Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When Trouble Comes

photo by chelsearoberson / flickr

Sermons sometimes have a strange history. This one began with a book from a friend in Memphis. Well, when I got this book I was going through a very hard time. And my friend knew this and so he sent me a book. A Dr. Seuss book of all things. Not Green Eggs and Ham...not Oh, the Places You Will Go. But a book with a strange title: I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew.

In typical Dr. Seuss fashion the book begins with a funny looking character that lived in a carefree world where nothing ever went wrong. Until...until one day. And it all crashed in on him. He stubbed his toe, flipped in the air, sprained the main bone on the tip of his tail.

And he writes:
   And I learned there are troubles
   Of more than one kind.
   Some come from ahead
   And some come from behind.

And so his whole book is encountering trouble after trouble. A huge big insect that bit him on the neck. He rode on this buggy pulled by a donkey. Until the donkey got sick down and he had to pull the buggy and the donkey. He tried to take a bus and it hit four nails, punctured all four tires. And so he got out and walked a hundred miles and there were all sorts of gremlins and rivers to cross and high walls to climb. He finally made it to this place called Solla Sollew—only to find that nothing is perfect. Not even there. So he made his way back home. Learning the hard way that none of us can run away from trouble. I used to think that we moved up, up, up. Like stair steps. And what I learned is what we all have to learn the journey is up and down and up and down all the way to the finish line.

photo by TARIQ-M / flickr
Israel knew this. They learned it the hard way. Maybe the best lessons always come in strange packages. After they fled from the Egyptians and the Red Sea they were sure their troubles were over. Not so.  They had to deal with the wilderness. And it took 40 years to travel 400 miles. And along the way they encountered sand and scorpions and heat and misery and hunger and thirst and warring tribes

And along the way they asked what we sometimes ask: “Is the Lord among us or not? Out of fear and frustration and long hard days in a hot sandy desert—they asked it over and over. Is the Lord really here? Is God really with us? Or is God only operative when there was plenty of water and food and no clouds in the sky and a trouble free time. No wonder they asked it—Is God in this wilderness?

Years later when some old scribe told the story of that long journey around a campfire—he said, “You know there were lessons that God’s people learned back there on that journey. Lessons that can only come from the wilderness.

The Israelites were like Dr. Seuss’ character. They thought trouble was not part of the journey and if there was trouble something had to be wrong with the leader and they took it out on Moses. Or something was wrong with God who had got them into that mess in the first place. Or there was something wrong with them—and they took it out on each other. 

We’re in a time like that, aren’t we? People are showing their teeth. Ugly, ugly talk everywhere. The President. Congress. Lousy school teachers. Pathetic parents. Officials if they had any sense could solve all these problems over there.  I don’t know a time in which I have lived where people have acted as mean-spirited as they do today.

And so they told the story back there in another hard time, and another hard time, and another time—to remind each other there are powerful lessons to be learned when trouble seemed to be everywhere.

Misunderstanding the Journey

They first misunderstood the journey idea. They thought God would lead them from oasis to oasis. From the beginning they thought their path would be straight and unencumbered and trouble-free. So the very first book of the Bible that was written down—the book of Job—asked: “Why all this trouble?” “Everything is a mess.”  One Psalmist tried to smooth over their wrinkles when he/sher wrote: “We move from strength to strength.” Well, not always. Two steps forward. One step backwards. Sometimes two steps backwards and one step forward. The Hebrews on that journey did not understand this. Forty years to travel 400 miles? And their leader couldn’t understand it either. I guess their GPS just broke down like ours does some time and just leads us down some pig-trail that is hardly a road at all. That is not where we intended to go.

It was a hard journey. The road through the wilderness is always arduous. Four times they asked the question in this passage: Did God bring us here to kill us? Did he bring us here to perish in the desert? They were hungry and they were thirsty. Never enough food or water. And the animals needed water. And their children cried out into the night with parched lips: “I want some water.” It is no wonder they kept saying: “Surely God is not in this mess!” They misunderstood the nature of the journey. “God cannot be in a place like this.” But the first lesson they had to learn from that wilderness was that they totally misunderstood this journey they were taking.

Obedience to Obedience 

photo by Moyan_Brenn  /  flickr
They had to learn something else in that God-forsaken place. God’s people do not move from oasis to oasis, but they are to move from obedience to obedience. When it comes to trouble—this is what the wilderness journey teaches us. Not to run away to Solla Sollew, wherever that is. The Israelites had a hard time learning that we have to give ourselves to faithfulness on the journey. This is what makes real people and people of faith. The grass is not greener on the other side. The grass is not even greener over the septic tank. The grass is greener where you water it!

