One of the ironies of early Christianity’s development was the fact that God’s ordained “apostle to the Gentiles” had nothing to do with founding the most prominent early Christian church, the fellowship in Rome that was almost exclusively constituted of Gentiles. The incongruity of the situation was not lost on Paul, who desired strongly to interact with this emerging congregation as a way of strengthening their faith and in turn being strengthened in faith by them. Paul says frankly, that he had often longed and planned to visit the church in Rome, but had thus far been prevented. Later in this letter to the Romans Paul states that he has a new plan: he intends to pay an extended visit to the church in Rome, then travel westward toward Spain, where he intends to introduce the Gospel to people who have not yet heard God’s good news.
But that is not what happened. Paul’s intention to go to Rome was waylaid by a momentous detour. Before he can begin his westward journey, Paul learns that the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem has been beset by severe famine; its people are in great want. Christians there are on the verge of starving to death. So Paul responds to that immediate need by inaugurating a hunger offering for these destitute Christians, a collection gathered from all the Gentile churches. In truth, Paul has had an ambivalent relationship with the Jerusalem church. Some in that congregation, like Peter, had helped give him his start in ministry, but others in that church doubted the very legitimacy of his mission to the Gentiles. What better way to validate the holy utility of his ministry, as well as cement the bonds between Gentile and Jewish Christian churches, than to collect a huge hunger offering from the Gentile Christians for the mother Jerusalem church? It was the smart thing to do, the right thing to do — but it was not an easy thing to do. This collection turned out to be a much bigger, more complex, much slower job than Paul had anticipated. It also turned out to be an extremely dangerous mission. When Paul finally collected the offering and made his way to Jerusalem, a mob of Jews who had dedicated themselves to his assassination attacked him. Romans soldiers entrusted with keeping peace around the Temple saved him from instantaneous execution and gave Paul protective custody, but they also arrested him as a disturber of the peace. Eventually, these soldiers would transport Paul to Caesarea, to be tried by a local Roman ruler, until Paul exercised his legal right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by Caesar. Then, after many extraordinary and vivid adventures, Paul fulfilled his ambition of arriving in Rome, but he did so not as a free man, but as a prisoner of the state.
I tell this story in some detail to make the point that no matter how committed we are to God’s will, no matter how obedient we are to the leading of the Holy Spirit, we can still find ourselves led into detours – and sometimes dead-ends. No one was more attuned to or more obedient to God’s Spirit than Paul. Nevertheless, Paul’s intentions and his reality diverged. When Paul wrote to the church at Rome, he had no idea that he would soon be collecting a hunger offering for First Baptist Jerusalem. Yet when the need presented itself, Paul was obedient to what he felt was God’s call in that moment. Collecting the hunger offering turned out to be a holy detour that deterred Paul from his stated intentions. Indeed, delivering the hunger offering proved to be the dead-end of his career as a free man. Yet this holy detour and fruitful dead-end had the ultimate effect of advancing the Gospel by delivering the Christian faith’s most powerful, influential exponent to the world’s most powerful, influential city and into contact with Christianity’s most influential early church.
When you stop to think about it, the entire Biblical saga is full of holy detours and fruitful dead ends. What was the definitive experience of the Hebrew people? It was the Exodus, where God delivered them out of bondage from Egypt. But the story of the Exodus started with a group of jealous brothers selling their brother Joseph into slavery. They intended their action to constitute a dead end for Joseph. But that dead end turned into a holy detour when God used Joseph profitably, raising him to a position of authority, whereby his prescient policies saved an entire region from starvation. His brothers would later apologize to Joseph, but Joseph said, “What you did to me, you intended as an evil act. But God transformed it into something good to save the lives of many.” In other words, what the brothers intended as a dead end God turned into a holy detour that ultimately resulted in one of the great chapters of God’s history of salvific acts among God’s people.
Twenty-five years ago a young Arabic man came into my office and said, ”Dr. Kremer, I am hoping that your small Baptist Association would sponsor my ministry among Arabic-speaking Christians in North and South Carolina.” I said to him frankly, “My friend, our little association doesn’t have much money.” He said, “That’s okay. The Southern Baptist organization I’ve been working under is willing to give me money, but it also wants to control me and tell me how I should preach the Gospel to my own people.” I responded, “Sir, I can’t give you much money, but I can give you a whole lot of freedom to be obedient to the leadership of Christ.” So, soon, our little association was sponsoring a ministry to Arab-speaking worshippers across two states. Then, when word spread of our openness to the leading of the Spirit, in time our little association ended up sponsoring ministries to Haitians, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Hispanics, the homeless and the destitute.
A short time later that young Arabic man had a vision to go into war-torn Lebanon and develop an evangelical crusade. He did, traveling to Lebanon and motivating Christian groups in Lebanon who hadn’t co-operated in twenty years to band together to articulate the Good News of Jesus Christ. The crusade was amazingly successful. Then, when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was looking for a missionary to preach the Gospel to Bedouins, the nomadic shepherds who travel throughout the middle eastern desert, living much as did their ancestors of old, Chouki Boulus offered the CBF his services. Now he is back in Lebanon sharing the Good News and spearheading a ministry to refugees from Syria’s horrific, seemingly endless conflict. Of course, none of this was in his plans or mine when we held our first conversation twenty five years ago. Neither of us could lay any claim to a grand vision. He detoured into my office because he felt his ministry had hit a dead-end. But through his obedience to God’s call in one moment, his dead end turned into a holy detour that has emerged in a ministry that has transformed the life of thousands.
