Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sermon - Lead, Guide, and Direct

As a church, we are facing a decision. After waiting several months for doors to open, we have a potential place to meet - it does not have an organ, and it is not available at the prime Sunday morning time we would prefer for worship. We have to decide as a church if this is the place and the time for us to begin.

This sermon addresses our situation. This morning, we read the story of Jesus's feeding of the five thousand and read from Psalm 86. The scripture for the sermon was from Luke 11:1-13:

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation'" Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

LEAD, GUIDE, AND DIRECT

We come to worship today in a different posture than usual, for a different reason than may usually drive us. Most often, we come to worship to praise and honor God, recognizing His place above the universe. We come because we need to confess personal failures. We come bearing burdens. We come because we simply need to enter the presence of our Father.

Many or all of those things are likely true for you today, but, in addition, we have corporately come for another reason. We have an agenda. We have come to see what it is like to worship in this place on a Sunday afternoon. We have come to begin an intentional process of prayer and discernment. We have come to ask God if this is the place and the time for Trinity River Church to launch. We have come to begin a weeklong time of prayer, climaxing with next week’s service and our corporate, congregational decision about whether to start now or wait for something else.

We have come to seek the will of God.

Finding the will of God is one of those topics that we agonized over as teenagers. How do I know where to go to college? Will God show me the right person to marry? What about my career?

As we grow up as Christians, we often find ourselves less inclined to pray about specific decisions we need to make. As the youth retreat fervor wanes, the perceived need to pray about every choice fades with it. Perhaps that is laziness, or it may be a function of a kind of maturity: trusting God, we believe that He is already guiding us, so it is easy to choose not to take issues to him specifically. To be honest, many of us long-time churchgoers have come to a point in our walk with God where we think we have a lot of things figured out and that we have a handle on the will of God, so we simply go forward based on our understanding and do not bother God with our day to day needs. It is ok not to feel compelled to lift an individual prayer about every little thing that comes up; it is sad when that becomes habit and we neglect prayer at critical times.

There is another reason we do not ask God for guidance; I call it false sophistication. Listening to God’s voice is not very popular. Fans of the TV series “House” remember the lead character, in words actually stolen from psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, saying: “You talk to God, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.” There are few surer ways of making people suspicious and uncomfortable than to begin a conversation with “God told me ….”

As we learn more about our faith, we know that there are different levels of the will of God. Theologians throw all sorts of words out there: God’s sovereign will, decretive will, preceptive will, prescriptive will, permissive will, will of command, efficacious will, revealed will, dispositional will. The list goes on. Even if we do not have advanced theological degrees, we have a basic understanding that there are some things that God has willed that are eternal and unchanging – God willed that there should be light, and there was light. It is God’s will that we obey, that we be sanctified, that we love mercy and do justice and walk humbly with our God. Foremost among God’s sovereign will is what leads to the plan of salvation; we know that God always wills that we be saved, and God has provided a way for that to happen for all of us.

Some things, however, are not a matter of God’s eternal, unchanging will. We face forks in the road, and God may in fact allow us to take either path within his permissive will, which is big enough to allow us to make our own call in many cases.

It is not always clear whether a matter before us falls into God’s unchanging eternal will or whether it is a permissive matter that God would bless no matter which way we choose. What is clear is that we are unlikely to find out the answer unless we ask.

We face choices as a group, as an assembly of believers that has been and will be praying about how to start this new church. The most immediate choice is when and where. Do we start now, here, on Sunday afternoons? Or do we wait? God may have a very clear answer for that question; or His will may be broad enough to bless either choice that we make. But until we take it to the throne and lay it at His feet, we will not know.

To some, our choice does not seem to be a dilemma. Their message is that if there is any doubt, we should wait patiently for the Lord, that if God is in this, we will be absolutely sure and will know it is time to march forward with complete certainty. Until we have no question at all, we should stand still. We resonate with Pastor John Stuart of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, who writes: I remember years ago, when I was about five years old, my family went on a vacation…. Each day, we used to walk down to the beach on a path alongside a small creek…. One day, I ran ahead of my family and chose my own path. I fully expected my parents and siblings to follow me. When they went the other way, I felt stupid, fearful, and angry. My Dad called me back and when I reached him, he told me these words: “If you had asked me which way we were going before you ran on ahead, I would have told you.” [http://www.sermonillustrator.org/Illustrator/sermon26/runningaheadofGod.htm]

We know that Trinity River Church must not run ahead of God.

