Right and Wrong Trails
Text: John 14:1-14
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my favorite activities is backpacking. Striking out into God’s creation with everything you’ll need for the next few days on your back is exhilarating and gives me the opportunity to enjoy things on a level that just isn’t possible in the daily grind of civilization. But because it’s usually far removed from civilization, there are a lot of precautions I take. For instance, I always study the trail I’ll be traveling—topographical maps, reviews from other hikers, descriptions of what to expect at certain mileage points—those are just the beginning. It’s necessary and good because if there’s anything you need to know out there, it’s the trail. Stick to the trail, know the path, and you’ll always end up in safety.
Not knowing the way is dangerous. And when you’re in the middle of not knowing, it can be scary. I don’t admit it much, although now that it’s in a sermon it’s about to become much more common knowledge, but there was one trip where I did not know the way. Or, rather, I thought I was on the trail, but I was actually on a different one. It wasn’t especially dangerous, but there was no way it would have led me to where I wanted to go. The going was getting more and more difficult, when everything I read—and the topographical map—said that it shouldn’t be that challenging of a trail. Eventually we figured it out, backtracked, and then got onto the right trail. And although we got to the campsite later than we planned, we had still arrived—after we knew the way.
This was the Apostles’ concern when Jesus told them that He would be going and they would not be going with Him. When He told them to not let their hearts be troubled and to believe that He would come back for them; when He told them this was nothing to lose faith over because they already knew the way to where He was going, that’s when Thomas, the ever-down-to-earth one, said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
How can we know the way? How can we know the path—the path to God that Jesus was talking about? It’s a fair question. It’s been a question that’s preoccupied humanity throughout our long history. Good art, philosophy, every religion, studies on our human nature in books, stories, song, and film—all of these, in their own way, are an attempt at finding that way to God, getting on the right trail. These are all ways that people have tried to use to see God the Father. As the Apostle Philip asked of Jesus, “Show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” So we say to our wise men and sages, our experts and geniuses, our artists and leaders, “Show us the Father, show us God, show us the Truth, and that will be enough for us.”
The problem, of course, is that we never seem to start down the right trail. Oh, we may think we’re on the right way, but I can personally vouch that thinking, or feeling, that you’re on the right path is not the same thing as actually being on the right path. So humanity has tried its various ways to see God. Great thinkers have tried the path of the mind—right thinking, presumed intelligent speculation about God and the universe. Entire systems of thinking or philosophy or heady religions have been built up around knowing the right answers, holding the right truths or assumptions, walking the right paths of thought. And yet, how many times do these trails lead to cold assertions about God, about our fellow humans, about life in general—assertions that do nothing to stir the heart or kindle faith or bring one closer to God. Too often these roads of speculation have brought people to despair, believing that God can’t be all-powerful, or all-loving, or sometimes believing He can’t even exist. It’s brought countless wise men and sages to their knees in disappointment that, for all their imagined wisdom, they have not seen the Father. They’ve seen only their own thoughts reflected back to them in the mirrors of their minds.
There are, of course, those who are disenchanted with the cold calculations of such a path. So they try to find another way. They wander the path of the emotions, seeking a mystical connection to God through feeling and intuition, perhaps through some form of inward seeking. But as charming as that way may seem at first, if the trail only leads inward, where can expect the ultimate destination to be? Inward, in ourselves. The trouble with this path is that those who walk it only end up hearing what’s already within themselves, hearing their own thoughts repeated to them, their own emotions informing them, because that road has only ever led further into themselves.
But the widest way followed, walked by the most number of people, is the path of works, the trail of good behavior. The assumption here is that if they just walk it closely enough, if they don’t stray out of bounds and keep moving ever further into good works and noble deeds, that it will ultimately lead them to some sort of reward. God must reward that path, because, well, we think He should. We say He should. So most religions have been built on this concept—behave this way and God will respond that way. Do this and God will do that. But in those quiet moments of reflection, how certain are we that we’re walking that path as closely as we assume? This has been the struggle of those who want to travel that trail—it gets tangled and the clear lines begin to fade. Exceptions have to be made here and there. Some stop and worry that they’ll never make it, falling into despair. Others plow ahead, certain that they’re on track when they actually left the path long ago. And in moments of repentant honesty, like what we had at the beginning of the service today, “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,” we look around and realize that this path of our own goodness has also left us far from home.
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. We haven’t been able to see the Father. How can we know the way?” There is a Way, and it does not rest in our own minds, hearts, or hands. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Your way to the Father is not within you, or else you would not have needed me to come to this world and win you back. No one comes to the Father except through Me. But from now on—because I am your Way, I am your Truth, I am your Life—from now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.” Jesus is the Way, He is the Path, the only Path that works. He has come into our world and has sought us out when we had run down the wrong way. He takes us by the hand and leads us back to Himself, back to the Way, the Door, the Truth, the Life that is Himself. He leads us through the veil that is His flesh, His body and blood, so that we can see God in the Holy of Holies, the temple that is Him, that is the Lamb on His throne forever. And when we venture off the way, when we think we’ve found a better path, or a nicer view, or a shortcut to that destination of being with God, then He tracks us down again, shows us the Way, tells us the Truth (even if it’s hard to hear sometimes), and then gets us back on track.
That’s how we see God. That’s how we access Him. That’s how we receive all that we need, all that we ask of Him. It’s always and only through Jesus. It’s always and only through what He has done, not what we have thought, felt, or accomplished. It’s always through faith in Him that we’re led back to our Father’s house, where a place has been prepared for us, where we will be with Him forever. In the name of Jesus, the True Way. Amen.