Monday, May 18, 2009

"The Guided Life"

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40; Luke 2:25-32

There is a story that may not be a true story at all, although it rings true, about the great scientist Albert Einstein, who was famous not only for his brilliance, but also for his amazing absent-mindedness. Einstein was taking the train to a city where he was scheduled to give a lecture. The train left the station and the conductor went down the aisle of the passenger car, checking and punching everyone’s ticket. When he got to Einstein, the scientist reached into his breast coat pocket and couldn’t find his ticket. Then he started fumbling through his other pockets. He was upset. He apologized over and over again. And he began to rummage through his briefcase.

Einstein had a famous, one-of-a-kind face. At a glance, the conductor knew, for a fact, that here was the great Dr. Albert Einstein. So he said, “Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are. I am sure you bought a ticket. I don’t need to see it. Just enjoy your trip.”

The scientist said, “Sir, you don’t understand. If I don’t find my ticket, I won’t know where to get off the train.”

In our reading from the book of Acts, Philip knew where he was going, because the Lord had told him so. We read that an angel told Philip what road, and what direction to take. The Holy Spirit told Philip who to meet and talk to.

As a follower of Jesus, with a life full of examples of the Lord working around him and his friends, Philip clearly lived a guided life. This is a very important message for us. A life with God, a life with Christ, a life in the Spirit, is a guided life.

And yet it is a strange story; this thing that happened to Philip. And we read a lot about this kind of thing in the Bible.

I want to talk about living the guided life, but I can’t do that faithfully without dealing with the strangeness of the guidance that we sometimes find in the Bible. But all I am going to say is that there are people, even today, who have thoughts, and insights, and guidance, invisibly given to them by God. There are even people who have seen and heard angels, or met angels in their dreams, in ways very similar to the descriptions we find in the Bible.

The chances are that, even in those Bible times, communication with angels was exceptional. But the people of those times understood that it was always possible, and they would not have been at all surprised by it.

I am one of those people who have met angels, a couple of times in my life. And there have been times when the Holy Spirit has spoken to me; not in words that my ears heard, but in words I heard in my mind, or my spiritual being.

In Roman 8:16, Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit speaks in our hearts to give us assurance that we are faithfully loved by God. Paul says it this way: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” The Holy Spirit can teach us and guide us in the depths of our hearts, in the core of our spiritual being. But the most important guidance the Holy Spirit has to give us is to assure us that we belong to God and that God is faithful to us. We are children of God.

When I first visited Washtucna, and was meeting with the Pastor Nominating Committee, I had some time to be by myself, and I came into the sanctuary of this church. I was very anxious and worried because I had different places that I was pretty sure would call me, if I wanted to go.

But I was afraid of making a choice. I felt desperate because I didn’t want to make the wrong choice.

I was kneeling here, in the late afternoon, and I felt a presence; and I felt words form in my heart that said, “This place is my answer to your prayers.” I did not hear these words with my ears, but I clearly heard them silently; in my mind, in my heart, in that spiritual depth of my being.

I have told you that I first felt the serious calling of God to the ministry when I was twelve, and that I found this calling very disturbing and scary. I prayed a lot about this and, around the time of my thirteenth birthday, I was praying about this one night, as usual, before I went to bed, and I asked God to tell me clearly, in a way that I could not doubt or explain away.

That night I had a dream that I can still see and hear in my mind. An angel came to me and showed me some things, and the angel summed up what he had shown me with a call to what I was called to do.

Even though it happened in a dream, I could never doubt it, but I did try to avoid it, until the beginning of my nineteenth year. Then I finally surrendered, because I couldn’t stand the pressure any more.

Once I began to obey the guidance that God had given me, I found that my life didn’t get any easier. But I would never have chosen to go back.

Over time I grew able to do things I had never shown any gifts or potential for doing. I learned things I never dreamed of learning. I found great experiences of fulfillment. And I found some experiences that tore me apart and nearly destroyed me, spiritually and emotionally. And following the guidance of the Holy Spirit has never made be what the world would call a success. Still, this calling has been a good gift for me, and I, feel sure that I would never go back on it.