To others, whether or not to start immediately is not a dilemma either, although their answer is exactly the opposite. Their message is that we have heard the call from God, and the door to this sanctuary at this time of day is open to us, and who are we to wait on something that suits us better? Why turn down this answer from God because we have it in our heads that the answer is supposed to look different? We resonate with the famous story of the man who was praying during a flood for God’s deliverance, certain that he knew that God’s protection meant only one thing – that the rising tide would not overtake him. As the waters climbed, he turned away from the help of a rowboat, and then rescuers in a speedboat, and finally a helicopter, telling them that he did not need their help because God would provide. So, he drowned, and in heaven he furiously asked God why he had not been saved. God’s response was “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What else did you want?” We know that we must not ignore the provision of God just because it does not match our preconceived idea and preference.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? We can tell poignant stories to support either answer. We can make reasoned, logical arguments for both sides. We can come up with religious-sounding reasons why we should start immediately, and we can come up with religious-sounding reasons why we should wait. We can hang our “march on in faith” poster and our “wait on the Lord” cross-stitch side by side on the same wall.

The often-infuriating point is that we cannot open our Bibles and find a verse to answer our question directly. The term Trinity River Church does not appear in our concordances, and no place in holy writ is there a chapter on “how to tell whether God wants you to start your new church at a specific time and place.”

As I stand in this pulpit this afternoon, I start with a premise that we are God’s people, and we should and must do our best to discern God’s will. This church has begun with the call of God, and it will continue by following the direction of God, and thus we must earnestly seek the guidance of God at this critical point.

We must understand that finding the answer may not be easy. God sent handwriting on the wall only once that we know of, and that was millennia ago. Burning bushes and talking donkeys have been scarce in recent times. Stone tablets engraved by the finger of Yahweh are nowhere to be found.

My father often asks God to “lead, guide, and direct” when he prays. That may sound redundant, but it has become a catchphrase to me for prayer, as I often go to my Heavenly Father and ask Him to lead, guide, and direct me. That is not a bad place for us to be today and for this coming week, asking God to lead us in His way, to guide us to His will, and to direct us to a specific decision.

Dad taught me many other things besides go-to language for prayers, but there are two overriding principles that I remember most from him. First, Dad taught me to approach what I do not know in light of what I do know. Approach what we do not know in light of what we do know. That makes sense, right? Those who remember your high school math recall that this is the basic principle of algebra – you get your knowns on the left and your unknowns, your variables, on the right, and then you start the process to solve for X. In geometry, you always start the proof by finding the givens and applying the formulas to them. So, I call what Dad taught me the Geometry Corollary. Let’s figure out the knowns, the givens. Approach what we do not know in light of what we do know. I am not suggesting that God’s will is a matter of arithmetic, but when it is time to make difficult decisions, we never, ever, have to start from a blank slate; we always have in the background a reservoir of experience, of teaching, of logic, and of what we know of God.

As we approach this question, what is it that we know? We know that God desires that we share the gospel, minister to the community, fellowship with one another, worship corporately, learn the scriptures, and love all of His children. We know that Jim and I, and many of you, have heard a very specific call to start this new church.

We also know two other principles that Sunday School teachers have lovingly banged into your heads: prayer and Bible study. So, let me focus your attention on our first point:

1. When we are facing a decision, we must pray for God’s answer to our question.

That we should pray is easy for us Christians to say. It seems elementary. The gospels provide numerous examples of Jesus’s praying when there were decisions to be made, so we know it is the right thing to do. Paul urges us to pray without ceasing. James tells us that if we lack wisdom, we should ask our generous and gracious God for it, and it will be given to us. The Master Himself tells us that whatever we ask for in prayer, we should believe that we have received it, and it will be ours; that if we pray for anything in His name, He will do it; that if we abide in Him, we can ask for whatever we wish, and it will be done for us.

While it may be easy to say, prayer is in fact not simple. Leonard Cohen says prayer occurs when “a man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.” [Beautiful Losers, Vintage, Reissue Edition 1983, p58.]

Our scripture passage from Luke includes Jesus’s commands that we pray fervently, with passion and perseverance, and that we pray faithfully, with certainty of God’s love and provision for us and desire to give us good things. We approach the creator of light, the one who has called us, knowing that He wants our best and that He wants the absolute best for this church.

Effective prayer when we need direction does not stop with perseverance and faithfulness. In His model prayer in the Sermon on the mount, Jesus commands, and in the Garden of Gethsemane He models, that we pray for God’s will… not for our own. “Thy will be done” is one of those phrases that we have heard so often that we can lose, or ignore, the importance of its meaning, but we must not.

