Finding Joy Along the Scenic Route

I got to fill the pulpit on Sunday while our pastor was traveling. I enjoyed the writing process and learned so much along the way. I enjoyed sharing a part of my story in light of God’s redemption with my congregation. Here’s my sermon!

Lectionary readings
Psalms 42 & 43
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-29

Oh Lord, May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be pleasing to you, Oh God, my Rock, and my Redeemer. Amen

The front of the card pictures a family in an old car, on a one-lane country road, with a barn and silo in the background. The speech bubble coming from Dad reads, “Lost? We’re not lost. We’re just… uh… taking the scenic route.” The inside of the card reads, “Happy birthday to a dad who always goes the extra mile for his family.”

When I told my mom my sermon title, she laughed, and said that this card I sent to my dad years ago still has a place on their refrigerator. My dad is really good at finding the “Scenic route,” especially in the years we lived in France. When we moved there, I was 9, my brother 3, and my sister 13. Somehow we all fit in the back of our tiny little Peugeot. We were there for two years, and we took full advantage of the time. We explored the countryside at every break from school and work.

The law in France is that you can make two turns around a round-about, before exiting. We nearly always made a full circle and more! The interesting thing about traveling in France is that they don’t always put road names on their signs, at least, they didn’t 25 years ago. No, they list the cities that you might come across if you take that exit. So instead of reading a sign with an arrow that gives direction for 441 North, you might just have a sign pointing toward Micanopy, Gainesville, Alachua. It forces you to know the geography of the land.

Imagine if you will, we’re driving along in the middle of nowhere. Conversation in the front seat is casual. Everyone is occupied in the back seat. When suddenly, a round-about appears in the distance. The navigator rummages for the map. The kids look up from their Game Boys. They start asking, “Where are we?” “Are we there yet?” “How much longer?” They also start critiquing the round-about. “Look at all the flowers!” or “It’s so plain!” or “what is that a statue of?” All the while the navigator is trying to make a quick decision with limited information in a foreign land. We didn’t always take the correct exit.

We traveled all over Western Europe this way. Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands…. On one such scenic route we found ourselves in Northern Italy. It was late at night in a small town. I don’t know where we were, and looking back now, I don’t even remember where we had been or where we were going. I only remember that night. We were walking up a sloped, cold, cobblestone road. The old town buildings closed in on us. We were tired. We were hungry. We trudged along.

The light in my memory changes as we walked into the restaurant. It was bright and warm and cozy inside. We sat down, got our menus, and quickly learned that we couldn’t communicate with the wait staff. We didn’t speak Italian. And they didn’t speak English, French, or Dutch (my mom’s native language). But it wasn’t long before we were all laughing. What made the difference? My parents chose joy. My dad pointed to an entrée on the menu and asked, “Moo?” The server responded, “Baa.” It continued. “Oink?” “Cluck cluck?”

As we left the restaurant after our meal, we had a little pep in our step. I felt warm on the still-cold night. I felt loved, thankful for a full belly, and glad to have seen my parents acting so silly. We continued our travels the next day, ready to get back on track.

And so, we turn to Elijah. When we meet up with him in today’s story he is afraid. Up until this point he has followed all of God’s commands. He prophesied to Ahab, king of Israel, that there would be a drought.

The Lord commanded him to go hide in the Kerith Ravine, and so he did, and he drank from the brook and was fed by ravens. When his brook dried up and the Lord told him to go to Zarepheth, he did, and he met a widow God had put in his path. Because of the obedience of both Elijah and the widow, they were fed, along with the widow’s son, throughout the famine.

Three years pass. The king has been sending his men in search of Elijah. The Lord speaks to Elijah to present himself to Ahab. And so he does. Ahab immediately calls him a “troubler of Israel,” to which Elijah responds with a challenge. They meet on Mount Carmel with all the Israelites and with two bulls, one for the Baal worshipers, and one for Elijah. The other prophets spend all day praying to Baal, asking for fire. But no one answers. Finally, Elijah, the last living prophet of the Lord, steps forth. With the sacrifice on the altar, he calls out to God, “Oh Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.”

