Saturday, March 09, 2013

Lent III Sermon notes

“try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord+

This is one occasion where the Authorised Version's more literal approach to translation is better than the RSV, which I normally I read from here, at least at the beginning of the verse. It has “proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.”

The Greek verb underlying this word, “proving”, δοκιμάζω/dokimazo (dok-im-ad'-zo) means to “discern by testing”. It means more than we normally mean by the RSV's “try to learn”. And the Greek grammar shows that here it is a participle [a verb ending in -ing in English, acting as an adjective] which explains further the statement of verse 8, “walk as children of the light”. [Verse 9 is parenthetical.] The RSV weakens this connection by making it seem a new statement. So, to understand what St Paul means in using this word, it helps to translate the essential parts of the sentence this way: “Walk as children of the light, discerning by testing what is pleasing to the Lord.” OK, but what does that mean?

Lots of Christians want to know how to discern God's will for their lives. And the Bible does teach us that the Scripture [Psalm 119:105], the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit [Psalm 143:10, Isaiah 30:21, John 16:13], the counsel of other Christians [Proverbs 15:22], and reasonable common-sense [1 Corinthians 14:6-23] are all to be used for this purpose. But Scripture comes first. And, the truth is, that most of what we really need to know to do God's will is no mystery, and is the same for all of us: Strive to love God and strive to love your neighbour, by active worship and proactive good deeds. In fact both our Epistle and our Old Testament Lesson covered most of the territory!

But someone might say, “Yes, yes, I know all that. But what about the precise direction I need for my life, for big decisions when it is not obvious which way is right, or best? How do I know which deeds to do?” Well, you know what, since God will direct our paths anyway [Proverbs 3:5-6] as long as we trust him and try to obey what we do know, our cogitations about those things probably don't matter as much as we think they do. Many Christians have prayed this kind of wise prayer, “Lord, overrule my circumstances according to your will”. 

However, there is more to it than that, and the verse I began with leads the way.

So, what does it mean to discern what pleases the Lord by testing/trying? It could refer to the process of working out what is right by comparing each choice with the standard of Scripture, etc. But I think it also means that we discover by doing. Since so much of what God wants from us is far from mysterious, if we dive in by doing the obvious, if we search for good to do, then harder choices will take care of themselves. It's all too easy to know what God's general will is in the abstract, but fail to do anything much about it in a concrete way. The solution to this problem is to choose to do good works, and not worry too much at first about which ones. “Just do it”, as Nike says.

[Illustration of opposite mindset: Stories of students saying “But I can do it in my head!” “Oh yes … how marvellous for you ...”]

The truth is that for most people, it is practice rather than theory where we come up short in living right. Ignorance is less of a problem than laziness, fear and selfish desire. It is by obeying the will of God that we are sure of that we can more easily discover his will when we come to the more difficult forks in the road. Using the light we already have illuminates yet more. Often God will simply construct our circumstances so that the path becomes clear and the “forks” disappear. And if some things we “test”, don't work out, that's OK too. All things work together for good for those who love the Lord, as St Paul tells us elsewhere [Romans 8:28].

We get the same message in Colossians 1:10, where the Apostle says “we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God”. Note that growth in knowledge comes after living the life and doing the work in this verse.

This Lent, let us choose to do some specific good works, perhaps even doing something new, but without worrying too much about the specifics, and let God take care of the rest. +

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