Friday, June 27, 2014

Discerning God’s Will (Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 2:12-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In a scene from one of my favorite movies, Pirates of the Caribbean, pirates Ragetti and Pintel are in a longboat on the open sea.  Having just escaped from jail, they are headed for Cannibal Island in search of Jack Sparrow's ship The Black Pearl.  Ragetti is seated in the back of the boat reading a Bible which he is holding upside-down.  He pauses for a moment and says, "Well, I says it was divine providence what escaped us from jail."

Pintel responds, "And I say it was me bein' clever." There is a dog in the front of the boat, holding a set of keys in its mouth and Pintel says, "Ain't that right, poochie?"   Ragetti asks, “Well, how'dya know it weren't divine providence what inspired you to be clever?"  Pintel is clearly dumbfounded by the intelligent question, so to deflect it he says: "You know you can't read and besides it’s upside down."  Ragetti retorts, "It's the Bible, You get credit for trying."

This humorous scene helps to frame the longstanding debate:  “I say it's God's providence that rules our lives, no, I say it’s me being clever.”  God's will verses human free will.  We look at this world, with life and death, with its joy and sadness, with good and evil, with its justice and injustice, with health and illness, with loyalty and betrayal, with the thrill of success and the agony of failure and we wonder.  If we are honest, we acknowledge our own fickle selves in the light of this question.  Like the man who was having personal problems who prayed:  “Lord, I’m ready to change my life.  All I want is to do is your will.”  Later, when his situation had greatly improved, he said:  “Lord, about that prayer the other day, never mind.”

Have you ever prayed, “Lord, show me your will.”  “Lord, I want to follow your will in my life.”  I have.  I cannot stress this Biblical mandate enough – God desires for you and me to seek, to know and to follow His Will.   God wants us to open our hearts and minds to His Will in all times and in all places and in all our years.   We are never too young or too old.

What is God’s will?  This is the question we are addressing today and next week.  Will it answer all the questions you’ve ever had on this subject?  I doubt it.  But it will give you some biblical insights.  Next week, we shall address the more specific question, “How do I discern God’s will in my life?” 

The subject of God’s will isn't simple, it always involves mystery.   Scripture teaches that we live in a context of conflicting wills.  There is our will, other people's wills, Satan's will and God's will.   So we have a challenge ever before us, to discern God's will amidst this reality.  Further, scripture says that God's will is at work not only in human lives, but in the cosmos and in history, in the destiny of nations.  And so we look at the world today, at the relationships between the nation of Israel and the Arab nations, in the relationships between moderate Muslims and radical or extremist Muslims, in the relationships between America and these and other nations and we declare that God's will is at work and God's plans and purposes will prevail.

In the Lord's Prayer Jesus speaks about the Will of God. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  God’s Will or Kingdom has existed in the past, it is a reality today, and it is coming in the future, so we should pray for God’s Kingdom or God’s will to be done.

In the letter of Romans, we read: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  We must be careful to prayerfully discern God's will vis-a-vis the world's will, or the message of our culture, and not get caught up in thinking they are one and the same.

These biblical passages are comforting.  They are hope-filled.  They affirm a truth.  God's sovereign and powerful will is at work in this world and in our lives.  God’s will is not simply a wish-fulfillment or fantasy.  God’s will occurs here and now, it’s a reality today and happens on earth as in heaven.

This biblical truth means that you and I are not merely pawns in life, helpless victims of capricious and impersonal forces over which we have no control.  Life is not fatalistic. We are not victims of fatalism, a blind amoral force which we call fate.  God's will is present and active and God has given us a free will to seek and follow His will in our lives.   Conversely, we also have the freedom to disobey God.    

Is everything that happens in life God’s will?   Predeterminism.   This is one interpretation of God's will.  Everything that happens is God's will, that is, it has been predetermined by God.  Do you believe that?  If a child dies in an accident is it God’s will?  If a person is diagnosed with cancer is it God’s will?  If you or I do something foolish, something stupid, which we later regret, it is God’s will?  As a Christian and pastor I believe the answer is no.  For we live in a context of conflicting wills.  Jesus acknowledges the existence of Satan, of human sinfulness, of a fallen creation and of accidents which occur in life.

