The Challenge of Discernment

One Monday I heard both of these claims:

  • First, someone shared the exciting news of a special ministry event in which he had participated.  What made it so exciting, he said, was that “Satan was trying to stop us at every turn.”  He went on to describe a long strings of challenges and threats to the success of the event.  The team, with God’s help, overcame all the challenges, and had a wonderful, blessed time!
  • Then, less than 2 hours later, another man shared that he had been learning the lesson of discernment from this fabulous Christian book.  To sum it up, one can discern one is on track to follow God’s will as obstacles are overcome through seeking counsel, logic, wisdom, and God. The lowering of obstacles is a sure sign of God’s will!

So, which is it?  Do you know you are on the right track when Satan is throwing obstacles in your way, or when God is providing an obstacle-free path to follow.

Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices
Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices

Call me cynical, but the answer is obvious.  We discern we are following God’s will, or the right way, when we do what we have determined we will do. If obstacles arise, we ask God to overcome Satan. If obstacles don’t arise, we assume, I suppose, God has already overcome Satan.

The Christian tendency is to turn to “Biblical Principles” to direct discernment.  You know as well as I do that given enough time and practice at ‘spin,’ almost anything can be made to sound like a “Biblical Principle.”  Let’s face it: for years, slavery was accepted as a “Biblical Principle”!

What has your experience been in your quest for discernment?  Have you moved beyond finding the proper steps to under gird your own will? If so, how?

