Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Q&A How Does God Tell You Things, And How Can You Be Sure?

Preached on Sunday September 6, 2015

Scripture readings: John 14:15-31; Acts 21:1-14

Woody Allen once said, “If only God would give me some clear sign – like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
Pictures from Fullerton Arboretum
June 2015
There are certain places in each of the four gospels that tell us that the Lord will lead us, and guide us, and help us know what to say and do. God will tell us things.
John, in his gospel, sheds a lot of light on our continuing reliance on God’s presence, and God’s communication with us. Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18) In other words, Jesus will always serve as a parent to us and do what parents do; to teach us, and guide us, and go with us, and to take us with him.
Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11ff) He said he would walk ahead of us, which is another way of saying that he shows us the way. He guides us. He directs us in ways that are good for us.
Jesus said, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26) Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
All of this means that, when we belong to Jesus, we belong to God in all his fullness (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and this is about a rich and loving relationship. This is intimacy.
Our relationship with God will not be blind and deaf. Even if we start out not seeing well or not hearing well, we will not end that way. God wants to make us into seeing and hearing children.
God has no policy of giving us the silent treatment. The silent treatment is not what faith is about.
God tells us things all the time. The Bible tells us the story of a God who reveals himself, and searches us out. In the Book of Job it says, “God speaks in one way and in two, though man does not perceive it.” (Job 33:14, R.S.V.) In other words, God has lots of ways of always telling us things, even when we are not aware of it.
The creation is full of God telling us things: Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
God speaks to us through creation, and through the scriptures, and through prayer, and through music, and through fellowship with other people, and through worship. God speaks to us through the circumstances of our lives.
God speaks to us, in all of these things (usually through something we may call a still, small voice). God’s voice is almost like the voice of our own thoughts, only they are not our thoughts at all.
Long ago I served a church on the south coast of Oregon. I remember God directing me on one of my days off down there. I wanted to take a walk on the beach near Reedsport. I was looking forward to walking by the ocean.
Although I was driving to Reedsport, I suddenly felt that I needed to turn off on a road that led to a lake instead. The lake was another one of the places where I liked to go; only I didn’t want to go there that day. I wanted the ocean; but I turned anyway, and stopped at the lake. Being a creature of habit, I always started around the lake by taking the trail to the right. This time I took the trail around to the left.
There was a bench near the start of that part of the trail, and there was a man sitting on that bench. I wanted quiet, to be alone and pray. I pray well when I walk. But I stopped and sat beside the stranger, and started a conversation with him. I never do that.
The man had just gone through a divorce, and then he had been diagnosed with an eye condition that was going to make him blind. He was a Christian who had drifted away from the church and from fellowship with other Christians. He had drifted away from prayer and intimacy with God.
He told me, after we had talked for a while, that he felt the Lord was calling him back to a deeper relationship with him. He also confided that he had been driving somewhere else and had felt compelled to stop at the lake, and walk down the trail, and sit on that bench, even though there was somewhere else that he was supposed to be.
I told him that it had been the same with me. We prayed together, and parted.
The point is that there is this still, small voice that seems to lead us, without coming from us. God’s still, small voice is like a thought that is laid upon our thought; but it comes from outside us, or from beyond us, and often in spite of us.
In the book of Acts, we are told of many different ways that the Lord had, and may still have, of speaking to us and telling us the things that we need to know, and say, and do. The book of Acts begins with Luke addressing his readers with the purpose of his writing his gospel and the Acts. He writes this: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven.” (Acts 1:1)
This means that what Jesus began to do and teach in the Gospel, he continued to do and teach in the Book of Acts. By implication, Jesus is still doing things and teaching among us now.
In the Book of Acts there are supernatural ways that the Lord speaks: through dreams, and visions, and the visitations of angels, and people speaking by the direct inspiration of the Holy Sprit: speaking as prophets. There are places, though, where the Lord speaks in humbler ways: through shipwrecks, through friendships (Acts 11:25-26), and through his people meeting together, and arguing, and discussing things when there is confusion and disagreement (Acts 15).
The Lord has spoken to me in every one of these ways, except through shipwreck. The Lord has spoken to me through you. I know this for a fact. And the Lord has spoken to you through me. I am sure of this.
But how can you be sure? How can you be sure that the Lord is telling you any specific thing with a clear message?
I would say that, even if you received the clearest possible message, you might not understand it, and you might not find it easy to follow. Even if God spelled out what he wanted to tell you in letters printed across the sky, you would have no idea of where that message would take you, or what it would mean for you as the years passed by.
This is part of what Luke is telling us, in the portion of the Book of Acts where Paul was walking into the trap that was going to close on him for the rest of his life in a long, uncertain, and dangerous imprisonment. The trap would spring a long set of legal and political trials and appeals that were going to lead to his beheading in Rome.
Paul ended up in chains, and we do not know, for sure, whether he was ever a truly, legally, free man again. We know that Paul was taken as a prisoner to Rome, and we know that he was executed in Rome.
In our reading in Acts, we see the other disciples warning Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Luke tells us that they urged Paul “through the Spirit” not to go. The words “through the Spirit” means (at very least) that the Holy Spirit told them something that made them plead with Paul not to go to Jerusalem.
The Spirit told them that Paul was in danger. Through the warning they received, and through their understanding of that warning, they tried to persuade Paul not to walk into that trap.
In the chapter before this, Paul told another group of disciples, in another city, that this kind of message seemed to follow him everywhere he went. Paul stated his case (as he saw it) this way. He said, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24)