Anybody who has ever been married knows this painfully. But trouble comes. Every stage has its own challenges. That first year—you remember? All that adjustment and all those conflicts and changes. Little children, up half the night, not enough money.  School. Shoes. Shirts. You can’t keep them in those. Adolescence? Remember. College. Empty nests. The middle-age crazies. Retirement. Losing someone you have grown to love with all your heart. We can’t bail out at any juncture just because it is hard. One man and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding Anniversary. Somebody asked, “How did you do it?” And he said, “The only thing that kept us going some days was the memory of a promise we made back there before the flickering candlelight. ‘For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.’ “Sometimes”, he said,  “the only thing that kept us going was the memory of what we had said. And around that fire, our two cold hearts warmed our lives and made it count.”

One of the lessons of the wilderness journey is that we are to move from obedience to obedience. Football fans don’t understand it, do they? In about two-three weeks it will be Alabama. The next week it will be Auburn. Prominent alumni do not understand defeat. No such thing as losing. Grief takes hold. Unfaith takes hold. Rage takes hold. Depression takes hold. We think there is no way out of this hot, blazing desert where we find so little water. And so we must leave. Or fire the coach. Or impeach the President.

Our response? We test God. Test God. The words for that place on their journey, they said, we will call: Massah—which means testing. We will also call it Meribah—a place of murmuring and contention and faultfinding. God could not possibly bring us to such a place as this. Fill in the blank for yourself. What place are you taking about? The issue here was faith or disobedience. Which way will it be? Are we going to believe and follow or are we going to turn our backs and run away to some Solla Sollew?

What did God do? He just sat there and listened. Silent. Silent. He did not jump through their hoops. He did not way a word for a while. God did not serve them—it was the other way around. 

God Spoke 

But the third lesson we learn from the wilderness is that: Finally God spoke, as God always does, in his own
photo by bthomso / flickr
time.  Old Moses was tired of that crowd that would not listen to him or follow him. The Scripture says, It was like herding cats. Old Moses was also tired of a silent God who finally said, ”Strike the rock in the middle of the dustiest desert you have ever seen.” Moses said, “Strike the rock?” And God said, “Strike the rock.” Moses thought it was the craziest thing he had ever heard. Strike the rock. He just stood there and said again, “Moses, strike the rock.” So reluctantly Moses took the staff that he had used once upon a time when he opened up a river. He struck the rock. Do you remember what happened? Water just gushed out. The purest, sweetest water they had ever tasted. It just came pouring out of the rock. Looking back they said one of the things they learned in the desert is that God speaks in his own time. God really does provide for his people—but in his own strange kind of a way.

They learned that there were no impossibles with God. In the old days in this country when there were no interstates and just a handful of blue highways and no other roads, the old road signs would say: “End of the road. Turn right.” There is always a way to go at the end of the road for people of faith and perseverance. No oasis where they were. No running water. Nothing. And God said: Strike the rock...and the water just gushed out. Just in time. Just in time.

Remember Alex Haley that wrote Roots? He said when he was a little boy he would have his head down on the kitchen table, depressed and sometimes even crying. And his Grandmother would always, “Alex, We don’t know when Jesus will come back—but he will always come on time.”

Trouble will come to us all—but God’s people learned the hard way that we don’t have to give up—God is with us every step of the way.

One of the great black poets was Langston Hughes. I love his hopeful poem, “Mother To A Son.”  Moses could have written it, too.

“Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
 It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners. And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Israel would tell their story about their ancestors and the wilderness journey over and over...year after year...decade after decade. Until some scribe wrote the words down. And in Temple or synagogue they would listen and they would marvel at the lessons God’s people had learned in the wilderness. Some Psalmist would summarize the wonder of that time when he wrote, “I will feed you with the finest wheat, and with honey from the rock I will satisfy you.” (Psalm 18.16)

Dr. Seuss character never did escape his troubles. They seemed, at times to attack him from all sides. But he found his way. As did the people of God on that journey.

And I have come all the way from Clemson to remind you. You too will find the way. Not without troubles—but you will find the way.

photo by oldmantravels / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham. That church has recently lost their Pastor and are dealing with a series of issues about their future.)

--RogerLovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Roger. I trust you are doing well -- and are able to help this historic congregation.