No Turning Back

Proverbs 12: 15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise.  

Normally I like to start with a longer scripture reading, and I do have some passages to share a bit later, but first, a story. Last Saturday I took some kids, one which was one was my own, to Cavendish for paintball. Because of the construction taking place on the way to Charlottetown, I thought it would be a good idea to avoid that area, and go via Mount Stewart. Google Maps told me that it was about the same distance, maybe 3 or 4 minutes longer, and avoiding construction delays and traffic seemed a great idea. So we went that way.

I didn’t realize there was construction on Route 3 near the end of the Union Road, so that slowed us down a little. And I didn’t realize that the bridge at Oyster Bed Bridge is being replaced, so that added a detour, which wasn’t great. But I also didn’t look all that closely at a map before going, and so I forgot that Route 6, which runs from Tracadie all the way to Cavendish, and beyond, is not a straight line. Far from it.

There is a point in Covehead, near Allan Potato Equipment, when the sign says Route 6 is to the right, but that will take you toward the east, which is the opposite direction of where Cavendish is. And the other way, the left, is running toward the west.  I decided to ignore the sign and follow my own judgement, because Cavendish was clearly in that direction, and so I must not have understood the way clearly. I second guessed it rather than following the sign. And guess what? My judgement was wrong. The sign, it was correct. The road brought me around in a loop, and so five minutes later I found myself back at the same intersection. This time I followed the sign, and what do you know, the road going east turned to the west in less than half a kilometre and we were back on the road to Cavendish. We were only about ten minutes late.

The way I went was wrong. Did my second guessing have serious consequences? No, not really. I got turned back on myself, unintentionally, and wasted time and I suppose some gas, as well as made myself look foolish in front of the kids. But I could have been on time, or mostly on time, and avoided a certain amount of egg on my face, had I obeyed the signs instead of using my own judgement, instead of doing what I decided made sense, what seemed right in my eyes. What was right in my own mind proved to be completely wrong.

It’s easy to get turned around and end up going the wrong direction when you don’t heed the signs, when you don’t follow the instructions that you have been given, when you second guess those instructions, or when you fail to even consult them. That last one is the most foolish of all, but how often are any of us guilty in not going the way we should, even when we have clear indications of the right choice? How often do we fall into familiar, this makes sense, I’ve done this before, sort of errors, because it’s easy and comfortable and feels right, even though it’s wrong?

Sometimes the consequences of turning back and going the wrong way are insignificant and inconsequential. Sometimes those consequences take a long while to arrive, years maybe, or perhaps decades. But sometimes the consequences are immediate and severe. I won’t have you turn to the book of Genesis, but in chapter 19, we could read the story of Lot, and in particular, of Lot’s wife. She, along with her family, had been instructed to flee from Sodom in order to escape the imminent destruction of that wicked city, and to not look back at it, but for whatever reason, whether reluctance at abandoning her old life, or disbelief at the judgment to come, she disobeyed, and was turned into a pillar of salt. She turned back to what was familiar, and suffered immediately for her disobedience.

If you don’t provide a shining example, you may instead serve as a horrible warning, and Lot’s wife has become the latter. She has become a byword, a cliché of the results of indecision and wavering. There is nothing there to aspire to, only a lesson. In Luke chapter 17, when Christ warns the disciples of the abruptness and urgency of His return, He includes the caution which we have at verse 32 Remember Lot’s wife. She turned back, and paid the price.

Turning back is a particular danger, because when things are not going the way we would like, the way we would expect, it’s an easy inclination to turn back to what is familiar. That might seem like the safe and simple thing to do, but when we have been directed specifically elsewhere, turning back may well be fatal. The Lord warned of this in Luke chapter 9. I’ll read from verse 57 And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. 58 And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. 59 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. 60 Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. 61 And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. 62 And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

None of the items above, none of the things which these followers, or potential followers of Christ, sounds unreasonable to our ears. None of these, whether burying a parent, or bidding farewell to family members, sounds like a bad idea. And there is nothing wrong with doing those things, in fact, we are told specifically to honour our parents, and burying a deceased father seems an obvious way to do honour to a parent. The issue is not that doing such things is inherently wrong, far from it. But it’s not the right thing, not the proper thing, not the best thing, not when the requirement is to follow the Lord.

How often do we select a good option, a reasonable option, the one that our judgement tells us is a sensible and practical choice, but it’s not the best choice? In particular, when God calls us to do a certain thing, to go a certain way, but we instead find something else to do, something that feels okay, maybe even is useful, but it’s not God’s path for us, how often do we select that instead?

When I got turned around on the way to Cavendish, there was nothing inherently wrong with the road I took. I could have driven down the way with the bridge out, that would have been a terrible idea, and had I pursued that direction it would have been disastrous. Going the wrong direction was not bad or dangerous, it was not going to lead to the destruction of my vehicle or injury to anyone, it was simply taking me away from my intended goal. It was not taking me where I needed to be, it was drawing me further away.

Sometimes God’s way is straightforward, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it’s perfectly obvious, and other times it runs counter to everything we would expect and anticipate. But no matter if it’s plain as day or requires a great leap of faith, God’s way is always the best way, yet so often we fail to choose it.

