Sunday Message: “Pilgrim’s Progress Revisited”

   Text: I Corinthians 1:18-25

   Liturgist Text: John 2:13-22

Purpose: the purpose of this message is to view the Christian journey through the lens of John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, emphasizing the genesis of both recovery and discipleship in a decision to follow Jesus.

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Introduction to Dangerous Journey, p. 6

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place and laid me down to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream…I dreamed that I saw a man, with his face turned away from his own house—a book in his hand, and a great burden on his back. I looked and saw him open the book and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able to contain himself, he broke out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do to be saved?” For he lived in the City of Destruction which was doomed…

     350 years after John Bunyon’s composition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, we find ourselves in a similar place to that of his main character, Christian. We, too, are troubled–by the warnings of destruction we hear and read about, and by the terrible burdens we carry on our backs. Like Christian, we long for freedom, deliverance, forgiveness, acceptance, healing and joy. Above all, we long for love.

     Fear of destruction provokes Christian’s departure and dangerous journey, but it is love for God which sustains him until he reaches his destination, the celestial city of paradise. The metaphor echoes the words of the beloved apostle John in his first epistle, I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”

     What are the burdens we carry? There are obvious ones for sure: unemployment or fear of unemployment, unmanageable debt, estrangement from family members, isolation from those we long to hug, personal health challenges or the health problems of others, loss of trust in those who should be looking out for us, consequences of an unpredictable climate, perceived loss of liberty and freedom. But there are less obvious ones, too: haunting judgments from years ago which paralyze us from realizing potential, fear of failure or perhaps success,  guilt over a self-defeating choice, worry over whether others like or accept us, worry over whether God likes or accepts us, inability to forgive others or perhaps, oneself.

     As I mentioned last Sunday, there are burdens which contribute to our lives, giving purpose, meaning and direction, like the responsibility of caring for children after the loss of a spouse. But most of us carry a plethora of burdens we would gladly put down, if only we knew how.

     In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian receives help from a good book, actually, THE good book, the Bible. The book alerts him to the predicament of his human condition. He longs for a better way, and yearns to find God. He is also helped by a traveler who is called Evangelist. Evangelist points him in the direction of ‘help,’ which, after many trials and challenges, brings him to the foot of the cross where he finally releases his great burden. His encounter with the crucified Christ lightens his burden, forgives his sin, offers hope, and heals that which feels broken or amiss.

     In today’s Bible text, I Corinthians 1:18-25, Paul proclaims, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those being destroyed, but the power of God for those being saved.” Following the path of God’s purpose is life-transforming for all who decide to embark. Paul continues, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” The teaching is persuasive; God’s amazing grace will transform all who touch it and are touched by it. But touch it, we must. No one can touch it for us. No one can ‘grandparent’ us into God’s grace and kingdom. It is a choice, a decision, which each of us is given.

     When John Wesley speaks theologically of God’s prevenient (that which comes before) grace, he speaks of all God does to give us the opportunity to choose a path of recovery, redemption and discipleship. God offers everything needed for becoming the best version of ourselves we might possibly be, through justifying and sanctifying grace, but the decision remains ours to make.

     Michael Hargrove*, in an encounter of self-discovery, offers a picture of this in his devotional, “Don’t Hope, Friend…Decide!” While waiting for a friend at an airport in Portland, Oregon, he gained a life-shifting perspective by observing a man’s return to his family.

     First, the man motioned to his youngest son (perhaps 6) as he laid down his bags. They gave each other a long, loving hug as his Dad said, “It’s so good to see you, son; I’ve missed you so much!” His son smiled, averted his eyes and said, “Me too, Dad!”

     Then the man looked into the eyes of his older son (perhaps 9 or 10), held his face in his hands and said, “You’re already quite the young man. I love you so very much, Zach!” they, too, hugged one another.

     While this was happening, a baby girl, perhaps 1 or 1-and-a-half, was squirming excitedly in her mother’s arms, never taking her eyes off the wonderful sight of her returning father. The man said, “Hi, baby girl!” as he gently took her from Mom and held her close to his chest, rocking her from side to side. The little girl relaxed and laid her head on his shoulder, peaceful in pure contentment.

    After several moments, he handed his daughter to his oldest son and declared, “I’ve saved the best for last!” and proceeded to give his wife the longest, most passionate kiss the author had ever observed. Gazing in her eyes, he whispered, “I love you so much!”

     Had the kids not been present, Michael might have guessed they were newlyweds, but that of course wasn’t the case. He was astonished by the scene of unconditional love happening just an arm-length away. He felt he was invading something sacred, yet felt compelled to nervously ask, “Wow! How long have you two been married?”

     “Been together fourteen years, married for twelve,” he replied without breaking his gaze from his lovely wife’s face.

     “Well, how long have you been away?” Michael asked.

     The man turned to him, still beaming, “Two whole days!”

     “Two days?” Michael was stunned, assuming he’d been gone at least several weeks, if not months. Offhandedly, Michael remarked, “I hope my marriage is still that passionate after twelve years!”

     The man stopped smiling, looked him in the eye with intensity, and said, “Don’t hope, friend…decide!” then he flashed a smile, saying, “God bless!”

     As the family strode away together, Michael’s friend caught up with him, “Watcha’ looking at?” he asked. 

    Without hesitating, Michael replied with certainty, “My future!”

     Miracles of imagination and intention happen with a simple choice, a decision. Christian decided to leave the City of Destruction in search of the Celestial City. The airport father decided to love his children and wife to the best of his capacity, creating the family he treasured so much. And we, too, are given the opportunity of deciding whether or not we will follow God’s purpose for our lives. The journey may not be easy. At times, it may feel risky, but one thing is certain, it will be worth it!