Discerning the Way Together
This sermon was given by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on 13 November 2016. It is the fourth in the ‘Journey in Discernment’ series. The first sermon in the series is posted at this link(with the podcast), the second in the series is a podcast at this link and the third script is here with a podcast. The format for the series is based on the book, Making Life Decisions.
Scripture Reading: Acts 16:6-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
Before the Second World War a man was strolling among the tulip beds in some public gardens in England. He loved the ‘riot of colours’ as he admired one flower bed after another.
On leaving the gardens he climbed up the cliff along a side path. When he got to a landing he looked down and saw the same flower beds, spread out beneath him. He could no longer see the individual flowers. Instead, he could survey the entire design of the garden.
Looking down at the floral scene he recognised that the tulips had been arranged in an elaborate pattern. Across the centre of the gardens the colourful flowers spelt out the words, ‘God Save the King’.
Sometimes we’re tyrannized by the details of finding our way that we fail to see the full picture. It’s so essential to regularly distance ourselves from the everyday things in order to discern life’s beauty and meaning.
So far in our Journey in Discernment series, we’ve seen the way Jesus spent significant times in the desert and gardens, taking time to disengage, in order to listen for the guidance of God.
We’ve reminded ourselves of the importance of Scripture as it gives light on our path and perspective for our journey.
We studied Paul’s letter to the Romans and discovered that discernment comes when we keep on surrendering ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, that such surrender requires trust and that trust grows when we believe deep within that following God’s will is no bitter pill. On the contrary, it’s ‘good, acceptable and perfect’.
We’ve touched on the immense help that we can be to one another and today we want to learn more about discerning the way together.
Our Scripture passage in Acts 16 records the way Paul and his team were journeying together. Luke who wrote his Gospel is now writing the Acts of the Apostles and again, he’s trying to be an objective and accurate historian.
But he gets so excited by the birth and expansion of the church that from writing in the third person when he talks of ‘they’ did this, ‘they’ did that, he suddenly (and perhaps unconsciously) switches to the first person and says ‘we’ did this.
Today’s reading is the first of four ‘We Passages’, where Luke says “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia.” (Acts 16: 10) So we can learn from Paul and Luke and the others through their first-hand experience these lessons of discerning the way together. Following such Biblical principles doesn’t make discernment easy, for, as we’ve seen so far, discerning can be a wrestling (as it was with Jacob) and in today’s passage the early Christians were challenged by delays and difficulties and disappointments. But doesn’t such a record make the Scriptures so real and the report of those Christians so authentic?
Firstly, Discernment Requires a Momentum
See how active they were? Luke says:
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia…” (v6)
“When they had come opposite Mysia…” (v7)
“They attempted to go into Bithynia…” (v7)
“So, passing by Mysia…” (v8)
“They went down to Troas…” (v8)
There’s no sitting down, whinging, whining and wondering. No, they displayed a momentum. They were active like our Lord commanded when he said: “Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. Knock and keep on knocking.” (Matthew 7: 7; Luke 11:9)
Just as it’s easier to turn a car when it’s moving so instead of us staying stationary with our gearstick in neutral (as it were), put yourself into first gear and get moving in the direction that seems right. Don’t go stubbornly ahead as if you’re dune bashing! Jesus said: “Knock on the door” not “break the door down!” So move with prayerful sensitivity.
Secondly, Discernment Requires Ongoing Attentiveness to the Holy Spirit
6 having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia….
7 but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them;
Wouldn’t we like to know more detail of how the Holy Spirit signaled the red lights?
Paul in writing to the believers at Colossae says:
“Let the peace of God rule in your hearts and be thankful.” (Colossians 3: 15)
Or a contemporary translation from the sporting arena might help us: “Let the peace of God be the umpire in your hearts and be thankful.”
So we go forward praying that God will give us a sense of peace and rightness or what Paul described as ‘the witness of the Spirit’ (Romans 8: 16).
