Sunday, January 11, 2009

Signs of the Spirit (Mark 1:4-11)

Oh, how often we want a sign from God like the one Mark talks about here. Just some kind of recognition that we’ve done the right thing and that we’re on the right track. Doesn’t have to be on the same scale, heavens opening and spirit descending like a dove and all. Maybe a feather. And one little bitty sunshine ray that hits us right in the eye or something.

Of course, we rarely receive such a sign. And truthfully, when we ask for a sign from God, we more often want confirmation of something we’re thinking about doing, or we want God to let us know that we’re headed in the right direction with our plans. We usually want the stamp of approval before we’ve done something, rather than a confirmation after we’ve done it.

And that would in fact make life easier in a lot of ways. If God had parted the clouds and written in the sky “Don’t take algebra yet” in the summer of 1977, eighth grade would have been a lot easier. Or if he’d said, “Don’t do it. She’s a psycho,” well, there are a number of times that would have been easier for me.

Of course, sometimes we’d like God’s guidance when it comes to serving him. We want to follow his will and do his work, but how do we know what that will and that work are? In this situation, God’s will might be speaking out about a wrong or an injustice. But in another situation, God’s will might direct us to keep quiet instead of lecturing a friend or loved one about their behavior or actions. In the first case, we speak out on behalf of God’s people. In the second, our silence keeps us from throwing up walls between ourselves and others, so they might come to us if their errors get them in real trouble.

How do we know, though, when God calls us to speak and when God calls us to be silent? How do we know which action God might call for in a different situation? Couldn’t God give us a sign?

Well, sure he could. But look more closely at what God is doing with Jesus here and you can see that’s not what Jesus receives. Jesus doesn’t ask for a sign before he’s baptized about whether or not he’s doing the right thing. John baptizes him, and then the heavens open and the Spirit comes.

If we had want we’re asking for, then we’d have that writing in the sky or whatever all the time, telling us, “Turn right.” “Turn left.” “Stop here.” Instead of a God, we’d have a GPS. And God has not offered us a GPS.

Instead, through his Son, he offers us himself.

Of course, by reading the Bible and through prayer, we can learn something about how God wants us to act. But we can’t learn every twist and turn, anymore than we learned every twist and turn of life from those who taught us when we were younger. Sometimes, we have to use what they taught us to figure things out for ourselves. And sometimes, we have to use what we’ve learned about God and what he wants of us to make decisions as well.

But what if we get it wrong, we may ask. What if we study our Bible and we listen for God’s leading and we choose something and it’s wrong? Well, obviously we go straight to hell.

No, of course we don’t! See how stupid that sounds when you actually say it? As if God expected perfection from us – if he really thought we could somehow perfect ourselves, do you think Jesus would have offered himself? Would he have thought, “Well, I’ll have a jolly old time with those Roman soldiers beating on me and finish it off by being nailed to a tree, but it’s all for fun because everyone ought to be able to be perfect no matter what I do.”

Look, as far as us knowing what God’s will is, we do have some general direction. Micah 6:8 is one example: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Are we able, most of the time, to determine whether or not what we are planning on doing falls into that category? I think we are. I know that a lot of times I may think I’m conflicted about what God wants of me, but when I start looking at my choices, not all of them are actually about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with my God.

Some of them are about what I want to do, and my choice is more between doing something I know God probably wants me to do and doing something I want to do. Which do I choose? Well, he has shown me, O mortal, what is good and what he requires of me.

The sign Jesus receives, the presence of the Holy Spirit as it descends on him, is a sign that doesn’t direct him so much as it confirms something for him. It confirms that his path of obedience to God is the right path. And signs like that come to us in more ways than we might imagine.

When I first talked with my associate pastor about exploring a career in ministry, I just called him and asked to come over. He and his wife lived in my apartment complex. I sat down and he said, “Well, what do you want to talk about? Entering the ministry?” When his wife came home, he told her about my decision, and she said, “Well, why am I not surprised.” I thought, “Am I the only one who didn’t know this?” And apparently I was.

Gary and Lanette were not doves descending upon me – which is good, because Gary worked out and was a big ol’ boy – but I have come to see their words were words the Holy Spirit used to confirm I was on the right path the same way God’s words showed that Jesus was on the right path.

If it’s hard to figure out why we more often have signs confirm what we’ve done than to direct what we ought to do, remember this. If God told us everything we should or shouldn’t do, step by step, then where would our faith be? What would we have to believe in order to follow him? Would belief or faith even be involved at all?

The thing about following a GPS everywhere all the time is that you rarely, if ever, learn the way yourself. And even if it’s a little tough to understand, I’m pretty sure that if God acted like a GPS in our lives, then we’d find it hard to know the Way, not to mention the Truth and the Light, we were made to know.

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