How many of you have a GPS? It might be on your phone? It could be a part of your on board navigation system in your car like OnStar or a separate device altogether. It is especially helpful when you are going somewhere unfamiliar. Sadly, I did not have one when I was on that trip across Kansas that I was talking about recently. But now, like when I have to go to Portland or Boise, it’s great. It tells you where to turn. It even tells you what lane you need to be in. There’s a line on a map showing where your car is and the fastest way to get to your destination. It tells you where traffic is backed up, and if there is a delay. Then, it happens. There is updated information. Maybe the traffic has backed up to the extent that another route would now be faster. Maybe you missed a turn or an exit because of traffic. We get the dreaded information ‘‘Recalculating”.
I remember driving from Washington DC to a special book store in Virginia with a group of people from my seminary class. I had not been in DC very long, and I wasn’t familiar with the route. One of the ladies offered to let us use her GPS. At one point I was merging onto a 4 or 5 lane freeway from the left side. The GPS said that I needed to take the next exit on the right. I don’t know how far it really was, but it felt like about 100 yards. There were other cars around zooming by at least 65 mph. The GPS is repeatedly telling me to get in the far right lane. The lady is telling me repeatedly that I needed to get in the far right lane. Well, the only way that was going to happen in time to make the exit is if I caused a 20-car pile-up. As you can imagine, I didn’t make the exit. So, what popped up on the screen of the GPS with the pleasant voice to match? Recalculating …
When we are in an unfamiliar place, and that happens, it can be a scary thing. But, it can also happen in our life. And, that is what this worship series is all about. We’re going along. We’re trying to follow the instructions. Maybe we’re trying to listen for God. Maybe we are using our own personal GPS. We are cruising along in life. We think we know where we are going, and suddenly we are not where we expected. You can say, “This is not how it was supposed to be.” “This is not right.” “Hey God, where are you going with this?” It can feel like we have a giant “recalculating” sign over our heads. It can fill us with anxiety, fear, and frustration.
One of the things that I like the best about GPS is that you can often get a screen where you see the whole picture. You can see where you are, the destination, and every place in-between. This is especially good if you input the wrong destination. It gives you a chance to see the error.
But, life isn’t like that. In our personal lives, in our spiritual lives, in the life of the church, we don’t get to see the beginning and the end in one giant picture. God often shows us step-by-step instructions. This is the whole idea of “recalculating.” At each step we can find that we need to make adjustments. As we think about the Bible, we can think of some places where this principle is at work. Sometimes God has had to take his people and help them recalculate a new route.
We have Abraham. God tells him to go to a land I will show you. Basically, God says, Go west, and I’ll let you know when to stop. This is especially true for the Israelites being brought out of slavery in Egypt by Moses. The people didn’t like it in Egypt, but it was familiar. Moses takes them out into the desert, and they are disoriented. There are times when they say that they would rather be slaves in Egypt than with Moses in the desert. God did a lot of recalculating with them in the desert over 40 years, reorienting them, transforming them into God’s people.
Today’s society with all the technological updates that seem to come at the speed of light is a great example … including GPS devices. Technology changes so much so quickly that we become disoriented. When we think of just the cycle with phones and computers, it can be scary. We are constantly moving through cycles of disorientation and reorientation. Things move so quickly, we can’t keep up.
Sometimes that happens with us, personally, as well. God needs to recalculate our route, at least from the one we thought. We’ll talk more about that in a couple of weeks.
Sometimes we ignore God’s GPS completely (or we might not even be aware of it), and we find ourselves someplace strange, unpleasant, or just unexpected. It’s like the image on the front of our bulletins. We were going merrily along our chosen path. Suddenly, the path ends, and we find ourselves on the edge of a cliff with only rocks below us. Ooops! Our GPS might have been signaling “recalculating” for quite a while, except that we muted the speaker. That is more the direction that we are headed today.
This week’s primary Scripture comes from James. James, the man, was Jesus’ brother. Just like we mentioned last week, that household with Joseph and Mary was one that took God and the Scriptures quite seriously. James was writing primarily to Jewish Christians. He had been the leader of the church in Jerusalem during some very hard years. In this letter he summarizes much of his accumulated Christian wisdom from that time. Naturally, from his background, you can hear a lot of echoes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and from the book of Proverbs. Today’s passage is from James 4:13-17. I will be reading from The VOICE translation.
Hear the Word of the Lord!
[James says,] 13 Listen carefully, those of you who make your plans and say, “We are traveling to this city in the next few days. We’ll stay there for one year while our business explodes and revenue is up.” 14 The reality is you have no idea where your life will take you tomorrow. You are like a mist that appears one moment and then vanishes another. 15 It would be best to say, “If it is the Lord’s will and we live long enough, we hope to do this project or pursue that dream.” 16 But your current speech indicates an arrogance that does not acknowledge the One who controls the universe, and this kind of big talking is the epitome of evil. 17 So if you know the right way to live and ignore it, it is sin—plain and simple.
Why is the attitude that we control our destinies and can control the fulfillment of all our plans a little crazy? Number one, apart from God, there are so many variables outside of our control. We can’t even be sure of tomorrow’s weather forecast or for today’s for that matter. On the other hand, it’s not wrong to make plans either. We’ll come back to that. But what of this idea of mist? Have you noticed the fog lately? The fog that we ave here is unlike the fog that I have experienced any place else. You can watch it roll in, and feel like it’s really settled, and it’s going to be there for a while. Can’t see five feet in front of you. Then, suddenly a few minutes later, you look up, and it is rolling away, or it’s dissipating. Then, suddenly it’s gone.
