Now what about that third question, “What am I supposed to do while I am here?” Jesus provides an answer to that question, too. In John 4:34 he says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”
Three things in this text are especially worth noting. 1) Eating is important. If we don’t eat we can’t live. 2) Working is important. If we don’t work, we can’t eat. 3) In the 4th Gospel, Jesus uses the phrases “the will of God” and “the work of God” interchangeably.
I was born the son of a pastor, but I spend the first two decades of my life not at all concerned with the will of God. I first became concerned with the will of God while Elayne and I were living in San Diego, California. I discovered a verse from the book of James. It read:
A wise man does not say, “I am going into this city, to buy and sell, and get gain; but ‘If God wills…I will go into this city to buy and sell and get gain.’”
For the first time in my life, I paused to ask, “What does God will for my life?”
Over the next several months and years, I came up with a three-stage answer.
Now, your mileage may vary. Jesus said the wind of the Spirit blows where it wills, and we hear the sound of it, but we don’t know whence it comes and wither it goes, and so it is with those who are born of the Spirit. Likewise, Zinzendorf said that God works in different ways with different people, and he uses as many ways as there are people. We can never judge how God might work with another by how God worked with us. However, I expect we have at least these three stages in common.
1. The first stage in seeking the will of God for my life was to decide for or against Jesus Christ.
In John 6:29 Jesus said, “This is the work (or will) of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
St. Paul talks about “faith” and “being justified by faith.” St. John uses the word “belief”and its derivatives as a synonym for faith. In the 4th Gospel to believe in Jesus is to believe that Jesus came from God, became a human being that he might save all human beings, died for our sins, rose again to give us a future and a hope, and then returned to God, until that time he will appear in glory.
Occasionally, someone will ask me if I believe that it is possible to be saved apart from from Jesus Christ. I always answer, “I am not God, and I am glad that I am not. Only God is wise enough and good enough to decide the eternal destiny of even a single individual.” That said, no one will be saved apart from Jesus. The atonement or “at-one-ment” that Jesus made between God and humankind is universal. He died for the sins of the world, and rose again to create universal hope. f anyone is saved, whether in the church or out, it will be because of what God has done for all of us in Jesus Christ! Occasionally, someone will ask me if I am a universalists. I always answer that I am not, though, unlike some, I will not be disappointed if God is. It is not the work of the church who decide who is in and who is out of God’s grace. It is the work of the church to invite people to share God’s grace without delay.
2. Stage two in seeking the will of God for my life was the discovery of vocation. After putting my faith in Jesus, I began to ask the question, “Okay, Lord, what next? What am I supposed to do with my life?”
As I have told you before, for a long time I thought that question was answered for me on my birthday, July 21st, in 1973. I had been seeking God’s will for my life. That morning I opened “The Daily Text” and read the New Testament text for the day. It was 2nd Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season…etc.” I immediately told Elayne I was going into the ministry.
I was ordained on August 28th, 1977, more than 40 years ago. For much of that time, I thought the ministry was my vocation. I now know better. 21st Century theologians are quick to point out that if a person submits to believer’s baptism, then that person is ordained in baptism. And if a person confirms the Covenant Baptism to which the person’s parents submitted them, then they are ordained in confirmation. This ordination is an ordination to witness. How is that so? It is so because both baptism and confirmation of symbolic of receiving the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1, Jesus told his disciples that they should tarry in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit which would give them to power to be his witnesses. By daddy used to say, “Worth, I am not a preacher—I am a witness.” I now know how right he was!
Being a witness is much more about walking the walk than it is about talking the talk. A story is told about St. Francis and a young novitiate. The novitiate can to Francis and said that he wanted to lean how to preach. Francis said, “Okay,” and took him out to preach. They spent the day encouraging people, and relieving misery, and doing good where ever they could. At the end of the day, the novitiate said, “This is all good, but when are we going to preach?” Francis said, “That is what we have been doing.” He then gave the young man some sage advice. He said, “Preach at every opportunity, and when necessary, use words!” Our vocation is a vocation to be a witness. Some of us will earn a living by that vocation, but most will not.
3. There was a third stage in my journey to discover God’s will for my life.
Many of you will remember the late Bill Beery, and his wife, Anna. One day Bill and I were discussing the will of God. I said to Bill, “I think God wills the big things for our lives, things like what kind of education we should pursue, and our vocation, and who we should marry, and then leaves the little things to us.” Bill said:
“Well I agree with you, Worth, and I don’t. I believe that God wills the bigs things for our lives—things like keeping the Ten Commandments, and loving him with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving others as we love ourselves, and then leaves the little things to us, things like what kind of education we would pursue, and our vocation, and who we should marry.”
