Have you ever tried following someone to a common destination? Maybe you were both going somewhere the other person had been before. Since you had no idea how to get there and were driving separately, you followed them.
Following someone isn’t easy. There are the inevitable red traffic lights that threaten to separate the two of you and the lane changes that can be tough to mimic in heavy traffic. Sometimes you just don’t like the route the person has chosen. Perhaps it goes through a construction zone with a lower speed limit and narrower lanes or over bad roads with potholes that not only make the ride uncomfortable but get you worrying about whether your car will be damaged.
Inevitably, there is that moment when the person you are following makes a turn you think is a bad decision. To be more accurate, you know it is a bad decision. You start to wonder if they really know how to get to the destination after all. Maybe they are confused. Maybe they weren’t paying attention and made a wrong turn.
You begin to think that you should take the route you think is best and no longer follow them.
Following Jesus can feel the same way.
Sometimes we think that being a Christian is believing a certain list of facts. That is true at one level, but in James 2:19 James says, “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” (NLT)
Just to clarify, demons are not good role models. Demons, after all, are in open rebellion against God, yet they believe many of the facts on our “What Christians Should Believe” list. I once heard someone say that demons have better theology than many of us.
That is probably true.
The point James is making is that being a Christian is not simply about believing the right facts. He acknowledges that believing facts is important and good, but if our relationship with God stops there we are in trouble.
Interestingly, “Christians” weren’t originally called that. If you read the book of Acts, you will see that beginning in chapter 9 people who had staked their lives on Jesus were called followers of the Way or were described as belonging to the Way. (Your bible translation may change some of these to “Christians” to help with understanding.)
In the original Greek, the “way” referred to a road or highway. Sometimes the word could be used figuratively as a way of life…the road one has chosen to travel in life.
Kind of strange that followers of Jesus should be called followers of the Way, don’t you think? Unless we remember that Jesus himself said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (NLT)
To get to God you follow Jesus.
Jesus is the road.
My husband and adult sons are avid hikers and backpackers. By “backpackers” I mean they put everything they need to survive for a week alone in the woods in a backpack and head out. They just need a water source; clean or dirty doesn’t matter because they have high level filtration equipment. They carry ultralight tents and sleeping bags. They cook dehydrated food over a tiny gas powered stove that looks an awful lot like the Bunsen burners we had in high school science class. They even carry emergency medical supplies, sufficient in most situations to enable them to continue to hike or at least to hike out of the woods to help. Even in extreme situations their medical kit would enable them to survive until the help they called with their emergency satellite beacon arrived.
My husband has been hiking and backpacking for decades; our sons almost as long, if you count all the times my husband stuffed them in baby carriers for day hikes. They all have a lot of experience in a variety of situations; they are good problem solvers; and they know how to make smart decisions when the unexpected comes up. More than most people, they have reason to be self-confident in the woods.
But a smart person also knows when not to be self-confident. When our youngest son asked his dad to go on a desert hiking and backpacking trip with him, they both realized this trip would be different. They had never hiked in such extreme heat and without ready water sources. They were unfamiliar with the plants and animals that are dangerous in the desert. They knew that even finding the trail can be difficult in an environment where there are no trees marked with paint – blazes, they are called – to show the way. They knew they needed a guide who knew about the climate and the unique dangers of the desert.
They needed someone to follow.
After much research, they found an extraordinary man with whom they ended up spending a week in the desert. They still speak of him not just with affection but a little awe.
Many times when they were hiking through the desert in killer heat, under a brutal sun, just trying to put one foot in front of the other, their guide would tell them that when they got over the next rise and around the following bend there would be an enormous rock where they could sit in the shade and rest. He didn’t say, “Look, there is a rock over there where we can rest in the shade”; he said, “There will be a rock.” He knew exactly what lay ahead: every hill, every turn, every shrub, every patch of shade. He knew which sections of the trail would be tough and when those tough patches would end. He knew which days would be really hard and which days would be easier. He knew all of this because he been down this trail many times before. He had, in fact, helped blaze the trail.
This was critical because as my husband and son had expected there were no marks indicating which way to go. Sometimes there was a faint path worn by the animals in the area. But there were many of these kinds of paths. Which was the right one? More frequently there was no path at all that my husband or son could see. They were walking over loose stones or solid rock.
But their guide new the trail exactly. He never led them wrong.
And he was always with them.
One day the temperature was extremely high and the hiking had been particularly tough. My husband was already exhausted from both when they reached a section of the trail that ran right along a cliff face. The trail was narrow and the drop precipitous. My husband had been using hiking poles – a sort of ski poles for hikers. He started out along the ledge, holding his poles in one hand and trying to find tiny places to grip the cliff face with the other.
You might be thinking at this point that he was crazy to even be doing this. Truth be told, he said he thought the whole thing was crazy more than once on this trip. But by this point he was all in and he had followed their guide long enough to trust him completely.
When the guide stepped out on the ledge, my husband followed.
But the guide not only knew the trail, he had come to know the person who was following him. He could tell my husband was struggling and that he couldn’t do this section of the trail on his own. The guide turned around – on the narrow ledge – and held out his hand to my husband.
“Give me your poles…” he said, “…hold on to my hand.”
The guide knew this trail so well having actually pioneered it and was so capable of crossing it that he could not only get himself across he could carry my husband’s poles and help my husband across as well.
My husband was indelibly marked by that day, and not simply because he survived crossing that ledge. More so, because it brought to life for him Hebrews 12:1-2.
“…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
I like that word pioneer; it captures beautifully the meaning of the original Greek word. To be the first. To blaze the trail for others who will follow. The word pioneer reeks of the risk, the danger, the sheer hard work that went into what Jesus did when he blazed the trail to God for us.
In Mark 1:17 Jesus tells some guys to follow him and they do…for their whole lives; through incredibly painful things that make that ledge in the desert look easy by comparison. They followed Jesus because he is the way, the road, to God.
So as I get up from the computer on which I am typing this, I wonder, What will it look like to follow Jesus today? What will fixing my eyes on him involve? Am I willing to follow the path he knows so perfectly but which sometimes seems crazy to me? What will it look like to leave behind the comfort of the tourist resort and head out on the trail with him as my guide? Will I walk along the narrow ledge if he leads me there? Will I endure the heat because I am following him? Will I trust him and hold on to his hand?
I think those are the things I’ll be praying for today.
You can study the Bible for yourself and understand it! Check out the DIY Bible Study Guide on Mark 1:16-39 to spend more time thinking about what it means to follow Jesus.
Photo credit: conniemig