July 9, 2023

Thy Will Be Done

James 4:13-17

Rev. David Germer

We’re making our way, line by line, through the Lord’s prayer this summer. The previous weeks have helped us to understand and to pray:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…”

So today we have the next phrase: “thy will be done.”

Of course it’s followed with, “on earth as it is in heaven,” and that phrase connects ‘thy will be done’ back to ‘thy kingdom come,’ which Patrick helped us last week to see is a prayer for the rule of reign of God to be realized here and now… so we’ll explore that connection.

Today’s New Testament text is from the letter of James, chapter four, verses thirteen through seventeen.

Listen for God’s word.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin.’”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Here’s what I’d like to do with you this morning:

First, we’re going to look at what God’s will is NOT.

Second, we’ll explore what God’s will IS.

And third, we’ll ask: “How, therefore, do we pray ‘thy will be done?’”

What God’s will is not, what it is, and how we pray for it.

  1. Does God care about the parking spot that you did or didn’t get this morning, when you came to church? Have any of you ever said, when you see someone get the last available spot at the end of our lot: “Oh… it wasn’t God’s will?” (I’m guessing not.)

What about when a favorite sports team or tennis star at Wimbledon suffers a particularly heartbreaking loss. Have you thought: “Everything happens for a reason?” (Likely not.)

But how about not getting into your first choice college, or finding out that you’ve lost your job? Maybe then, you’ve said, or had someone say to you: “God has a plan.” (A little more likely.)

Or maybe in the face of some horrific tragedy – I’ll give you an example… One of my former professors at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA, Jerry Sittser, one summer night in the fall of 1991, with his wife, Lynda loaded their family – four kids all between the ages of 2 and 8, along with Jerry’s mother – into a very full minivan to take a trip. Jerry was driving, and right at dusk, he saw headlights far down the road, that appeared to be coming too fast, and swerving. Jerry slowed their van as they rounded a corner, but the other vehicle did not. It crossed over onto their side and slammed into them at 85 miles an hour.

Jerry and three of the children were miraculously relatively unharmed, but Jerry’s mother, wife, and 4 year old daughter were all killed, almost instantly.

Close to an hour after the accident, ambulances and a helicopter arrived. In that time, Jerry knew, unequivocally, that his life would never be the same. He knew that he would look back on that night for the rest of his life, as the night when everything changed. He spent months and years reflecting on these moments, on this incident, wondering: what does it all mean? He had what others had described as the ideal family. How could God allow such a tragedy to happen? Was this part of God’s plan? Did this happen for a reason? Was this God’s will?

And Jerry had people suggest, about his family and this tragic incident, I think with good intentions

  • It must have been God’s will;
  • Everything happens for a reason;
  • God has a plan.

Behind these statements is the implication, intended as comfort, that God does have everything all mapped out, and just because what we would have wanted and drawn up for ourselves didn’t happen doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have something better for us. Those feeling particularly theological about it all may even sight Romans 8: “God works all things together for the good of those who love him,” so this can still be a part of God’s plan. We might think of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery, and his decades later acknowledgment, to those very brothers, that they intended evil, but God worked it all out for good. ‘God had a plan. God’s will was, ultimately, done.’

Or one might site Jeremiah 29:11 (out of context)

“For surely I know “the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” God knows our futures! We don’t need to worry. Let go and let God!

I think there’s some good theology and good psychology in trusting that God can bring about good after or even through things we see as bad. But I often hear people speak about God’s plan as though finding and getting on and following a particular path… and a wrong path, (or maybe even infinite wrong paths), must be avoided at all costs. It’s an endeavor that sounds a bit like stepping into Grand Central Station (with it’s 66 platforms, where at peak hours there’s a different train leaving every minute) with a boarding pass to an unknown train, and being told to get on the right one. From there you’ll take a series connections lined up and mapped out after that initial departure… and if you get on the wrong train at the wrong time, you’ll never being able to get back into the sequence of events God had mapped out for my life… but it all depended on me getting on that right first train!