Now, I am not saying that what Bill was right and what I said was wrong. However I do believe that Bill was closer to the whole truth that I was. If we work at the big things like keeping God’s commandments, and loving one another, it is a lot easier to discover God will for the other big things, like what kind of education we should pursue, and our vocation, and whether we should marry, and who we should marry and the like. In his book, Revelation is Recent Thought, John Bailey wrote, “We cry out for some fresh revelation of God’s will. It does not come. It does not because we have not acted on the revelation of God’s will we already have.” We already have the great commandments!
If we pay close attention to the lectionary, there are at least four other things that we can say about God’s will.
1. God has a plan for each of us. Isaiah said that the Lord called him before he was born, while he was in his mother’s womb. Likewise, we know from the gospels that God’s plan for Jesus was settled long before he appeared on the plane of human history, and that John the Baptist was chosen before his birth to prepare the way of the Lord. In 1st Corinthians 1, Paul said that God called him to be an apostle; and in Galatians 1, he said that God set him apart for this work from his mother’s womb. God has a plan for our lives, too. Robert Schuller says that the best way to discover the plan that God has for us is to find a need, and fill it! The most successful people in the world are those who use the gifts and talents God gave them to fill needs they see more clearly than anyone else. We may live small lives, but those small lives can make a big difference in the lives of others.
2. God will execute that plan in our lives at the proper time. Isaiah said that God made his mouth like a sharp sword, then hid him for a time in the shadow of his hand. He said that God made him like a polished arrow, and then kept him tucked away in his quiver, until the time was right, and he was needed. God’s time is never too soon and never too late. Jeremiah was just a youth when God made him a prophet to the nations, but Abraham and Sarah were both old and full of years before God used them to accomplish their most important work. God may use us in the morning of our lives. Or, God may spend a lifetime preparing us for the most important tasks of our lives. The Bible says that people will rise up to honor the head covered with frost. White hair, and wisdom, and wealth, all accumulated over a lifetime, enable older people to do things for God they could not have done when younger. For example: The seven men who built that 23 rank pipe organ in our loft were all retired. Two of them—Vernon Thrift and Riddick Bowles, died before the organ was finished, dedicated, and played. Those seven men not only built an organ, they inspired the revitalization of this church. They were doing something great for God, and their dedication spilled out into others, and into everything else that this church has done since. It is never too late for us to ask, “What does God want me to do now?”
3. We are always happier when doing the will of God that doing what we otherwise want. The author of Psalm 40 wrote that he delighted to do God’s will, and that God’s law was written on his heart. The two go hand in hand. We delight to do God’s will because we were made to do God’s will. Unfortunately, few of us maximize our delight. Far too many of us are like the first son in a parable told by Jesus. You remember the first son. His father told him to go and work in the vineyard. He said, “I will not, then he relented and went.” He did the work, but by resisting his father’s will, he missed out on a big part of the joy. And what about Jonah? You know about Jonah. God wanted to make Jonah a big success, but Jonah fought God at every turn. God eventually forced Jonah to do his will, and made him a raging success. And how did Jonah respond? He accused God of being too good to Israel’s enemies, and he sat down under a bean tree to treasure up his anger. He said that he was “angry enough to die.” Today, when psychologists have a patient who is afraid of success, they say that patient has a Jonah complex.
4. Finally, we are talking about vocation, or calling, and I want to say that vocation is different from destiny. People often think that they are destined to do this or destined to do that, and they are surprised that no one else sees it. People with a vocation always have the satisfaction of having that vocation confirmed by the community of which they are a part.
There is a picture that used to hang in the robing room of The Little Church on the Lane down in Charlotte, N.C. that seeks to defines the moment that Jesus first realized what his vocation must be. In the picture, Jesus is a very young man, just a teenager. He is alone in Joseph’s carpenter shop, sitting on a stool. He has fashioned a small cross, less than a foot high and half as wide. He is holding the cross in both hands, and he is looking heavenward with a look of sorrowful understanding on his face, as if he suddenly realized, “The son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus as, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” For Jesus, this must have been a tremendous confirmation of what he already knew.
If we seek our vocation from God, we can be sure that we will find it, whether it be as a mother, a preacher, a teacher, a doctor, a farmer, or an honest worker of any kind. Martin Luther told his barber that he could “cut hair for the glory of God.” In the same way, if we share our dream with our community, they will be quick to affirm that dream or to challenge that dream. We have seen this the effort of one of our members to build a playground for the children at Piedmont Park, and to the response that people have made to that effort.
So, there are three questions we must all answer. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And what am I supposed to do while I am here? What are you supposed to do?
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.