Discerning God’s Will
A sermon by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue for Christ Church, Episcopal
Savannah, Georgia on December 23, 2012
Discerning God’s Will
We gather this morning in the pregnant pause of the last full day of Advent to hear the words of the Prophet, Mary of Nazareth, and in the process to learn something of how God still speaks to us. Our reading from Luke’s Gospel comes from that time after the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce her finding favor with God and being selected for the awesome task of bearing God’s son. Mary has journeyed to visit her relative Elizabeth, the person in all creation who can best understand Mary’s story.
Elizabeth had aged beyond child-bearing years without giving birth. In the culture of Israel in those days, this left Elizabeth with no standing among her people. Like it or not, the norm was that a woman was to bear children and she was even more blessed to bear sons. As the father of a wonderful daughter, I take exception to this, but that doesn’t change anything. Now Elizabeth is pregnant with the infant who we know will grow to become John the Baptist. And Elizabeth being pregnant in her old age is a sign from God for Mary that everything will go well for her too.
Mary and Elizabeth offer a contrasting pair of miracles—the young Virgin Mary and the older barren Elizabeth are now both with child. And as Mary approaches Elizabeth, another miracle occurs to reassure Mary—both the elderly Elizabeth and the prenatal prophet John know that Mary bears God’s child.
The child within Elizabeth leaps in her womb and she greets Mary saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” She goes on to tell Mary, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Finally, she praises Mary for her trust in God by saying, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” This is a perfect picture of discerning God’s will. Mary saw and heard the angel Gabriel and believed. Mary then traveled to her relative Elizabeth, who confirmed Gabriel’s words. I find this is so common as to be counted on. If God wants you to know something, you’ll hear it in stereo. In fact, if you have something that you think is from God, know that it might be just you until it is confirmed in some other way. God can use all sorts of things from a chance comment from another person to a report on the radio, anything. There is a strong thread in Anglican and Episcopal theology that discernment happens in community as others confirm what you feel is from God. We tend to be suspicious of the person who says they have heard from God if others don’t also discern that it is from God. We find this in Elizabeth’s words to Mary.
With the words of the Angel supported by Elizabeth and even John within her womb, Mary breaks into song. She praises God in words and images drawn from the Old Testament beginning, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This is Mary’s song, known today as the Magnificat, for the first word in the Latin translation of her hymn.
Mary’s extols a reversal of fortunes. In her hymn, God is being faithful to promises to those in ages past by bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly. The rich are sent away empty, while the hungry are filled with good things. As Jesus would later say, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” “The one who would be the greatest must be the servant of all.” The Magnificat proclaims just the sort of world turned upside down that Jesus will live and preach throughout his ministry.
Mary needed no further outward sign that these things would come to pass, but God offered her confirmation through Elizabeth. The proof of God’s will was growing inside her. She knew better than anyone that the child she bore was God’s son. Mary could have no illusions about her position in life. She was young, female and poor, and at this moment unwed and pregnant. Mary was in a very vulnerable place. In that time, if Joseph had denounced her, she could have been put to death. Life was precarious. Mary was one of the lowly whom God was lifting up. Yet, Mary could sing of God’s promises being fulfilled in the past tense, because if God would even bother to notice her and consider her blessed among women, then the world was as good as turned upside down.
How did all of this happen? If the world is being turned upside down even as Mary is singing to her cousin Elizabeth, then how did God pull it off? Well, that’s a familiar story. It might be in a new setting, but there is nothing new in how God was able to transform the world. Transformation came the way it had always come. The same way it worked for Abraham, Moses, David, and all the others from that family album we call the Old Testament. God took ordinary Mary and when she added her obedience, her complete openness to God’s will, something extraordinary happened.
This transformation is the most familiar of stories from the Bible. God takes a plain old ordinary person. Not a perfect person. Not a person everyone saw as the best and the brightest. Just a regular person, sort of like me and, if you don’t mind me saying so, kind of like, well, you. Then God calls that person to a task and when they are obedient to God, extraordinary things happen.
The equation is simple: Ordinary + Obedience = Extraordinary.
It’s not that you have to be extraordinary, it’s that you need to make room for God to work through you. God does not need your holiness. That’s a good thing, because none of us have holiness down yet. The best I can muster most days is being Holier than Thou and that’s a step in the wrong direction. God doesn’t need your perfection, your smashing good looks, your sparkling wit or your great personality. We all appreciate this about you. But what God needs is your obedience, your willingness to listen to that still small voice which is the Holy Spirit speaking to your spirit. But how can you know when it is God you are obeying and when it is just your own desires? Sometimes we wish for clarity that is difficult to find. I remember Bishop Louttit telling me how after a few years after he had begun his ministry at Trinity Episcopal in Statesboro, he began to wonder about another call. St. Mary’s Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, wanted to call him as their rector. They wined and dined the Louttits and showed them all the great opportunities for ministry in the area. When the Louttits were back in Statesboro, the phone rang, and the future Bishop Louttit answered, and a voice said, “Henry, this is the Holy Spirit, the answer is, ‘No’,” and the phone line went dead. The voice may have identified himself as the Holy Spirit, but this was the unmistakable voice of his Bishop, Albert Rhett Stuart. He told me that he never doubted that Bishop Stuart’s words were also the words of the Holy Spirit. He said, “No thank you,” to the lovely people of Kentucky and has lived out the rest of his ministry here in Georgia, for which we are all thankful. But let’s face it, almost no one gets such clear direction with difficult decisions.
