A famous author once described the Christian life as “a long obedience in the same direction”. And I have to say it’s one of my favourite descriptions of what it means to be a disciple, to be an apprentice who follows Jesus as master and Lord.
Last week we spoke about the journey through the valley of the shadow of death. How, in King David’s life, we see that God doesn’t promise a shortcut around the valley; no, what God promises is so much better: He promises that he himself will go with us. Not that we will avoid the ups and downs of life in this broken world, but that we will have his presence through it all.
“A long obedience in the same direction”. I really think it’s a fabulous description.
As we read through chapter 13 of The Story this week, we hear the story of King Solomon, and we see there the opportunity for this sort of long obedience; and if we stop to think about it, I think you’ll see that each person’s journey of faith has a similar overall shape as the story of Israel – and that’s no accident.
- From humble beginnings, God quietly called Abraham to step out in faith.
- In Joseph, God had prepared a way to provide for his people.
- Through Moses God revealed himself in power and might;
- and then in the days of Joshua, God defended his people against their enemies.
- Then, from the time of Samson right up to King David, God called his people to trust him, and when they were willing, strengthened and empowered them to do the work that God wanted done;
- and now, having been found faithful – which, of course, includes repenting and returning when they go astray – under King Solomon they enjoy the peace that only God can give; they’re given wisdom and direction from God’s Word and by the Holy Spirit speaking through the community of the faithful, and are called to a steadfast life of obedience and faith, so they may remain at peace with God.
Don’t our own lives follow a similar pattern?
- Most of us have a humble beginning to our Christian life, as we learn to see God’s provision for our lives.
- Many Christians can look back and see one or two ‘Moses moments’ when we can see or feel God’s presence in a miraculous way – maybe in an answered prayer, or when things work together for good in a way that could never be a mere coincidence.
- Many of us can look back and recognize a time when, like Israel, we had two paths ahead of us; a time when we could trust in ourselves and do what was easy to get ahead, or, we could make the decision to do what was right, even if there were consequences. Maybe you can remember one of those “choose this day whom you will serve” moments.
But the reality is that the bulk of the Christian life is not found in those dramatic moments. No, most of the journey of faith is, thankfully more peaceful, less dramatic, but no less a journey of faith: it’s each and every day choosing to faithfully move forward, one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting in God as we learn to live “a long obedience in the same direction”.
Steadfastness and Solomon
King Solomon is a fascinating example. He rules at a time when Israel experiences peace and prosperity like they never have before. God appeared to him in a vision and said “ask me for what you want”; and, having been born and raised after David repented and returned to God for committing adultery and murder, Solomon grew up knowing the Law of God. He grew up knowing the importance of honesty and good judgment, and he knew the promise that God had made to David – that it’s only through obedience that his earthly throne would endure.
God asked “what do you want?”. And what did Solomon ask for?
Wisdom. He wanted God to open his eyes to distinguish right from wrong.
(There’s a fabulous connection here back to Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, but I’ll save that one for Bible Study!)
But think about it: if God appeared to you today and said “ask me for whatever you want”, what would you ask for?
If we’re being honest, I know there have been times in my life when I would have asked God for that quick shortcut; when I would have asked God for a quick way around whatever was in my way, whatever hurt or problem had become front-and-centre at the time.
But what a lesson we learn from Solomon – ‘I want your wisdom; I know there’s no shortcut: life is going to have ups and downs, there’s going to be temptations, there’s going to be trials. I want you to go with me, I want you to show me right from wrong, I want you to help me stay on the right path.’
There aren’t any shortcuts – because our faith isn’t about checking the right boxes or undergoing the right rituals or heaping up the right deeds. Our faith is a long obedience in the same direction; just as Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and called his disciples to follow him, fully aware of the trials that lay ahead, our faith is a matter of choosing to place our trust in Jesus, the Son of God, and then following where he leads, not for any short-term solutions, but to be in it for the long haul; it’s a matter of answering God’s call to draw us to himself, repenting and turning in that direction, and setting a course to follow where he leads.
Advent and Adventures Ahead
If we can remember that the season of Advent is not a preparation for Christmas, but is a preparation for Christ’s coming again, I think we’ll appreciate the importance of this ‘long obedience’.
Just like Israel’s story – Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon – is echoed in our own journeys of faith, it’s also echoed in the life of the Church (which should be no surprise, for God is the same: yesterday, today, and forever).
- Christ came with the humblest of beginnings in Bethlehem;
- like God revealing himself in the Exodus, Jesus revealed his power in mighty works;
- and then like God knocking down the walls of Jericho, Christ destroyed the gates of death on that first Easter.
- And he calls us to follow him, to trust, to go forward doing the work we’ve been given to do. We know he will come again some wondrous day in glory to judge the living and the dead… and until then, we’ve been called to a long obedience in the same direction.
And so the preparation for that coming – our Advent preparation – is to step back, pull out our map (the scriptures), and make sure we’re following where he leads.
If God asked you today “what do you want from me?”, would we ask for a shortcut? Or would we ask for a fuller awareness of his presence, for an increase of faith, that we may walk boldly forward, trusting in the one who provides for his people, the one who takes the lowly and meek and empowers them to do incredible works for his glory and the increase of his kingdom.
This Advent, may God give us grace to be steadfast in faith, to live out that long obedience in the same direction, trusting in his power, and giving him the glory, now and forevermore. Amen.
 This quote comes from the French atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886), translated by Helen Zimmern, section 188) – yes, it’s the same philosopher who famously proclaimed “God is dead”. He intended it as a complaint about Christianity, as he was writing about how faith makes humanity worse by encouraging the weak to carry on by teaching compassion as a virtue – as though that were a bad thing! Not surprisingly, what this atheist wrote for evil, here God uses his quote for good.
 1 Kings 3:5-9
 C.S. Lewis’ idea of trajectories is big here. A small change of direction at the start of a journey across the Atlantic has a dramatic effect when drawn out over time; so much more when it’s drawn out over a lifetime and eternity. And, likewise, when we find ourselves off course, continuing in the wrong direction is never the solution; but no matter how off course we’ve gone, we can always re-orient ourselves and set a new trajectory as long as there is breath in our lungs.