Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10
I’m sure even the busiest of us has at least some time to ourselves and, after reading this Gospel passage and seeing how things can work out unexpectedly, I thought of an interesting thing to do. I listed all the major changes in my life that led me to the position I’m in now. I’m not talking about little everyday decisions I’ve made, although I’m sure that even some of those may have had some influence on my future. I’m not going to tell you what these major decisions were but I found that I’d made 24 major ones, which have led to my being in this box this morning. At the time of their occurrence, they seemed to have no link at all with each other. I found it was better to write each one down and then it’s easier to reflect, when following the line through them all. There’ll be many other strings like this, which have led to other things in my life. Fascinating! I recommend that you try it. The result might surprise you. It might even make you think a lot more seriously about any future decisions. I know it’s done that for me. The funny thing is that I thought that I’d made all those decisions purely through my own wisdom and experience. When I made most of them, I certainly didn’t know God at all – but He knew me and just what He wanted to do with me.
"God moves in a mysterious way" is the first line of a hymn written in 1773 by William Cowper, the last he ever wrote. Well, it’s only mysterious to us. God knows the beginning, the middle and the end of all that was, is and shall be.
For an example of His moving in mysterious ways, we need look no further than the man depicted in this morning’s Gospel Reading, whom we know as John the Baptist.
So who was he? He was a perfect example of God putting someone in the right place at the right time. And I don’t mean John himself. Had someone carried out the above exercise for John’s life they would have found a series of linked occurrences and circumstances that would put the prophet when and where God wanted him to be. It was a miracle he was born at all. John’s coming was a fulfilment of many prophesies about him. He would be the prophesied “New Elijah”, (Malachi, Chapter 4: 5, 6) and the herald of the long-promised, long-awaited Messiah.
We see at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel that John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were very old and obviously well past the normal time of being able to produce offspring of their own. As a matter of passing interest, both were descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. Perhaps that’s why God decided to use them in the way He did.
Only one priest was ever allowed to burn the incense in the inner temple. He was chosen by lot each year. In ancient Israel, the High Priest did, from time to time, use the tradition of casting lots for important, uncertain decisions. It amounted to consulting God for the answer, as the primary reason for casting lots was to render an impartial, unbiased decision on important matters. Once the lot was cast, no one could argue that the decision was the result of human intervention like nepotism, politics, favoritism, and so on. Could we please have a system like that for choosing our leaders, with God in charge of course?
I’ve looked up differing ways to perform this selection, from “Short Straw” type methods, to one black stone in a number of white ones etc. They all seem to be random but the Book of Proverbs states "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Proverbs 16:33 NIV).
Considering the terrible stigma both parents carried of being childless, it’s possible that some people may even have tried to keep Zechariah’s name from ever being put into the mix, but they didn’t get their way – Occurrence No.1.
Zechariah belonged to a division of priests called Abijah, named after a King of Judah. There were 24 such divisions, each having around 1,000 priests. The divisions took turns to minister in the temple, as laid down by King David (1 Chronicles: 24). So far then, we’ve chances of one in 24,000 for Zechariah being picked. That’s not taking into account his childlessness. Yet even these extra-long odds didn’t prevent Zechariah from being chosen. Occurrence No.2 But God can and does arrange such things. Once all that had been set in motion, the rest just followed on.
Whilst Zechariah was burning incense on the altar, an angel appeared to him and told him he was going to have a son. And the scene was set for John to be the forerunner of Jesus - Himself. God saw to it that he was born to God-fearing parents who’d bring him up in the way they’d been told. Occurrence No.3.
This was not the only manoeuvring by God we see in the Bible. There was a man called Abram, who through his father, Terah, dying, became head of his household. Occurrence No.1 Abram was very much a city dweller, who must at first have been appalled that God wanted him to go out into the unknown and live, with all his extended family, in tents. Probably most people would have said no. What would the reaction have been, if someone had wanted a Yorkshireman to go and live on the other side of the Pennines? Yet, Abram chose to obey his God, setting in motion His plan for Israel, His chosen people. Occurrence No.2 Who, apart from God Himself, could possibly have guessed what a momentous decision that would turn out to be? God later changed his name, “… no longer will you be called Abram but Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5 NIV).
Other such sequences come to mind:
Joseph, the favourite son of Jacob. was sold into slavery by his brothers. Occurrence No.1 Yet he became a man who was second only to Pharaoh in ruling the land of mighty Egypt. Occurrence No. 2 God put him there, so that the lives of many thousands of people could be saved, when a great famine came on the whole of a vast area, including where Joseph’s father and his family still lived. Occurrence No.3 It was just one occurrence after another that brought this about (Genesis 37:23 – 41:57).
