Last week, we celebrated Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. On the Sunday after Epiphany each year, Christians celebrate the Baptism of the Lord — also called Theophany — when Jesus, as a grown-up man, chose to be baptized in the River Jordan by the great prophet known as John the Baptist.
John had started a new religious movement, urging the Jewish people to seek God, repent of their sins, and prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus heard of this movement and affirmed its divine inspiration. And when he did, he became John the Baptist’s successor, baptizing his followers into a bold new faith in which the messianic prophecies would be fulfilled in himself and his teachings — a faith in which, according to the prophecy of Isaiah,
“Every valley shall be filled,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.”
[Luke 3:4-6, paraphrase of Isa. 40:3-5]
Both Jesus Christ and John the Baptist before him were men of courage, who stood up for a revolutionary spiritual message — and they were willing to make great sacrifices for their calling. John had to live in the desert and live on a diet of insects, rather than enjoying the comforts of civilization. He ultimately was beheaded by the king. Jesus was kicked out of his hometown of Nazareth, where people tried to kill him when he claimed to be a prophet — and at the conclusion of his ministry, his mortal life ended in agony on a Roman cross.
In my sermon last week, I talked about the importance of open-mindedness and discernment in seeking the Source of spiritual truth. Many people make claims to be speaking for God. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.” [1 Thess. 5:19-22]
Sometimes, our process of discernment may lead us to decide that we must take an unconventional path — that we must believe or do something that most people would disapprove of, perhaps even to the point where we must face very unpleasant consequences. That’s what happened to Jesus and John the Baptist, and many other people who have followed in their example of moral and spiritual courage.
One of the toughest challenges of living a courageous life is that we can’t always know ahead of time whether the path we choose is the right one, or what the outcome might be. When John the Baptist began his prophetic mission, he didn’t know that he would end up in the history books as a spiritual hero — nor did he know this when he was thrown into prison and awaiting execution. He could have just as easily been forgotten or remembered only as a villain. Even Jesus cried out with doubt while hanging on the cross, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]
That’s why stepping out in faith is so difficult. Whether you’re joining a new religion or church or starting one — or any of the important choices of life such as pursuing a new career or educational degree, or moving to a new place, or beginning a new relationship — you have to be willing to accept some risk. Nothing is for certain.
Today, during the pandemic, it can feel like it takes a lot of faith just to step outside your door and go out in public. You put on your facemask, hoping and praying that no particles of the deadly coronavirus will penetrate through the fabric or make their way around the protective barrier and into your nostrils, and maybe you feel a rush of fear coursing through your body when somebody nearby lets out a cough or a sneeze. Will you soon find yourself lying in a hospital bed, attached to a ventilator? God only knows! But you step outside your door anyway, taking the risk to do the things you must, because life is never a sure thing.
In a spiritual context, this principle was well stated by an Islamic prophet of the 1800s, who wrote: “Worship thou God in such wise that if thy worship lead thee to the fire, no alteration in thine adoration would be produced, and so likewise if thy recompense should be paradise. Thus and thus alone should be the worship which befitteth the one True God.” The point is, we must look to the virtue of courage and do what we believe is right, whatever we sincerely believe we should do, even if the consequences might not be as pleasant or as easy as we would prefer.
One of the most classic examples of this phenomenon is the life of sacrifice that must so often be endured by those who step outside the boundaries of the prevailing belief system of the time and place in which they live. As we heard earlier in this service, for example, Anne Hutchinson was banished from her home and sent into exile, because she was a woman who dared to teach that anyone can have access to revelations of the Spirit, in a society that demanded obedience to established religious leaders.
Nowadays, in free countries such as the United States, the penalties for free thinking are not as severe, but people can still face ostracism or harassment, and lose meaningful relationships because of religious or political differences. We must all be willing to look deep within ourselves and ask, “What is so important that I am willing to stand for it even if it may separate me from my church, my political party, my circle of friends, or even my family?” The responsibility rests with each of us to choose carefully.
In my own life, in various ways and on different occasions, I have taken stands for controversial ideas within the social circles I was in at the time. Sometimes this has led to periods of social isolation, until I was able to build new relationships with people who understood and valued what I believe in.
The psychological uncertainty of stepping out in faith and trusting in God to help you find like-minded souls who will value you for who you are, not who some other people wish you would be, can be a test of personal integrity requiring significant strength of character. I was tested in this way, for example, when as a new Christian I struggled with the question of hell. Regardless of mainstream Christian orthodoxy, I could not make myself believe that adherents of other religions or people who sinned too much during their life on earth would be condemned by God forever. Instead of conforming myself to the doctrines of the church and enjoying their blessing and fellowship, my conscience demanded that I step out into the loneliness of what most Christians perceive as heresy.
