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The Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 20, 2012
The First Lesson: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Sermon: "Finding the will of God"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus-- for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry. So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Finding the will of God
Once upon a time, there was a flock of geese. Every week these geese would gather in the shade of the barn to hear the gander speak of the glorious destiny of geese. He would describe the grand purpose for which they were created, namely flying. Week after week they were enthralled by his messages about soaring above the clouds. Meanwhile, the geese were getting more and more plump until at Christmastime, they were eaten. This little story is entitled “The Domestic Goose”, was written by the 19th Century Danish Theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. It is a parable, as he saw it, to describe the domesticated church. A nice safe place, we hope, to hear the Good News of God’s love and purpose, but not necessarily to do much with it.
But you and I aren’t domestic geese. We want our lives to count for something; we long for something more. We want to be capable of the kind of commitment Yogi Berra once described on the baseball diamond, “You give 100 percent in the first half of the game,” he’s reputed to have said, “If that isn’t enough, in the second half you give the other 100 percent.”
You and I believe that we could give 200% to God’s purposes. But what are they? What is it that God would have us do? How can we discover it? What is it that God would have us do as individuals and as a church to grow in maturity and wholeness of being as persons in this faith community? At the back of all these questions is the basic question: “How can I find the will of God?”
The early church struggled with that question. In nearly every chapter of the book of Acts, you can perceive that struggle taking place. In these few verses we read from chapter one, we see such a struggle. After Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide, the first church met to seek a replacement. It was important to them to maintain the number of Apostles at twelve, since Jesus had appointed twelve originally. So they struggled with the question of a replacement. This was no casual decision. God’s work demands committed leadership. So they sought to discern the will of God. How did they accomplish this task? Well, let’s look! We can learn from their approach.
First, they used their minds. Peter took the leadership at this point. The replacement for Judas needed to be someone who had been an eyewitness to Jesus’ life from the time of his baptism until his ascension. It had to be someone who had personally encountered the risen Christ. No one seems to have questioned Peter on this point. It made good sense. This was a reasonable requirement and so it was accepted. God has given us good minds and the first thing he expects out of us in discerning his will is to ask, what has God already shown us to be his will? What makes good sense?
Following the guideline agreed to, two men were nominated, Joseph and Matthias. Now, since both fit the known will of God, some direct inspiration was needed. So the whole assembly took the second step; they prayed about the decision to be made. Our minds are essential assets in discerning the will of God. But they are not enough by themselves. It is also essential that we hear the mind of God. That is a basic purpose of prayer.
It is precisely here in this second step that we so often go astray from the will of God, or hit just shy of where God would have us go. The reason is simple; this kind of praying isn’t easy. As a matter of fact, it is the single most difficult act of the spiritual life. To accomplish it requires the one thing that none of us is particularly good at. It requires absolute stillness; stillness, not just in the sense of withdrawing into a quiet place away from the voices of the day, or sitting quietly and breathing calmly, although all these outward conditions do help. No, this stillness requires absolute quiet within: the racing thoughts stopped; the whirling mental activity ceased; the anxiety over all the things we’re not getting done because we’re just sitting here being quiet, banished; Christ alone our focus and our mind’s consideration. This is stillness. Those who have practiced this kind of prayer know how hard it is. It is hard because all day long we all fill our minds with frenetic activity and anxiety and purposeful thought to distraction. We do it day after day, week after week, year after year, so that it takes great faith to lay aside such ingrained mental habits long enough so as to become still. But for those who have done it, practiced becoming still within, you have come to knowthe voice of compassionate love from the other side of the silence; the still small voice of the Spirit, the mind of God.
For those present in that assembly, prayer was no mere exercise. They believed that God would respond through their prayers. I heard about a Choirmaster in a certain church who, during worship, needed to change the flow of part of the liturgy at the last minute. He wanted to make sure there would be no mistake, so he slipped a note to the rector: “After the prayer,” it said, “there will be no response.” But we do believe that God does respond to our prayers and in stillness we can sense that response.
The disciples first used the reasoning of their minds with what God had already shown them to narrow the field to two. Then they prayed for God’s help in choosing between the two. Believing that they knew God’s direction, they acted. This is the final step in their approach to discerning the will of God. You use the mind God has given you. Then you pray, listening for God’s mind. This step can take awhile because, sometimes, God says, “Wait!” But then the call comes to act. Then you act. At this point there is no sitting around hamstrung by anxiety and indecision. There comes a time when faithfulness declares that we act.
Now we may have some question about how the disciples chose to act. They cast lots and the lot fell on Matthias. I do not know of any reputable theologian or church leader today who would seriously recommend casting lots. Such a method feels like that other time honored but questionable method of simply letting the Bible fall open, blindly pointing to a verse, and doing whatever it says. You’ve probably heard the old story of the young man who did that, and the Bible fell open to Matthew 27:5, “Judas went away and hanged himself.” Uncertain that this really applied to him, the young man tried it again and this time the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37, “Go, and do thou likewise.” Quite shaken now the young man thought he would try once more and the Bible fell open to John 13:27, “What thou must do, do quickly.”
What I hope that we all see here is that the particular method of action was not as important as having faith to take the action. They had used their best judgment. They had listened in prayer. Then they acted. Once we have entrusted a decision to God we have to trust that God will lead us. There comes a time when we must go ahead and act in the confidence that God is faithful to his promises.
So, how can we find the will of God? Use your best judgment, using your mind with your knowledge of Scripture and tradition, on what God has already shown you. If at all possible, consult with others who are committed to the spiritual life; two heads usually are better than one. Then go to God in prayer. In the stillness, God will respond and guide. Finally, act in faith. This is how to live our lives creatively and confidently. It is how to know that God is our guide.