God Will You See You Through
by the Rev. Sarah Buteux
May 17, 2015,
Ascension Sunday, Year B
Some passages in the Bible are just so weird.
Today is Ascension Sunday, but I’ve preached on that before, so I thought I’d make a go with this other passage in Acts, and yet I have to say, the more you go over it and really think about it, the stranger this little episode gets.
For those of you just tuning in, “Ascension” refers to Jesus’ last day here upon the earth.
According to the Book of Acts, Jesus was “taken up before (the) very eyes,” of his disciples – presumably to heaven – taken up in a cloud much like Grizabella in the musical CATS… after which the disicples all went back to Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit whose arrival we will celebrate next Sunday with Pentecost.
The passage we just heard today takes place between those two major events, so we are already in a strange space. This is a liminal time, a time in-between. Jesus is gone but the Holy Spirit has not yet come. The disciples are in what you might call a holding pattern.
They are hunkered down in the upper room once again, spending most of their time in prayer together as they wait…and wait…and wait – because that is precisely what Jesus told them to do – wait…wait…wait – until Peter just can’t take it anymore and gets it into his head that it’s time to do something.
It would seem that the whole Judas thing …has really been weighing on him, and he’s decided that not only do they need to replace Judas – they need to replace Judas now. Why? I don’t know.
Maybe Peter just wanted them to be ready – have a full complement of 12 disciples on hand– so they can get right down to business when the Holy Spirit finally comes.
Or, perhaps maybe the hole Judas had left was too painful a reminder of Peter’s own betrayal.
Maybe they had 12 jerseys, one for each of the disciples, and it was weird seeing the one that belonged to Judas just hanging there on the wall. I don’t know.
Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that with nothing better to do, Peter has been mulling this over for awhile, worrying the problem with his mind the way you might worry a sore tooth with your tongue.
And, as so often happens when you do something like that, not only has the problem grown in his mind, so have some very strange rationalizations.
Take his use of the Bible, for instance. In his quest to justify making a move to replace Judas ASAP, Peter begins by referring to two psalms:
Psalm 69:25 ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and
Psalm 109:8 ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
…two verses from two separate psalms, neither of which, as far as I can tell, have anything at all to do with Judas or anything at all to do with each other for that matter.
Honestly, these verses seem plucked at random to make a point, and not a very strong one at that.
Now Peter is of course not the first person to take scripture completely out of context to pursue his own agenda, but it’s a weak beginning to say the least.
However, what’s really strange is the criteria he then puts forth for this new disciple, that he be: “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.”
Now this is weird because as far as we can tell none of the disciples were with Jesus at his baptism. He simply hadn’t called any of them yet.
Well, whether Peter is making any sense or not it would seem that everyone in that upper room is as bored as he is, so they talk amongst themselves and out of the 120 people present (that upper room is a lot bigger than I thought it was) they pick two:
Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus and
Mattias, who apparently was only ever known as Mattias
and then – THEN! – they pray.
Did you catch that?
Very important decision to be made here and they obviously want God to weigh in, but they don’t trouble God with the decision making until they themselves have whittled the candidates down from 120 to 2. I think that’s kind of funny.
Only then do they lift up their eyes to heaven and say: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen…”
And then … do they wait for a sign? Do they watch for God? Do they listen for that still small voice?
No, they cast lots, they draw straws, they roll the dice and lo and behold, “the lot fell on Mattias; and he was added to the eleven…”
Problem solved. Case Closed. Thanks be to God.
O.K., now why did I just lead you through all that in such great detail? (Some might even say, “excruciating detail.” Well, I’ll tell you why.
I highlight all this weirdness because I want you to see that even amongst the disciples, there was some pretty deep seated confusion about:
how God works here in the world,
how God works in us and through us,
how God speaks to us and guides us,
whether or not God has a plan for each and every one of us,
and how precisely we might understand or fit into that plan.
I want you to see how confused they were because I think their confusion, when it came to matters of discernment, probably mirrors our own more than we’d care to admit.
As people of faith I think many of us are still as conflicted about God’s role in our lives, as we are confused about how to discern God’s will for our lives.
I know there are plenty of Christians out there who will tell you that they simply believe in God’s sovereignty, that God’s going to do what God’s going to do, that God made Judas betray Jesus just as surely as God made that lot fall to Mattias, and if that helps them sleep at night, well, bully for them.
