Sharp About Your Prayers

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How Do I Know What God Wants Me to Do?

February 22nd, 2010 · 5 Comments · Sermon Bin

“How Do I Know What God Wants Me to Do?”

Luke 4: 1-13

First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2010

Luke 4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.  It is also the first installment in our Lenten sermon series—a series devoted to your questions.  For those who are visiting this morning, I should let you know that about a month ago we asked congregation members to submit questions that they have about God and faith—questions they might like to hear tackled in a sermon.  We have chosen six of these questions to frame our journey through the next forty days—throughout Lent.

Our question for this morning, our first question, came packaged in a number of different ways.  One person asked, “Does God have a plan for my life?”  Another wrote, “Since I haven’t run across a burning bush lately, like the one that gave marching orders to Moses, how can I know what God wants from me?”  Coming from different places, different hearts, different concerns, these people were all asking the same classic, religious question: “How do I know what God wants me to do?”

As far as questions go, this one has a pretty important history.  In fact, you could say that all human inquiry starts with these four words: “How do I know?”

The great thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, commenced their philosophical writings by asking: “How do we know anything?”  It is the first question out of the gate for almost every discipline: economics, biology, psychology, political theory, and even literature: “How do I know?”

Asking, “How do I know?” leads a person to consider facts and evidence.  What counts as reliable data?  What kinds of observations are possible?  What will enable me to draw accurate conclusions?  How do I know?

This question asserts itself in our professional lives every single day; and, outside the workplace, we cannot escape it either.  It slips into our emotional lives.  It crops up in our relationships.  What are we asking, after all, when we pluck petals from a daisy… “She loves me, she loves me not.”

“How will I know,” sings Whitney Houston, “if he really loves me?”  It may not be the most profound song ever written, but it became popular because it put to music the question we ask whenever we peer into the heart of another human being: How do I know that I can trust you?

The question “How do I know?” is so central to human inquiry that it is no surprise, when it comes to matters of faith, that most Theology 101 classes begin with it.  The Gospel of John begins there.  John Calvin began there.  Countless theologians have started their journey into the Christian thicket by asking: “How do I know God?”

Down through the centuries, the word that Christians have used as shorthand for this discussion is revelation—revelation as in “Aha” and not “Revelation” as in the last book in the Bible.  Theologians talk about two different types of revelation.

The first is general revelation. General revelation is walking through Central Park in the fall, the sharp of angle of the late afternoon sun sets the tips of the leaves ablaze, music floats to your ears from a nearby Jazz trio… your heart overflows with the beauty of it all.  There must be, you think, some good force that has made this universe.

When creation itself testifies to God, that’s general revelation.  Psalm 19 begins: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.”  Do you hear it there?  Sometimes it feels like the world is proclaiming God’s existence and God’s goodness.  That’s general revelation.

The other type of revelation is special revelation.  Beyond our general feelings, we claim to have a special revelation whenever we assert that God has made specific things known to us.  When we read from the Bible and say, “This is the Word of the Lord”; that’s special revelation.  We are stating that this book can tell us who God is, and what God wants.  The study of World Religions is the study of special revelations.  The Koran is an example of special revelation (for Muslims), as is the Torah (for Jews), as is the Book of Mormon (for Mormons).  It is not just books.  People who declare that they have plans given to them by God are also examples of special revelation to different faiths: Abraham, Mary, Mohammed, the Apostle Paul…

From the prophet Isaiah to subway preachers in Grand Central Station, anytime someone says that they have had a word from on high—that they know what God wants, it’s an example of special revelation.

Now, while general revelation and special revelation are old theological terms, they are key to understanding the current religious climate—both here in New York City and in the broader country.  This past week, results from the most recent Pew Foundation study on the religious attitudes of Americans came out.  A good bit of this study focuses on people between the ages of 18 and 29.  The findings are fascinating.

One out of four Twenty-somethings in this country now has no affiliation with a religion.  Twenty five percent.  Historically, that is as high as that number has ever been.  But wait, says the survey, these numbers do not mean that these young adults don’t believe in God.  On the contrary, they do.  In fact, belief is actually on the rise.  Church attendance is not.  Why?