And God answered. The fire of the Lord came and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, and the water they had poured in the trench around the altar. Chapter 18, verse 39, “when all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord – He is God!” Elijah then had all 450 prophets of Baal seized and killed.”

And here we are in Jezreel. The evil Queen Jezebel has it out for Elijah. He was the one who prophesied about the drought, and now he has killed off all of the prophets of Baal. Elijah is afraid, and he runs. For the first time, his movements are not commanded by God. He’s on the scenic route now. Elijah has just performed an amazing demonstration of God’s power for all of Israel to see, and immediately he runs away in fear!

We’ve all been there. We have all had our moments where we didn’t fully trust in God. It may have come after a job loss, the loss of a loved one, trauma, or illness. Some of us have felt so despaired that self-destruction seems to be the only answer. We cope by numbing our pain. We hide away. We take matters into our own hands.

Tommy warned a couple weeks ago about the dangers of calling for testimony, but for the sake of a scenic route, here’s a glimpse of mine. Stick with me here…

I had no idea how debilitating my depression was. I knew I was overwhelmed. I was having a hard time picking myself back up after the loss of our Forever Baby Aimee. I knew I wasn’t being the best mom I could be to my living children. But I didn’t realize I was addicted to coffee and alcohol. By society’s standards, it wasn’t that bad. One to three cups of coffee a day; one, maybe two drinks a night – just enough to take the edge off and make me a nicer mom. But I needed them, and it was having a huge impact on me.

I was barely sleeping. I suffered from sudden-onset anxiety. I was plagued with feelings of inadequacy. I felt so much shame for my past, all the way to childhood, and it was dragging me down. It affected all of my relationships, most importantly my relationship with Christ.

About the same time, I started dealing with loads of maladies. In the humans and in the animals. I was in chronic pain. I had no core strength. I couldn’t do all of my farm chores. I felt like my body was falling apart. And then, I threw my back out. I was forced into stillness, and found myself crying out for God. In hindsight, it’s clear that God was right there with me. But at the time, I was struggling.

Discontentment is actually a disbelief in God’s basic attributes. That is a hard lesson to learn! As someone who has believed in God my entire life, this was a whole other level of faith I hadn’t experienced. When we think we know better, when we covet, when we go off track, we are actually saying that we don’t believe in God’s Sovereignty or Goodness. But He is in control. He is in charge. He has a plan for our lives, and for His creation that we are simply not privy to. And He is Good. Even when bad things happen, it’s because we live in a fallen world. He lets some things pass through, but He is always with us. Molding us, shaping us, guiding us to be the best version of ourselves everyday. If we’ll just believe it.

Elijah wakes to an angel touching him. It’s a knock on the door to his heart, and he is fed. He eats, and falls asleep again. He’s having a hard time reading his road map. The angel comes again, touches him, and tells him to get up and eat. “The journey is too much for you,” the angel says. “So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.”

Have you ever been woken up by an angel? God planted many earthside angels in my path to get me back on track. To start seeking Him more fully. Many of them have no idea I exist, but I’m so thankful for each subsequent encounter. In God’s good timing, I heard Lauren Daigle’s new album, Look Up Child. It hit me with the opening lyrics:

Out of the shadows, bound for the gallows, a dead man walking, ‘til love came calling. Rise up, rise up. Six feet under, I thought it was over. An answer to prayer, the voice of a Savior. Rise up, rise up. All at once I came alive. This beating heart, these open eyes. The grave let go, the darkness should have known, You’re still rolling stones. Still rolling stones.

Sounds like Elijah’s story. The angel comes to him, revives him, and gets him back on God’s path for his life. God is woo-ing him. The same God who rolls the stone away and brings Jesus back to life. The same God who brings us out our depths and to a life of freedom.