For a while, I was isolated and depressed. But in this condition, I felt called to teach the good news of a God who loves everyone unconditionally — to spread the message of a Christianity that never closes the door on the possibility of redemption for any soul. Without a seminary degree or any experience in religious leadership, I started an online ministry and devoted myself to what I believed God was inspiring me to do. Less than three years later, in 2007, I had a newsletter with over a thousand subscribers, and I founded the Christian Universalist Association with experienced ministers from six different denominations. Today, it’s the largest ecumenical organization teaching Christian Universalism.
Over the years, I have counseled many people who were leaving fundamentalist churches and opening their hearts and minds to a more progressive interpretation of the Gospel. Because I had stepped out in faith and felt confident that my decision was the right one, I was able to help others do the same. I have also found — both for myself and for others — that with each step of faith, the next step becomes easier. As a soul learns to exercise independent judgment and discernment, rather than blind obedience to oft-repeated doctrine, spiritual freedom becomes a habit and a way of life. The first steps on the path of the unknown are the most difficult and perhaps the most important.
Now it’s important to note that when we step out in faith, God doesn’t always bless our steps toward our intended destination. For example, in 2009, I started a church with two other ministers in Nashville, Tennessee, but despite our best-laid plans, the venture failed within only a few months. For various reason I later came to understand, it wasn’t meant to be.
During the 2010s, I left ministry and started two different businesses, both of which had promising beginnings and seemed likely to succeed; but despite my best efforts, they ultimately failed. I stepped out in faith, but my faith in those ideas was not rewarded — even though at the time, I believed it was what God wanted me to do. In 2019, again following what I believed to be God’s will, I began writing a book and planned an extensive speaking tour across America to promote it the next year — but 2020 turned out to be the year of the pandemic. All my plans had to be canceled, and a significant amount of money invested in the project went to waste because of poor decisions and bad luck.
Such experiences can cause a person much distress. In my case, much of the last two years felt like a dark night of the soul. Misjudging God’s will and plans for one’s life can cause a person to lose self-confidence, even sometimes to lose their faith. The remedy for this is not to give up on God, nor oneself, and become a timid person unwilling to take risks, but instead to look for the deeper meaning in the painful outcomes that God allows us to experience.
For me, I came to believe that my business failures and other misfortunes of recent years were because I had left the ministry. God knew that the only way I would ever resume the active pursuit of a ministerial calling, which I had abandoned ten years ago, was to throw up so many roadblocks on the alternative path I was traveling that I would finally return to the vocation to which God had originally called me.
Coming to this realization did not come easily to me. Although I knew it to be true intellectually, I feared that God might not bless anything I would do, ever again. My wounded ego had paralyzed me, preventing me from moving forward. And so, God practically had to shout in my ear that I should do what I am now doing — creating a new church, to teach truths that God has revealed to me.
Sometimes in life, the path that we’re supposed to take can be right in front of us, and yet it seems like it’s invisible — we just can’t see where we’re supposed to put our feet, or we fear that if we take that step, we’ll fall into the abyss. We’ve all been there, in one way or another. We want so much to succeed — to get that good job, to marry that wonderful partner, to be a great parent, to create beautiful art or writing or music, or whatever other goal we have in life that we would do anything if only God would let us achieve.
In any such situation, there’s only one thing we can do that’s guaranteed to fail: doing nothing. Unless we step out in faith, not knowing the outcome of our action but trusting that if it’s God’s will, it will be blessed, we are destined to remain stuck, standing on the ledge of uncertainty, peering over the edge into darkness.
In the classic movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a memorable scene where Harrison Ford is standing on the edge of a cliff, and somehow he’s supposed to cross the chasm but he can’t see any way to do it. It looks like a hopeless situation. But he knows that on the other side is a doorway leading to the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ that gives eternal life. He just has to have the courage to take a leap of faith.
Girding himself for the ultimate test, he lifts one foot into the air and steps forward into what he fears to be nothingness — but instead of falling to his death, he lands on a bridge so cleverly disguised that it could only be seen once a person is already walking on it. Only after stepping out in faith does the path forward become visible.
Life can sometimes be like that — especially when it comes to some of the biggest and most important decisions we will ever have to make. God wants us to learn courage, that we might grow in our faith. And although if our choices are not according to God’s will, we can fall, as long as we take risks that are noble and honorable ones, God will soften the blow of failure, and direct our steps to the next fork in the road of our journey.
“Do not fear, [says God,] for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior”
Do you feel like you’re crossing a river, and you’re afraid you might drown? Do you feel like you’re walking through fire, and you’re not sure if you can take the heat?
God is with you. God is there to save you. God will not abandon you when you take courage and step out in faith — when you take the plunge and swim the rapids — when you walk across those hot coals that are burning your feet. Keep moving. Keep trying. Do your best! There’s something there waiting for you beyond the uncertainty: a holy grail, a cup of Christ. God wants you to make the leap. And when you do, don’t worry, They’re holding your hand.
Whatever it is you’re facing right now in your life, whatever tough decision you need to make, be assured that you’re not alone. God is challenging you to take your faith to the next level. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” [Josh. 1:9]
Watch on video (starting at 8:16):