In the Scripture passage we just read, James refers to us, humans, as “mist.” The Greek word can also mean vapor or fog. The way we hear these verses can have a profound effect on the way we view human existence if we are willing to do some recalculating. So often when we are looking at Scripture, we look at the original audience addressed by the writer first. Today, we’re going to turn that around a little bit. Let’s consider James talking directly to us as we consider that first verse. James says,
“13 Listen carefully, those of you who make your plans and say,
‘We are traveling to this city in the next few days. We’ll stay there for one year while our business explodes and
revenue is up.'” What do you think these kinds of people look like in today’s culture … even if they are us? I don’t
know about you, but I think of people who seem in control of their lives. They have good jobs or had successful
businesses or careers. They are financially secure, people who don’t “need” God. They believe that God helps those who help themselves.
Now, as I mentioned, James is a person who knows his Scripture. Of course, for that time we are talking strictly about the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. He had many passages to draw from to respond to this way of thinking. One of them comes from Psalm 39:4-8. Listen, to see if you notice any similarities from today’s text.
4 “Lord, reveal to me the end of my life and the number of my days. Let me know how short-lived I am.
5 You, indeed, have made my days short in length, and my life span as nothing
in Your sight. Yes, every mortal man is only a vapor.
6 “Certainly, man walks about like a mere shadow. Indeed, they frantically rush
around in vain, gathering possessions without knowing who will get them.
7 Now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions; do not make me the taunt of fools.
[Emphasis mine.] (HCSB)
Another one with great similarity comes from Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you
do not know what a day may bring.”
When was the last time that you were reminded that you don’t know what a day might bring? This as easily could be a good thing as a bad thing, but one of the pivot points in your life where everything changes in an instant, where you experience an epiphany, a sudden realization of a truth that changes everything. Last year, I was watching a series of videos where a person was getting the news that their grown up child was expecting a baby. Oh, the screams of joy. The pandemonium. Think of the day you met the love of your life. The day that you realized how much God loves you and what he did through Jesus to redeem your life. Think about your life the day before. You might be doing the laundry, fixing your vehicle, paying the bills. Did you have any idea that your life was going to be changed forever the next day? No. We don’t know what a day will bring.
This life goes so fast. We are like vapor. We are like mist. It’s like when we exhale in the cold air. We see our breath, and then it’s gone. But, this is only referring to our length of time here on earth compared with God’s time. It is not referring to our value. God found us significant enough for Jesus to sacrifice himself on our behalf. But our lives are short. We don’t have the capacity to see the big picture the way that God sees it.
So, I invite you to look at the image on the front of your bulletin again. We have two shoes. This person has literally reached the end of the road. They may think that they have reached a dead end. God may even be doing some recalculating. Meanwhile, they’re looking down. Maybe they’re thinking, “What will I do now?” If they will just look up and see the vista spread out before them. Perhaps, God has brought them to this exact time and place on purpose, just so that they can see this. Why? Pick a reason: To show them where they are headed in the long term, to make them aware that this place exists, or even the refreshment of their spirit.
When we find ourselves at those seeming dead ends, it could be that God is trying to teach us something. Have you ever seen those billboards with quotes from God? One of my favorites is, “Remember, I’m God, and you’re not.” I think that this is a lesson that many of us have to learn again and again. Even after we learn it, we forget. We drift. We start thinking that we are in control and master of our own destinies. That’s understandable because we make decisions all the time, good ones, bad ones, and yet there is one that knows us better than we know ourselves, who knows how we will choose and what we will choose and wants to guide us in a better direction. Of course, we need to realize that how we define success or a good destination may be different than God’s perspective. Think of the earthly destinations of Peter, Paul, and James. They were all killed, martyred for their faith. Would we normally think of those deaths as success? Yet, they are still influencing millions of lives every day. At the time the world might not have judged them as successful, but they fulfilled God’s plan. And, of course, there is Jesus. And executed Messiah? That just doesn’t seem right at all, but it was through that so called failure that he saved us. It was necessary for success.
It’s the beginning of the year, and I have a new calendar planner for 2020. It is guiding me on more efficient use of my time, figuring out where I am coming up short and can improve, and deciding on goals, short and long term. It is encouraging me to make up action plans on how I will achieve those goals and schedules check in times, so I can assess my progress on those goals. Decide whether some recalculation is needed. It’s that time of year when people traditionally do this. They review the old year and prepare for the new. The question that each of us need to ask, where is God in our plans? Are we asking, praying, for God to guide us? Not necessarily as the tag on the end of every thought but as a general attitude. Are we humble enough? Our passage encourages us to beware of arrogance. Are we remembering to consider God in it at all? Because God is the one with the real plan.
Many of us are familiar with the famous verse from Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’” declares the Lord, “’plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” God knows we don’t. So many people get so much hope and strength from this verse, but when you look at the context and the people to whom it was written, it was not a happy or pleasant time. The Jewish people were going through a massive recalculation called the Babylonian Exile. God is telling the people that they are to go through this period of Exile and not fight it. Moreover, they were to build lives and work towards the prosperity of Babylon because it would benefit them. If they resisted this, he punishment would be even worse. (And the people who did not follow the instructions of God’s GPS recalculation ered immensely. Just read the book of Lamentations.) After seventy-years God would bring them back to their homeland, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
In this time and place, as the world seems more chaotic every day, this should give us great comfort. God can see through all the chaos and confusion. God can account for all the variables when we can barely see the ones right in front of us. When we have reached what looks like a dead end, when we feel that God is recalculating our route … maybe we are even begging God to do so. I am lost God. Please, lead me out of this … knowing that God can see the whole picture when wecan’t. Trusting God when our idea of successfully reaching our destination is different than what we are experiencing.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? “You have no idea where your life will take you tomorrow.” It is a new year. Are you in a season of recalculating? As you are making your plans, ask God to calibrate your GPS.