Being Initiated by God
5-27-18 Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8
Theme: The Cart-before-the-Horse faith understanding: faith will help me get the life I want/need. The Biblical model faith understanding: faith will help God get what God desires out of us! There are vast differences between these two understandings of faith, the biggest of all being whether or not I intend to use God, or be used by God.
There once was an elderly woman who went from home to home across the countryside selling thread, buttons, and shoestrings. When she came to an unmarked crossroad, she would toss a stick into the air and go in the direction the stick pointed when it landed. It was in this manner that she believed the invisible forces of the universe would help her discover good places in which to sell her goods.
One day, however, she was seen at a particular crossroads, tossing the stick up several times. “Why do you toss the stick more than once?” someone asked. “Because,” replied the woman, “it keeps pointing to the left, and I want to take the road on the right.” She then dutifully kept throwing the stick into the air until it pointed the way she wanted to go! (story told by Walter Knight)
How silly! How absurd! And how like human nature! We are creatures who like to set our own course so often in life – we like to plan, predict, navigate, structure, and otherwise control life to make it the most it can be.
If truth be told, I believe that this is often how we approach faith. We begin with what we want out of life, and then see how our faith can provide. We want success, so we approach faith in search of wisdom and guidance. We want peace, so we approach our faith for solace and comfort. We want truth, so we approach faith in search of unshakable reality. We want forgiveness, so we approach faith in search of mercy and compassion. We want justice, so we approach faith in search of virtue and integrity.
This is what I call CBTH Faith — the “Cart before the Horse” faith understanding. It is the belief that FAITH WILL HELP ME GET THE LIFE I WANT. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And before any of us disqualifies ourselves from this kind of approach, think back to your most recent prayers – were they petitionary? Did you ask God for something for yourself or for your family or for the world? I know most of my prayers are for this kind of thing – I petition God for help with this committee, or insight during counseling, or patience during visiting, or wisdom with my children, or healing for this individual, or peace in this troubled soul. I don’t know about you, but most of my prayers are extremely subjective; I ask God for a favor.
Now, this is OK but for one thing – faith in God means to start not with ourselves, but with God. Starting with our needs, wants, desires, hopes, and dreams is placing the cart before the horse, in danger of making God a servant to our desires. Isaiah models the opposite kind of faith, the faith that starts with God’s desires for us. This model is related in the story of Isaiah’s calling we have before us today, where Isaiah receives a vision – and what a vision it is! He saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; magical, winged creatures called Seraphs were flying around in attendance to God; praises and proclamations let Isaiah know, he was in the direct presence of God.
Imagine that, for a moment – Isaiah was in the direct presence of God. God was paying direct attention to him. I wonder what that would be like? I tried to think of a type of modern-day equivalent – imagine, perhaps, that God called you directly on the phone, or invited you to coffee, or texted you one day, saying “Hello, this is God.” What would that be like? I know what I would do first, if I had God’s complete attention – I’d share with God my list of questions about why creation is the way it is. Why suffering, why hatred, why earthquakes and famine and injustice. Then, I’d ask God for help, I’d ask God for healing for my niece who is fighting cancer, I’d ask God for help with our country which is under unique stress, I’d ask God for peace and understanding in the world – and, yes, I’d ask God to help us pay off our building renovation! I have many things to ask God about; I have many things to ask God for.
But Isaiah models a different approach when he finds himself in the direct presence of God. Isaiah begins WITH WHAT GOD WANTS. In our passage today, we hear God saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us, the heavenly host?” Isaiah immediately replies, “HERE AM I! SEND ME!” Please note something: Did God say what the job was? NO. More significantly, I believe, is this: DID ISAIAH ASK WHAT THE JOB WAS? NO!!! He was open to God’s will, before his own.
This is the Biblical model faith understanding: not that faith will get us the life we want, but that faith will help God get what God wants out of us! There are vast differences between these two understandings of faith, the biggest of all being whether or not I intend to use God, or be used by God.