The plans God has for us are for our good, but we can’t mess that up by getting on the wrong train; those plans aren’t threatened by going to the wrong school or marrying the wrong person or even by tragic death. In the years following his family’s tragedy, Jerry Sittser not only wrote a book on grief (A Grace Disguised) but also one on God’s will, called “The Will of God as a Way of Life,” and in it he shares this insight: “The Bible says very little about the will of God as a future pathway. Instead the Bible warns us about anxiety and presumption concerning the future, assures us that God is in control, and commands us to do the will of God we already know in the present.” That’s almost verbatim from our passage from James, and we’ll come back to that.

The will of God is NOT one right path laid out before us… but neither is it simply anything and everything we might possibly do. That’s the other extreme. “Nothing can happen outside of God’s will, so I’m free to do whatever I want! I don’t feel like taking the dishes into the kitchen after dinner [referring back to Patrick’s children’s moment], so I don’t do it, and therefore it was God’s will! I punch that annoying classmate in the face? God’s will! I cheat on my taxes so that I can give more money to the church? God’s will….” No. It doesn’t work like that.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives this eye-opening warning: Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

Who’s will? God’s will. We don’t have to stress about missing a single narrow path, but neither do we have a blanket free pass do anything we want. “The will of God” is a phrase that has meaning, and

2. We don’t have to guess what God’s will is.

Sometimes, Scripture is remarkably, refreshingly clear, like in

–1 Timothy 2:3-4 – “God desires all people to be saved.” (That’s God’s will! I like that.) Or:

–1 Thessalonians 4:3 – “this is the will of God: your sanctification” (refrain from immorality; act with holiness and honor), or

–1 Thessalonians 5:18 – “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ for you.”

That’s the will of God.

Sometimes the biblical authors aren’t quite so concise, but give us long lists of things that God wants for us.

The will of God is what those in the Faith Formation class with Cat Kessler last week discussed, in a discussion on loving God and neighbors and enemies: Hold fast to what is good, be genuine, do what is right, live honorably, in harmony, love one another, be patient in suffering, weep and mourn with those who are grieving, persevere in prayer. God’s will. It’s what Patrick described last week, in his sermon on Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus showed us what that is: when the church feeds the hungry, cares for the sick, visits the prisoner, forgives one another, lifts the fallen, and supports the weak. God’s will.

In Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer, we go right from “thy kingdom come” to “on earth as it is in heaven,” and not because Luke or Jesus didn’t care about God’s will… but I think because “thy will be done” is implied. What we have in the phrase, “thy will be done,” is what we see all over the Bible, especially in the Psalms – a poetic pairing – parallelism, in which the second line basically repeats the meaning of the previous line, in just a slightly different way, to expand our picture or vision of what’s being said. We can hear it as: “Thy kingdom come, which is to say, thy will be done.” God’s will IS for the kingdom to come. And so it becomes for us, personally, much less about precisely what we do, and much more about how we do what we do – our approach and attitude toward being in the world.

And so the invitation for us is to saturate our lives in Scripture and in prayer and in the life and witness of Jesus so that we can look around us – at the world and our community and families and friends and ask: is this what the kingdom of God will look like? Is God’s vision of well-being and flourishing for all creation – is the new heaven and new earth… going to look like this? Or is this clearly not God’s will?

Some examples:

Maybe it’s the kind of awareness that leads some to ask: does God’s reign and rule – the coming kingdom, look like orphaned, abandoned, abused children spending their lives thinking they are unwanted and unloved? Or is God’s will that they are cared for in a loving home-like environment. And so a ministry like Black Mountain Home for Children and Youth has been living that out for over a century. You are invited to join us to serve there in early August. Thy will be done.