Why is that? Do we trust our own judgement so much that we feel we know better than the creator of the universe? Is our faith that weak? Or do we tend to trust the familiar, the comfortable, the default? Following Christ rarely is comfortable and is hardly ever the default, it’s no the way we naturally want to go. Our old nature, our sin nature, will see to that.

Falling back into old ways, old habits, that is one tendency that so often derails any good intentions that we might have, and it stop so much of our forward momentum. In John chapter 21, we see the disciples doing exactly this. Reading from verse 1 After these things Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on this wise shewed he himself. 2 There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.

We’ll pause there for a moment. By this point Christ had died, been buried, rose again, and had appeared to the disciples on more than one occasion. There were still weeks until the day of Pentecost, although the disciples of course did not know what that would bring for them. They did not have a clear way forward at this point, or at least not one that they were prepared to follow. And so Peter returned to his default. I go a fishing.

The first time in the NT when we meet Peter is in Matthew chapter 4. I won’t have you turn there, but at we read at verse 18 And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. 19 And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. 20 And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.

That was how Peter began. He received a direct call from Jesus to follow Him, and he and his brother both took up the call that very day. The abandoned their nets, and for the next three years they tramped around Galilee and Judea and the surrounding areas, hearing all the teaching, witnessing all the miracles, participating in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, being His disciples. It was like nothing they had done to that point in their lives, it no doubt turned their world completely upside down. It had pushed them far beyond what they had ever imagined for themselves, and surely they knew by this point that Christ was the Son of God, and that they had a particular purpose and a unique mission, even if they didn’t entirely understand what that was.

But now, the Lord was no longer physically present, and following Him was no longer the obvious and immediate thing to do. They did not have the next step in front of them. Peter had been called, he had left his nets, but what did Peter do when faced with this uncertainly? He went back to his old life. He went fishing.

There is nothing wrong with fishing. Many people make their livelihood on the water catching fish, or harvesting shellfish, or in the processing of these foods. That is the case now, and it was likewise then. Peter had fished for years prior to that day when Jesus of Nazareth passed by and called him, and it had been a perfectly fine and reasonable thing for him to do. But now, when the Master was no longer before him, Peter returned to those same nets he had left so long ago. He went back to his default.

There are two additional things to note from this. First, Peter drew others away with him. We don’t know the original occupations of most of the disciples, but four of them, being Peter, Andrew, James, and John, had been fishermen, and Matthew was a tax collector. Here we see seven of them taking to the Sea of Galilee in a boat with a net, and assuming Andrew was one of the unnamed two, there were three who so far as we know were not professional fishers prior to this. Peter’s influence was sufficient that they joined him on this ill-advised venture. He didn’t lead them down a path of wickedness, but he did lead them not where the Lord would have intended they go. The fishing trip to Galilee was not part of the plan. Peter led more than half of the remaining disciples astray.

Second, notice that it was unprofitable. It says that they caught nothing. They fished for hours, casting the net here and there, but to no avail. And it’s not that Peter didn’t know what he was doing, he was an experienced fisherman. I can’t imagine that he had forgotten how to fish over the previous three years. And even if he had, it’s not like he was alone on there on the Sea of Galilee. But all his efforts, all their efforts were in vain. They were no longer following the Lord, and it was not going well. One wonders how long the disciples would have kept going at this with nothing to show for it. Funny how that happens, when we go our own way, so often the going is far more difficult than it needs to be. So often we trudge forward, intent on our own schemes, our own plans, our own goals, that we don’t realize how much more challenging things have become, and how much needless pain we bear when we go our own way.

We will see if we keep reading that the fishermen’s fortune quickly turned shortly after someone else arrived on the scene. 4 But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. 5 Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. 6 And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.

The Lord’s plan for them had not included a fruitless night on the water, but thankfully, when we go our own way God may grant us mercy to have some success in our efforts, especially when we actually do finally listen to Him. Perhaps a fruitless night of hard work is what we need sometimes in order for us to wake up and pay attention, for us to get out of the familiar rut we have so easily slipped into, and to get back on the path the Lord would have us to walk.

Ultimately, Peter’s fishing trip serves as a useful lesson to us now, as well as serving as the backdrop for the closing of the gospel and the well known “Peter, lovest thou me / feed my sheep” passage. Even after Peter’s missteps, and there were many of those, the Lord still had a purpose for Peter, and indeed for all of the erstwhile fishermen.

Peter did make his path more challenging than it needed to be though, and the fact that others followed his poor example could have proved disastrous.

In the Old Testament, we see something much the same in the story of Gideon, only it did not have as good an outcome.

We are all likely familiar with Gideon, how the angel of the Lord came to him at the threshing floor where he had hidden away from the invading Midianites, and instructed him to save Israel from the invaders, and how Gideon did so with an army of only 300 men. We might also recall how Gideon, so weak in faith that he asked a sign of the angel, then tested God by putting out a fleece, and did so twice, and how his forces were wittled down that last 300 so that God’s glory would shine through, and it would be completely clear that it was not Gideon’s skill or ferocity that won the victory. But there was another task given to Gideon, one that we don’t remember quite as well, but no less important. We can read about that at verse 24 of Judges chapter 6.

