Uncharted Territory

Having all of the little babies born in my church family these past few months, which has been so cool, in particular I was thinking of little Dennis who was brought to the waters of Holy Baptism by his loving Christian family, I’ve reflected a lot on my little ones who aren’t so little any more and when they were born.

Philip was one of those labors that never seemed to end, but 24 hours later exactly on his due date came out our wrinkly and beautiful little baby boy. Emma however, inherited her father’s sense of direction and decided she would try to find the exit door early by going sideways through her mommy’s belly. So an emergency trip to surgery, what seemed like compared to Philip, a very quick delivery via C-section and out popped our wrinkly and beautiful little baby girl. Now for how different both of our little critters were and are, the one thing they had in common coming out of the womb was that both of them had clutched in their little hands a detailed instruction manual on how to raise children.

I wish! The truth of course was that as soon as our little ones popped into the womb, through the pregnancies and then when they popped into the light of our world was that we were in completely uncharted territory for us, not one of those experiences was the same and we were (and still are) so often learning on the fly.

This is exactly the place where those ancient disciples are in our reading from Acts 1:21-26.

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

This story is placed in that in-between time in church history from the time of the Ascension to the moment of Pentecost. You could say they are in the birthing process right now, from the moment of the Ascension and Jesus’ Great Commission to go and make disciples that conceived the Christian church to the moment of Pentecost when the Christian church was born. This whole time they were in uncharted territory, not one of those experiences was the same and they were so often learning on the fly.

In this uncharted territory there were many decisions that they felt they had to make. For those early disciples 12 was a powerful symbol. It wasn’t some strange numerology or someone’s lucky lotto number, but it was a symbol of God’s work in His world. God brought the family of Israel; really one very large extended family with 12 branches, to work within this world and bring the good news of the Creator God who loves and is redeeming his world to all people. These 12 families were a symbol of the love of God. Now that God’s love had come into the world completely in Jesus, Jesus brought 12 disciples together to continue that work of bringing God’s love in Jesus to our world. Of course, there were many more than 12 disciples, but these 12 served as a symbol of a renewed Israel and God’s continued loving work.

To help us understand a little bit of why this symbol was so important to them. Think about what it would be like if you came into church on Sunday morning and all of the crosses had somehow disappeared. We would still be us, the church, and still have God’s good work to do but it would feel off, not right somehow and we would want to figure out what to do.

With those ancient disciples, this is how it felt to them when there was a horrible complication and one of the 12 tragically lost his way. Judas went away from the 12 and away from Jesus to his own place of brokenness and despair. Now they were 11, not 12, the powerful symbol of God’s love in the world didn’t feel right, the cross was missing from the wall, what were they supposed to do? They were in uncharted territory, learning on the fly.

So where they went for guidance in this uncharted territory was where Jesus himself went and took them, start with worship, devotion and prayer. Then with their hearts and minds opened up to the work of God’s Spirit and they followed these steps of (1) knowing God’s love in Jesus, (2) meditating upon what God’s desires for them and the whole world was. That is for all to know the love of God in Jesus. Within that path of God’s love in Jesus they ask prayerfully (3) what is God doing in and through us to bring this about and (4) how can we respond in this situation, what is the best path to travel?

Starting with worship, devotion and prayer and following these steps of knowing God’s love in Jesus, meditating on it, asking what God is doing and how can we respond gave them the direction for them to go, like a compass in the uncharted territory pointing them in the right way. Notice this didn’t give them a clear answer that said something like “Book of Hezekiah vs. 9, Matthias should be the new disciple.” Like us, they probably wished the Bible was always that straightforward, but it’s not, because God does not micromanage how we live but instead He leads and guides with His love and in faith allows us to freely follow or in disbelief to freely go our own way.

With this prayerful guidance, knowing God’s love, meditating on it, asking what God is doing and responding the disciples made some decisions, cast lots (which was a customary practice during their time) and made an action plan. Did the disciples do it perfectly right? Was casting lots, the equivalent of throwing some dice, between two equally strong and positive choices the right way to go? Was one supposed to be there and they chose wrong or did they do it right? There’s no perfect answers to those questions, that’s the nature of the freedom God has given His creation, given to His ancient disciples and given to us modern disciples today. There is the good and godly path of God’s love in Jesus to follow, there is certainly guidance in the different situations we find ourselves in from God’s Word, from prayer, from the wisdom of our Brothers and Sisters in Christ, but there is no destiny or fate, God does not micromanage us, there is freedom in the path God calls us to walk.

But this path all begins with what God has done for you and me in Jesus. The Bible is very clear on this, but not only the Bible but our own experiences as well remind us, that apart from the love of God in Jesus we are lost in uncharted territory with no clear direction to go. But God does not leave us alone and lost apart from Him but came to us, to shine a light upon us and bring us back to God.

One of the psalmist in the Old Testament describes this like there being two paths you can follow, one path that continues to lead away from God, the path of sin and selfishness, hurt and lying, of loving other things more than we love the God who saves us, this is the path that ultimately leads to eternal death walking ourselves away from God. The other path is what God has done for us in Jesus and it is walked upon through the steps of worship, devotion and prayer. This is the path that walks with God both now and eternally. If you have found yourself on the path that leads away from God, the road back is not far to go; but listen to His voice calling you, believe and repent and let God turn you back to Him. Even if you have walked a thousand miles away from God, God has never left you and is only one step back.

When we are faced with decisions both big and small, when we find ourselves in uncharted (for us) territory, think about the disciples and the choices they made both good and bad. Remember the path that walks with God and leads us home starts with worship, devotion and prayer and follows these steps of knowing God’s love in Jesus, meditating on it, asking what God is doing and how can we respond to that love in the choices we make.

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