The Challenge of Discernment

Follow Jesus

Have you ever gotten the sense that God was looking for you?
Not that God doesn’t always know where you are. That’s a different discussion.  Sometimes it feels like, maybe, well, if it were a commercial, “God is looking for a few good men!”  If it were a poster at the post office, made, “God wants YOU to join the (heavenly) army.”
Have you ever just had this really strong feeling that God was around, and that God was interested in YOU?
Some of us get the feeling that God is looking for us whenever we do something wrong. When we give into temptation; tell that lie (however small a lie), steal the money – or time, or pirate a movie or song, or spend time on parts of the internet that mean no one any good.
But this morning I invite you to consider that God looks for you not to punish or condemn, but to love.
After all, Jesus himself said he “came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
This is the God, after all, of whom David wrote:
Lord, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
    Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
    If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
    stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
        even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
        the light will become night around me,”
    even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
        Nighttime would shine bright as day,
        because darkness is the same as light to you!
and those are just the first 10 verses of the 139th Psalm!
Maybe you have felt, at least from time to time, like God was looking for you – out of love, not out of vengeance.
Maybe you haven’t
I want to assure you with all I know and believe, that God – the God who we know best in Jesus – loves you, as the bible says, “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself,” (Jeremiah 31:3) and is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” (Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, Nehemiah, Joel)> As Exodus 34:6 specifically says, “God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness.”
This is the God who is looking for you, and who came, in Jesus, “to seek and save the lost.”
At least in some since, you’ve been found!  You are here, among others, with others – some you know, some you don’t, because, some way or another, God has found you.
God has found you! Did you even know God was looking – looking just for you?
If God has indeed found us: found you, and found me, what do we do with that?
Do we believe God has found us?  Do we follow?  Do we have to believe to follow?  Do we have to follow to believe?
Would it surprise you if I told you Jesus never walked up to anyone and said, “believe in me,” but he did – regularly, it seems – invite people to follow him.
We the people of Euless First UMC are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. Do we all believe?  Well, I’d have to say the answer to that question is probably yes and no. For each of us.
Let’s face it; even the most seemingly faithful among us do not live lives that portray Jesus every day, with every breath that passes from us. Some, I’m sure, struggle to believe some of the stories of the Bible.  Some struggle to believe that God is present every day; that God cares every day.
But I believe this is the really good news for us, and for everyone, whether or not we can believe it all, hook, line, and sinker, we can all follow.
And Jesus’ way sure seems to me to be a healthy, wise, insightful, caring, loving way to live.
Jesus’ way is exactly the way God would live if God were human.  Because Jesus is, we believe, God incarnate in humanity.
Now we are back to believing!  It’s hard to get your mind around God in humanity.  That’s a good sign.  If you and I could understand it – could really get our minds all the way around it, we really wouldn’t be talking about much of a God, would we?
We’ve all got our challenges, right?  I remind you that there is still nothing new under the sun. No matter the technology, no matter the political situation, no matter the year the calendar marks, Solomon’s wisdom stands: there is nothing new under the sun. We all have our challenges.
I mean, like at this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel. Jesus and his disciples are heading for Jerusalem.  Someone approaches and does something no one else had done.
He says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Now, Peter says something very much like this, but Peter had already been following Jesus when he said this.
This guy, in Luke 9:57, cold calls Jesus. It’s like he thinks he is making Jesus an offer he can’t refuse.
When we think we might be doing God, or Jesus, or someone else a favor, and this is what motivates us to follow Jesus, Jesus has these words for us: “Foxes have dens and birds in the sky have nests, but God incarnate in humanity has no place to lay his head.”
Jesus never promised you a rose garden; much less a McMansion or a pension, or even a lazyboy.
Following Jesus is hard, challenging stuff; but it is more rewarding than anything else you’ll ever try. And I don’t just mean eternal rewards.  I specifically and especially do not mean merely “getting to go to heaven when you die.”
Christians: we have got to stop trying to sell Christianity as a way out of this life and into a heavenly afterlife.  We lose people when we do so. Some of the ones we lose are among us: there are people among us who are long-time followers of Jesus who still worry day to day whether or not they’ve done enough, or done good enough, to “get to go to heaven when they die.”
Jesus is NOT about you or me doing ENOUGH to get to go to heaven when we do. Jesus is ALL about you and me following him here and now; and experience what Jesus called eternal life – knowing God – here and now.
Let me add, parenthetically, that if there is anything about Christianity that has stood the test of time it is this: Jesus came to take from our shoulders the weight of feeling like we have to “earn” eternal life or heaven.
So, I don’t know if you got your sense that you have to earn it from overbearing parents or just from capitalist dogma. I don’t know if your earliest, deepest-buried memories of getting love from your parents depended upon your crying loud enough to be heard or looking sorry enough to be forgiven, but our God isn’t like that.  I don’t know if you have read a market-economy understanding onto salvation, but the salvation God offers cannot be bought – or sold – and is not subject to the law of supply and demand. Rather, God’s love and grace and offer of salvation is there, available for any who would come and follow: Paul wrote it this way in Romans 5:
6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people.7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.
It is not on you to earn it, to deserve it, to keep up a certain level of behavior to acquire or hold what God offers in Jesus.  It is on you to follow.
So, this first man offers to follow Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t turn him away, but challenges him that it won’t be easy and the rewards offered might not be those he is looking for.
Then, immediately, Luke takes us to door #2.  Behind door #2 is a man to whom Jesus extends the usual, “follow me.”
This man had other ideas. His plate was full and he had many other things to do.  Could following Jesus fit well within his already established list of priorities?  He made it about family – “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” – God cares about family, right?
Well, yes. God cares about family, but Jesus’ reply was “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”
By law, family was responsible for proper, respectful burial of family. Does the law stand in the way of following Jesus?
When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” throwing the law back at Jesus will hardly win the argument. When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” whatever reason or excuse that comes to mind, remember this: Jesus, God incarnate as a human is calling, and God is calling now. Everything else – EVERYTHING ELSE – moves down a level on the priority chart.
Then, door #3. The only other person in the gospels to cold-call Jesus: “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”
So, uh, Jesus, can we talk about this later? I’m kinda busy right now.
You may be too busy to follow Jesus.  But consider this: the One who made you, who “created your innermost parts; who knit you together while you were still in your mother’s womb;” The One by whom you were “marvelously set apart, or, as an older translation put it, “fearfully and wonderfully made; the One who formed you from dust and breathed life into you; that One is calling, “follow me.”
If Jesus is calling, and you can hear it, then now is the time to follow.
Some, having believed, follow. Some, having begun to follow, find they have come to believe.
I think marriage is a good metaphor for it, and one that scripture uses throughout.
Did you really know what you were doing when you got married?
Thinking you could know someone well enough to make a fully informed decision on marriage is like waiting to have kids “till you’ve got enough money.”  There is NOT enough money to raise kids. And there isn’t knowing someone well enough to make a fully informed decision.
This is because the kind of love that marriage calls for is the kind of love that is at least as much of the will as of the mind.  It isn’t just about the dates or the data but the determination.
You don’t know someone well enough to marry them. You don’t love someone enough to marry them. You decide to marry them based on what you know, the love you feel, and your willingness to make a commitment.
Because you never really know what you’re doing when you get married.  You not only don’t know your partner well enough; you don’t know yourself well enough!  Let’s face it; what 20 year old, or 30 year old, or 50 year old knows himself or herself well enough to make a commitment forever?
You don’t know what tomorrow holds, let alone 10 or 30 or 60 years from now.
But you step in and you step up and you walk together. You follow the paths before you by parents, grandparents, and friends – by people who have walked the path of marriage before you.
Sometimes this works better than others.  We learn along the way when to follow whom.
Jesus invites you to follow, and it is much like this, except you can ALWAYS count on Jesus to be worth following.
We say that we are “trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday,” and we mean it.  If we aren’t following better, then, we have to admit, we aren’t really following.  Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus.  This is the most beautiful part of it! Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus.
I also think that part of following Jesus is inviting others to follow – follow Jesus, and follow you.  After all, if you are following Jesus, and invite someone to follow you, you are inviting them to follow Jesus.  We are tempted to say, “Don’t follow me, follow Jesus,” but this implies, and is too often lived out, as saying we aren’t really following Jesus.
Next Sunday I want to talk more about the directions I think our following Jesus together are taking us.  Many of you have been part of this conversation for quite some time, but not everyone has.  This is exciting stuff!  We are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday, and, as Jesus promised in John 15, it has been bearing fruit.
So, in closing, I want to invite you to follow Jesus.  Jesus is calling you.  Whatever else is going on around you, whatever other noise is in your ears or in your head, if you are here, or if you can hear this, Jesus is saying, “follow me,” inviting you to follow him.
Will you listen?  Will you respond?  Will you accept Jesus’ invitation?