About the same time I discovered Lauren Daigle, I had a visit with my doctor. She was so gracious. She demonstrated that even if my consumption wasn’t terrible by society’s standards, if it’s affecting my life performance – even if it’s not dropping me to the lowest lows, if my best is up here and it’s keeping me here – then it’s worth addressing. And so I stopped drinking. The first few days were hard, as expected, but a week in I felt great! Nine months later, I’m happy to chug a glass of water when I feel stressed, instead of reaching for a drink. I could talk a lot about habits and how we really are in control of them, but suffice it to say, I changed the habit by changing my response to a cue, stress, and the reward is life-changing. The following month I stopped drinking coffee. I replaced it with green tea, and got intentional about drinking half my body weight in ounces of water. The first week was hard, but I soon discovered I had more energy by staying hydrated than I ever did while drinking coffee!

But these were all physical changes. My soul was yearning for the right path. When asked in Bible study if it’s easy or hard for me to accept God’s grace, my answer was that it’s hard. My answer surprised myself. This was going to require more work than just changing a habit. This was going to require a heart change. And so, I heard about Candace Payne on the Happy Hour podcast with Jamie Ivey.

In her book, Laugh It Up, she writes that shame and joy are terrible roommates. They can not cohabitate. “Have you ever tried to live peacefully with someone who never wants peace?,” she writes. “When we allow shame to move in with joy, this is the internal struggle we endure. Shame is a thief. He robs us of our identity and our destiny and replaces them with myths that we are not worth any good that may come our way. Shame is the roommate that always bullies, always argues, and never takes accountability for truth, never trusts, keeps poorly mismanaged records of wrongs, and always fights to claim ownership without paying the rent. We’ve all had shame knock on the door of our hearts and minds.”

But how do we evict shame? We’re all human. Not one of us is perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus. I was getting in the way of receiving God’s grace. If you are constantly trying to forgive yourself of your past, like I was, then you are living in shame, and you are robbing yourself of the joy that grace provides. But we can’t forgive ourselves. That’s not our job. And by trying to do so, we are saying that God’s sacrifice, sending his only Son to die on the cross for our sins, wasn’t good enough. We need more to be forgiven. We can try to follow all the “rules,” but we will continue to fail over and over again. But God! Jesus died for us. He forgives ALL of our sins. No sin is too big for Him! He releases us from a life of shame, and allows a life of joy-filled freedom. If we will only choose Him.

Elijah was having a hard time moving from under that broom tree. He was stuck in his fear and shame. It took a couple turns around the round-about. It took intentional faith to follow God to Mount Horeb. But then he had a miraculous encounter with God. He didn’t find God in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. No, he found God in the gentle whisper. And that’s where we can find God too. We might be on the scenic route, looking for our exit, looking for the right turn to freedom, but we need to look for our angels who will guide us. We need to look at the small acts of God in our lives.

One of the ways I do this is in keeping my start today journal. Everyday, I wake up early and I meditate on the things I am thankful for. Not the big things, like, “I’m thankful for my husband,” or “I’m thankful for God’s love,” which of course I am, but the little things, like, “Time spent at the park with friends,” “the joy in my morning tea,” “a hawk flew overhead and reminded me of my mom.” When this becomes a habit, it forces you to look for these small moments of joy in your every day. And when you have a notebook full of these daily joy moments, it’s easy to see how God has been good through it all, molding us all along, even when the world outside is a bit daunting.

It takes faith. A faith not to just follow the “rules,” but a faith to truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That God is Good. That all things work for the good of those who love him. And that in faith, we can be intentional to grow into the best version of ourselves – the person that God designed you to be. Susan Seay said in an interview, “Being intentional is having both the courage and the confidence to live true to your core values.”

Your past does not define you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve strayed off the beaten path more times than you care to admit. If you are chained to shame, anchored to an identity that you’re not proud of, know that Jesus breaks the chains. Jesus can take your demons and throw them off a cliff! Your identity in Christ is what defines you. Your identity in Christ is unchanging. How does that truth change your life? How are you going to find your way out of the wilderness? You can start by evicting shame, and welcoming joy into your life as you take the exit to freedom in God’s love.

Amen.

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