Paul felt that he was being “compelled by the Spirit”. He felt that God had a clear message for him, and this message was that he must be willing to go forward to his arrest and imprisonment, even if it led to his death.
Paul believed that God was telling him to go and suffer as a witness to the grace of God. But Paul’s friends believed that God was telling him to avoid the trap, and stay free to travel the world as a witness to the grace of God.
Luke says, “When Paul would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:14)
The way I read it, when they gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done,” I think they meant that they reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was the Lord’s will for Paul to not make the best decision. I believe that this is what they thought.
Luke, writing years later, could look back and he could see what Jesus had done and what Jesus had taught through Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem. I believe that Paul was right and that Paul made the best decision. I believe that Luke, looking back, could see this as well.
Paul and his friends had all been warned, by the Holy Spirit, about the dangers to come. Because of the Spirit’s’ warnings, Paul’s friends urged him not to walk into the trap.
I believe that the Spirit was at work in the warnings of the dangers to come, but the Spirit was not at work in the urgings of Paul’s friends who wanted him to escape and be safe. They thought that the Spirit was warning Paul so that he could act smartly.
Paul could tell the difference between the love of the Spirit calling him to danger and the love of his friends who wanted him to escape. The tug of war between the love of God and the love of friends was a tug of war that almost broke Paul’s heart. Paul decided to follow God’s love into risk and danger.
God didn’t control Paul’s thoughts. The Holy Spirit didn’t forced Paul to make a choice that led to prison and execution. But God loves the kind of person Paul was. God simply chose a man who would do anything for love; for the love of God and for the love of others, whether it was wise, or safe, or prudent, or not.
We have all watched good people make bad choices for the right reasons. You know what I mean. Their motive was right and noble: but their choice was wrong, and it was completely unnecessary, and endless trouble came of it.
Maybe we have made decisions like that ourselves. And yet (and yet), given time, the Lord’s will was done. This teaches us that God is fully capable of blessing our mistakes. Thanks be to God!
There are people we love who make hard and dangerous choices for the right reasons; to join the armed forces, to become a fire fighter, and there are other such choices. Their motives are right and noble; and their choices are right, even though the people who love them will grieve because of those choices.
This is a very important lesson. Paul was thinking, and speaking, and making choices out of the depths of love. His friends were pleading with him in love, and Paul said, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?” (Acts 21:13) It is love that we see on every side of this story.
The very question, “How can we be sure?” sometimes comes from a desire for the wrong kind of faith. There is a kind of faith that wants to be right, above everything else. There is a kind of faith that wants to be safe, and comfortable, and smart. And then, there is another kind of faith that, above everything else, does not want to fail the ties of love and faithfulness.
I want to know what God wants because I want to be right and smart. I want to be right because I do not want to make mistakes. I hate making mistakes because I hate to be wrong. I hate to be wrong because I am always trying to be smart, and that is the most dangerous thing of all, because, above everything else, this is pride.
Sometimes we are tempted to do the opposite of smart. We are tempted to do daring and risky things to prove our faith. When I was in college, a representative from a Christian publisher contacted the Christian groups on campus to look for daring Christian kids to help distribute their products. They distributed very nice looking Bible reference books. The representative told us, when we went to his meeting, that we could make a surprising amount of money in one summer by simply appearing in some rural community with our samples and we would find someone who would put us up, and we would find a church that would help promote our work.
In this way we would provide other Christians with an excellent product and we would learn how to live by faith by stepping out in faith. In this way we would receive the joy that comes from proving our faith. We would receive the benefits that come from faith. And yet that would be another way of proving we were smart: smarter than the average Christian.
There will be times when real Christians ask you to prove your faith in this way, but they are usually wrong. We must choose faith. We must live our faith. But we are not called to prove our faith. That is a temptation that comes from pride.
It is like the adolescent game of “I Dare You”. It’s a foolish game. It’s an exciting game. It’s a game of pride.
Paul seemed proud because he was stubborn. He seemed carelessly daring.
Paul was not perfect. And Paul made mistakes. But Paul was a lover, as well as a fighter. Paul did not fight for pride. He fought for love. He would blunder for love. He was stubborn only because he loved the Lord, and he loved his people. Because of this, there was a divine protection (a powerful grace) that shed its light over his mistakes, so that even his worst mistakes were not so bad, and good came of them, and the Lord’s will was done.
This is the kind of mistake we should pray for. We should be willing to blunder into the loving and faithful choice. We should be willing to be stubborn for the sake of love.
There were people who were trying to be prophets. They were prophets. But Paul clung t

o being like Jesus, and having fellowship with Jesus; who made the dangerous choice and gave himself for the love of the world and for the love of his Father on the cross.
Here, in this fellowship, we form a part of what Jesus has begun to do and to teach in this cluster of communities. In order for Jesus to continue to work and to teach through this fellowship we have choices to make about how to use our energy and our resources to be a church and people of evangelism and mission.
The Holy Spirit has warnings for us as a fellowship and as members of this fellowship. There are dangers and risks. There are choices that will be very demanding and consuming.
The temptation for us comes from the direction of wanting to make the smart choice or the safe and comfortable choice. For the Lord’s will to be done, the smart choices and the safe choices will only work for a little while. In order to find out what Jesus wants to do and to teach through this fellowship, we have to make choices that seem costly, and dangerous.
We are not called to make such choices in order to prove our faith in order to get what we want. We are called to make such choices in order to live our faith and love. So that our faith will make us look like Jesus in the end.

We have to make decisions that look like blunders. We need to have a lot of fight in us (a lot of toughness in us) in order to live out the hard choices (like the choices that Paul made).

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