Follow Jesus

Got (Theological) Questions?

Preached Sunday morning August 2, 2015 at Euless First United Methodist Church, at the 11 am serviceGotQuesitons
One of you, last week, asked me if reading the Bible would make God answer prayers faster.

I’d like to try to tackle that with you this morning on our way into today’s Got Theological Questions?

But first, I want you to know something about yourself that you might not know.  You are a theologian.

If you have ever wondered how or why or when or where or who about God or gods, you might be a theologian!

If you have more than one translation of the Bible, you might be a theologian!

If you ever pray, and ever wonder exactly how this prayer thing works, you might be a theologian!

If you hear the term “SUV” and wonder if it might be a new version of the bible, you might be a theologian!

If quadrilateral makes you think of Wesley, not geometry.

If you have questions after repeating the Apostles’ Creed, you might be a theologian!

In fact, let’s try that one

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Amen.

So: you might be a theologian.

I’m pretty sure you are a theologian.  Some of us pursue this more than others, but if you ever wonder, you are a theologian.

And if you are a theologian, you have theological questions.

Like, “does reading the Bible make God answer your prayers faster?”

The simple answer, I’m sorry for this, is “Yes and No.”

Yes, reading the bible will make God answer your prayers faster because reading your bible will almost definitely give you a better understanding of God.  Reading your bible will almost definitely deepen your relationship with God, your recognition of God’s love for you, and your desire to allow God to transform you as the bible offers.

People with a deeper relationship with God have their prayers answered faster because their prayers are more in line with God’s will.  They find themselves developing an appreciation for the complex ways God interacts with and works in the world, and their prayers are likely to show this difference.

and

No, reading the bible will NOT make God answer your prayers faster.  One of the first things we learn in the Bible is that our God, the god of the Bible, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses, David, and Elijah, of Mary, Peter, and Paul, is not a God that can be controlled by formula. You cannot make God answer a prayer by praying in a certain way. You cannot trick God or force God into agreeing with you – or disagreeing with you – based on who you are, what you think, how you act, or whether or not you read the Bible.

So, yes and no.

If you are left with more questions now than you had 3 minutes ago, you are definitely a theologian!

Since we are all theologians, and, I’m going to guess most, if not all of us consider ourselves Christian theologians, then it’s a good thing we are here this morning. Because I am quite sure it is critically important for us to faithfully wrestle and struggle with these things together. After all, Jesus said wherever 2 or 3 are gathered, he’s right there in the midst.

I’m not always good at this. For example, there is a card game that I won’t play with Rachel. I think it is called “Blink.”  I don’t remember for sure because we haven’t played it in more than 5 years.

It’s a game we got, I think for Christmas before Eliza was born.  We love games.  One of us doesn’t love this game.

I don’t like this game for the very simple reason: I never win.  We got “Blink” out and played it.  once, twice, three times, and I never won. Never even came close.

I’m not so competitive that I can’t take a loss here and there, but I NEVER won!

I hope I’m not the only one to have had this kind of experience. If I am, you can come and shame me after the service.

What does this have to do with theological questions?  Everything.

Perhaps the most important thing we bring to theology is our attitude.

How does it make sense to talk about a  loving God if most of what comes out of my mouth is bitterness? James 3:11 asks: Both freshwater and saltwater don’t come from the same spring, do they?

I am firmly convinced God welcomes our questions – when we ask with an appropriate attitude.

Theology isn’t just questions; it is questions with an appropriate attitude.

How is your attitude toward God?  How is your attitude toward people?

From what the Bible seems to indicate very clearly, your answer to the second question is the honest answer to the first question.

Our attitudes matter!  And, to paraphrase 1 John 4:20, if we say we have a good attitude toward God but a lousy, or bad, or bitter, or hateful attitude toward our neighbor, we are liars.

So I’m going to start with the first theological question I received: How do we handle/deal with/understand the idea of “eternity”? (It terrifies me)

First, based on what I’ve just said about attitude, maybe a little terrification is a good thing.

