THE ONE WHO SAID YES
TEXT: Acts 16:6-15; Genesis 12:1-4
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all known as Abrahamic religions because they all trace their roots to Abraham, the man we read about in the Genesis passage today. It is thought that Abraham lived about 2000 BC. That common religious ancestor also gives us something else in common. For each of those three great religions, God is not just a completely unknowable life-force that manages the universe with an unseen hand. For each of us, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, God is personal, particular, and both willing and able to enter human history. God is not a "what," but a "who," and that "who" has very distinct personality, preferences, and direction.
In some ways, the Bible in the Old and New Testaments is the Christian version of that personality, preference, and direction. Before there even was any form of organized religion, God is directing people and showing preferences. Eat of these trees, but not that one; accepting that offering but not this; sending people over there, but not over here. Now on the one hand, that makes God much more understandable and accessible to our human brains. We understand preferences. Some like potatoes but not turnips; others like cold but not hot; some have friends that others wouldn't dream of even having a conversation with. There are more choices on store shelves than I can personally deal with. This Tuesday we will vote for this candidate and not that one, and each one of us will decide for ourselves what issues are important for our country and which are not. We understand preferences, and that gives us, at some level, an understanding of God.
But we also know how capricious our preferences can be. Depending on my mood and the circumstances of a given day, I might suddenly hate the thought of a tunafish sandwich, when that is generally my lunch of choice. Good friends might one day stop speaking to each other because of new issues. For myself, I now preach as truth some things that I thought were absolutely heretical in my twenties. Our own choices and preferences can change, and that part of human experience also makes us nervous about a God who chooses. Suppose God is like me and God's choices change? It might be nice if God chooses me today, but what if God wakes up grumpy tomorrow and doesn't want me anymore? Suppose I offend God and God refuses to speak to me again? A lot of the tensions in relations between Jews and Christians come over the question of whether God dumped the Jews as the chosen people in exchange for Christians.
Our focus this year has been to prepare to launch into mission, and that is founded on the belief in a particular God, who both calls churches and individuals to specific tasks in particular places at a time of God's choosing. Last week we remembered that if we are to hear God at all, we must first stop the craziness of our lives and be still. This week, I have chosen two passages that speak of God's choosing and sending, to see if we can gain any insights about God's nature and our calling.
The first thing that is obvious to me is that God, most commonly sends people out. From the time God barred Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and sent them out into the world, God has been sending people out beyond their comfort zone, beyond their own borders, to foreign lands. Sometimes they are really foreign nations, and sometimes they are spiritually foreign lands...places and experiences that are foreign to us.
In one of the most famous passages of Scripture, God sends Abraham away from all he knows, literally to an unknown land. "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you," says God. He gets no maps. He doesn't have a demographic study of that new land so that he is prepared for who he will meet. He doesn't get to go there first, check out the land, and then return home and make some plans. He is simply told to get up and go to a new land...sight unseen...just because that's where God said to go.
God is still pulling this stuff in the New Testament, both during and after the time of Jesus. The 12 disciples closest to Jesus are all called away from home and family, work and familiar life, to follow this wandering Rabbi, who has throngs of admirers and some powerful enemies. Jesus called 12 very particular men to very particular work, and they had to leave behind everything to do it. He trained them for three years and then sent them out to strange and foreign lands. That's what the word "apostle" means... "sent out." An apostle is simply a disciple who has been sent out.
And it doesn't end with the death and resurrection of Jesus, as we see in the life of St. Paul. As Susan reminded us a couple of weeks ago, God makes a seemingly ridiculous choice, and picks an active persecutor of the church. If Paul were alive today he would be tried for crimes against humanity. He hunted down Christians and put them to death, sure that he was doing the work of God. Until God showed up one day while Paul was on his way to Damascus and everything changed.
Now all of that stubborn zeal was turned toward telling others the news that he once had killed people for believing...that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The story I read from Acts happens almost 20 years later, about 50-52 AD, and God again interrupts Paul's plans. Paul plans to go to Asia, but God says no. So they head in another direction and try to go to a place called Bithynia, but God won't let them go there either, so they go to the port of Troas in the northeast corner of Asia minor and spend the night. There in Troas, God expresses a preference through a vision to Paul. There is a man from Macedonia...a Greek...asking Paul to come there. And Paul gets on a boat and goes there.
Macedonia is in the Balkans. They have crossed now into Europe...another continent, a foreign land. The last words of Jesus recorded in the book of Matthew are "Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations." That should not have been news to those who had studied the actions of God in history. God is always calling people for the purpose of sending them out, forcibly sometimes. Joseph gets into Egypt because his brothers sold him to some Egyptian slave traders. Daniel gets to witness to the King of the Babylonian Empire because God allowed Israel to be taken into captivity and force-marched into a foreign land. When the people wanted to build the Tower in Babel...a fortress where they could all stay together and comfortable, God interrupted the project, confused their language, and scattered the people over the face of the earth.
From Adam and Eve all the way through the New Testament, God's action is consistent. God's people are called in order that they might be sent out. It's not always easy or safe. Jesus says to his disciples, "I am sending you out as sheep among wolves." Gee thanks. John was the only disciple of the 12 to live out a natural lifetime. Paul was beheaded in Rome by order of the Emperor Nero. It is not always easy, it is not always safe, but the people of God are a sent people...from beginning to end...sent out...away...to lands and cultures that are foreign to us.
There is one other thing that characterizes the people that God chooses. They are the ones who say "yes." I am often asked why God chose Abraham rather than somebody else. What sort of preference was God expressing. Did God think Abraham was racially superior to others? Was he smarter or better somehow? I don't think so. In fact, my pet theory about the calling of Abraham is that Abraham might not have been the first person God picked. God might have asked 16 other people before ever getting to Abraham, but Abraham was the one who said, "Yes." God said, "Get up and go," and Abraham got up and went...no questions asked. It was the same for Paul. God says, "Go to Macedonia," and Paul boards a ship and goes the next morning.
I honestly believe that God is always speaking and always calling to everyone. The ones that God can use, and the ones that God will use for the greatest tasks of God's kingdom, are the ones who will say "Yes," no matter what. "Come, follow me," and they leave their fishing nets and do just that. "Leave your home and your family and all that you know and go to a land that I will show you," and by afternoon the camels are loaded. "Go to Macedonia," and he's on a ship the next morning.
There are some reluctant disciples to be sure...not everyone accepted the call at first blush. But, whether early or late, the first thing needed if we are to be used by God is a willing spirit. We must become a people who say "Yes." Not "Yes, but..." Not, "Yes, if you won't require anything of me on Thursdays." Not, "Yes, as long as I don't have to change anything about my life." The spirit God can use to change the world is the spirit that says, "Yes, God. Not my will, but thine be done."
In the end, that is really the only question of Christian life. Will you be a person, will we be a church, that says "yes" to God without tacking on six pages of conditions? Will you trust the message of Scripture that God is love enough to go where God leads...even if you don't understand how love and crosses go together? God honors our free will. We can always say no. But I have found that there is no meaning or purpose to life outside of the will of God. It doesn't matter how outwardly comfortable my life might be, there is a giant hole in the center of my life when I am not in sync with God's calling for my life.
And so the calling comes to each of us, every day of our lives. There is work to be done. Hatreds and divisions are sending the world to hell in a handbasket, and God has a "help wanted" sign hanging in the window. God provides all the training, all the strength, all the resources that you will need for the job. All you need to do is say "yes." Will you? Will we? Amen.
(c)2004 Anne Robertson
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