Thankful Even for the Detours of Life

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It’s not good for a pastor to talk about himself too much in a sermon.  The sermon can easily degenerate into a speech like those essays from elementary school: “What I Did During Summer Vacation” or given the holiday we are observing today, “What I Am Thankful For.”  Or it can easily turn into a Joel Osteen pep talk on how to have your best life now if you just follow my example.  A proper sermon should be focused on Christ, and Him crucified.”  No, it’s not good for a pastor to talk about himself too much in a sermon.  But this time, for the sake of illustration, I’m going to risk it for a little bit.  I pray that it will help you view your own life’s detours from a Scriptural perspective.

This is the second Thanksgiving in a row that I have had the privilege and pleasure of preaching at Christ Lutheran Church.  Certainly, two years ago, I would not have expected to be standing here today.  I was the pastor of one of God’s flocks at another location.  Even last year, when I preached here I did not expect to be here today or to still be working overnights at Wal-Mart.  I fully hoped to receive a call to be the pastor of another congregation by this time.  But as Thomas a Kempis is credited with writing in “The Imitation of Christ: “Man proposes but God disposes.”  Or as Solomon writes in the book of Proverbs: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (16:9). 

Life’s journey is not one straight, smooth road, but full of potholes and detours.  And God is able to use all of it to shape us and make us into the people He wants us to be, to use us in the ways that He best knows as He gets us to our ultimate destination—our heavenly Promised Land.  So, on life’s journey, I find myself in the middle of a detour I could’ve never imagined less than two years ago.

How did I get here?  In one word—sin.  Without going into a lot of details—an error in judgment on my part created mistrust.  The spark of mistrust was fanned into a flame of unnecessary conflict by Satan through rumor, speculation, failure to put the best construction on the situation, and unwillingness to repent and/or forgive.  That conflict led me to resign in order to avoid a greater split to the congregation to which I was called.         

I certainly don’t tell you this to hold myself up as a role model.  Like you I am a poor miserable sinner who only stands here by God’s grace.  And I don’t tell you this in order to try to gain favor with God, although I must admit that the false promise runs repeatedly in my sinful mind that if I just do the right things, if I just please God well enough, if I just pray hard enough, that He might relent and once again call me as a pastor of one of His congregations.          

Neither do I tell you this as a sort of purging or catharsis.  I’ve confessed my guilt before God and man, and I know that no matter what others may think I stand before the Lord, pure and blameless, forgiven and absolved solely for the sake of Jesus Christ, His perfect life, atoning death and resurrection.  Nor do I do it make any accusations against others.  I accept full responsibility for the consequences of my actions.  I’ve done so privately and publicly.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.  My fault.  My own grievous fault.

And I do not tell you this in order to gain sympathy.  Though my life is very different than I would have expected, I still have a very good life.  If anything, these events have brought my family closer together.  I’ve come to better understand and appreciate the Lord’s provision of daily bread.  I enjoy my work at Wal-Mart.  I’ve made a lot of friends there, and have a greater opportunity to speak the Gospel on a one-on-one basis than I’d ever have as a parish pastor.  I get the opportunity to preach and teach on a regular basis.  We have a church home “in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”  I am certainly thankful for each of these many blessings. 

No, I don’t share this other than with the hope that it might somehow help you to better understand your own detours in life in relation to our text for today, Deuteronomy 8:2-3:  And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

“Forty years in the wilderness.”  Talk about a long detour!  And living in tents to boot!  I enjoy camping out.  The peaceful solitude, the sounds and smells of the great outdoors are invigorating.  But forty years?  That’s a different story.  And it wasn’t like the Israelites were in some lush national forest.  They were in the wilderness, a desolate region with no native food or water supplies.  And despite their wilderness setting they didn’t even have the luxury of “getting away from it all.”  Imagine, taking the entire populations of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming and placing us in a portable tent city slowly moved about the Badlands.  This is the kind of detour on which God led the people of Israel for forty years!

