified, or because in the past you haven’t been successful.
Maybe you’re hesitant to tell your family and friends outside of your church family how you feel about God, about Jesus, about your faith because you fear they’ll reject you … ignore you … laugh at you … ridicule you.
Maybe you’re hesitant to do something new, to venture into “new territory”, because it means change and taking a risk.
Maybe your hesitation is about your ability to be a parent and you’re so unsure, you may choose instead to walk away, or to deny the experience altogether. Maybe you’re living with that hesitation in your past. I am. My greatest hesitation did not end well …
Maybe you’re the one that got walked away from, and now your hesitation is finding the strength to forgive the ones who did the walking.
Maybe you’re hesitant because someone let you down, and you did the walking away and you can’t seem to see a way back or out or even forward.
Maybe, because someone walked away from you, you hesitate to see yourself worthy of love by anyone else, or you hesitate to trust anyone else for fear they might walk away, too.
Maybe you’re sitting there doubting God because you weren’t even given any of those opportunities to hesitate. Maybe your child was taken from you too soon, withheld from you, or you were never given the child you yearned for to begin with.
Maybe you’re hesitant to admit that you need help giving up an addiction like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, social media, video games, sex, porn, overeating, over-dieting, compulsive spending. Maybe you’re hesitant because you can’t remember life without the temporary euphoria from that quick fix. Maybe you’re hesitant because you think admitting the addiction is admitting you’re vulnerable, scared, weak, incapable, or a failure.
Maybe you’re hesitant because some portion of society or some kind of self-declared authority has declared that your past or present circumstances, your addiction, or even your lifestyle makes you unworthy or brands you as unforgivable and therefore un-redeemable.
Maybe you’re hesitant because you’ve heard society or some authority say people like you are unworthy so many times that you’ve begun to believe it yourself.
Maybe you’re hesitant about the people you see as “other” based on race or religion or immigration status or whatever because you’ve always heard bad things about them and getting to know them yourself is hard. Maybe you’re hesitant about getting to know them because you might have to ultimately admit what you heard was wrong … you were wrong about them.
For Christ’s sake, Get. Over. It! All of you. Right now!
Do you think for one minute that Jesus went through all he did – the ridicule, the constant accusations, the condemnation, hearing His Father’s words twisted and convoluted by God’s own priests and rabbis … do you think he would have suffered the pain or taken upon himself the burden of the sins of every living person in the whole world past, present and future, and then have given up his own life … so we would still … hesitate?
Yes, Jesus hesitated, too, but then he said, “Not my will, but THY will!” Twice! In one night!
Don’t you ask yourself why he hesitated? Why, after 33 years of knowing the plan for his life, he said, “God! Let’s rethink this! I’m hesitant!”
One of the most profound things I read after learning that “hesitate” would be a more appropriate word than doubt was stated recently by someone on the Internet who uses the name, Begonia Arizona. Begonia said, “Maybe he wavered twice that night so that my heart would know it wasn’t alone …”.
Maybe he wanted to stress to you that, ultimately, surrendering to God is the only real solution. He certainly stressed over and over and over again that you’re not alone … none of us is alone.
Jesus showed us – every single living, breathing, created in His own image, child of the one true God one of us – a new and better way that would bring us hope and peace. He taught us to love one another and to forgive one another; to work together and play together; to build His Father’s kingdom on earth together, and then … someday … to have eternal life … together.
When you hesitate – when you sit here and point mental fingers at someone else or at some ghost from the past or even at yourself in the mirror … when you doubt … when you question your own worthiness or that of those ghosts and others you can’t quite understand or forgive … you fail to give yourself or them what Christ brought to us and died for … To be made new in Him, to be made whole; to have second chance after second chance after second chance. To be forgiven. To forgive.
It’s through Christ that we serve THE GOD of new beginnings, of second chances … God who catches us when we fall, who carries us when we can’t go on by ourselves. God who loves us so much He sent His only begotten son, that whosoever would believe in him would have eternal life. God who loves us so much, sent His only begotten son to make a new covenant for us because, by ourselves, we continually fail to keep His laws.
It says so right here in Romans 8:1-39: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
I know I asked y’all to study the Gospels, but I want you to look at Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” That verse isn’t there for you to chant when you’re poised in the starting blocks waiting for the gun. It’s about winning races or competitions or surviving a weekend with three toddlers. It’s there to remind you that, through the hardest times, through the darkest hours, up the tallest mountains, no matter what … Christ is there with you and for you and will carry you through and will give you strength when you hesitate.
Say it with me … “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Say it again … “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Now say it like you mean it. Shout it. “I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO GIVES ME STRENGTH.”
Call on his strength! Stop hesitating and forgive. Stop hesitating and seek forgiveness. Stop hesitating and forgive yourself. Stop hesitating and seek or accept that leadership position. Stop hesitating and ask for help if you’re facing something that’s just too big on your own. Stop hesitating and find courage to reach out to your friends and family outside the church. Stop hesitating and reach out to the “other” in your neighborhoods and community.
Most importantly, stop hesitating and just trust that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are working in your life and are with you every step of the way up whatever mountain you’re climbing.
While you will most certainly face times that are dark, lonely, painful, or obstacles that seem too hard a mountain to climb, finish lines that seem they just can’t be reached … trust this … YOU can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.
And all God’s children said … Amen.