“Beyond This Point There Be Dragons:
Why We Drift into Heresy”
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 28:14-22; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29; St. Luke 13:22-30
May the truth of your Word, O Lord, drive all falsehood from within us, may the peace of your Spirit fill us to overflowing, and may the love of your will bring our lives to their perfection: In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The map makers of old, when they came to the end of the known world, wrote at the edges of their maps, “Beyond this point there be dragons.” Because the explorers had gone only so far, the map makers had to admit the limits of their knowledge. They sensed (as we do) danger in the unknown, so they spoke sparingly about what they did not know. They exercised an uncommon self-restraint as members of the human race. Rather than engaging in creative thinking and speculation, they chose to post warning signs until the truth could be known.
Filling in the blanks, making new innovations, creating our own answers for our own worries is what we want to do as human beings. We’ve never been good at waiting for the truth to be revealed. We’ve never been good at contenting ourselves with the truth that’s already been revealed. We don’t like gaps in our stories. We don’t like being bored with the old way of doing things. And, above all, we don’t like waiting for our worries to be addressed.
So we engage in tasks that don’t belong to us. We create so-called Gospels that tell us about the childhood of Jesus. We create new forms of worship that border on paganism, because we’re bored with the faith handed down to us. We create new theologies (most of which take us into the territory of heresy) to address our worries, rather than waiting on the Lord. In all these ways, we express our lack of trust in God. What’s worse, we reveal our arrogance in thinking that God’s answers aren’t good enough or that they won’t meet our needs. In essence, we attempt to draw maps to take us where God has said we must not go.
It’s that last category of things that I really want to take up this morning. That’s what our Scripture lessons deal with so clearly this morning. Where we encounter worry, we often panic. And when we panic, we usually stray into the territory of heresy – of doing and teaching things that run contrary to the will and teaching of God.
Let’s look at some of the ways we do this: We worry about our worthiness before God, so we decided that God blesses our sinful behavior. We worry about God’s judgment, so we decide that everyone goes to heaven. We worry about self-sacrifice, so we decided that self-fulfillment is our only goal (this is what underpins things like abortion, euthanasia, and lack of emotional commitment). We worry about the state of our planet, so we worship creation (placing it alongside God in the altar of our hearts). We worry that our needs won’t be met, so we make prosperity and materialism our goal. We worry that we won’t get our way, so we live by the motto “might makes right”.
We have a long history of turning legitimate worries into portals of heresy. There’s nothing wrong with us expressing our worries. There’s nothing wrong with us telling God that we are worried. There’s not even anything wrong with us asking God whether our solutions might also be his. But we must wait for his answers. We must make covenant with him, as he has made covenant with us. We must open ourselves to the possibility that our worries may never have an easy or painless solution. We must learn the art of waiting and the joyful discipline of obedience.
In our lesson from Isaiah this morning, we read that God’s people have taken their worries into their own hands. Where God had called them to trust, they chose to panic. We don’t know exactly what they feared, but we do know what they were thinking. The Lord reveals their thought pattern. They said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol (the place of the dead) we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter.” In other words, for fear of fear they’ve capitulated to the enemy and resigned themselves to their nightmares.
What amazes me about this pattern of human thinking is the fact that it completely forgets the miracles of God. They’re turning their back on the One who sustained them in the wilderness for forty years. They’re choosing to forget the victories he’s given them. What’s even more amazing is the fact that God is still reaching out to them. Listen to this: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: “One who trusts will not panic.” And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.’”
Where they’ve created this crooked shelter, the Lord’s offering them one that’s properly built – a shelter that’s built around himself, with a sure foundation and walls that are lined up with justice and righteousness. He calls them to enter that shelter, reminding them not to panic. But there’s also a message that’s full of foreboding. He says, “Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through you will be beaten down by it. As often as it passes through, it will take you.” All he’s really doing here is stating the obvious. There’s no deal that can be made with death, with lies, with falsehood. In the end, the enemy of our lives wants only one thing: Our destruction.
As long as we attempt to shelter our worries in our own solutions, we make ourselves enemies of God. This is the point the Lord’s making when he says, “For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim, he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon to do his deed – strange is his deed! – and to work his work – alien is his work!” He’s telling them that his power and might, his justice and righteousness will treat them like he treated their enemies at Mount Perazim and in the valley of Gibeon. How can it do otherwise? If they’ve made a pact with the very things the Lord stands against, how can they not expect to take fire?
We see this fleshed out even more clearly in today’s Gospel lesson. Someone has asked Jesus how many people will be saved. And Jesus responds by telling them that it depends on how many have chosen to take shelter in him. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” He’s telling us that many will attempt to enter by a wider door, a door widened by attempting to dwell where there are ‘dragons’. He’s telling us that he alone sets the rules, that those who attempt to accommodate themselves won’t fit through his door. This is why the master of the house (Jesus) will say to those left outside, “I do not know where you come from.”
But, because we’re human, we’ll attempt to gloss over our pacts with falsehood and say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” And he’ll once again respond, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” That’s when it will hit us: We needed to trust him. We needed to shelter ourselves in his love and discipline. That’s when we’ll realize that if we had waited just a little longer for his promises we might never have made our awful pact with the enemy. Instead of standing in the cold for all eternity, we could’ve been basking in his warmth.
I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw recently. A treasure hunter who’s been tunneling toward a buried treasure is pictured walking away. What he can’t see is that he’s just inches from his goal. If only he’d clawed away at the dirt just one or two more times, he’d have reached his treasure. If only God’s people would tarry a few minutes, a few days, a few years longer for the fulfillment of his promises, they’d reach the overwhelming joy of his will for their lives. Why, in the name of all that’s holy, do we give up so easily on God?! Why?!
It’s because we don’t pray. It’s because we avoid putting ourselves in the place of listening to him, of coming to know him. It’s because we’re so busy telling him what we want and how he should give it to us, that we miss his response altogether. Listen to what the Lord tells us in the letter to the Hebrews: “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” When we approach him (if we ever get around to approaching him), we realize that we’re in the Presence of Someone who stands above, beyond the world of time and space. We realize that we’re in the Presence of One who will never be fazed by our worries or by the cause of our worries. He’s more real than fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, and the sound of a trumpet.
He tells us, that in approaching him, we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” How amazing is this reassurance?! How small our worries become – if we choose to tarry in his Presence?!
He tells us, again, “See that you do not refuse the One who is speaking.” But how? How do we keep ourselves grounded in the power of the One who is speaking? We have to enter into the life of listening prayer. We have to offer him the only sacrifice we can give: Ourselves. Yesterday, as I was praying at lunchtime, I offered myself to him again. With him, I went through all the parts of my life – the worry-ridden parts, the grief-stricken parts, the joyful parts, the regretful parts, and all the other parts that I’d like to control. As we inventoried them, I offered each to him.
What keeps me going is this: I know that when I pray, I am entering in the Presence of the One who can save me – from myself and from my worries. I also know that whatever I entrust to him will not return to me unblessed, unsanctified. It may take years, it may even take my entire lifetime, but I know that “he who began a good work in me is faithful to bring it to completion.” How do I know that? That’s what he tells me when I listen to him. That’s what he tells me when I enter daily through the narrow door. That’s what he tells me when I make him my foundation, my refuge, and my shelter.