Quests and Pilgrimages
Throughout this series on the Sermon on the Mount we have
focused on the idea that the Christian life is a pilgrimage. It may come as a
surprise to you to know that the ancient church considered some of the non-Christian
literature of the time to the excellent sermon examples of this. As we shall
see, some of the ancient manuscripts were preserved by monasteries just for
Stories of the Quest
Permit me to bring to your attention three stories which
should be familiar enough to you.
The first is that of The Odyssey. The story is
familiar enough. At the end of the Trojan War, Ulysses attempts to get home. It
takes him something like ten years, and he goes through a great deal of
adventure in the process. When he gets home he finds that his faithful wife is
being hounded by a number of suitors — which he probably has to kill. The story
is so familiar in Western literature that we speak of “an Odyssey” even today
as meaning an epic journey. The point I would bring to you is this: Ulysses was
dragged reluctantly (to say the least) from his kingdom to the Trojan War, then
having great hardship in the process of getting home. It’s a round-trip
journey; the true story is in the journey, not in the destination.
The second might be more familiar to modern readers: The
Wizard of Oz. The story of Dorothy being dropped in the strange Land of Oz,
following the yellow brick road to find the Wizard is well known to all of us.
Like Ulysses, Dorothy really didn’t want to be dropped in Oz. The first thing
she wanted when she got there was to go home. But note that the story hinges
very much on Dorothy making a decision. She could have stay with the munchkins
— they were very grateful for her killing the wicked witch — but she chose to
seek out the Wizard. She didn’t know what she was getting into, of course. But
she chose the adventure rather than the security of staying with the munchkins.
Finally there is The Hobbit. It might be fairly said
that Dorothy made a conscious choice; Bilbo Baggins was dragged into it. God —
in the form of Gandalf the Wizard — sent him on the adventure that was to
change him for life. It is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien, the author, was a
Christian. Bilbo himself named his book about his adventure, There and Back
Again. Geographically Bilbo ended up where he started out. What changed was
Bilbo, not his geography. He is the classic image of the Christian on the
pilgrimage of life: small, insignificant but touched by God — and off on the
adventure of a lifetime. On that adventure he will deal with things far too big
for himself. He will challenge great enemies; he will handle great power and
yet the story is not really about dragons, magic rings or enchanted forests.
The story is about Bilbo – also known as Everyman.
Pilgrim or Hero?
It is very interesting to observe that the ancient pagan
writers of heroic epics started with a hero. They naturally assume that someone
who was going to take a heroic voyage would have to have a heroic character, be
of noble birth and otherwise be qualified for the job. Christian writers do it
differently; they tend to prefer the ordinary man caught in extraordinary
circumstances. Their protagonist is much more likely to be a pilgrim than a
hero. The difference is important. For the hero, the truth is that the hero
changes the world. That’s why he was sent on the quest. But the pilgrim is
different. The ordinary man of the Christian quest does not change the world —
but the quest changes him.
At this point you’re probably wondering what on earth I’m
babbling about. But consider the parallel I’ve been putting to you: the
Christian life is a pilgrimage, very similar to a quest. The one big difference
between the pagan quest and the Christian pilgrimage comes in the tasks to
which the Christian is called. Slaying the dragon is something the pagan hero
is expected to do; the quest might get the call to work in the nursery. The
appeal to the pagan hero is that the quest is high and noble, and therefore
worthy of being taken. The appeal to the Christian hero is that it comes from
the Lord, even though it might not be high and noble but low and messy.
Let me sum it up this way:
The Christian hero might change the world — but that’s not the
usual case. Most of the time you’re just a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
doing your duty.
For the Christian, the journey itself is the destination. It’s
not how you change the world, it’s how the Christian life changes you that
For the Christian, there is such a thing as home, and you are
going there. If there is home, there is hope, which abides.
The Christian Pilgrimage
The Christian pilgrimage is a form of the quest. Like Bilbo
Baggins, we have been there (heaven) and we are going back again. You think
Ecclesiastes 12:7 NASB
then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to
God who gave it.
