Lent 4 (Ps 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; Matthew 25:14-30)
March 26, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White
Try to find out what is pleasing to God.
A dear old friend and mentor of mine, who is now dead, spent much of his career as a divinity college professor, in Wolfville, teaching theology to up-and- coming pastors, for 32 years. (M. R. Cherry) Well into his retirement, he was always asked back to teach one lecture a year in a certain class. The lecture was on “the will of God.” After his death, as my family went through his papers to send to the university archives, a long-time friend of the professor asked, “If you ever see anything from his lecture on the will of God, save it for me, make me a copy of it, please.”
It has been claimed that if a church offers a study group on “how to know the will of God for your life,” people will flock to it, and some will come back again and again, whenever it is offered. (Dallas Willard)
D’you suppose this is still the case? Do devoted followers of the Master still strive to know what the plan is for their lives? And day to day? I wonder if younger generations of Christians – people my juniour – are as much interested as many of us have been.
Seeking God’s will for my life was a basic thing I was taught, by all the methods of my local Baptist Church, as I grew up. Something God had were plans for my whole life, and for each day. A path to be revealed. Right ways and wrong ways to choose.
Amid the serious warnings of Ephesians ch. 5 – about moral behaviour and sensible communication – the letter-writer says: Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Along with the generic morals and ethics of human life that we seek to know and live by, are the particular things for me to do, for you to do, that please God. That’s the way it is, ain’t it?
Our grandson is four years old today. When he comes to visit, he is very active. He spends a lot of time doing things that are completely within the will of Nana Sharon and Papa Jeff, though we often don’t need to tell him just what to do. He wants to play hockey in the hallway, with his net, hockey sticks, puck, and little soccer balls, and a few other toys. Fine. Then he goes to tap on the piano. Then he comes to the kitchen for a snack. Next he gets out a remote control car. Fine. He is free and within our will. Now, when it is time for bed, or time to leave, he may want something else. Then, Nana and Papa’s will gets enforced. 🙂 Much of the time he is free to do whatever his enthusiastic heart desires.
We read a contemporary wording of Psalm 23 today, and we focus upon that common biblical picture, of being a sheep of the Good Shepherd. Every Sunday the choir and I are here, and get to gaze at a stained-glass image of a pale, european-looking Shepherd holding a sheep. The church I grew up in also had a stained-glass picture of Jesus as a shepherd with sheep.
We who know this experience – the church experience – get to know this Good Shepherd and sheep paradigm. Jesus speaks this: I know the sheep and the sheep know me. The sheep know the Shepherd’s voice. They don’t heed strangers.
Indeed. It is a great image. And if we think about it for a minute, we realize something about the guidance and the freedom of sheep with a shepherd.
Let me tell you a bit of a story I may have told before; I’m not sure. One of the many stories out there about a children’s Christmas pageant. This one is set in a Presbyterian Church in the Midwest. Every child who wanted a part in the play, got a part…
Then there were the sheep: a couple dozen three-, four-, and five-year-olds who had on wooly, fake- sheepskin vests with wooly hoods and their dads’ black socks pulled up on their arms and legs. The Pageant was a lot of things, but smooth it wasn’t. And one of the chief problems was these very sheep… The only sheep most suburban kids have ever seen are on the front of Sunday church bulletin covers: peaceful, grazing sheep who just stand there and look cute and cuddly.
Half of the kids here live on farms. They’ve seen real sheep, many of them. They know that sheep don’t just stand there. They know that sheep don’t often follow directions. They know that sheep are dumb. They know that all sheep want to do is eat.
So, when the young mothers casually instructed the two dozen sheep to act like sheep, they really should have known better. Some of the sheep started to do a remarkable imitation of grazing behind the communion table. Some wandered over by the choir to graze, and others went down the center aisle. Some of them had donuts they found in the church parlor to make the grazing look even more realistic. When one of the shepherds tried to herd them a bit with his shepherd’s crook, some of the sheep spooked and started to scatter just like real sheep do. Everybody knows that’s how sheep act. It was, in fact, a remarkable imitation of sheep behaviour, even though a bit out of the ordinary for a Christmas Pageant. (Michael Lindvall, Good News from North Haven, 1992, pp).