I continue to love God, and I know that God loves me. And if you love God, and if you know that God loves you; then you can never refuse to do what you know he wants you to do, and expect to be happy about it.
Even though an angel told Philip where to go, this doesn’t have to have been something he saw with his eyes, and heard with his ears. There was the sense of a presence, the sense of knowing what he must do; and he did it.

Even though the Gaza Road, that led from Jerusalem, to the seaport of Gaza, was a desert road, it was not a deserted road. It was the main overland route from Asia to Egypt and North Africa.

Once on that road, a choice had to be made of whom to talk to. There were whole strings and clusters of travelers all along that road.

One group on that road was especially forbidding. It was the caravan of the Chancellor of the Treasury for the queen of Ethiopia. A whole train of servants, and pack animals followed him. Armed guards marched with the chariot and the supplies. The chariot was a carriage big enough to hold the driver, the Chancellor who sat in a seat reading, a servant standing to wait upon him, and seats for other passengers like Philip.

Normally someone like Philip would never be asked to sit down in the presence of someone like the chancellor. The Holy Spirit obviously chose a humble and gracious person for Philip meet: someone who was ready to listen.

Other travelers would tag along with this armed party, for the extra safety they provided, but they trailed behind in the dust. Philip ran up to the chariot, and kept pace, at a moderate walk, among the guards, who seem to have been friendlier or more relaxed than expected.

The Holy Spirit gave Philip the guts to ease his way into the pattern of the guards, where he could hear the chancellor read. And, as he walked, Philip realized that the Chancellor was reading the Bible from the Prophet Isaiah. (In ancient times everyone read out loud.)

From that point, Philip was guided by what he saw and heard. He didn’t see and hear angels, but the sight and voice of a man reading. God’s love for this man spoke through the signals of what Philip saw and heard.

This too is the guided life. What you see and what you hear in the world around you are all signals from God. They are all cues in a drama, in a story you are acting out along with everyone else; a drama of the working, and the power, and the love, and the grace of God.

It is a drama where everyone’s words and actions are improvised. I mean that you can have no fixed plan for what you might say and do next.

Well, you might have some sort of plan or idea. You can have a set of priorities. And you certainly have ways to prepare for this drama (prayer, scripture, fellowship with others); but there is always the possibility that it could turn out completely different from what you expect.

All you can be sure of is that your job is to stick to your part; to stick to character. Your part is to be yourself as a servant of Jesus, and to stay in character, no matter what happens in the improvised drama.

This pattern runs all the way through the Bible, and this is the model for us. The person who belongs to God, the person who is claimed by the love of God in Christ, the person who finds his or her life refreshed by the Holy Spirit, will live a guided life.

This guidance is usually a journey through mystery. One of the early people of God, who are the pattern for the guided life, is Abraham. In the Book of Genesis (12:1) the Lord tells Abraham, “Go to the land I will show you.” Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. He only knew that he would be shown or guided along the way. Abraham experienced great successes and joys; and also great frustrations, and struggles, and losses.

Philip knew something about the destination of his journey. The destination was described in the words the Ethiopian Chancellor was reading, about the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the world.

The leader and the destination of the journey are the same person. It is Jesus, who is one with the Father, who has died for our sins, and who has given us a new life of grace, and power, and hope, and love; a life of the Spirit. We are not on a journey to enlightenment. We are on a journey of partnership and faithfulness with Love Himself (a Love who cares about everything that goes on in this world). And we are headed for the destination of partnership and peace with Love Himself, and with all those who have ever made the same journey.

It is a sacrificial journey because we walk with Jesus, who gave himself as a sacrifice for us. Walking in his path will make us like him. We walk this journey with him because we belong to him.

It is a life that makes us want to be alert and ready for anything, because it is a guided life. Being alert for God makes us take in everything and everyone in this world, because everything and everyone speaks to us from God. Anything, anyone, any issue, at any time, may turn out to be the voice of the angels and the Holy Spirit calling to us.

We don’t know which of the signals will be for us, or what they will ask of us, until he shows us. And he promises to show us the way to go.

And so we live our lives as if we were all eyes, and all ears; ready to be all open-handed and open-armed. And so we become uniquely alive because, in the Spirit, we live this guided life.

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