Updated: Mar 30
Our family is in a season of musicals right now. Well, we're more or less always in a season of some kind of musical performance. But right now, it is literally musicals. Both kids just wrapped up their school's show (Bye Bye Birdie) and we managed to fit in seeing multiple touring Broadway shows this winter. And, we recently supported a church friend at her school's performance of the musical Godspell.
I love the opening song, which typically opens with John the Baptist walking down the aisle, singing, "Pre----pare ye the way of the Lord. Pre---pare you the way of the Lord!"
The rest of the musical showcases what the way of Jesus looks like, homing in on Jesus' teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. The way of Jesus still is in such stark contrast to the way of the world, even after thousands of years of Christianity existing as a religion.
I've been wondering lately just how far off we are in following the "way of the Lord." I've been wondering specifically about how far I am.
As I study the names of God and have just wrapped up learning more about the Messianic passage of Isaiah 9:6 (Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace), thinking about the way of Jesus reminds me that this is another self-identified name for God. Jesus calls Himself the Way.
In the Gospel of John, this occurs in the upper room, after Jesus washes His disciples' feet and immediately after telling Peter that he will deny Jesus three times. Jesus reminds the disciples of something that He'd lately been speaking a lot about--that He would be going away soon.
The disciples are understandably troubled. So Jesus says to them,
"Don’t let this rattle you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking" (The Message, John 14: 1-4).
But, good old Thomas, probably looking around confusedly at everyone says:
"Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?” (The Message, John 14:5).
Jesus replies, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (The Message, John 14: 6-7).
Most other translations say, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
What jumps out to me is that the onset of Jesus' ministry and his early teachings show people how to follow a road or a way and then later He tells them that He is the Way.
I first started being attuned to Scriptural descriptions of the "way" when I did the year-long study of the book of Isaiah, which is chock-full of references to God's way.
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)
The way of the righteous is level; straight is the path of the righteous that you clear. (Isaiah 26:7).
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21).
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. (Isaiah 35:8).
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3; this is the passage referring to John the Baptist).
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19).
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9).
So, obviously, the "prepare the way of the Lord" phrasing in the New Testament comes from Isaiah. But each of these other passages are connected conceptually as well to both John the Baptist's and Jesus' teachings. Isaiah talks about "way" as a way of behavior--both good and bad (I left out the "bad" passages here--the negative examples of not following God's way). It is a way of right behavior. But it's more than just following a moral code, and this is what both Jewish and Christian believers so often got and get wrong, I think. We may feel that we're better than mere humanists, that because we believe in God, trying more or less to follow a moral code checks off all the boxes--right behavior, right belief, going to heaven, check.
But, the "way" is not a disembodied moral code. It's "his" ways. It's a way that we learn about because there is a small voice in our minds telling us to follow it. This voice is in a "word" behind us, so some quietness and discernment is needed on our part because we're not following a blazing neon sign in front of us to direct us on the way! It's the Holy Way, and it's expressly for God's people. You don't just stumble onto this path. Multiple passages in Isaiah talk about the way or the road starkly appearing through the wilderness or desert. So, there is opportunity for wandering, for thirst, for loneliness, for danger all around. But the path itself is level and straight and has other pilgrims on it. The way is connected to water--where there is a way, there are also springs in the desert. And, ultimately, the big-picture cosmic reality of the way is truly beyond us--we can walk on the level path if we closely listen to and follow the voice of God. But, ultimately, His ways are truly higher and beyond us. This is another good reason to stick to the path He sets before us.
And then we learn in the New Testament that the Way is also a person.
I just love learning about ancient Jewish concepts of Wisdom as a personified entity. I'm about to start reading Proverbs again, and we see a clear example of this there. And the early Christians (for example, Justin Martyr and Origen) expanded on this further, connecting the Greek ideas of Wisdom and Word to Jesus, as the Wisdom and Logos of God. The famous church in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, means Holy Wisdom, and it was a church dedicated to Jesus Christ.
We are told in Proverbs to seek after wisdom, and then these early Christian models tell us that Jesus is Wisdom personified.