If you take a look at the map you’ll see just how strange it is that it would take this long to get from Egypt to the Promised Land.  In our present day, Cairo is less than 300 miles away from Jerusalem as the crow flies: to take forty years to get there works out to traveling about one hundred feet a day.  Most of us have to walk farther than that just to take the garbage out.  Furthermore, there were a bunch of bumps on the road: the people ran out of water more than once, which the Lord had to provide miraculously.  They ran out of food and complained until the Lord sent manna falling from the sky.  There were fiery serpents and scorpions and barren desert.  It just doesn’t sound like a pleasant place to be.

It certainly didn’t have to be this way.  The Lord is quite capable of doing things differently.  After all, this is the same all-powerful God who parted the Red Sea rather than say, “Why don’t you spend a few days going around?”  But He picked the long road—a forty year detour.  Why?  He tells us through His servant Moses in our Old Testament lesson for this Day of Thanksgiving.

Moses says, “Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”

When they ran out of water and food in the wilderness, the people of Israel were quick to panic and fret that they were going to die of thirst and starvation.  In other words, they were quick to doubt the Lord’s mercy.  In fact, they were quick to accuse Moses and God of leading them into the wilderness to die! 

That sort of distrust can swing more than one way.  So the Lord warned that once they reached the Promised Land and had all of its abundance, they’d be likely to forget that it was all a gift from Him.  They’d be tempted to take it for granted, or think that they had earned it themselves.  So in preparation for the Promised Land, the Lord humbled them.  He put them in a situation where they said, “We cannot survive out here on our own.  We need the Lord to keep us alive.” 

There was more to it, too.  It was a matter of discipline.  Moses declares, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.”  Some of the discipline in the wilderness was punishment.  There’s no hiding the fact that they were in the wilderness because when they came out of Egypt, they refused enter the Promised Land for fear of the Canaanites.  Because they doubted God, the Lord declared that none of the Israelites would enter the Promised Land until that generation died off.  That was the reason for the forty year detour—a year for each of the forty days they had spied out the land and then failed to claim the Lord’s promise.

But not all of it was punishment.  Discipline also means training.  And once again, the Lord was training His people to trust in Him.  As He provided food and deliverance from danger in the wilderness, so He would give them victory over the inhabitants of the Promised Land.  The Lord was training them to know that they were to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

One more thing about that forty year detour: it had a starting point.  The Israelites weren’t always in the wilderness.  They’d spent over 400 years in Egypt, the last portion as slaves.  They would have died there as slaves, too.  But the Lord rescued them from that slavery—rescued them wondrously, miraculously, and dramatically.  No, the wilderness might not be the greatest place to be, but it was a far better situation than the slavery and death they’d known.

That’s especially true since it wasn’t their destination.  The detour in the wilderness was just the time between the slavery and the Promised Land.  Throughout those years, the Lord would humble them, test them, and discipline them.  He would also provide for them, protect them, and when the time was right, give them the Promised Land full of every good thing.  But more than that, He’d give them a Savior, one of their own, who would deliver them to eternal life.

It’s no coincidence that many centuries later Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  As Israel was baptized through the Red Sea into the wilderness for forty years, so Jesus was baptized and went straight to His temptation for forty days.  He did perfectly what the people of Israel failed to do.  Where the people sinned against God again and again, Jesus remained perfectly sinless and obedient.  Where they needed to be humbled, He was perfectly humble.  Where Israel panicked because there was momentarily no food, Jesus fasted and trusted.  In fact, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus quoted this Old Testament lesson: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). 

Always humble, He met every test and remained the disciplined Son.  Why did He do so?  Jesus wasn’t just re-enacting wilderness life to see what it must have been like for His ancestors.  He did this to redeem them—and to redeem you, too.  He lived that perfect life in order to credit you with His perfect obedience.  Then He went to the cross; and on the cross, His Father punished Him with the judgment for the sin of the world—that you might have eternal life. 