Jeremiah 1:4-5 NASB
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, (5)
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I
consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Your spirit came from God; your spirit will return to God.
In the meanwhile you are on a pilgrimage. Like most pilgrims of literary fame
you will find yourself doing things you never thought you would do. They may
not be exciting things, or famous things, but they are things the change you.
The veil of the future is lifted one day at a time; you do not know what
tomorrow brings. The pilgrim walks down the road of life not knowing what might
lie around the next curve.
It is therefore proper for us to examine the Christian life
as a quest and ask how we should conduct ourselves on this pilgrimage. Ulysses
had the aid of the gods (and their opposition sometimes, too). It’s a
consistent feature of the quest that divine aid is required. We may now examine
how that is done.
Conducting a Quest
Matthew 7:7-12 NASB
"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you
will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (8) "For everyone who asks receives,
and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (9) "Or what man is
there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone?
(10) "Or if he
asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? (11) "If you then,
being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will
your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (12) "In everything,
therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is
the Law and the Prophets.
This is one of the most reassuring passages in the Bible.
The word used for “ask” in this passage is very much akin to the word we use for
prayer. Indeed, in the old King James Version, you will often see the
Shakespearean phrase, “I pray thee.” Asking is equivalent to prayer. The
original word in the Greek carries with it a meaning of craving or intense
desire. The pagans of this time would have been familiar with the word as
something you did at your favorite temple to secure the favor of your
particular god. To do this you would bring a small, generic representation of
a human being called a koros (male version) or kore (female version). In
effect, it was a miniature “you.” This was your way of telling your goddess
that you were devoted to her; you gave yourself to her. Thousands of these
things have been found right behind the archaeological sites of ancient Greek
temples — in the trash dump, in other words. So while to us the word “ask”
simply means to do something verbally, people in those days would have seen it
in a much more serious light. The lesson for us is that we are not to ask
trivially, but with purpose. Take your prayers seriously.
Asking is done with the mouth; seeking is done with the
heart. It is interesting to note that seeking God is most commonly connected in
the Psalms with joy or rejoicing. To seek God leads to joy. Christ told us that
he came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly. It is a common
misconception that God wants to put an end to all your fun and turn you into
some sort of sour persimmon. The truth is quite to the contrary. But to learn
that truth, you have to seek God earnestly. It implies a persistence which is
uncommon in our society today. We have lived so long in a world of television
sitcoms that we think that anything can be solved in twenty-two minutes with
breaks for commercials. Seeking God, however, is a lifelong activity. It must
be done with a whole heart; but like seeking a particular geography you do it
until you get there. It’s just that in our case “there” means heaven.
At this point you are expecting me to give you a Greek word
definition for the word “knock.” Okay, I’ll give you one: it means “knock.” As
in, bang on the door. If asking is done with the mouth, and seeking is done
with a heart then knocking is done with your hands. That’s the point. You can
ask and seek constantly but if you are not willing to work with your hands for
the kingdom of God you will fail the test. But note the response from God if
you do. Christ makes an obvious point here; we’re a bunch of sinners, yet we
treat our children as well as possible. Any reasonable human being takes as
good care of his children as he possibly can do it. Now if we do that how much
more will the awesome, perfect and sinless God do for us — if we will act like
The progression of ask, seek and knock implies to us that
this is not some sort of magic formula. You are familiar with this if you are
on the Internet. How many times have you gotten an email that tells you that if
you will repeat this specific prayer, word for word, and then pass it on to
5982 of your closest friends that God will immediately bless you with (a
Cadillac, a large amount of money, a new girlfriend, a boat and the lake to
sail it on, etc.)? That’s not what we’re talking about. What we are talking
about is that when you are committed to God — by mouth, by heart, soul and body
— then he is committed to you. If you are his child, he will treat you like it.
One of the difficulties of having verse numbers and chapter
numbers in the Bible is that we often separate things which should not be
separated. Most people are unaware that the Golden rule follows this
progression of ask, seek and knock. But it is a very logical conclusion to
Think of it this way: let’s suppose you were Bilbo Baggins,
setting out. Your thoughts would be focused on things like pocket handkerchiefs
and a coat, but you should give some thought to how you’re going to conduct
yourself on this journey. After all, the dwarves who are with you don’t really
think you’re very much to have along. It’s not until you have proved yourself
that they really welcome you as one of the group. This set of instructions
corresponds to that.