Jesus clearly stated that things happen which are not the will of God.   In 2 Peter we read:  “It is not God’s will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”   Jesus does not tell sick people that their illnesses are God’s will; Jesus heals them.  Jesus does not say to the crowds that hunger is God’s will; Jesus feeds them.  Jesus does not tell a man with leprosy that his disease is God’s will; Jesus cures him.  Jesus does not tell a man who is possessed by an evil spirit that its God’s will; Jesus frees the man from the spirit. 

I have found the book titled The Will of God helpful in thinking about the question of God’s Will.  The author divides the concept of the Will of God into three aspects – the Intentional will of God, the Circumstantial will of God and the Ultimate will of God. 

First, God’s Intentional Will means God’s original plan for creation, God’s purpose in creating the world and human beings.  This was before things went south after the Fall.  God created people: to love Him and obey Him with heart, soul, strength, and mind and love their neighbor as themselves, to worship God alone, rather than self or idols, for people to be whole - spiritually, relationally, physically, and emotionally rather than broken, to treat one another with fairness and respect and dignity, to make and nurture new disciples of Jesus Christ, to live together as the People of God, for people to lead holy and moral lives, to help the poor rather than neglecting or exploiting the poor, to work for justice, for people to find salvation in Jesus Christ, to care for the earth rather than exploit it, for people to gain knowledge and learn rather than live in ignorance, and for people to live a meaningful and joyful and fulfilling life in God.   

Some Biblical examples: Micah 6:8 says: “God has told you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”   I Thessalonians says: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  I John says: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  If we love one another God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.”  God’s Intentional Will is clear and understandable and noble. 

Second, God’s Circumstantial Will refers to the assurance that God's Spirit and power and grace is present with us, that is, in and under and through all circumstances.  Here is where we most often encounter mystery. This is the aspect of God’s will about which we have the most questions and difficulty in understanding God’s purpose in our lives.  God promises to help us by His grace and power to not let us be defeated by our circumstances, but rather to triumph over them.   The letter of Philippians says:  “I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.”   God promises to help us not become embittered by adversity, but to remain positive and hopeful.  God promises to instill hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless times.  God promises to guide us and lead us amidst times of confusion and darkness.   God promises by his Spirit to impart courage to us when we are overcome with fear and anxiety.  God promises to provide strength for us, when we feel weak, exhausted and helpless.

The late theologian Paul Tillich wrote:  “God’s will doesn’t mean everything is predetermined, but rather that there is a creative and saving possibility, implied in every situation, which cannot be destroyed by any event.  It means destructive forces within ourselves and our world can never have an unbreakable grasp upon us and that the bond which connects us with God’s love can never be broken.”

Recall two inspiring biblical promises.  Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works together for good with those who love him, with those whom he has called according to His purpose.”   And another promise in I Corinthians: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it.”

This doesn’t mean that everything will always turn out all right or that everything that happens to us is really good for us, or that everything that happens to us is God’s will.  Like the story about a police officer in a helicopter who spotted a car speeding down the freeway.  He radioed his partner on the ground and a few miles later the patrolman in the car stopped the speeder and began writing a ticket.  “How did you know I was speeding,” the man asked.   The patrolman didn’t say anything, but simply pointed skyward.  “Oh, no,” moaned the man, You’re not against me too.”  God’s circumstantial will means that God’s grace and power and love is continually active in our lives.  It means God promises to do what is best for us in accord with His will in the various circumstances which we face in life.

I recall the story of a couple whose son was born with a congenital heart defect.  When he was four, he went to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for open-heart surgery.  Despite their prayers, and the skills of the doctors, sadly, the child died.  His mother said:  “God helped us through our grief in such a loving way that we continually marveled at what was happening.  The people who brought us the most comfort were those who had also lost a child.  They knew what we were experiencing and when they softly said, “We understand what you are going through; there was a bond between us, an empathy that really lightened our load.  The Bible verse that popped into my head was:  “In everything God works for good with those who love him.”  We hung onto it for dear life and watched it come true.  In the weeks and months to come, we were led to accept Philip’s death without bitterness and other people’s faith was strengthened as they watched what was happening to us.”

Finally, we come to God’s Ultimate Will.  This aspect of God’s will affirms that God’s purposes in the world will ultimately be achieved.   God's plans and purposes cannot be defeated or destroyed by any power or event.  It says God can even make evil and defeat serve His final purposes, so that nothing can destroy God’s ultimate will.