If the way is not right, pray equally that the divine umpire would put the finger up and rule it out. That God would put spanners in the works - left, right and centre - and give us a dis-ease about the way we’re attempting to go.
Thirdly Discernment Often Involves the Gift of Closed Doors
This group encountered one closed door after another, best expressed in Luke’s phrase, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” (v7)
It’s hard to be grateful for a closed door. We’re often more disappointed and confused when we encounter such delay.
But have you ever applied for a job or stood for election to some board, but you failed to get appointed and then in time when you learned more about that role and what it would have involved you said, “Thank God I didn’t get appointed”? Yes, thank God for closed doors.
Making his inaugural speech when elected to the New South Wales Parliament, the Rev. Gordon Moyes recalled the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“Traditionally people say they remember where they were at the time of that tragic event. I remember where I was very clearly,” said Gordon. “I was in the United States Consulate, here in Australia, where we were about to have our visas stamped. I had been appointed to do postgraduate study in the United States of America. When the shots rang out in Dallas, Texas, the doors at the consulate [in Australia] were shut and the United States Embassy went into very high activity.”
“People were thrown out the doors and papers went everywhere, and with them went our visas, our work permits, our passports, our chest x-rays and a whole lot of other stuff.”
“The result was that the boat upon which we were to travel, together with all our clothes, personal possessions and belongings, sailed to America—but we did not.”
Closed doors for us may not be slammed so dramatically and yet open and closed doors form part of the circumstantial factors by which God guides us.
Often graduation speakers tell exiting students to discover their bliss, to follow their passion, to discover their purpose in life. The assumption is that in figuring out how to live your life, the answers are deep within ourselves. So we make an inventory of our gifts and passions and personality type, then map out our strategy to achieve our purpose. This method begins with our self and ends with our self.
But our Scripture story commends a different path. Instead of asking, “What do I want from life?” we ask a different set of questions: “What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?”.
In this story of closed and open doors, Paul and his team are not creating their own lives. They are summoned by life. They are summoned by God. The important directions not only come from within but they’re to be found outside through the circumstances of our lives. By the questions: “What does this environment, this community need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair?” As Frederick Buechner puts it, “We find our calling not just at the point of our deep gladness but where our deep gladness intersects with the world’s deep need”
Fourthly, Discernment Involves an Openness to the Surprises of God
Think of the surprising methods by which God has guided people.
God gave the sign of a fleece to Gideon (Judges 6: 36-40), the sign of the almond flowers to Aaron (Numbers 17: 8), the sign of food to Peter as he approached the house of Cornelius (Acts 10: 1-11, 18) and now, Luke tells us:
9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
God often gives some surprising sign, suited to the seeker.
God will always find a means of directing those who earnestly desire God’s guidance.
For the children of Israel, it was a pillar of cloud that preceded them in the daytime and a pillar of fire that blazed on their way in the night (Exodus 13).
To those who are willing to follow the gleam, there will always come a kindly light to lead.
Then there are the surprising directions in which God guides us.
Often when Lyn and I reflect on our lives we think of Gerard Hughes’ book entitled, ‘God of Surprises’. That phrase summarises our life thus far, for when we started we could never in our wildest dreams have been able to create such a surprising script.
If you check the map on this, Paul’s third missionary journey, you’ll see how they went north from Israel and Syria and up through Asia Minor—what we now call Turkey.
They were forbidden to speak the word in Asia so they went north-west to Mysia, they tried bending up north east to Bithynia but they struck a closed door so they went directly west to Troas on the coast where they saw the Macedonian vision that led them by boat across the Aegean Sea.
They wanted to consolidate. God wanted them to create a new work.
They wanted to continue inland. God wanted them to cross over by sea.
The result of their submission to this surprising vision was the taking of the Gospel to Europe.
It’s so often been like this:
William Carey planned to serve God in the South Seas. The divine voice said ‘India’.
Adoniram Judson came to work in India. The divine voice said, ‘Burma’.
