Thy Will be Done: The process of discernment

Thy Will be Done: The process of discernment

Thy Will be Done: The Process of Discernment

Mark 14:32-36 July 1, 2018

Rev. David J. Clark

We continue our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, considering how important it is for us to live a life in prayer where the subtext of our lives is intertwined with the petition, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is no anemic prayer, a vague plea for God to take care of things. It’s about aligning our wills with God’s purposes.

But how do you know God’s will? Say you have some big decision in your life and you are looking for guidance, how do you know God’s will for your life? In the Old Testament we see traces of various practices of divination. Casting lots (kind of like dice), stones, Joseph looked into a silver cup. They read entrails of animals. In the New Testament the disciples cast lots to figure out who would replace Judas.

Some Christians use the language, “God put it on my heart” to do thus and so. This comes from Jeremiah 31:31-34 where it says God will write the law on our hearts. God put it on my heart to reach out and give you a call today. Sometimes there is just an impulse or a feeling you get and just know you are being led in a certain direction. This comes through a life used to walking with God, getting a sense of what God is up to in this world, a prayerful life.

I was in a covenant group with a older, pushy woman named Helen. She was from England and did not easily take no for an answer. The kind of person where you just know you’ll save yourself a lot of time if you just go along with what she says instead of trying to argue with her. She was an old-school Methodist who every once in a while would announce to the group that she felt a prompting from the Holy Spirit to get our group involved in some good deed. I thought, “Every time Helen gets a prompting it winds up with me going with her to do something I didn’t really want to do—like go clean toilets at the homeless shelter, or start a program for refugees.” Following the promptings led us to do amazing things that I wouldn’t have done on my own that wound up benefiting others and enriching my life beyond measure. Sometimes God works through pushy people.

When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on just before he was arrested, he prayed, for God’s will, not his own to be accomplished through him. So it’s clear that our wills—the will for self above others, of what is easiest or most comfortable to us is not always what God wants. Sometimes we are called upon to sacrifice, to do difficult things, to summon our courage to move beyond what is comfortable. Sometimes it means changes in relationships, priorities, patterns you of behavior that you think are “just you.”

But just trusting on your own promptings can be dangerous. We’ve seen lots of occasions where people commit some devastating crime and then claim that God told them to do it. Often it is mental illness or wishful thinking.

We have to always be asking if it’s consistent with all of what we find is scripture, with the commandments, with an ethic of loving one’s neighbor and up-building the kingdom of God. Is it selfish? A three-fold test is to ask: does this decision honor God, does it honor others, does it honor what is best about me?

Sometimes we seek some sign, a signal that provides clarity that we are on the right path. We say, “God if this is right, let there be a strong feeling about it, or some sense of what is right when I’ve talked it over with people I trust.” And often that sense of peace comes. Sometimes when your guts are churning, the best thing is not to rush things, but wait.

This approach to discerning God’s will can however, be abused. I like the story of the story of the guy on the diet who said, “Lord, if you want me to have a donut then make there be an open parking space when I drive by the donut shop.” His friend who overheard this prayer later in the day asked him if God opened up a parking space for him because he was supposed to have a donut. He said, “Yup.  I had to drive around the building seven times, but there was one there.”

Setting up tests for God isn’t a good way to go. When I was 16, I met a beautiful, smart, kind girl who was Texas and in town visiting her grandparents. I was smitten. I prayed that night, “God if she is the one make it be exactly 11:34 on the clock the next time I looked at it.” And sure enough, 3 minutes later I looked at it was 11:34. I’d found my soulmate, my destined bride. When I told Donna about this she said, “When God tells me the same thing, we’ll get together.”

Some folks use the Bible kind of like a Magic 8 ball. “God, I am having trouble with my kids, tell me what to do. And they open up the Bible at random and say wherever my finger falls that will be the answer. And they flop it open and put their finger down and get an answer. I’ve not personally had much success with that one. Whenever I have tried that, I usually put my finger on a verse like: “Go ye therefore and smite the Moabites.” Great! Moabites! What are they? Look out for a good smiting, Moabites.

A better approach to using scripture is to look for stories and circumstances that parallel your own. Someone in a time of need, whose heart is troubled, someone who needs courage to do what they know they really need to do.