What end does God have in mind for your life or mind or for the world?    Our Christian faith declares: “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future.”   Ps. 33 says: “God’s plans endure forever, His purposes last eternally.” 

Yes, God’s will at times is hidden, no question about that. I have certainly found it to be so.  It appears to be temporarily defeated in the world or in our lives.   But Scripture and our faith says: in spite of evil and human sin, God’s plan for the world and for your life and mine will one day be fully realized, be consummated, be completed.  We have a beautiful picture in the book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease.”    And so we pray: “Lord, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Command to Wait (Acts 1:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Several years ago, the London Transit Authority had a problem. Buses were zooming right past passengers who were waiting at bus stops to be picked up.  It didn't happen all the time, but enough that it  became a public issue as people watched helplessly as their bus sailed right past them. The London Transit Authority released a statement to explain their actions. The statement said it was impossible for them to maintain their tight schedules, if they always had to stop and pick up passengers.

The other day I  was in a bit of a hurry and called a company to ask a question.   Rule number one, don't call companies if you are in a hurry.  A robotic voice answered.  The voice then gave me some options, if you want this, press 1, if you want that, press 2, and so forth.  I said “Customer Service.”  The robotic voice said: “I can help you, please be more specific with your question.”  I repeated - “Customer Service.”  The voice again said: “O.K. You want customer service.  Please be more specific in your request for customer service, like if you need tech support, say tech support, if you need billing, say billing.”   I thought well, I don't need either one, but if it will get me in touch with a real person, I'll do it, so I said tech support.  The robotic voice immediately answered and said, “Oh I can help you with that, what is your question.”

No, in this fast paced society, with fast food, fast internet speeds, fast cash at the ATM and oil change businesses saying if it takes over 30 minutes for this service, the oil change is free,  we don't like to be kept waiting.  This attitude permeates our society.  We want instant gratification, instant solutions to our problems.  We get annoyed and irritable when we wait on the phone, on the internet, in line at the store, at the airport or on the freeway. 

Which takes us to our lesson from the book of Acts.  After Jesus' resurrection, he made appearances to the disciples for Forty days, to demonstrate by many convincing proofs, that that he was alive.   Jesus then commanded them not to leave the city, but to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father:  For you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.  Can't you hear one of the disciples.  “Jesus, sir, with all due respect,  please don't command us to wait, anything but that, I hate waiting.”  And then, the disciples witnessed Jesus being lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.  Here is the occasion of the ascension of Jesus  to heaven.

Do you like waiting?  Waiting is an inescapable aspect of life.  We usually look at it as an annoyance, an irritant, an obstacle, a barrier, a collosal  waste of time.  But is it always so?  Does waiting have any value?  Is waiting sometimes necessary?  Is getting speedy responses or making quick decisions always good?  Waiting can be a blessing in disguise.    Waiting can play a positive role in our lives.

Like when you say to your children: “Stop, wait, look both ways, before you cross the street.”  We wait for a response to job applications or college applications and the waiting can sometimes  lead us to change our minds, to go in a different direction, or open up a great job or school that we hadn't taken seriously, because we were in a hurry for our favorites.  We wait for the birth of a baby.  We want babies to go full term if possible for obvious reasons.   We wait for healing while recovering from surgery and in this process we learn about how our bodies heal and we learn to take responsibility for our recovery.   We wait for a time to get engaged.  You don't want to jump into a marriage without really getting to know the person, not a good idea.   We wait to hear the results of medical tests.  This is important.  The correct diagnosis is critical.  Tests and opinions and taking some time is essential.   I remember a friend telling me that one doctor told him he needed back surgery.  He decided to wait and went to a specialist to get a second opinion and learned the problem was steming from brain fluid draining and that a stint in the brain turned out to be the answer to his back pain.

I'm sure that like us, the disciples didn't like hearingJesus command to wait.  They were anxious to leave Jerusalem and to get on with their lives.  They knew Jesus’ enemies were still in the city and they wanted to leave ASAP before they were arrested. 

But rather than releasing the pent up energy and fears of his highly charged followers, Jesus harnessed it by commanding them to wait.  And so with mixed emotions, with joy and dismay, with elation and frustration, the disciples obeyed Jesus and remained in the Upper Room.