Paul could relate. Paul was determined to take the Gospel into Asia, but Acts 16 says, “The Spirit of Christ would not let him.” Instead, he was given a vision in a dream where a man implored him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.” In answering that summons Paul’s introduced the Gospel to Europe, a vision that led to his establishing the church with which he developed the warmest relationship he ever enjoyed with any congregation, the founding of the church at Philippi. His intended trip to Asia proved to be a dead end. But it was a fruitful dead end, because it led him to a holy detour that took the Gospel into Europe and changed the arc of Christian history.
I think most of us would love for God to lay out the scheme of our lives in clear detail. (At least we think we would.) We all think we would love to see clearly the road that lies ahead of us. But most of the time the horizon of our lives is shrouded in thick mist. Much of the time, all God gives us is the Light of Christ directly in front of us. Sometimes, that Light has to be enough. All God expects of us is to be faithful to the Light we are given just for today. As we are faithful to the Light in front of us, then we are granted Light enough for the next day, and then the next. Perhaps as we are faithful daily to the Light in front of us, the mist shrouding the horizon of our lives will dissipate. Then again, the mist shrouding our lives may never dissipate. God may never grant us much of a glimpse of the road ahead. But if we are obedient to the call of God each day, if we follow the Light granted us each morning, even if we never see a grand plan in front of us, we will have created a grand path of obedience behind us. By our obedience to the call of the moment, we may create a grand plan of God and never be aware of it. Sometimes, embracing the grand plan of promise ahead of us is not as important as creating a long path of faithfulness behind us. For that long path of faithfulness behind us has a way of creating its own grand future and pointing us exactly in the direction that God desires.
Our vision this morning, the vision of all Christendom, is turned upon our Lord, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbolic way of saying that he will be the Messiah that confounds and confutes all expectations. We cannot help but cast our vision a few days forward to see that some of the same people now shouting “Hosannas,” will soon be crying, “Crucify him!” a few days later. People are fickle that way – and prone to wild emotional swings. Indeed, Jesus is self-aware enough to sense that his ride into Jerusalem will end in tragedy, in a cruel and merciless death. Yet in obedience to his Father, in obedience to the Light that the Father has given him each day, he believes that his cruel and tragic death will prove to be a fruitful dead end that paves the way for eternal life for all creation. He believes that his obedience to the Father will result in a dead end that will lead us all into redemptive relationship with his Father. So, too, we should look at the detours and dead ends of our own life with a similar attitude of hope and trust.
The truth is, all of us have experienced our share of detours and dead ends in life. We have all experienced relationships that we thought would be fruitful, but turned out to be dead ends. We have all traveled paths that we thought would be wonderful, but led us in directions that ran counter to what we anticipated, and turned out to be dead ends. Sometimes God requires us to stop in our ventures and back up and start over. A car that can’t go in reverse is not much use. A life that can’t go in reverse is not much use either. Sometimes it is the dead-end journeys of bad relationships that lead us to the relationships we are supposed to be in. Sometimes it is the dead end of bad vocational ventures that awaken us to the paths we are supposed to take. Hitting dead ends are never easy. It is no fun being frustrated and stymied and fooled by life. But sometimes our dead ends have the positive function of teaching us that we cannot live by our own power. Sometimes God uses our detours and dead ends as educational tools to let us know that we must step back and let God show us a different way to live and point us in the direction we are supposed to be going. To learn the hard way is not easy. But the truly foolish person is one who will not recognize a dead end as a dead end. Learning the hard way is hard, but it is even harder never to learn at all.
In the greatest short story ever told, Jesus talks of a young man who demands that his father give him his inheritance early – then he skedaddles out of town for the far country. The first chapter of the story ends in a pig sty, when the young man has lost everything. But it is when he is penniless and in the pig pen that the young man, according to Jesus, “comes to his true self.” The kid thought the road out of town was his destiny – but it turned out to be nothing but a dead end. But when he realizes that his true self is defined by his relationship to his father, that’s when his trip to the pig sty becomes a fruitful dead end. When the son’s road ends in the arms of his loving father, that’s when his trip away from home becomes a holy detour that leads to reconciliation and redemption.
When I try to contextualize our current coronavirus predicament in the overall life of our church and community, it seems at first glance to be a dead end. But I am convinced that it is a mere detour – perhaps a longer detour than any of us imagined or could have predicted. But it is my hope and prayer that God will help us turn this detour into a holy detour. And God will lead us beyond it. After all, the triumphant Jesus who rode into Jerusalem to the sound of Hosannas, soon became the tortured Jesus who was nailed to a cross under the decree of Pontius Pilate. And, if tradition is to be believed, Paul, who finally made his way to Rome, ended up nailed to a cross at the insistence of Caesar Nero. Both crosses were intended as dead ends for the story of our faith. But in each case, under the resurrection power of God, each became a prelude to new chapters in the divine story of redemption. We might want the saga of God’s redemption history and the story of our faith to be one smooth upward climb. But that seems never to be how God has designed it. Rather, the story of our faith is full of detours and dead ends. But ultimately, God is leading us ever forward and upward.