"Certainty May Conceal God's Will"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 8, 2006

Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-15

    This morning I would like to discuss a large issue for people of faith -- trying to discern God’s will for our lives.  There has always been considerable confusion through the years because of what the Gospel of John has Jesus say, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)  Think of the implications of these words when listeners were given a formula seemingly guaranteeing that anything they wanted would be granted. 

     This past week we empathized with the tragic roller coaster ride of families who had coal miner husbands, fathers and sons caught in the recent mining accident in West Virginia. The initial reports had not been good.  The mine had been cited for close to 50 safety violations.  The initial air vented from the accident site was extremely toxic.  Yet a report circulated that the men were alive.           

     The churches surrounding the mine were filled with worshippers praising God for another miracle, a miracle rivaling that of the dramatic rescue of trapped miners in Pennsylvania.  “God, indeed, is good!” exclaimed a woman standing outside her church. Then three hours later the report came that there had not been a miracle.  The earlier news had been wrong.            

     Suddenly a number of people, who moments before had been lifting their hands in praises of thanksgiving to God, immediately shifted emotionally to a much different place.  First they were devastated by the new news, then some grew angry and eventually a few were talking about lawsuits.  Several people interviewed were actively questioning what good it was to have believed anything about God’s goodness or miracles.  No doubt, many had prayed “in the name of Jesus” for a miracle and death was the answer they felt they received.           

     So many times, in my experience, miracles were short lived.  Good news was only temporary.  A remarkable new experimental drug produced only short-term results.  Life is what it is, a swirling tornado of changing events in which some people of faith attempt to discern God’s will.  Others trust and hope just like the bird that sings of dawn while it is still dark. 

     Even Jesus had learned through his own life experiences that being certain about God’s will is unachievable.  Jesus once told Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.  It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)             

     People can lose their faith when God does not perform the way they think a loving God should.  People may grow angry when their faith of many years is not rewarded by a miracle.  We have an allergy toward uncertainty.  We want God to be the same yesterday, today and forever according to how we calculate God’s nature should be.   

     What Jesus was teaching Nicodemus was not about certainty at all.  Nicodemus was being taught to go with the flow of life trusting that God’s will, will always be done in spite of what we think or believe about it.  Quite often God’s will is being done while we are focused and concentrating on something else.           

     In our lesson today, we have the well-known story of the three Wise Men.  These were mysterious strangers about which very little is known.  If tradition can be believed, the men were astrologers from Persia who were practitioners of Zoroastrianism.  Very little is said about them in the Gospel account, but only men of this persuasion would have been curious about a new star that appeared and be motivated to search for an infant who would become a future king.           

     These men entered history by visiting Jesus in Bethlehem, bringing the infant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  After their visit, they vanish, never to be heard from again.   Little did they realize how their brief presence would influence the immediate future of a young family and impact the lives of countless millions of people through the centuries.  Not only would the gold sustain the family economically while they were in Egypt, but the three men would inspire the practice of gift giving, a phenomenon traceable to their brief mention in only one Gospel.           

     Do any of us really understand how God creates the mural of human history through us?  We equate our success in terms of our investments or our bountiful cash flow.  People can look over their personal track record and feel good about their accomplishments. For example, physicians look at the number of their patients whom they treated properly. Teachers can sense the contribution they have made to the lives of their students.  

     Even trash collectors in Bowie can carry themselves with pride because they know that counterparts in their field cannot do one half of what they do.  When five of Bowie’s trash trucks burned some years ago in an accident, Bowie gave the contract to Browning Ferris.  Their workers tried for three days and then refused to return.  The work was too difficult. Bowie eventually rented trucks from that company and our men were back at work.  Where would the citizens of our city be without those men faithfully coming to work each day?  If God’s will is for diverse people to live in community, we owe these workers a lot of gratitude for what they do. 

     When Father Henry Nouwen was a professor at Boston University School of Theology, he wrote a book entitled, Letters to Marc About Jesus.  In that book he wrote these words: 

I don’t think you will ever be able to penetrate the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus until it strikes you that the major part of his life was hidden and that even the “public” years remain invisible as far as most people were concerned. 

The way of the world is to insist on publicity, celebrity, popularity, and getting the maximum exposure.  God prefers to work in secret.  You must have the nerve to let that mystery of God’s secrecy, God’s anonymity, sink deeply into your consciousness because, otherwise, you will continually be looking in the wrong direction.  In God’s sight, the things that really matter seldom take place in public.  It is the totally unknown people, praying and working in silence that make the difference in God’s creative patterns.  Perhaps the greatest saints remain anonymous!

    Think of what we know about Jesus’ early years.  Jesus was born in an extremely obscure part of the world. Most of the people living at the time of his birth died never knowing him.  As a baby, he was laid to rest in a feeding trough.  Then astrologers came and paid homage as though he would be some future king.  Then they had to flee into Egypt fearing for their lives.  Can you imagine Mary and Joseph trying to understand what God had in mind?           

     Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him according to the Law of Moses, and they encountered Simeon who referred to the baby as “the chosen one by God.”  At the same time, the prophet Anna spoke about the child to all those who were waiting for God “to set Jerusalem free.”  (Luke 2:25f)  What was God saying through all these obvious vehicles of God’s voicePerhaps God was saying nothing and witnesses were left with only their speculations about God’s will.              

     In spite of the seductive words from the Shepherds who had encountered angels, the gifts from the Magi, the comments made from everyone from the Angel Gabriel to the prophet Anna, God’s will was never visible to those experiencing one of life’s most uncertain and confusing sequence of events. Jesus’ ministry started by a period of wandering and wondering.  Three years later Jesus’ mind was still wandering and wondering as he tried to discern God’s will in the garden just before Judas brought the temple guards. What Jesus did was go with the flow, trusting God with whatever would happen.   

     Eventually we find Mary standing at the foot of a cross thinking very similar thoughts as the families of those coal miners.  She was crying tears of a mother for her son. “Where is the miracle?  How could all these people have been wrong including the Angel Gabriel?   Where is God’s will in all of this nonsense?  Nothing makes any sense. I will never understand.”  Many of us have been equally confused, particularly when life appears to be so cruel, unfair and unjust.  

     How curious that more books have been written about Jesus than any person in history.  Remember, Jesus was next to invisible. He wrote nothing. We have no description of his physical appearance.  He never traveled more than 90 miles from the place where he was born.  What we know about God’s will is this: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” (John 1:5)   

     The nature of God’s will may never materialize because we pray for miracles to happen, or we want God to tear open the heavens and come down as a Psalmist once requested. We are not aware of how our smallest deeds will impact those whom we do not know are watching us.  Sometimes when we least expect it, “an angel” will give us a wake up call.  In one split second, God’s compassionate presence can seep into our otherwise crowded, distracted day and give us a wonderful insight.   

     Many years ago, I was coming down an escalator in a mall filled with department stores trying to finish my Christmas shopping.  I wanted to be on the road before rush hour started.  My mind was frustrated because the sale items I wanted were not available or they were found only in triple X sizes. I just wanted to get out of there.  People were everywhere.  While I love people, there are times when being alone on an island appears very attractive.   

     As I came down the escalator, I saw something that took me to the other end of my emotional spectrum.  Every frustration was instantly erased.  A woman in the advanced stages of some debilitating disease was slouched in her wheelchair.  Kneeling beside was her very handsome husband.  He was feeding her little spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream.  I heard him say to her, “You are the most beautiful person in the world.”  I fought tears as I headed for my car.   

     Once again, people minding their own business, were radiating something that influenced the rest of my day.  It was as though an invisible angel beside me said, “Dick, look at that couple.  Listen to what he is saying to her.  Both of them will dissolve your frustrations.”  I did listen and instantly I was changed.  Perhaps this is how God’s will is revealed to us. 

     I was reminded of the time that Jesus used a poor widow who put the last coins she had into the Temple treasury.  Jesus said, “She gave more than anyone else.”  We will never know who she was. Her name does not matter.  Because Jesus mentioned her, her generous spirit has influenced millions of people.  She would never know of her impact on others thousands of years in the future.  She was only making visible her faithfulness.  It was God who made her deed known. 

     God’s will is accomplished when we are not doing anything extraordinary.  The three astrologers came and vanished.  Yet, look what they set in motion.  A small group of people had a vision for a church on this parcel of land and their dream of St. Matthew’s was set in motion.   

     Mary and Joseph and even Jesus, seldom had life go the way they wanted it.  What they did, however, was remain faithful in dealing with the tasks that appeared in front of them.  For Jesus it was a tax collector perched in a tree, a blind beggar beside his worship center, a prostitute who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair and a cross.  All these images have a way of teaching us God’s will for our lives.  “Be compassionate.  Do not judge others.  Heal others with your words and touch.  Trust me to use your life for my purposes.” 

     A seed is sown in one century so that a shrub of truth may bloom in a very distant future.  God would rather we sing even if there is no one to hear our music.  God would have us build, support, praise and love even when there is no audience to applaud.  God would have us do something we really want to do and create from what we have learned, knowing that God may be the only one who knows.  In living our truth passionately, God’s will is done, even when we believe no one is watching us.


     Merciful God, as the weeks continue to unfold in the New Year, we are not surprised that our faithfulness is always being tested.  The voices of routine, habit and compromise are always inviting us to perceive without love.  The hurtful words of others betray the quality of their hearts, yet we often personalize what others say.  Moments come when it is safer to trust ourselves than the less secure path of “Thy Will be done.”  Guide us to remember that it is the diversity of the instruments that creates the orchestra.  Life would never be the adventure it is, if trust and faith were never required of us.  Heal our present perceptions so that our horizons of thought will continue to expand and grow.  Amen.