Indulge me for a second with a show of hands…  How many of you have heard a friend or a relative say, “I am spiritual but not religious.”   Uhuh.  I thought so.  And here’s the thing…  The difference between being spiritual and being religious is the difference between general and special revelation.  Really!  If you are spiritual, you have a general sense that God exists.  To become religious, however, means that you want to give contour to that general feeling.  It means exploring God within a tradition: Presbyterianism, Orthodox Judaism, Hinduism…

That is, of course, the rub…  Right now, most of the young people (who live and work within a mile or two of this church) are not sure that they want to get involved with a religious community.  They are wary of the religious traditions that are out there and scared of what they stand for…  Next week, on Confirmation Sunday, we are going to explore why they feel this way.

For now, we have circled back to our original question.  How do I know what God wants me to do?  The answer to this question, no matter what religion you are, lies in this theological term: special revelation.  How do I know what God wants of me?  Well, I know when I get a word, a specific word, something that goes beyond a general feeling, something that I can identify as God’s directive, God’s command, God’s whispered advice to me.

Isn’t that what we are looking for?  Isn’t that what we crave?  Of course, the problem, as one of you pointed out so very well, is that sometimes, maybe even most times, it is difficult to hear that word.  Maybe we need to revise our question.  Perhaps we should be asking, “How can I tell (in the midst of all that clamors for my attention) which voice is God’s voice?  You made it easy for Moses.  How about me?  Where can I find that burning bush?”

Now, that is a question that takes us back to Lent.

According to Luke, before Jesus begins his earthly ministry, he heads out into the wilderness for forty days.  Forty days of contemplation.  Forty days of fasting.  Forty days of being tempted.  Forty days of praying.  Forty days of listening for God’s word, God’s direction.

Christ goes on retreat before going out to preach.  That seems appropriate, but does it help us figure out what we are to do?

Tony Campolo tells a story about a children’s sermon that he once observed at a church in Philadelphia.  The young pastor began by saying, “Ok kids, I am going to describe something to you.  It is grey.  It has a fluffy tale.  It likes to eat nuts.  It lives up in a tree.  What do you think it is?”  A small, smart-looking girl raised her hand, and then leaned into the microphone.  “Well,” she said, “it sounds like a squirrel, but it’s probably Jesus.”

Clearly, clergy have conveyed that the right answer to almost every question you can ask in church is “Jesus.”  It seems ridiculous, except for the fact that Christ is the revelation that we hold out to the world.  In Jesus, theologian Karl Barth says, we see, clearer than we have ever seen before, the will of God for us.

What does that mean?  Well, first of all, it means that when we ask, “How do I know what God wants me to do?” we ought to look to Jesus for an answer.  He is, as the book of Hebrews puts it, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  Christ is our guide.  When we struggle to hear God’s voice for our lives, what better thing can we do than watch the path taken by him?

In today’s text, Luke describes Christ going out into the wilderness to listen for a word and to seek guidance from above.  What do we see here?

The first thing we might notice is that Jesus steps away from the rest of his life.  He creates distance so as to hear.  He goes to a deserted place, and pushes back everything to listen.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to hear when we in the middle of the chaotic demands of life.  Create distance.

The second thing that we might learn from watching Christ is that listening for God requires that we be really clear, really honest, about what we value in this life.  Knowledge of God, says John Calvin on the cover of your bulletin, requires knowledge of self.

Luke tells us that, in that deserted place where Jesus went to pray and to listen, the tempter showed up.  Enticing things got whispered in Jesus’ ears—offers were dangled before him.  He was promised food, power, and safety—things that don’t seem all that bad.  Although, of course, anything that gets prioritized higher than God can twist us.  How can we tell when things that we typically value are warping us?  How can we know when the voice of the tempter is intruding on our efforts to listen for God?