All of this frames your life on earth; and actually, it frames your Thanksgiving Day.  I do pray that it is a day of celebration and comfort, of family and friends, of food and fun.  But even if your life has taken an unexpected detour, remember, there is a reason for this: you’re celebrating Thanksgiving in the wilderness.  You’re not in the Promised Land yet!  You’re still in the land of fiery serpents and scorpions—of thirst and hunger, arthritis and cancer, bad decisions and troubled relationships.  That’s what the wilderness is like, and the troubles you face will be used by the devil to leave you thankless and doubting God. 

But you have so much to be thankful for.  There’s the obvious stuff for thanksgiving—the daily bread that the Lord provides for you.  In this land of plenty it is very easy to forget that the Lord provides and sustains from day to day.  That’s the reason for this day of national thanksgiving: as George Washington wrote in 1789: “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”  You have much because the Lord gives it to you and because the Lord sustains it from day to day.  For this, you should truly give thanks—not just once a year, but daily and likely far more than you do.

That’s true and pretty typical Thanksgiving sermon fare; but there’s more to be thankful for.  The Lord also gives you those other strange gifts that He gave Israel in the wilderness: namely, the humbling, the testing, and the discipline.  Be thankful for the detours. 

Life in this wilderness is a rocky road.  You will hurt.  You will lack.  You will sin.  You will stumble and fall.  And you’ll wonder why the Lord chooses to do things this way.  The best answer we can give from Scripture is that you’re His children.  The setbacks and troubles you face are consequences of being a sinner in a sinful world.  But their effects on you are not random slaps of a heartless cosmos.  The Lord has made you His children—you are heirs of His kingdom. 

As you make your way through this wilderness, remember the wilderness is already a step up.  Once you were enslaved in sin, dead and headed for hell.  But the Lord brought you out of your “Egypt” through the Red Sea of Holy Baptism.  For those apart from Christ, this world is the beginning of hell.  But you’ve already been rescued, redeemed by the blood of Christ.  This wilderness is a detour to the Promised Land of heaven.  Remember, though detours aren’t always enjoyable, they are generally meant to help you arrive safely at your desired destination.

So the Lord, who has made you His children, disciplines you as a father disciplines his sons.  That’s not an enjoyable thing: the book of Hebrews tells us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:11).  In fact, Hebrews also tells us, in the mystery of the Incarnation, that “Although [Jesus] was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (5:8).  So it is for you.  When you fail or stumble, when life kicks you in the teeth, when the Lord takes you on a detour, He uses that that for good, to discipline you to cast your cares upon Him and trust in Him.  He tests you, because sinners like you and me need constant testing, constant redirection back to repentance and trust in Him.

The Lord is treating you like beloved children.  If He did not, you would be God-forsaken, left to yourself—perhaps with a nice life, but with no hope.  So where you are so humbled, disciplined, and tested, trust that God will use these things for your good.  Where you have been tested, you can be God’s instrument and a strong advocate for those who are tested like you.  Where the affliction overwhelms you as something greater than you can bear, know that Christ has borne it for you.  If such things continue to point you back to Christ and guard against falling in love with the wilderness, then that focus back on the cross is a blessing indeed and something to give thanks for.

And always remember this: you’re in the wilderness.  The Lord has led you out of the slavery of sin and death this far, and even if you are in the midst of a frightening detour, you have a destination.  The Promised Land of heaven is yours, where you have the certain hope of eternal life free from all sin and struggle, where God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.

St. Paul puts this into practice in 2 Corinthians 12.  He writes that He was given a thorn in the flesh to keep from becoming conceited.  “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv 9-10).  In your weakness, the Lord demonstrates His strength and deliverance, and His strength and deliverance are indeed things to be thankful for.

A blessed Thanksgiving to you all; and rejoice, my friends—even in your weaknesses and detours.  The Lord is treating you as His beloved children, because you are His beloved children.  He gives you all that you need for this body and life.  He gives you all that you need for this body and soul for eternal life—the Word that comes from His mouth and the Bread that comes from heaven—His very body and blood.  In these means of grace, you have forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Link for audio version


Anonymous said…
What a blessing to have this sermon preached at Christ Lutheran! Praise to the Lord.

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