There is a famous expression ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’. It is certainly true of these individuals:
In August 1980 Tonino Lacordia tried to break out of prison. He managed to clear the wall of Madonna Del Freddo jail, but badly sprained his ankle in the process. He hobbled into the countryside, and after several miles knocked on the door of a remote cottage. The door was opened by the very policeman who had arrested him some weeks earlier, and who had rented this cottage for a holiday to get away from it all.
If you think he was unlucky, listen to the story of the two inmates who managed to escape from the Gulph Correctional Centre in February 1981. They managed to climb the fence and sprinted down the road, where they saw a hall, which they thought would be a good place to hide out. What they didn’t know was that in the hall were 100 prison officers from the correctional centre they had just broken out of, holding a seminar. The two inmates didn’t recognise the staff training officer, and asked if he could call them a cab, and were surprised when they were simultaneously arrested by 37 familiar prison wardens.
The third story is of a man who escaped from Northeye Prison in 1981 by hiding in a van full of vegetables. After an invigorating ride through the Sussex countryside the van turned a corner and came to a halt. When the van had been unloaded and the warders had all gone, the prisoner crawled out to find he was now in Lewes prison.
Failing to plan, is planning to fail!
When going on a journey planning is clearly very important. When I lived in Cumbria, I was often saw people climbing the fells in completely inappropriate footwear, and inadequately equipped for the changeable Cumbrian weather. Making sure you have everything you need, to sustain you on that journey, and to keep you safe, is of vital importance.
It is also important that we plan and prepare for the faith journey, and that is our theme today, as we continue to explore what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus emphasised the importance of carefully counting the cost of being his disciple, because there is no point starting a journey if we are not prepared to finish it.
Our OT reading tells the story of the call of Abram, where God called Abram to leave everything that was familiar to his, his home, his country, his people, and journey to a distant land. As anyone who has ever moved home or moved country knows, this is no easy thing that Abram was being asked to do. It would be a challenge at any age, but even more so for Abram who we’re told was 75 years old, and his wife Sarai, even older.
As we look at the story of Abram’s journey of faith, we can discover the things that he packed in his spiritual suitcase, and the things that can help us on the journey of faith.
They are obedience, trust and patience.
One of the first things to go into our spiritual suitcase is obedience. Learning to be obedient to God is one of the most important things we can do as Christians. Oswald Chambers, a Christian minister and writer said “The golden rule for understanding in spiritual matters is not intellect, but obedience.”
But learning to be truly obedient to God is not without its cost. For Abram, obedience to God’s call meant venturing from the security of the known into the unknown. He was being called to leave his home in the city of Ur, a lively, vibrant, wealthy city, rich in culture and learning, and travel to an unknown land. If we are serious about being obedient to God, we need to recognise there can be a cost involved. As Jesus said ‘whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:27)
Being obedient means being ready to hear and respond to God’s call, and follow wherever he leads.
What enabled Abram to be obedient to God’s call was that he trusted God. And trust is the next thing that we need to pack into our spiritual suitcase.
The reason Abram trusted God, was because he knew God to be faithful, and that God would not abandon or forsake him. The 20th century theologian, Karl Barth said “To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty.”
Christian discipleship is exactly that, learning that God is there for us, and learning to live in that certainty.
Just before Abram began his journey to his new home, God gave him three promises.
1 That he will make Abram into a great nation, to bless him with land and with descendants
2 That he will make Abram’s name great
3 That all the peoples on earth will be blessed through Abram
But when you think about it, the fulfilment of God’s promises must have seemed so unlikely. Consider the age of Abram and his wife Sarai, who we are told was barren, so how could Abram become the father of a great nation? Furthermore the land God promised Abram was home to a hostile culture and people, how could he ever expect to take possession of such a land?
But despite all of this, Abram trusted God. He realised that what for us may seem impossible, for God is possible. The great church theologian Augustine of Hippo, who died in the fifth century said “Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love and the future to God’s providence.” This was the important lesson Abram learnt, and the lesson we too need to learn.
The third item that we should pack for the journey of faith is patience.
The journey from Ur to Canaan, would have been long and arduous, and it would be even longer before God’s promises to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation would finally be fulfilled, and so Abraham had to learn to be patient.
Amongst my many failings, is my lack of patience, I’m not good at waiting. In a world of instant communication and internet shopping, we are losing the skill of waiting. I identify with this prayer, “Dear God give me patience, and give it to me right now!”
But God’s ways of working are different to our own, and God’s timing is different to ours, and therefore learning to be patient is a very important spiritual discipline. The poet Chrstina Rossetti said ‘Obedience is the fruit of faith; patience the bloom on the fruit.’
Waiting is God’s school, wherein we learn some of his most valuable lessons for us. For example Paul originally wanted to be delivered from his suffering in prison. But after the long wait, he learned that God was glorified more, by him remaining imprisoned.
As Paul discovered, patience is often learnt through trials.
A young man went to an older believer to ask for prayer. "Will you please pray that I may be more patient?" he asked. The aged saint agreed. They knelt together and the man began to pray, "Lord, send this young man trials in the morning; send this young man trials in the afternoon; send this young man...."
At that point the young Christian blurted out, "No, no, I didn't ask you to pray for trials. I wanted you to pray for patience."
"Ah," responded the wise Christian, "it's through trials that we learn patience."
Patience is one of those character traits that grows over time rather than being given to us overnight. And as we develop patience in our Christian lives, we begin to see how to make it over the long haul, and we come to realise that God will work in his own time.
Obedience, trust and patience, are three of the most important things that we need to pack into our spiritual suitcase, to help us on the journey of faith. But they are of course not the only things we need to pack.
When Abram journeyed to his new home in Canaan, he didn’t travel alone. The Bible mentions that Abram took with him his wife Sarai, his nephew lot, and “the people they had acquired in Harran” (Genesis 12:5) We are not talking here about just a few people, but potentially hundreds of people, because in Genesis chapter 14 Abram was able to muster 318 men all born in his household, to come to the aid of Lot, who had been captured by their enemies. Abram was not expected to make the journey alone.
And we are not expected to make the journey of faith on our own either. That is why we are given the church family, to support and encourage one another along the way. In addition we have the scriptures, prayer, worship, and the Holy Spirit, to nourish and feed us on the journey.
The first Christians were called people of The Way. It is a reminder that the Christian faith isn’t something static, but that we are on a journey, a journey of discipleship, a journey of faith and discovery. And we have been given tools and resources by God, to assist us on that journey, so that through obedience, trust and patience, we too can discover God’s plans and purposes for our lives, just as Abram discovered for his life.