One of the most prayerful Christian communities on earth is the Jesuits.  Founded in 1540, Ignatius of Loyola always asked himself two questions before he would pray: For what am I most grateful?  For what am I least grateful?  In answering those two simple questions every day… What am I most grateful about that happened today?  What am I least grateful about?  By identifying these moments, Ignatius found that he began to become more and more confident of where God was in his life, and what God wanted him to do.

Try it.  You might be surprised.  After a couple weeks of this exercise, people often report that the things for which they are most grateful are not the things that they spend the most time pursuing.  Each day, tell God what gave you life and joy before you shut your eyes, and you will gain greater and greater clarity into God’s desires for you.

The third thing that Luke’s Gospel shows us is that prayer is a discipline.  Jesus doesn’t fire off a prayer like a quick email to heaven, and then go back to work—assuming that God will text him a response later that afternoon.  Prayer isn’t a pneumatic tube shuttling messages back and forth between you and heaven.  Prayer is a discipline.  That doesn’t mean that it has to be painful, but it does mean that we get better at it over time.  On the other hand, like exercise, when we neglect it, we lose muscle tone.

So, how do I know what God wants me to do?  The story of Jesus praying in the wilderness gives us three straightforward suggestions.  1) Create space, 2) Be clear and honest about what you value, 3) Be disciplined.

Does it work?

Some of you know that early in my time here in New York, Andy Mead, the Rector at St. Thomas Church, my neighbor just down the block, invited me to lunch.  He asked me how it was going.  I told him it was challenging.

Lowering his club sandwich, Andy took pity on me.  ”Scott, do you want to know how to survive as a pastor in New York?”

“Yes,” I gasped, desperate for anyone who could make sense of ministry in this light-speed fast, post-Christian, spiritually eclectic city.

“Well,” he replied, “then I have two pieces of advice for you:  1) Get enough sleep, and 2) be sharp about your prayers.”

It’s become my mantra.

Then, about a year ago, I let the discipline slip.  Last February, we were in endless meetings here at the church to try and figure out how we would navigate the financial crisis.  It was hard work.  It felt like going in reverse.  I began to feel sorry for myself, and just plain scared.  I did not know what God wanted me to do.  I did, however, know what I wanted to do… Run!

Then, one night, stretching my legs before another of those difficult meetings, I walked out of the church and past St. Thomas.  Immediately, I realized what was wrong.  I had not been following Andy’s advice.  I had been dull, not sharp, about my prayers.  So, I got back to work.  I did the Ignatian thing.  I started praying every night about what I was most grateful for…

Quickly, a pattern emerged.  It was easy.  You see what I was most grateful for were all of you—the people trying to formulate plans to make ends meet, the people who were volunteering in Sunday school, and making worship happen, the people who stuck by this church through thick and thin.

In doing this, in saying to God every night, I am grateful for these people, what was right before my nose came into sudden focus.  It was as if God said… No, I am sure that God said, “Scott, love these people.  They are amazing.  That’s all you have to do.  It’s gonna be alright.”

Now, answers have not always been that clear for me, but I am certain, my friends, that I have no hope of answering the question, “What does God want me to do?” without the tethering discipline of prayer.

Please join me in affirming our faith in the One who went out into the wilderness, and who taught us to seek God in this radical and hopeful way, using the words of the Brief Statement of Faith which can be found printed in your bulletins…

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • David LiuNo Gravatar

    Thank you, please keep giving us the opportunity to read these powerful sermons. I also think CD copies of the Lenten series should be packaged and sold at the FAPC gift shop.

  • KimberleyNo Gravatar

    fabulous! sleep, gratitude, praise the Lord! How divinely simple.

  • JeanNo Gravatar

    Being sharp about prayer reminded me that it’s something not to let go of no matter what.

  • Laura FissingerNo Gravatar

    Today, I am grateful for this blog, which is exactly what I needed for too many reasons to list here. I am grateful also — even during the seriousness of Holy Week — for the healing power of laughter, and how much laughter sings up to God from this blog.

  • SBJNo Gravatar

    Thanks Laura! I just found out today that this sermon got reviewed by a “Mystery Worshipper!”