Similarly, we follow God's way and we also follow the Way.
Richard Rohr's newsletter recently talked about this:
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus invites people to follow him, to walk with him, to go on a journey. There is nothing particularly new in this, as the Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of wanderers, pilgrims, exiles, and immigrants…. However, in the gospel of John, Jesus upped the theological ante. He not only taught a way inviting the curious to follow him, but he said he was the way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6)...
“Way” is not a technique or map...
This quest is a mapless journey...When you dare leave the map behind, Jesus emerges as the road itself and the Light that guides. The Quakers refer to this as the “inner light”; medieval mystics speak of Jesus likewise. Of it Meister Eckhart wrote: “There is a journey you must take. It is a journey without destination. There is no map. Your soul will lead you. And you can take nothing with you.” Conventional Christianity (of many different denominations) prefers to see Jesus as a directive or destination rather than this path; for them “way” is a noun, not a verb. On the mapless journey, however, all is movement. There is no destination, only the enveloping presence of love. (From Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation newsletter: Week 8: The Way of Jesus: A Mapless Journey)
I'm grappling a little with the content in that last paragraph, but the part that I really like is the reminder that Jesus (and, in our reductionist minds, heaven) is not just a destination.
This is arguably the central problem in American Christianity today. Our "cheap grace" model, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We aren't so worried about emulating Jesus or really listening to his words, or truly becoming His disciples in whatever that may mean for our lives. We have our ticket to heaven (that's the version of the way that we've accepted) because we believe a few truths and see ourselves as being more accurate than others in terms of religious beliefs. So, we conclude, we're good. "I'm on-a-my way, glory, hallelujah, Lord, I'm on my way," as one of my favorite spirituals that I learned in my childhood says (although that song gives some really specific ways for how to stay on the path, so maybe it really is a good one to listen to!).
What about the movement? What about "way" as a verb? What about all the pilgrimage models from the book of Isaiah and John the Baptist out in the wilderness and at the Jordan River--a preaching approach that essentially required people to pilgrimage out to him in order to repent and be baptized? There's a whole lot of walking in all of these metaphors about the way. And, as Isaiah and Rohr say, Jesus is the guide on the way. We are not alone on this pilgrimage. We're doing something grievously wrong if He's not there as the Light that guides us, or the voice behind us telling us where to go.
The part I'm not sure about from Rohr is that just because many of us have misapplied this idea of "way" to thinking of heaven as the defining goal of belief doesn't mean that we lose the idea of Jesus as our ultimate destination. Augustine famously said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."
Sometimes home is a person.
Like when someone gets married, and somewhere--almost imperceptibly along the way--your childhood home no longer feels like your home, but your home with your new spouse feels like home. Only, you realize, that it's not the house itself that is fully home. It is that person. You can feel comfortable and "at home" just by yourself in that space. But it isn't fully home unless you're there together. This is why everything I've read about widowhood is so hard. Do you stay home or spend time out? Do you sell the place or stay? What do you do when the main part of your home is dead, even when the physical space is still there? My heart goes out to the widows and widowers in the world.
We love to travel, and I find that even when we travel internationally, our family lapses into calling the apartment or hotel we're staying in "home." After sightseeing all day, we'll talk about returning home, but what we mean is that we want to return to the place that we're temporarily staying in, but it's "home" for that moment because it is a place that we share when we are together.
This is Jesus for us. He is our ultimate Home. It's like we are pilgrims, orphans, and widows our whole lives--wandering and searching. And we can only find our ultimate rest and home in Jesus. We can get a taste for it now, but that longing will only ultimately be filled when all is restored. Heaven isn't great because it's the reward for being good people. Heaven is great because we will finally be Home, and we will be home because we are finally with Jesus and the family of God.
Jesus is both the Way to get there and He is the There! And He also teaches us His way--His way of peace, His way of engaging in this world in such a countercultural, unbelievably super-human kind of way. Super-human in that the only way to be as meek, forgiving, peaceful, loving, kind, and compassionate as the way He shows is to have God helping us every step of the way.
Lord, help me to follow your way as I seek You, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.