David Livingstone selected China. The divine voice said ‘Africa’.
As we reflect on the movement of the Gospel to Europe, what Carey meant to India, the influence of the Judsons on Burma, Livingstone on Africa, who can doubt the wisdom of compliance to the surprising directions of God?
Fifthly, Discernment is Confirmed by the Conviction of Others
10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
Paul didn’t just emerge from his sleep to say, “I’ve had a vision so let’s go down to the wharf.” No, Luke says Paul saw the vision but we were convinced. The surprising vision and the surprising direction were tested and confirmed. This is why we have small groups. This is why we have Church Meetings. One person might get a proposal but it’s up to the group to be convinced and come to the same conviction. This gives great safety and support for sometimes it doesn’t look right.
Years ago when we lived in New Zealand, right out of the blue we got a phone call from a person called John Simpson, the General Superintendent of the Baptist Union of Victoria.
He said, “Are you available to come to work in Melbourne?” Initially, it didn’t seem right. Our children were just entering into teenage years and we thought that a cross-cultural shift, an international move, was probably not a bright idea.
In another phone call, John said, “Why don’t you and Lyn come over for a few days to Melbourne and test the waters?” We did. We looked around. We talked. We were interviewed by the Executive Council.
For that whole week we had a growing sense of rightness. When we returned across the Tasman, we let the possibility percolate and the peace continued. But it wasn’t just up to us. How did John and the group feel?
I remember the phone call from Portland. John called and said he’d checked with his group and they also had a sense of warmth and rightness. He used a Biblical phrase from the Psalms. He said, “It was like ‘deep calling to deep’.” (Psalm 42: 7)
Sometimes we’re led to go in surprising directions so thank God for the confirming rightness shared by others.
Finally, Discernment is about listening and following God’s Call
Our Scripture says in verse 10:
“We immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”
At the root of the word ‘vocation’ is the idea of ‘voice’.
We might choose a career but we don’t choose a vocation.
It’s a calling. It chooses us.
In discernment we aren’t given a map with an itinerary.
We aren’t given a GPS to navigate the way.
All we are given is the divine voice.
In the end, discernment is about the God who calls us. Paul and the others knew the promises from Scripture such as in Psalm 32, where God says:
‘I will guide you!’ What a promise!
The Scripture even tells us how. ‘I will guide you with my eye!’ What might this mean?
We’ve all seen a dog sitting at its master's feet, intently gazing into its owner’s eyes, listening for the faintest hint of phrases like, ‘going for a walk?’ or ‘where’s the ball?’
‘I will guide you with my eye!’
These words clearly mean that we’re to live so close to God, like the dog with our eyes riveted upon the eyes of God.
And if we live in that sacred intimacy—the path that is our wisdom and joy to tread will always be made unmistakably clear.
Grant us, loving God, the earnest desire to seek and follow your will,
The faith to believe your way is the best and
The sensitivity to your promptings.
Guiding God, give us
The vision to perceive your signals and pointers
The confidence to trust your wisdom,
The patience to weather the delays and disappointments
The peace to keep us on course.
Help us to be there for one another
To bolster each other’s faith
To speak the truth in love
To support when the way is dark
To rejoice when the doors surprisingly open.
We thank you that you are a calling, guiding, leading God and so we offer ourselves to gladly follow and so be your people.
 This man was F W Boreham and the gardens were the Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend. He writes about this in F W Boreham, A Late Lark Singing (London: The Epworth Press, 1945), 153.
 Looking back we see. “However difficult it may be to see the gleam leading us through the gloom, it is never difficult, on looking back, to see that we have been led.” This paragraph and the quote is from F W Boreham, ‘Lead Kindly Light’, Mountains in the Mist, London: Epworth, 1919.
 This interview took place here in Ashburton, in Summerhill Road, at the home of Olwyn and Winsome Abbott (who were members of this church).
 This reflection is adapted from F W Boreham, Cliffs of Opal, 157-58.