Second, When I was a young fundamentalist planning to be a preacher someday, I really wanted to use this: stand silent for one minute – 60 seconds – and then say something like, “that minute felt like a long time, didn’t it?  Just try and imagine how long eternity is – infinity minutes!

But time is not such a statically defined thing as that.  You know time isn’t always measured by seconds or minutes or days or years.

Sometimes time slows down. Our honeymoon, which we took on our first anniversary, was a week in Germany.  We had such a great time that it felt like it lasted for weeks!

Last week one of our families spent several days in the hospital.  One of our members had a stroke – a blood clot in the brain – then bleeding in the brain.  It didn’t look good from Sunday afternoon until late Monday night when, after 2 ½ hour brain surgery, he awoke with better than expected reaction and movement.

But that 36 hours from Sunday through Monday evening felt like a month and a half to the family.

Gretchen Rubin has put it this way: “the days are long but the years are short”

So, time is relative. But what does this have to do with eternity?

30 years ago I was convinced eternity was about forever – and that this meant a long, long time.

In the 90s, though, in youth ministry, I was confronted with the fact that not everyone wants to live forever. In other words, people would look around them, take stock of their lives, and say, “If this is what life is, I don’t want it to go on for ever!”

So, the answer to the question: the way I deal with eternity, and this is energized first and foremost by John 17:3 where Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God, that eternity is the kind of life that one would want to go on forever, and that this is exactly what God wants for us: the kind of life that one would want to go on forever!

In the same Gospel where Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God, he also says that he came so that we could have life—indeed, so that [we] could live life to the fullest.

The more I pursue God and a relationship with God – loving God and loving my neighbors, the more I find myself moving toward this kind of life – eternal life.

Which leads to this question, that one of you asked and many of us ask from time to time: Why does God allow/let such terrible things happen in the world to good people?

We could spend a year on this question and not satisfy everyone.  Books have been written – every year! – about this.

Here’s where my brain takes this question:  We want to have our cake and eat it, too.

When we ask the “question of evil” or “why bad things happen to good people?” most of us include ourselves, generally, in that category of “good people.”

But, when someone starts talking about holiness, or living as God called us to live, or accepting or seeking the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, most of us whip out, “but we’re all sinners!”

Well, which is it?

Are we good people who expect, or wish, God would protect us from all evil and malady, or are we miserable sinners, unable ever even to do one thing good?

Further, sometimes we say we want a God who would protect all us “good people” from harm and evil, yet we want free will.  Do you and I always make choices that protect us from harm and evil?  Don’t we sometimes make choices that put others in harms’ way?  Are you now or have you ever worn clothes produced in some sweatshop in south Asia?

We live in a world where evil exists. It exists on our actions as individuals and as societies – as nations, and as a whole.

These next two questions I’m going to tackle together:

How does creationism reconcile the laws of thermodynamics?  For example 6,000 years is not long enough to evaporate 26,000 ft. of water over the entire globe.

If humans were on earth before animals, how do we explain the science of pre-historic life?

Maybe I should have taken these last week, as my answer depends upon a crucial point about the Bible.  The Bible, as contained in the Old and New Testaments, contains the word of God as far as is necessary for our salvation.

The Bible is concerned about our salvation.  It is not so much concerned with current debates about science or history. No part of the bible was written to be a science or history textbook.

The Bible IS all about truth, but the truth that the Bible is about is not the kind of truth that science or history seek.

Now, it’s time for your questions:

Finally, I want to share this question with you: If there is sufficient grace for all, is there grace for Judas?

I cannot help but believe that, yes, there is sufficient grace for all, and that all means all.  Even Judas. Even Hitler.

At Annual Conference Juanita Rasmus told us this beautiful story of a vision she had of this all-sufficient love and grace of God.  In her vision, she imagined even seeing the likes of Hitler in the afterlife – she imagined God’s love and grace being that strong, that powerful, that sufficient.

Can you believe in a God whose grace is sufficient for anyone? Wouldn’t you like to know a God whose grace is sufficient for everyone?

Here’s the rub – it comes back to that pesky free will and eternity.

If God’s grace is sufficient for anyone and everyone; even Judas, even Hitler, even Paul ( “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9), the question remaining is “Will God’s grace overcome your free will?”  or “Will God allow you, or me, or anyone, to choose to remain outside of God’s grace?”

That’s a great theological question, and one that isn’t settled in the scriptures or in the nearly 2,000 years of debate, reflection, wrestling, and arguing since.

But you know what?  While I’ll still ask the question, and love to discuss the possibilities, I’m with Joshua on this one: “as for me and my house, we’ll serve the Lord.”

I will pursue this God whose grace is sufficient.  I will seek to follow the example and teachings of Jesus, and I will learn to trust that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.

Would you join me?

Got (Theological) Questions?