Over the years, I have lived in several different places. And one of the many things that I have been thankful for in the various places where I have lived is that, in most of those places, I could hear the haunting and romantic sound of a train blowing its horn.
And as I have observed trains throughout my life, I have noticed that there are three key features that trains have. First, all trains run on tracks and those tracks determine both the direction and the destination of the train. Second, all trains have one or more locomotives at the front of the train that pull the cars down the track. Third, with the longer trains that we now have in Canada, you will often see one or more pusher locomotives in the middle of the train. These locomotives push the cars ahead of them, as well as pull the ones behind them.
And I have realized that we human beings share some things in common with trains. First, just like trains, as we go through life we tend to follow a track that not only determines our direction but also our destination. Let’s call this track our orientation. I don’t mean orientation in terms of sexual orientation. I mean orientation in terms of the direction you are facing and where you are going in relation to what is around you. Second, just like a train has locomotives that pull, so also we have desires that pull us forward in certain directions. And third, just like a train can have locomotives that push, so also we have hungers that drive us forward in certain directions. So we end up moving forward on the track or orientation we are on, being pulled by our desires and being pushed by our hungers.
And I have discovered recently that your hungers and desires tend to follow your orientation. So, when you change your orientation, when you change the track that you are on, your desires and hungers tend to change as well. For example when a person is trying to lose weight, often their orientation is towards the food that they cannot have. Their cravings begin to drive them towards the food that they don’t want to eat. And they desire to eat more and more of that food, even when they are not hungry. But if they change their orientation towards eating healthy food, their hungers and desires will often change as well. When they think of food that they would like to eat, they begin to think of healthy choices like fruits and vegetables. And in time they will begin to find that their hungers and cravings are satisfied by things like carrots, apples and bananas, which would never have been the case before.
This collaboration between orientation, hunger and desire is very, very important when a person wants to make significant changes in her life. How many of you are like me and find yourself confronted by the same old problems again and again in life? The reason that happens is that you and I are personally orientated to head towards those problems and our desires and hungers drive us straight towards those problems and nothing will change until we stop, get off the track we are on and get on a new track which is headed in a different direction towards a new destination.
In our reading today from Luke, chapter 6, a passage which is often called the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus is describing for us the two main tracks in life. One of the tracks that Jesus describes is the Track of Worldly Fulfillment. This is the track where we pursue riches, food, entertainment or a good reputation. While none of these things are evil or destructive in and of themselves, orientating ourselves so that riches, food, entertainment or reputation is our ultimate destination is a track that leads to destruction. Timothy Keller illustrates this in the introduction to his book Counterfeit Gods when he describes how several prominent executives in the finance sector committed suicide in the aftermath of the 2008 financial downturn.
As Jesus speaks about this Track of Worldly Fulfillment, he says, “ 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” The word “woe” means “grief, sorrow or distress” and the word was used by Old Testament prophets to indicate that a person under God’s judgment. Whenever we make something other than the one, true God our ultimate in life, we are under God’s judgment. And Jesus is warning us and saying, in effect, “Grief will come to you when you get on the track where riches, food, entertainment or reputation is your ultimate goal.”
If you keep going in your present direction, where are you going to end up? Do your desires pull you in the direction of gathering for yourself more money and possessions like mine do? Are your hungers pushing you towards seeking comfort in gluttonous amounts of food like mine do? Do you find yourself pouring over the weekly flyers from Best Buy and Future Shop so that you develop an appetite for the latest electronic gadget like I do? Do you, like me, find yourself so concerned about what other people think about you that you will at times abandon godly principles just to please others? If you are on any track that does not lead to Jesus, follow it through to its end and you will find that it leads to your own destruction. The whole world needs to stop and get off of this track of destruction and look to Jesus to put us on a track that leads to life.
So how do we get ourselves on a track that leads to life? We can’t. Just like a locomotive that has derailed cannot put itself back on a track, so also you and I cannot put ourselves on the track that leads to life. But Jesus can.
In the middle of his message about these two tracks, Jesus says, 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (vv. 27-31) When Jesus said those things, he wasn’t describing some lofty, idealistic platitudes. He was describing how he lived. Jesus was beaten by the temple guards who arrested him. But he continued to offer up his body to their abuse so that those guards, and the whole world would know the richness of his love for them. After Jesus was led to Golgotha by a squadron of Roman soldiers, he was stripped of his outer garment. But he let them take his inner garment, too, so that those soldiers, and the whole world, could know the nourishment of Jesus’ presence with them. After those soldiers nailed Jesus to a cross to suffer and die, Jesus prayed for those that mistreated him, saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus did that so those soldiers and the whole world, could experience the overwhelming joy of his forgiveness.
By his suffering, death and resurrection, Jesus loved his enemies, Jesus did good to those who hated him, and let me be clear, these passages are talking about me and you, for whenever we wilfully sin against God, we are acting against everything that God stands for, we are functioning as a enemy of God. Jesus loved his enemies and did good to those who hated him because he wanted to give to all people a good reputation before God. With Jesus, we no longer have to strive for significance. Through Holy Baptism, Jesus washes you clean of all of your sins, he gives you a new and everlasting life with him, he brings you into the family of God, he connects us to himself with a bond that he will never break and he gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus, your Heavenly Father now looks at you and says, “You are my daughter, you are my son, with you I am well-pleased.” There is no better reputation in the universe than the reputation Jesus gives as a free gift.
Jesus is the only One who puts us on the Track of Life. He re-orientates us so that we are facing him and we are headed for life and healing and restoration in the new heaven and earth. He plants in our heart a hunger for love, joy, peace and justice. He nurtures within us a desire to grow the kingdom of God.
Jesus describes the grace and the favour of God that rests on us as we live life as an apprentice of Jesus. He says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” (Luke 6:20b-22) The word “blessed” means having joy or contentment. But blessed as it is used here by Jesus and elsewhere in the Bible also implies enjoying God’s grace and favour. When our lives are orientated towards Jesus, we are on the track of Life. All of our hungers for love, joy, peace and justice are nourished in him. All of our desires for meaning, significance and security are fulfilled in him.
So when we go to the ATM and discover that we have no more money left in our bank account, we are blessed by God, in other words, it is a good thing because we are living in the present reality of the rule and reign of God and we trust in him for what we need for daily life. And when we go to the pantry and discover that someone else in the house ate all of our favourite food that we had stashed away, we are blessed, it is a good thing, because we look to Jesus for the satisfaction we desire. And when we weep with sorrow over the brokenness in our lives and in the world around us, we are blessed, because we laugh with joy when Jesus comes and makes all things right. And when people mock us, marginalize us and even hate us because we are very clear with others that we are students of Jesus Christ, we are blessed, that is a good thing, because we are following in Jesus’ footsteps. With Jesus, no matter what happens in our life, we are always blessed.
So let’s get off of any track that does not lead to Jesus, and let us trust in him to put us on the right track, the track that leads to him and the unshakeable life, joy and restoration that he brings. Let us be intentional about our orientation towards Jesus, let us learn from him like a true apprentice and let us encourage those hungers and desires that move us forward on the Track of Life.
We live in a world surrounded by people who on a different track than the one we are on. We have learned from our teacher that the Way of Jesus is the way of sacrificial love. So we follow Jesus and we do as he did: we love our enemies and we do good to those who hate us. Not because we want to save them. Jesus has done that already. We do it so that those who oppose us might experience the love of the Saviour who will put them on the Track of Life too. Amen.
(shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 29 January 2012.)