Note the first two words: “in everything.” The Golden Rule
starts with integrity. This is not something you do when it’s convenient; it’s
something you do all the time. It’s marching orders for the program. This goes
back to the previous week’s lesson about judging others. If you think about it,
one of the effects of judging other people is that they tend to take the blame
for what’s wrong in your life. Now the phrase “what’s wrong” is rather elastic;
it might mean that you don’t have a big enough fishing boat. But it’s human
nature to blame other people for our problems. So Christ tells us that instead
of doing that we should ask, seek and knock. Did you connect “ask, seek and
knock” with the question of judgment? It’s an important connection, for God
will not give you that for which you ask as long as you continue to blame
others for the problem. It’s as if the saying to you, “Hey — knock it off!”
Your problem is not that someone else is preventing you from getting what you
want; your problem is that you don’t ask, seek and knock from the one true God
who can give you all good things.
James puts it this way:
James 4:1-3 NASB
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your
pleasures that wage war in your members? (2)
You lust and do not have; so you commit
murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so
you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. (3) You ask and do not receive, because you ask with
wrong motives, so that you may spend it
on your pleasures.
Be a Christian of integrity; in everything follow the Golden
Rule. This allows God to bless you.
A Matter of Justice
If there was ever a matter of simple justice, the Golden
Rule is it. All God is asking you to do is to be fair; treat others the same
way you want to be treated. It’s not just good social advice; it’s justice. It
is righteous. And God is righteousness itself; therefore it is no surprise that
the Law and the Prophets are summarized in this simple statement. It is a
reflection of God himself, of his very character.
Incidentally, this should put to bed the idea that Christ
brought out a brand-new morality. There many people who think that the God of
the Old Testament is very, very different from the God revealed in the New
Testament. It is not so. The God who is merciful in the Old Testament brings
his mercy to its ultimate climax in the New Testament. The New Testament is not
a change in direction from the Old Testament; it is the culmination of the Old
Testament. The major difference is that the Old Testament expresses this in a
negative manner — don’t do thus and such to your neighbor, while the New
Testament expresses it in the positive.
Building a Relationship
It is fairly clear that the Golden Rule is a great way to
build relationships between human beings. But it’s also a great way to build
your relationship to God. The reasoning is relatively simple. The basic tool in
building your relationship to God is the imitation of Christ; you want to be
like him. Well, just how does God behave towards the human race at large?
Matthew 5:44-45 NASB
"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for
those who persecute you, (45) so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for
He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Do you see it? God causes his blessings to flow even to the
evil in this world, so great is his love. The question is not how other people
treat you; the question is how you treat other people. Think of it from the
point of view of the quest or the pilgrimage. Those evil people are bends in
the road, stops in the way. A little later they will be gone. But the way you
treated them lingers on in your character, and your character is the key to
your relationship with God. If you focus your mind on defeating them,
humiliating them and triumphing over them it’s very likely you will become like
them. But if you come instead to ask, seek and knock — that is, to count upon
your Lord for your daily provision, knowing that he loves you — your faith
grows. As your faith grows, you grow closer to God.
One Night’s March Closer to Home
Remember that I told you that the protagonist in the quest
chooses to go on the quest. If you are a Christian, you have chosen to go on
the quest that is the Christian life. Like the great quests of literature the
quest of the Christian life is a journey of here and back again. You came from
God; you will return to God. The destination for the Christian is sure. The
question really is with you going to do along the way. Are you going to become
a bitter, judgmental person who blames everyone else put himself for his
troubles? Or are you going to become a person who refuses to judge the outside
world, knowing it’s just another stop along the way of the pilgrim? Are you
going to become someone whose faith is so triumphant that you know that your
heavenly Father will provide all that you need? Each day brings you one night’s
march closer to home; does it bring you one day’s pilgrimage closer to God?