24 Then Gideon built an altar there unto the LORD, and called it Jehovahshalom: unto this day it is yet in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. 25 And it came to pass the same night, that the LORD said unto him, Take thy father’s young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it: 26 And build an altar unto the LORD thy God upon the top of this rock, in the ordered place, and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the grove which thou shalt cut down. 27 Then Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the LORD had said unto him: and so it was, because he feared his father’s household, and the men of the city, that he could not do it by day, that he did it by night.

Gideon, before any of his military success, destroyed the altar of Baal in his home town, in fact, it probably sat not far from his front door, for it was his own father’s altar. This was a bold move to make, and quite a thorough one. Cutting down the grove, which rather than being a stand of tree was likely an a graven image of the Canaanite goddess Asherah, and then using it was firewood, would be a finger in the eye of an idol worshippers. Indeed it was, because the townsfolk evidently worshipped Baal quite wholeheartedly, if we read the rest of the chapter we would see how the people were upset to see the altar destroyed and the grove cut down and burned, and when they found out that Gideon was the person responsible, they wanted his head. It was the interference of his father, who thankfully valued his son more than his altar, who pointed out that if Baal was a real god then they did not need to defend him, which diverted them from murder.

This all takes place prior to Gideon’s victory over the hosts of Midian, and indeed prior to his test with the fleece. It’s an interesting note that the fleece test may also have worked on more levels than we realize, because Baal was the Canaanite god of weather, and whether or not something gets wet or stays dry in the dew, that would be Baal’s department. The fact that God demonstrated things to the opposite of what would be normal was a further proof that His power far exceeded that of the false deity.

Gideon obeyed God, and although his faith was lacking at first, it was sufficient enough for him to go out and do what God had commanded, despite the odds which were so heavily stacked against him. We look at the level of dysfunction found in so many of the judges of Israel, and Gideon looks to be one of the best. But there was a problem, one that we would easily overlook, found near the end of Gideon’s story, in chapter 8. This takes place after the Midianites have been defeated, their forces scattered, and their kings slain. Reading at verse 22 Then the men of Israel said unto Gideon, Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian. 23 And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you. 24 And Gideon said unto them, I would desire a request of you, that ye would give me every man the earrings of his prey. (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) 25 And they answered, We will willingly give them. And they spread a garment, and did cast therein every man the earrings of his prey. 26 And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was a thousand and seven hundred shekels of gold; beside ornaments, and collars, and purple raiment that was on the kings of Midian, and beside the chains that were about their camels’ necks. 27 And Gideon made an ephod thereof, and put it in his city, even in Ophrah: and all Israel went thither a whoring after it: which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house.

Gideon had great success, but in this we see a choice that undermined everything he had done previously. He had begun by tearing down the altar of Baal and burning the grove, as God had commended him. This was an ideal way to begin, and God blessed him and preserved him from danger because of his obedience. But here, he took gold, golden earrings in fact, much the same as the golden earrings the Israelites had melted down to make the golden calf in the wilderness, and he made an object of worship. An ephod is generally a priestly garment, or more specifically the breastplate used with such. But there was no priest here, no one given the ministry from God to offer sacrifices and direct the people in worship. This became a snare to the people, it lead them astray. Not just to Gideon, but to the whole nation. He who had been the agent of their salvation from a foreign invader now set up a stumbling block to lead them astray.

Gideon no doubt had good intentions, and in his judgement thought that this would be used in the service of Jehovah, but like any other idol, the ephod became a false god unto itself, and it distracted from worship in the way God had intended.

If we read the rest of the chapter, we would see how the people of Israel turned quickly back to worshipping Baal once Gideon had died. Once you stop following God’s way, any evil way will do just as well, and that’s where the people went. They went back to their old ways, just as Gideon had, he began by tearing down an altar for idol worship, and he finishes by making something that became a new idol. He ended up following his own judgement, and it brought him back to where he had started.

What’s saddest of all, if we looked at the next chapter, we read one of the most troubling accounts in the book of Judges, and that’s saying something, it’s a troubling book from start to finish, but Judges 9 gives us the account of Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons who killed all but one of his brothers and set himself up as king. It ends in much bloodshed and disaster. Gideon’s line was extinguished.

Although he was a mighty man of valour who saved Israel by his obedience, he turned back to a sinful way. Not because he was wicked, not because he was evil, but because he followed his own judgement, and ended up following not God’s way, but in his father’s footsteps. His father had an altar which led astray a city. Gideon made an ephod which lead astray all Israel. The paths we choose are important. The results may have minor consequences, or they might be most serious, might have consequences that are far-reaching and severe. We know not what will come of the choices we make, but this we do know – when we follow God’s paths, when we obey His laws, the outcome will be positive and beneficial. When we go our own way, when we use our judgement, or do what is easy, what is familiar, what is comfortable, when we turn back to the sinful ways we have grown accustomed to, we gamble. We gamble with not just our own futures, but that of our children, our families, our nation. It’s not a risk we should be willing to take