400 years later, Moses should have been killed as a baby (Exodus 1:15, 16). Instead, by what looked like a stroke of “luck”, Occurrence No.1. he was brought up in the royal family of Egypt, thus gaining valuable information about how things were run. Occurrence No.2 Because of a moment of seeming madness, in which he killed someone, he was forced to flee and lived his life as a shepherd. Occurrence No.3 Until, exactly at the right time, God called him to be the one who would lead His people out of their slavery in Egypt. Occurrence No.4 Did he shout for joy at the thought of this? He did not! You can read 23 verses of his protestations to God, about why someone else should be chosen. But he finally gave in, when God told him that he could have his brother Aaron to help him. Occurrence No.5. (Exodus 3:11 – 4:13)
Finally, so as not to appear misogynistic in any way, I mention Esther – a great tale that. If you’ve never read it, I’m sure you’d enjoy this story. King Xerxes had exiled his queen, Vashti, for insubordination for want of a better word (Esther 1:19-21). Occurrence No1. Naturally, he began to regret the fact he had no queen so, to quote the Book of Esther, “… some of the king's advisers who were close to him suggested, ‘Why don't you make a search to find some beautiful young virgins? 3 You can appoint officials in every province of the empire and have them bring all these beautiful young women to your harem here in Susa.” (Esther 2:2, 3 GNB)
Well, what a terrible decision to have to make. He must have really laboured over it. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" (Henry IV). Finally he agreed. You can just imagine him saying “Well, if I must.” Occurrence No2.
Out of all of Xerxes’ vast empire of 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush, guess who was chosen? A Jew of course, with our Bible saying, “…she was a beautiful young woman, and had a good figure” (Esther 2:7 GNB). Occurrence No3.
That might have been a happy ending but, of course, it wasn’t. You’d have to read the whole of Esther to see how this came about but an evil man, Haman, had set in motion an act of genocide against the Jews. Occurrence No.4. Nobody, not even the King knew Esther was Jewish and certainly not Haman. It took great courage for Esther to approach the king without being asked but she did it after much prayer and fasting from all the Jews. Occurrence No.5 The outcome was the end of the evil Haman and an overriding protection scheme for the Jews. God’s intention all along. Occurrence No.6
Abram, Joseph, Moses, Esther. Four ordinary people with the only thing making them different from most human beings was their absolute obedience to God.
So what’s it all about, our decision making, that we know we didn’t do much towards ourselves. What would happen if God gave us a nudge in a particular direction and we chose to do something different. If God thought we were the right person for the job, we’d get a bigger shove.
Remember Jonah – another great read? God gave him a job to do but he ran away instead. Occurrence No.1. He joined a ship but God sent such a terrible storm, that the sailors cast lots to see who was to blame – Jonah! Occurrence No.2 They threw him overboard, where he was swallowed by a great fish. Occurrence No.3 He was in there for 3 days and 3 nights. This is of course was why Jesus, when asked to give a sign, said they would only see the sign of Jonah – that Jesus would be buried for 3 days and 3 nights, as Jonah had been. But God had the fish spew out Jonah onto dry land. Occurrence No.4. Then again, Jonah was sent with the same missive. Occurrence No.5. He eventually literally got the message and did as he was told. Occurrence No.6.
But what if we refuse to do a job for the Lord and no amount of shoves, gentle or otherwise will make us give in? Then, sadly for us, God will choose someone else but the loss will be ours. Harking back to Esther, when she was afraid to risk her life by going to the king unannounced, (Esther 4:11) her guardian, Mordecai, told her, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:12-14 NIV) Well of course she had. We saw earlier how many incidents there’d been along the way to get her to just this position.
Is it always easy to follow the path that God has marked out for us? We know it isn’t. Even Jesus begged His Father 3 times to relieve Him from the suffering and death He faced and said, in the final time, “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 13:46 NIV).
Could we do that? Drink from the cup, when we know it will bring us trouble, or suffering or even just inconvenience. We saw what happened to Jonah, when he turned from the cup and the threat to Esther made by Mordecai if she refused to drink. I’m sure many here have already drunk from their cup and moved closer to God themselves. As believers in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit within us giving us the gentle nudge, then a more palpable leaning on us perhaps in a dream and finally, if the role is very important to God and probably to others, the Spirit will make his presence felt more forcefully. Even then, we can say no. That’s what our God gave to us – free will. But that gift wasn’t meant for us to use it in a selfish way, putting our needs and feelings before those of others.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:3, 4 NIV).
Peter wrote, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10).
What we have to do is to give way to even the tiniest hint of a direction from the Holy Spirit. I’ll give you an example perhaps. Our Healing Ministry Team has been stretched to its limit for a very long time in this church. It just doesn’t seem fair that such a small number of “hardly-young” and/or hardly-fit people should bear the burden of praying for the whole church membership’s needs. I can never think of why the Holy Spirit, who is fully aware of the situation, doesn’t move people to see if they can fill the gaps. Or perhaps He might be giving nudges here and there but people are doing a Jonah and running away from something they don’t think they’re equipped for.
I’ve stressed this in the past. We do not do the healing. We simply ask the Holy Spirit to do it. Who can’t do that? In the Bible, every Christian was expected to pray for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps people don’t feel good enough in the sense of “Holy” enough to do this. If we can’t perform this ministry or any other, because we’re sinners, then we can all go home. Paul wrote to the Romans, “… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV). No one is better than anyone else in asking God for His help.
So please, meet the Spirit half way. Ask Him if this could possibly be what he wants you to do. If you get a feeling inside that perhaps He might, have a word with one of the team, or Tim. Unless you’ve tried it, you have no idea how uplifting it feels just to be performing this ministry, even if you don’t see results straight away, or ever. God is using you and there’s no better feeling than that. Amen.