Sheep guided by a shepherd have a lot of freedom to be sheep. Even when the Shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and we, a Church, are the sheep.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Even the Shepherd’s grace and mercy shall pursue me, follow me, not lead me.
So, the desire for the total will of God in our lives can go too far. Trying to find out what pleases God, we can try too hard. It is possible to try too hard to hear from the Holy Spirit.
Some Christians want a message-a-minute. Every waking hour, every little chapter of the day, what is the will of God? I knew a person who was rather obsessed with this – looking for the Spirit to guide her every step, every choice, moment by moment. And she thought she was getting that kind of guidance.
But I have also met those meek folk who seem so fearful and guilty of doing little things wrong every day. Not saying the right thing to the person she met at the post office. Saying the wrong thing when so-and-so called on the phone. A day of probably many, many sins against the mysterious will of God for that individual’s life!
Some believers want to say it’s all in the Bible. Every bit of guidance we need is here, and everything here is guidance for my life and yours. No wonder people through all the centuries have played Bible roulette, finding specific divine guidance by pointing their finger at a random page.
Other folk want to believe whatever comes is God’s will. God is sovereign, in control, King of the world, and God’s will will be done. Something good happens – God is blessing us. Something bad happens – God means it for good in the future, or is at least teaching us a lesson now.
This can take us to a point of not being responsible anymore for our actions, for our life. Everything is of God: God’s will, God’s plan, God’s guidance. Every prayer ends with “if it be Your will, Lord,” and so, whatever happens must be God’s will, because God stops all the wrong things from happening. Only God is left responsible for what happens in our lives.
As ordinary sheep in the pasture of our Extraordinary Shepherd, we still have a lot of freedom, within the plans of God for us, within our guidelines. God gives us responsibility, and options, all the time. God wants us to take initiative, to choose, to enjoy freedom.
We sat at Jesus feet today, and heard his Parable of the Talents, recorded in Matthew 25. Oh, what a chapter that is, with its three big stories from Christ. Today’s, read by Peter, is a story of investment and initiative and responsibility. Many a preacher and Bible teacher has instructed us on the skillful talents we have, and how they should be used. Being musical, or organized, or personable, or prayerful. The story is about pieces of money called ‘talents.’ Perhaps we should call it the parable of the loonies. Except one ‘talent’ was worth far more than a labourer would make in a whole year.
Anyway, it is the slaves given more money, who invested it, used it, and made more, who are commended. The one who did nothing but keep the one loonie safe is scolded. He failed.
Did he do the will of the master? When the master left them all in charge of things, they were not told what to do. They were left with freedom. Freedom to take some initiative, to make their own plans and see them through. The one slave who simply kept his loonie hidden away failed… failed to take initiative and do something worthwhile. And he could not be trusted with more the next time. But the slave who used 5 loonies well was given more. That servant was creative and did what seemed good, without being told what to do.
I shall always remember Industrial Arts in high school. One year, grade 9, I suppose, we were in a new woodworking shop. I think our teacher’s favourite word was ‘initiative.’ It was his agenda, along with the skills of the woodshop, to inspire initiative in us boys. (Yes, in 1985 it was only boys in Industrial Arts.) Figure out something to do next, without being told.
Our Creator God is like my teacher then – a Creator who wants us to become creators. Wants to mold us, more and more, into people who can take new paths and decide on the next steps for ourselves. It takes time, and training, and sometimes even testing of our initiative. It is our character development.
I think Jesus got at this one other time. Again, we have to put ourselves back in time, into an old culture of slaves and masters. There, Jesus once asked, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Lk 17:7-10)
When we have done only what God has dictated for us to do, we are not to be commended? There is more for us to do than what God decrees. Yes, indeed.
God is very pleased when we are at a stage to be trusted with more. More responsibility. More of our own decisions that are still within ‘the will of God.’ More initiative to live the good life in the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
John 8:31, 32 Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
It pleases God to give us freedom. To train us for freedom. To welcome us as apprentices in the divine woodshop. Learning the ways of the Carpenter, and learning to be creative.
May God’s Kingdom come: God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. It pleases God to set us free.