I love how Bishop William Willimon puts it. He says:
“The great mistake of modern, American-style Christianity is the assumption that we can use our faith in Christ to get the world we want. It’s a mistake because it fails to appreciate that Christ is God’s means of getting the world that God wants. We’re not here in the Body of Christ to get a new technique whereby we can use Jesus. We are here to risk the possibility that hereby Jesus might use us!”
Let me ask you a question: How different would our lives be if we insisted that our first prayer in the morning, our first thought with anyone we meet, our first action in a group, was guided by the thought of what God wanted to get out of that moment? What God wanted to get out of us? What God wanted to do with us, through us, in us, if we let him?
This past week, I had a long day. I was tired – a couple of meetings, several phone calls, some very annoying e-mails, and several visitations. I was about to head home after visiting several people, when a thought came to me – “You know, I should really visit thus and so. I haven’t seen her for awhile.” And I bet you know how my train of thought went – but I’m so tired, I’ve seen so many already today, my feet ache, I have a headache, she probably won’t even be there, and if she is, remember that last visit, when I’m pretty sure I was more an intrusion keeping her from her TV program than a welcome guest! I had pretty much convinced myself to end my day right then and there when it happened – that annoying, troublesome, aggravating, intrusive, bothersome thought came to my mind – BUT WHAT DID GOD WANT ME TO DO? I HATE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS! DON’T YOU? For it changes your direction, it makes you think in different ways, it messes things all up, you can’t just do what you feel like doing, what you want to do….
BUT ISN’T THAT EXACTLY THE POINT? The challenge of faith is to constantly, consistently, PUT GOD FIRST. Even before what comes most naturally to us – our own self-interest. And that stuff sneaks in there all the time.
Well, reluctantly, regretfully, irritably, you know what I did – I made that last visit. And you can probably guess what happened – as I was visiting with her, the heavens opened up, and God gave me a boost of energy, my heart was filled with glory, and I heard the angels sing — no, none of that happened.
My headache was there all the time, this individual had a lot to share, I was even more tired when I left, BUT IT WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO, and I felt the kind of peace that can only be had by one who had given a moment of their life away to God. And, by the way, we did have a very good visit.
Maybe that’s a way to think about the challenge of faith – to practice giving our moments away to God. To seek out what God desires moment by moment in life, to seek out what God expects from us daily, and to rise to the challenge of those common moments when God asks of us something we’re reluctant to share. And there’s a lot of things we’re reluctant to share for the sake of God. Richard James Foster is a Christian theologian and author in the Quaker tradition; he makes this point directly in a quote of his I read recently. He says, “To applaud the will of God, to do the will of God, even to fight for the will of God is not difficult … until it comes at cross-purposes with our will. Then the lines are drawn.
Does this sound like you? Do you tend to draw lines when it comes to what you do out of the calling of your faith? I know I do, all the time – and I know I’ve got to be careful. When I find that my faith would challenge my life, I know my life is always ready to protest loudly. But I also know that my life must be guided by my faith, or that faith is meaningless. When I sense God calling to me to do or be something, I have learned to take two steps – first, to make sure it is God calling me, and not some other voice in my head or my heart or my world; and then, if it is God, to make that statement of Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me.” – and to mean it.
Therein lies the essence of the faith we are meant to grow in – to challenge the limits we place upon our response to God. We’d like to accompany Christ part way, up to the point of pain, up to the point of embarrassment, up to the point of inconvenience, up to the point of danger – but not beyond these limits. Yet, it is often these very limits that keep us from deeper access to God; with our more intentional investment in God’s desire, we get more of God in the process – we get more of what we need to receive the provisions of faith, and we get more of what we need to fulfill the requirements of faith. As we follow God’s lead before our own, we get the kind of life God accompanies and supports most directly. And isn’t that the greatest life we can have?