Some folks talk about everything that happens is part of God’s plan. I found a sermon online where the earnest preacher talked about the Sermon on the Mount and how God knows even when a sparrow falls. He believes everything that happens is what God wills. He talked of playing Scrabble with his wife. He said that the letters he draws out of the bag are the letters that God selected him to have. And he doesn’t even “pull rank” as a preacher on her and pray for victory. He just prays that whoever needs to be encouraged will win and whoever needs humbled will lose and God puts the letters in his hand every time. So every time you pull out six I’s and a U, you will know God thinks you’ve been thinking a little too much of yourself.

Well, that doesn’t help much either. Because I look at the world, and the reality of so much pain and suffering and evil, that I can’t believe that this is the way God wants it. God gave us free choice, and wants us to make better decisions than we often make.

Some people think God has all the specifics laid out. Who you should marry, what college should attend, what house you should buy, what career. They see the world as a set of binary choices. There is a clear right answer that God wants. Seeing the world this way is a good way to go crazy.

God’s plan for you is less about whether you go to this college or that or marry this person or that one—though there are things that may make one a clearly better choice. God’s plan for you has more to do with how you live your life than exactly what you should do in each and every decision. Many times there are lots of good options and God trusts you with the freedom of choice. To choose what seems best to you. On your money it says, “In God we trust.” But with your life, we can say, “In you God trusts.” God has given you intelligence, community, great people in your life, scripture to guide you. Go out and live your life. If you fail sometimes, fail boldly in the right direction. Pick yourself up and learn from it and go on.

It is like your life isn’t just about going in direction A or B and one is right and the other wrong. (Point to Newsprint with an A and B. then flip page to blank page). No it’s more like you have this big wonderful canvas to work with. Yes there are some boundaries. The commandments, is it loving? Go anywhere you wish on that big open canvas.

God’s plan for you is more about how you live your life–what values you live–by than selecting every specific thing for you. Do you live humbly, gratefully, do you have a servant’s mentality to help others, to make the world more just and kind or do you put yourself at the center of your universe. Are you working to bring God’s kingdom, the Kingdom of peace with justice on earth?

(Unveil drawing of a dot with an arrow pointing up). Sometimes we think of life as a great blank slate. We cross a threshold and start a new venture. We decide I’m going to go in this direction. Straight up. And we fantasize about how easy it’s going to be.

(Unveil drawing of the arrow gone into some squiggles). But life is not easy, not always straight up. We make mistakes, setbacks happen, we get off course. There are new starts and stops.

(Unveil drawing of a palate of a big squiggly mess with a few of the empty spaces colored in). Our lives look like disaster areas, so different from the easy path we’d envisioned. But that’s how it is. Some folks are looking to erase the past. Start with a new canvas. But that’s not how it works. Our lives are an accumulation. We look at our lives and learn and grow from it. The key is to have faith that God can help bring good out of any bad situation, can redeem it. In Genesis when Joseph reunites with his brothers who sold him into slavery he told them that they meant it for evil, but God brought something good out of it. It is a way to begin to color in the empty spaces, and begin to see some shape and patterns or structure within it. What once looked like an unmitigated disaster—losing a job, a relationship, an opportunity gets colored in with something beautiful. Yeah it was tough and awful. But you are stronger now. You’ve learned. You’re more empathetic toward others. What do you see when you look at your life?

(Unveil Heaven’s Door drawing). When you look at your life, you may see how things blend into each other. Surprising you. I like the way Rachel Held Evans says, “We live inside an unfinished story.” We trust that there is something beautiful that can come of it.

You should know about this piece, I asked our own Carl Rischer, a wonderful artist to help with the sermon. And he created this piece. After the service, we’ll have it in the fellowship hall so you can get a better look if you wish. Carl had sort of a mystical vision for his life of heaven. He says on this earth singing in the choir is as close to heaven as he’s ever been. There’s just something about what happens in giving oneself into that experience.

Carl said that in his vision, he thought about his own unworthiness and if he gets into heaven it will be through the backdoor. That’s why it’s kind of dark. It the universe where there is no gravity. A truly transcendent and breathtaking piece he created for this moment.

I got to thinking about that back door into heaven. Maybe I’ve seen too much Dowton Abbey, but I’m not thinking of it so much as a back door as much as it’s the servant’s entrance. Given everything Jesus said about being a servant and having this attitude, I’m guessing that the only way into heaven is through the servant’s entrance. The people who felt that it was God’s will for them to serve and found ways of making it happen. And when we do that it makes something of beauty in this world, too.

God’s will. Not precisely what, but how. And the answer to that is as a servant. Above the doors we exit from our sanctuary, there is a sign that says, “Depart to Serve.” Amen.