Too many times, we approach prayer with a list of what we want, waiting for God to bless what we have already decided is the right answer. That temptation must be resisted, or this church will be off on the wrong foot no matter what decision we make. If your view is that we should obviously not start because this building is wrong and because we don’t have an organ, and so you pray to God and ask Him to make it clear to the rest that we should not start until we have a prettier place with lots of pipes, that is not a “Thy will be done” prayer. Conversely, if you are anxious to begin and are convinced that, plainly, we should grasp the opportunity before us because that is what faith does and thus your prayer is for God to kickstart everyone else in the room until they see the light of your solution, that is not a “Thy will be done” prayer either. Stormie Omartian writes that “My dreams had to be His dreams, the ones He placed in my heart. They couldn't be the ones I thought I should have, or needed for the purpose of making other people like me.” [A Story of Forgiveness and Healing, 1997]

Do not make the mistake of thinking yourself too good or too religious or too anything to fall into this trap of the “My will be done” prayer. Look at the disciples. When they had thousands of hungry people around them and the hour was growing late, did they pray and ask Jesus to show them the right answer? No, they didn’t. They saw hunger and came to Jesus and told Him how to fix it. “Lord, send them away so they can find something to eat.” We too are inclined to use our heads and figure out the answer and then take it to Jesus for approval, rather than the other way around. We hear those verses about praying for anything and receiving it, and our human, sinful hearts are too quick to interpret that promise as a blank check to cash as we want. Jesus was not interested in the solution the disciples had in mind. The disciples determined what they wanted – send the people away; Jesus intended to perform a miracle that they could never have predicted. When we take our program to Jesus to be rubber stamped, we are not allowing for the possibilities He has in mind – what a mistake that is!

As we ask God for wisdom and direction, as we pray for Him to guide our decision, we would do well to read everything that scripture tells us about prayer rather than proof texting and pulling out those few verses. Earlier in this service, we read Psalm 86 responsively. That Psalm lays out a conversation between us and God, one in which we first recognize our need and our unworthiness. We then pray with confidence not in ourselves but in the amazing provision of God, our Jehovah Jireh. Next, the Psalmist reminds us that prayer must be full of praise, for there is none like our God. Finally, we ask for help: “Teach me your way, O God.” Prayer thus becomes a primary exercise of faith.

At the end of this service, we will sing a hymn by the great B.B. McKinney, who also penned these words, which are not in our current hymnal but ought to be: Have faith in God when your prayers are unanswered. Your earnest plea He will never forget. Wait on the lord, trust His word and be patient. Have faith in God. He'll answer yet…. Cast all your cares and your burdens upon Him, and leave them there…. Have faith in God though all else fall about you. Have faith in God, He provides for His own…. Have faith in God. [©1934, renewed 1962, Broadman Press.]

So, we covenant to pray together as we seek this decision. In fact, Jim and I have asked you to pray for our church and to spend this coming week in directed prayer for our decision about when and where to start.

Dad told me to approach what we do not know in light of what we do know, and we know something else that our Sunday School teachers taught us.

2. When we are facing a decision, God speaks to us through the Bible.

The fact that we cannot look up “Trinity River Church” in our concordance does not mean that God cannot help our decision-making through scripture. There is a reason that so many refer to this book as “the word of God.” There are many who say that the only way that God speaks to us is through the Bible, and while I do not believe that God is restricted to any one means, it is foolish of us to ignore the Bible when we face decisions.

OK, that sounds good. “Prayer” and “Bible study” are stock church answers. But what do we study in the Bible? Do we close our eyes and put our finger down randomly on a verse and hope that it addresses the situation?

Well, don’t knock it until you try it, because that sometimes works, but I do not really believe we should approach God with such chance and arbitrariness. I think that the better we know the Bible, the more we know where to look. Just as I approached this sermon by taking time to think about what I know in scripture and then went to Luke 11 and Psalm 86 and James 1 and other passages to see what they say, so should you take time this week to think about places in the Bible that you know of where God has spoken about guidance, about decisions, about how He provides.

Take a moment right now and think about that… are there any Bible stories or passages that jump out at you? Who are Biblical characters who had to make difficult decisions? What about Moses at that burning bush? How about Esther? Do you remember words of Isaiah about waiting on the Lord? Or how about Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who faced an honest-to-goodness life or death dilemma? Jesus lifted specific prayers, subjecting His desires to the will of God. Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns from prison. You know your scriptures; some of you know better than others, but you know your Bible. Turn from book to book, chapter to chapter. Use a concordance. Google. Ask a friend. Let God speak to you through these pages.

I told you that I remember two overriding principles from my Dad. The first was to approach what we do not know in light of what we do know, what I have nicknamed the Geometry Corollary. But there is another one that I remember. It came when he was teaching me to drive, which for me started when I was about ten. But as I got older and the magic sixteenth birthday approached, Dad was aware that my tension and worry would cause me to clench the wheel and stare just in front of the hood ornament on our 1975 Olds 98 as I cautiously inched forward, undoubtedly frustrating drivers on all sides. So, Dad implanted two words on my brain: “Aim high.”