Why did Jesus command them to wait?   Because the disciples needed power and energy and preparation for their forthcoming mission.   It can be disaster if you are sent out on a mission and you are unprepared and ill-equipped.   Jesus wanted the disciples to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.  The word power here in Greek is dunamis, a supernatural power greater than our own personal energy and vitality and personality.  Jesus knew the disciples needed such power to accomplish their future mission as “His witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  And so reluctantly, the disciples obeyed Jesus and remained there in the city with him.

Why do we sometimes have to wait?  Have you ever asked yourself that question?  I have.  It’s a universal question.  The psalmist in psalm 13 cries out: “How long O Lord, will you forget me forever?  Look on me and answer O Lord my God; give light to my eyes.”  The psalmist in psalm 130 says: “I wait for the lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.”   Perhaps you are in a waiting mode at this very moment.  

I don't believe there is only one answer to that question.  Our circumstances and situations vary.  Our state of mind varies at times.  And God’s purposes for our lives vary as well. Sometimes we don’t discover the answer of why we are waiting for a long time and sometimes we never get a satisfactory answer.  But the Bible isn’t silent on this question.  It speaks about what can happen inside of us when we wait.

Waiting can be a season in which God is seeking to reach you.  God wants you to open your heart and mind to his word.  God is trying to say something to you. God may be saying the time is not right.   God may be calling you to change, or learn, or grow, or listen or heal or forgive.  Waiting is one of God's means of grace through which He reaches out to us for His purpose for our lives. 

For instance, waiting renews our strength!  Isaiah 40:31 says: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint."   In such times when we are mentally and emotionally and spiritually a mess we must wait for the gift of renewal from the Lord.  Do you ever feel burned out emotionally, or intellectually or physically or spiritually?  God knows that at times we need a new infusion of strength.   Stopping what your doing, waiting for awhile, seeking help and guidance, this is one way that God renews us.  God knows that we aren’t ready to continue doing what we are doing, or we aren't ready for some change in our lives, and so God commands us to wait. 

Waiting is one way God recharges our soul.   Through prayer, reading the scriptures, talking with others, exercise, and meditation we find spiritual renewal.  Waiting forces you to stop, so that God can restore your strength, so you can once again mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint.  

We read in the letter of Romans 5: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials; they help us learn to be patient and patience produces character in us and character produces hope.”  I remember a friend who used to say to me when I was grumbling about something: “Alan, this is another character building opportunity.”   Waiting can be an opportunity to open your eyes, to gain insight, to discover wisdom.  

God cares deeply about your and my character.  Patience produces character.  Waiting produces character.  God wants to develop our character and not just give us everything we want, when we want it.  God will not allow everything to come easy.   Why? I think of two brothers I know who have virtually no ambition or drive or goals.  The brothers inherited some money years ago, and gradually they lost their sense of pride and work ethic.   Both men are married, but only work occasionally and spend a lot of time watching TV or playing video games or golf.   Their wives work, care for the kids, and are extremely frustrated.  What we have here is a failure of character.   Why? Because we don't appreciate things which come too easily to us.  We take them for granted.

I'd like to develop my character without having to wait through trials, how about you?   But the Bible says that's not how God made us.   As the scriptures say: “You can't make steel without tempering it.  Iron sharpens iron.”  You can't develop character without going through times of waiting.  God knows that and that's why there are seasons of waiting in our lives. 

I think of the late Charles Colson, former legal counsel to President Richard Nixon, who spent 7 months incarcerated in a blistering Alabama prison cell over the Watergate scandal.  He eventually became a Christian in prison.  I wouldn't recommend it.   In 1976, Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, which has become the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims, and their families.  Colson has visited prisons throughout the US and the world and has built a movement working with more than 40,000 prison ministry volunteers in 100 countries.  Colson believes that reconciliation among offenders, victims, and their families, is part of the ministry of the Church.  God totally redirected Colson’s life; God completely turned it around, while he was doing time waiting in an Alabama prison cell.

Yes sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is to wait.  “I hear your prayer my child, but now is not the time.  Trust in me with all your heart.  I will make straight your paths.  But it is not the right time.”  And during that time you must remain energetic and faithful and disciplined and hopeful.  

No, I don't particularly like it, but like Jesus disciples, God sometimes commands us to wait.  Waiting in God's time is never passive.  Waiting means listen, pray, watch, talk to others, read your Bible, be discerning, be patient, don’t act impetuously or foolishly, wait and trust in Christ.  I close with these words from Psalm 37: “Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for Him to act.”    Amen!