And yet, I have found that God does indeed speak to our hearts and minds and then uses all sorts of ways to help us to see that what we have thought is God’s will. Human history is filled with big stories of God working through ordinary people from his disciple and friend, Peter, to Francis of Assisi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But God does not limit divine action to only the big picture. God has also worked through many people you’ll never hear of in situations meant only for the few people involved.
But before you go rushing off to follow God’s will, you will need to discern whether it is God you are hearing. My powers of self deception are pretty strong, so I have to look for confirmation from others to know whether something is God’s will or just my good idea.
Less this sound too high and lofty, I’ll give you an example from my own life. As a seminarian, I worked at St. Philip’s, a traditionally African-American Episcopal Church in Baden, Maryland. I met monthly with a lay committee that helped me reflect on my work and that group told me one week, a bit embarrassedly that they wanted me to preach, well, more black. I said that I couldn’t be anyone but myself and that’s when one person on the committee responded, “That’s just it. We’ve already seen in you what we are talking about. We are just trying to get you to stop holding back.” I was to preach the next Sunday and I began to wonder if I could relax my preaching style and fall into a more call and response form. But mostly, I wondered if this was their idea, or something God was up to. So I talked with others at the seminary about it, including my Homiletics professor and it seemed that they too felt I should respond to the request with a sermon that was, well, more black.
I began to craft my sermon and one morning, I did something most unprecedented. After morning chapel and before my first class I went by McDonald’s to pick up breakfast to take back to our apartment for me and my wife, and my daughter. On the way to McDonald’s I let loose in the car preaching out loud the sermon that was taking shape within me. I’m pretty sure some other drivers saw me, but I didn’t care, I just preached. When I got to the drive in, I placed my order and as I drove around to the window, I knew I could do it, but I wondered if I should preach in that style. When the McDonald’s cashier opened the drive through window and leaned out to take my money, I took one look at his name tag and knew what I would do that Sunday. There was just one word on the McDonald’s name tag and it wasn’t a name. It was an ordinary McDonald’s name tag, but on it was the word “Preach.” Preach that Sunday I did. A few minutes into the sermon with some good amens going, one person said “Take it slow now” and I heard her, took my time and preached.
Some weeks passed and I had told the story in my homiletics class and elsewhere and I started to doubt it. I went back to the McDonald’s around 1, after the lunch rush was slowing down. I found the same employee, but his tag didn’t say “Preach.” He seemed a bit taken aback, when I asked him if we could talk, but he took a break and we sat across each other in a booth as I told him my story. He smiled and laughed, “God really got you this time, didn’t he.” He told me that he was a lay preacher at his church and the McDonald’s manager kidded him that he sounded like a preacher when his voice rang out through the drive through speaker. The Manager made him a name tag that said “Preach” on it. He had worn it only that one day. He kept it on his dresser and looked at it all the time, but he’d never worn it again. He liked my story. He was sure it would preach. I haven’t told it in a sermon until today. And I offer it only as one example of how God confirms his will.
For you it may not be so dramatic, but it will be just as real. In fact, one sign that I have come to recognize an idea as coming from God, is that I usually get a sinking feeling when I think of having to follow through on it. If something is from me, I am usually pretty excited, but when it comes from God, it’s more like I think, “Dang it, am I really going to have to do that?” Then others confirm it is from God, and I know.
Whether you feel called to start a ministry, go back to school, change jobs, or go visit a grieving friend, you can know when something is from God because the idea will first and foremost line up with the God we meet in the Bible, as it did for Mary. She knew what was happening to her was in line with what she knew from scripture. We know this through her song, the Magnificat.
You can know that you’ll never be asked to do anything that is not at the heart of it showing love for God and love for your neighbor. Then God will not only speak to your heart, but if this pertains to something that matters, you will find like Elizabeth’s words to Mary, God will find a way to have someone or something show you that it’s not just your thoughts. If an idea is divinely inspired, God will speak in stereo, finding a way to confirm it.
God is still lifting up the lowly and working in human history through the most common of people. Your call will not be like the call of Mary, but like the Mother of our Lord, God will use other people and incidents to reveal his will for you. For ordinary folks bring on the Kingdom of God little by little, not through our own ability, but when we allow God to work through us. For an ordinary person to do something extraordinary, it only takes discerning and then following God’s will. Don’t wait for our Bishop to call you up with a bulletin from the Holy Spirit. Instead, be willing to listen to the still, small voice of God speaking to your heart. Then discern through prayerful consideration, talking to Christian friends and finally ask God to confirm it. And when that happens, be bold enough to follow where God is leading you.