The place was Promontory, Utah. The date was May 10, 1869, or at the time of this writing, 150 years ago. The scene looked like this: Two locomotives facing each other, cow-catcher to cow-catcher, as if in a silent standoff. But the mood was one of celebration as crowds stood around watching, and dignitaries worked together to drive in the golden spike - that last spike in the completion of the continent’s first transcontinental railroad, bridging east and west. In reality, three other ‘last’ golden spikes had already been driven in that day. So it is with ceremony, pomp, and circumstance.
In the following 20 years, more than three million families would move to the plains and to the West itself, helped greatly by the railroads. In fact, this railroad and those that would follow would be so successful in settling all lands west of the Mississippi River by 1890 the superintendent of the U.S. Census would declare the West was now ‘closed.’
But just one day after that last golden spike, and just a few hundred miles east on the same railroad tracks, another story was beginning. On May 11, 1869, a one-armed civil war veteran by the name of John Wesley Powell got off the train at Green River, Wyoming, along with nine volunteers, four boats, and a ten month supply of food. It was the beginning of the first-ever expedition of the Green River which at its end flows into the Colorado River before finally gaining access to the Grand Canyon. But at the moment it was simply the beginning of a journey into the unknown.
I’m a bit of a sucker for both the American West and stories like this from history. I like the interplay between these two events a century and a half ago: one is the story of conquering and taming, the other, a story of an uncertain expedition into a landscape entirely untamed and wild.
In these two stories - one ending and the other beginning just a day apart - we find many ingredients that are uniquely American. We find grit, determination, and conquest.
Human history is filled with such pairings. We conquer and then are humbled. We find a significant answer and then unearth more questions. We push back the wild only to find new frontiers.
Yet even Powell’s story ends up somewhat like the transcontinental railroad itself: in conquering victory. More than three months after setting off down the Green River, on August 30th, 1869 to be exact, his company would come to the trip’s end near a settlement called St. Thomas, just downstream from the Grand Canyon. Along the way, two boats had been dashed, four men had abandoned the journey, and a majority of their food had been lost, leaving them in a state of near starvation. But of the six remaining men, none lost life or limb, and all finished the course with Powell. Ultimately, Powell’s successful descent of the river was his rise to fame, for he had conquered and subdued the river! Or so we tell ourselves.
In these two stories - one ending and the other beginning just a day apart - we find many ingredients that are uniquely American. We find grit, determination, and conquest. Therefore, they are steeped with the mythology we have of ourselves. The uncertain becomes certain. The frontier is homesteaded. The wild is subdued. The creature becomes conqueror. Out of certain death, we snatch life immortal.
But the Christian way is not exactly the American way, is it? Not every story or path leads to victory and conquest. Rather, we live tenuous lives in light of the victory and conquest of another – Jesus Christ. And stranger still in comparison with the arc of the American myth, Jesus’ victory didn’t much look like one, at least at the outset.
For there on a promontory above Jerusalem, Jesus was crucified. Three spikes pierced Him through and held Him to the cross, and a final spear ran Him through. His death did not bridge the east and the west, but it did remove your sins from you. How far? As far as the east is from the west, that’s how far He has removed your sin from you (Ps. 103:12)!
And three days later, He rose from death and the grave.
Not only did His resurrection validate what He said He would and then did accomplished on the cross, but in His resurrection, He opens His mouth and speaks to His disciples, to me, to you. And what are the first words out of His mouth? “Peace be with you!” He accounted for our sin by His death, and now in life, He sets a path before us where we walk with God the Father through the peace of Christ Jesus, His son.
And so the shape of our life with God through Jesus is unlike American myths and stories of conquest. In the first place, Jesus’ victory is not born of ambition, grit, and determination, but of humility, weakness, and even death. Yet that miserable death lead three days later to the victory celebration of Easter itself and the news that sin, death, and the devil have all been licked. We don’t repeat that through our own lives, but rather live in light of it. We don’t seek to match or outdo what Jesus has achieved, but we are baptized fully into Him, His life, and His gifts (Romans 6).
Jesus’ victory is not born of ambition, grit, and determination, but of humility, weakness, and even death.
I find the life of the Apostle Paul to be instructive at this point. I am thinking specifically about the later parts of the book of Acts when He meets with the Ephesian elders for a brief reunion. It is brief because He is a man on a mission to get to Jerusalem so that He can give witness there concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Acts records the following as Paul met with the leaders of the church in Ephesus. Paul tells them:
You yourselves know…how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of the repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there (Acts 20:18b-22).
Did you catch it there? Paul doesn’t know exactly what is ahead of him in the near term. He knows his mission, but he has no guarantee of success – no mythology of manifest destiny to spurn him on. Rather he lives in the light of the news of another – Jesus Christ specifically – crucified and risen “for you!” which is the Good News that makes saints out of sinners. Paul lives in the uncertainty of today in light of the absolute certainty of the death and resurrection of Jesus, forgiveness, and peace now, and life eternal at Christ’s second coming. And this light of Christ shines so brightly for him amid uncertainty that he often prays for boldness and talks of about not shrinking in fear from declaring the Gospel of Jesus to others
Paul lives in the uncertainty of today in light of the absolute certainty of the death and resurrection of Jesus, forgiveness, and peace now, and life eternal at Christ’s second coming.
Paul’s story is not the American story. It isn’t about looking within and finding the grit, determination, and fortitude to become one more conqueror. No, Paul demonstrates that if all we have to look to is our innards, then we will only find there what he found in himself – dark rebellion, weakness, and ultimately death. But to people like us, God our Father gives something else to look upon, namely His Son Jesus – crucified and risen and coming again.
I, for one, need to hear this and receive it again and again. My hunch is that you do too.
As we go into the uncertainty that marks much of our daily living, may we live in light of the absolute certainty of what Christ Jesus has already accomplished. And may the certainty of his promised second-coming - when He will raise to new life with Him those who trust in Him now - both comfort you and make you bold in sharing His forgiveness with others.
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.