Aim high. You see, when you drive, you don’t look right in front of the car, for if you do, you can’t see nearly enough to be a safe driver. Instead, you should look up. To do it right, your eyes lift, and your gaze rises, and you take in everything around you, and instead of concentrating on that point just in front of the grille of the car, you see the whole picture as you focus down the road. To drive well and safely, and to enjoy it, you have to aim high.

Brothers and sisters, that is good advice.

3. As we make our decision, aim high.

There are many reasons we should choose option A or option B. On one hand, starting now means we can begin what will doubtless be a long growth process, and the sooner we get started the better. On the other hand, waiting allows us to plan more and to pray more. On the first hand, starting now is a step of faith, a march into what we believe is the Promised Land. On the other hand, starting too early, before God is ready, may predispose us to failure. On the other hand, …. On the other hand, ….

We can be stymied by this whole decision-making process. Our human frailty, our personal desires and agendas, and our simple inability to see the big picture can lead to information overload and analysis paralysis that prevents the right decision or alternatively to a too-quick choice made simply for the sake of making a decision.

Or… we can look beyond our humanity, beyond our personal wants and needs, past our own inability and sin. We can aim high.

In the third chapter of Colossians, Paul says this: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of the God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” [Col 3:1-3]

For those of you who do not read Greek, what Paul is saying is simple: Aim high.

When we set our sights and our hearts on things above, we can unclench our fingers around the steering wheels of our lives, of this church. We can drive better and more safely, and we can have fun doing it. For when we set our sights on things above, the horizon expands. We see not just our own knuckles as we worry about what damage we might cause, but instead we see the road ahead, and we see other people who are also driving down the same street. We read the signs, and we notice and appreciate the hills and trees as we take in creation all around us. Decision-making changes from a struggle to a pleasure, from a chore to an event, from a fearful potential accident to a chance to get where we need to be.

How do we aim high? In our prayer and Bible study, how do we experience that breathtaking freedom of flying down the highway?

I believe the answer to that is to know the truth of God. Jehovah Jireh – the God who provides – is also El Roi, the God who sees, and El Shaddai, God Almighty. We aim for the one who sees all and is able to handle it all, the only real place where we can put our trust. Set your sights not on our failures, our buildings, our musical instruments, our intentions, or even our pastors. Instead, aim high. Approach this decision with eyes fully set on our Lord, Master, and Leader. The Son of God. He sees, and He is almighty. He’s got this. Aiming high means seeing the end game, understanding that surely goodness and mercy will follow us.

Which of you parents, if your children ask you for a fish, will give a snake instead? Of if they ask for an egg, will provide a scorpion? If you know how to give good gifts in your sin and your limitation, how much more will our Father in Heaven provide us with the Holy Spirit, our counselor and advocate, to guide our decision?

The irony is this. When we do that, when we aim high and know the truth that our providing God is the Almighty maker of light who loves us with an everlasting love, then we relax and unclench. Billy Graham says that “[w]e can be certain that God will give us the strength and resources we need to live through any situation in life that he ordains. The will of God will never take us where the grace of God cannot sustain us.”

While it is tempting to end the sermon there, a logical question is still nagging at at least some of you: so, if we do all that, if we pray and study the Bible and set our sights on things above, what will God do? How will we know God’s will? The answer is that I am not sure. God may speak to all of us in an audible voice, but I doubt it. We may each get individual notes written on our bedroom ceilings on Tuesday night, but that is not likely. What I believe is this: if we, corporately, sincerely take this issue to the Father in the name of Jesus, believing in faith that He will give us what we desire, then He will give us what we desire – His answer. We will come back next week, join in worship, hear Jim’s sermon, and meet as a body to pray and discuss together; and then we will make a decision. We may discover incredible unity – God may lead us all to the exact same answer – or we may still have honest disagreement.

We are human beings, and we are sinners, and we make mistakes. Honest disagreement may result from our imperfect ability to hear God, or it may be a sign that His permissive will allows us to take either road.

Even if we are not unanimous, we will, directed by God, decide as a body and know that we have aimed high and that we are not taking a path that He has blocked. For He will block the wrong road. If God definitely does not want us moving forward, we as a body will know that. If God clearly wants us making this place our permanent home, that will be our plan. If God’s will allows us either decision – if we do not get a clear direction – then we know that we have prayed and sought His will, and we will be free to do what seems best to us.

Waiting on the Lord is not so much a matter of time as it is position, an intentional high aim. We place the matter at the feet of Jesus, and then, regardless of whether our decision is to start now or start later, we are waiting on the Lord. We come to Him with our laboring decision-making, and He gives us rest, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

Seek, and you shall find.
Ask, and it shall be given.
Knock, and the door will be opened.