But for the rest of us, I think it’s still an open question, a matter of some consternation, something we do not fully understand and probably never will.
I think many of us pray and pray hard, hoping against hope for a sign. We search the scriptures. We talk things over with wise, spiritual people whom we trust. We wonder where God’s will ends and our free will begins.
And not for nothing but we worry. We worry that somehow we might mess things up. We stress about the choices we make. And we wonder how or if you can ever really know precisely what it is God wants you to do, if in fact God actually wants you to do anything at all.
Well, it will probably come as no surprise to you, that this used to stress me out a great deal.
I grew up in a church that believed very strongly in the sovereignty of God. I was told over and over again that God had a plan for my life, that God cared intimately about the choices I made, that the answers to all my questions were out there and I could find them if I just had enough faith.
And I’ll tell you right now, I prayed about everything. I prayed about what I should wear, where I should eat, who I should talk to, what I should say.
(If God really does hear all our prayers than I may well be why the world is in such bad shape right now because all that chatter may well have driven God crazy. Kidding. I think.)
But there was one very significant moment for me as a young woman that really shifted my understanding of how all this works. I was in the midst of choosing which college I should attend – a very big decision when you’re a teenager – and I was so tied up in knots that I went to consult my pastor.
For goodness knows how long I poured out before him the pros and cons of each choice, my earnest hopes and my deepest fears and finally, finally, finally he stopped me and he said the most delightfully subversive, radically liberating thing anyone had ever said to me up until that point in my young life. My Conservative Baptist pastor leaned across the great wide desk in his book-lined study and said, “Sarah, sometimes God lets us make our own decisions.”
The truth of that statement hit me like a ton of bricks even as it slipped the knots of anxiety that had me trussed up like a Christmas goose.
“Sometimes, God lets us make our own decisions?!?!?”
“Sometimes, God lets us make our own decisions.”
“Well I’ll be…”
Thanks to those kind and wise words I have come to understand that the choices before us are not always a matter of right or wrong, good or evil, God’s way or the highway.
Sometimes they really are just choices: choices that need to be made, choices that will lead us down different paths into the lives of different people in order that we might do different things all to the glory of God. Not right or wrong –paths, people, things – just different paths, people, things.
From that moment on I came to understand that though we might mess things up in the moment and make choices that impact us for years to come, in the end, it is not possible for us to mess up God’s ultimate plan for us, because ultimately, in the end, all God really wants is us.
And I believe God will wait, for all eternity if need be, before he’ll ever give up on reconciling with any one of us. I believe God will wait, forever if necessary, for every last one of her children to come home.
So to sum up, you my friends will make millions of choices in this life. You make hundreds, maybe even thousands of decisions everyday: decisions that will effect you, that will effect your family, your community, this church. We have a lot of decisions coming up to make about this church. And although I do believe God will be with is in the midst of every last one of those decisions, I don’t think that God has Her ultimate plan for all of creation staked out on the outcome of any one of them.
The truth is that sometimes you will feel God’s presence guiding you and sometimes you won’t. Sometimes God will feel as close as the beating of your heart and at other times will seem as distant as She probably did to the disciples back in those days between the Ascension and Pentecost.
I guess my message for you this morning is that you can relax either way, because God does know your heart, and no matter how badly you screw up any of this or how spectacularly you succeed, God is not going to let you go. God will meet you on the other side of any and every decision you make with the hope of drawing you ever deeper into God’s love.
God will find ways where there seems to be no way. And if all else fails remember that God has the power to redeem even the stupidest, saddest, most sinful things you do, because that is the nature of God.
You know, we never hear about Mattias again. Peter and his cohort thought they had a pretty air-tight method worked out for picking a new disciple, and maybe they did. Maybe Mattias went on to do great things, and maybe he didn’t. Maybe they were right. Maybe they were wrong. We don’t know.
What I can tell you is that the man in Acts who will go on to do the most to advance the gospel is not even on their radar yet, nor is he someone they ever would have chosen.
Not only has he never met or followed Jesus, he is, at that very moment busy preparing to hunt down and destroy anyone who will. His name is Saul, soon to become Paul, and no one but God even sees him coming.
The good news is that whether or not the disciples were right or wrong, God remained with them anyway. The good news is that the Holy Spirit still came. And the best news of all is that that same Spirit remains even still. Our job is to tap into that Spirit as best we can in order to do the best we can, trusting that God alone can and will make all things beautiful in his time. Amen? Amen.