October 12 Sermon

WHY I BELIEVE: GOD AT WORK

A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on October 12, 2014 (Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

– Jonah 1:1-3

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

– John 1:43-51

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I have been doing a series of sermons on “Why I Believe…,” in which I have shared some of the reasons I have come to believe in God and Jesus Christ, and to be a minister of the gospel. I hope these sermons will help you to reflect on what you believe and why, so that if anyone should ask you why you are a Christian, you might have a good answer!

One of the reasons I believe is that I have seen God at work in the world. I have experienced God at work in my life – sometimes guiding me, sometimes closing doors, sometimes opening windows, sometimes encouraging me, sometimes planting seeds of ideas in me. Many of you have heard some of these stories before, but for those who haven’t — I managed to grow into young adulthood without any crazy ideas of going into the ministry. I had a good experience as a student in high school, and one of the things I enjoyed doing in high school and college was playing basketball. So, I decided that for a career I wanted to teach high school and coach basketball. I couldn’t imagine anything better than that. And I did. I learned that I was being hired to teach high school Chemistry and Math, and be an assistant basketball coach, on the morning of our wedding day. The news instantly made Jill’s mother think that marrying me maybe wasn’t a big mistake, after all.

It was hard work, but I enjoyed it. I have to admit that there was a lot I didn’t know about coaching, but I figured I would learn. But then, at the end of my first year, I was informed by the principal that the school needed me to teach some General Science classes, and I wasn’t certified to teach that in Wisconsin. I would have to go back to school – starting that summer – in order to get certified, or else I would be let go after another year. But we already had plans for that summer.

That could have been terrible news. I could have felt it was unfair – that I was going to lose the perfect job for me. But even though I was just starting out on my Christian faith journey, I came to believe that somehow God was taking me in a new direction – one I had never considered before. That year there were several amazing coincidences, crazy events, and signs that got me thinking about picking up and moving to a new land – in Colorado (kind of like old Abraham), and going to graduate school in Chemistry.

Just one example – after our first year of marriage Jill and I bought a piano. It was exciting when a beautiful black upright piano was delivered to our apartment. But soon, as I was beginning to consider moving to Colorado and how we would move all of our belongings, a piano technician came to check out the piano to be sure it was playing properly. He discovered that it had problems, and it would need to be replaced. But, he explained that the piano company would pay to have that piano picked up, and a new one delivered anywhere we wanted. If we wanted to have it delivered to… Colorado – they would do it. Now was that a sign, or what?

Later, God seemed to work in my life in many more amazing ways, leading me eventually to go to seminary, and into ministry.

That is how I believe God “speaks” to us – not in a booming voice that makes one cower in fear and reverence (like God spoke to Noah in the comedy bit by Bill Cosby), but in the strange, unexpected remarks and opportunities that happen along our way. Like Philip saying to Nathanael, “Come and see.”

And that is one of the ways God works to try to save us and our world – by trying to guide us in right paths for God’s name sake (as Psalm 23 says). Or, as it says in the great old hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal,”

For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums;

With deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.

(from v. 2. Words by Ernest W. Shurtleff, 1887)

I know that this could just be my overactive imagination. Maybe it’s all just coincidence, or wishful thinking, or delusion. I’m sure many people could find some rational explanation for everything that has happened to me that does not involve divine intervention. But for me, this was God at work.

And I also know that many people never have this kind of experience. I don’t know if that means that God only works in some people’s lives, and only speaks to some people. Or maybe God tries to work in everyone’s lives, but many people just don’t want to believe it, or trust it, or even hear it. This is a great mystery.

But I am not alone. Most of the people who go into ministry can tell you about how they felt “called” to ministry – how God worked in their lives to get them to preach, to serve, to go to seminary – even if they resisted it at first (like Jonah). And many other believers have experienced God working in their lives as well. Just recently, a woman in our church shared with me that she was worried about her husband’s serious health issues when suddenly she felt the assurance that everything was going to be OK. Was that God at work? I think she believes so.

Have you ever sensed God, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever – working in your life? Perhaps you can share your stories with someone at coffee hour after church.

The downside to believing that God is working to help guide your life are those times when you are looking for some direction, or a sign about what to do, and God seems to be silent. What does that mean – that God doesn’t care anymore? Or am I just not hearing what I need to hear and seeing what I need to see? Or maybe it is just God’s way of saying that I need to be patient, and keep doing what I’m doing.

But then, I am reminded that God is still at work in the world and in my life. These past few weeks I have been feeling tired. It’s nothing serious – every now and then I go through periods of time where I just feel tired and not very creative. There is no specific cause that I can identify (I didn’t work nearly as hard at the Community Day and Garage Sale as others did), and I am sure I will get through it – just as I have gotten through it in the past.

Just last Sunday, some amazing things happened to give me some encouragement. Two folks suggested to me that we should do a spiritual gifts workshop so that we could discover our spiritual gifts and how we might use them for the good of the church. We have done some of these in the past, but it has been many years. How exciting to see even a little spark of interest in ways that we can grow spiritually! And it’s someone else’s idea!

And also last Sunday, someone gave me a couple copies of a book he heard about and recently read: “Real Good Church,” by Molly Baskette. Rev. Baskette is the pastor of a UCC church near Boston, and she shares some stories about how the church she serves has grown in spirit and in numbers in recent years, and ideas about how other church might do the same. This person suggested that I read it, and maybe share it with other folks in the church. I set the two copies down on a table, and within minutes one of the copies was gone. I later learned someone else picked up one of the copies, took it home, and had already read half of it. In these little seeds of new ideas and activity, God is at work in my life, and in our church – even when I am feeling low on energy.

The hymn “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” says:

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

How do I know if it is God speaking, or my own desires, or worse (like the Devil)? When God seems to be communicating to me, it usually causes me to grow – in knowledge and wisdom and faith. It helps me to help others. It pushes me beyond my comfort zone. That is God at work.

That is one of the big reasons I believe in God – that God is good, and wise, and powerful, and intimately involved in this world. It isn’t just theoretical – it is something I have personally experienced.

What about you?

Amen.

Robert J. von Trebra

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