Maybe it’s asking: in the coming kingdom of God, will people have to struggle with the inability to speak the dominant language of their home… or is God’s will that others give their time and attention to get trained in ESL so that they can teach neighbors English every week so that they can fully thrive in our community. Thy will be done.

Maybe it’s looking at traditional expressions of masculinity in some cultures, in say, Guatemala, or Malawi – and asking: does the coming kingdom look like an imbalance of gender power and a lack of accountability and rampant domestic violence, even among professing Christian men toward their wives? And maybe there’s a person like Kevin Frederick [who led today’s Faith Formation class and provided a Moment for Mission in the service] or group of people, who ask that, and hear God saying, “No, that is not my will,” and so they create Men in the Mirror International, to develop relationships, and a culturally appropriate curriculum, to motivate and inspire and call men in those countries back to who Jesus has called them to be. They will be done.

Does the kingdom of God look like dozens of children in the Shiloh neighborhood roaming the streets or watching TV all day in the summer while the parents they live with work, perhaps unable to afford the summer camps many of us send our kids to… or might God’s will be for those kids to have the same opportunities, to have their curiosity celebrated and fostered as they get help with reading or math, or have a safe supervised place to play with other kids, or go on field trips to the arboretum or museums? Pastor Hardaway at Rock Hill Baptist Church in Shiloh thought so, and so has spent many years saying, and praying, with his actions: “thy will be done, Lord.” Pastor Hardaway has reached out to us, and invited us to be a part of what God is doing in Shiloh through Project Lighten Up.

You may know one of the versions of the lines attributed to Frederick Douglas: the 19th century abolitionist and orator: I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs. Was it God’s will for Douglas to be a slave? I hope we’d all say, resoundingly: no. And so he prayed for God’s will… and ultimately, decided to pray with his legs – to live God’s will. And we can do that, too. Pray “thy will be done,” by acting – in big bold courageous ways, and in small, ordinary, everyday ways – according to the very un-mysterious will of God. We know what it is.

3. We can pray it with our legs and actions, and Jesus also teaches us to pray “They will be done,” with our words, so to close I want to spend some time with that.

James tells us to not be too confident about tomorrow – what the future will bring – but to instead, acknowledge, “if it is God’s will such and such will happen.” Fair enough, right? This makes sense.

But I wonder if you’ve done what I’ve done, and without thinking much about the difference, lumped those two commands together – one about prayer, and one about speaking to others with false certainty about the future – so that we feel like all of our prayers need to include that little disclaimer or escape clause: “if it’s your will, God.” That feels appropriately humble and holy, right? We don’t want to be presumptuous, or offend Almighty God.

An author named W. Robert McClelland, who wrote a little book called Praying the Possibilities that I found on Patrick’s shelf (I did return it, Patrick), helped me to see something with new clarity this week.

He says that when we pray this way, we “pray like wimps, groveling with our eyes down: If it’s not too much trouble…” (his words). He says that praying this way can actually be insulting to those for whom we pray! He shares a story of praying for a woman in his congregation, suffering from a terrible illness.

“Suddenly I realized my prayer for recovery – if it be God’s will – was not a petition born of proper theological protocol so much as it was an escape clause offered to the heavens because I did not really believe God could heal the woman… Of course God wants her healed.” He goes on:  “More often than not, I suspect, ‘if it be your will’ is a weasel phrase born, not of humility, but of a failure of nerve. It gives God an out. It takes God off the hook as if the Lion of Judah needed rescuing – by us! Rather than exhibiting humility it is the height of arrogance. We are trying to make God look good!”

Or, maybe we’re simply afraid that God will say no, and we’re not sure we’re able or ready to live with that finality. We’re worried that in asking, we’ll get an answer, so we don’t ask at all, and therefore we miss out on true solidarity with the one or those who are suffering.

I’m so guilty of this – of praying, “IF it’s your will, God,” as a generic cover-all phrase to say, “God, I know I’ve just poured my heart out to you, but feel free to disregard any of what I’ve just said, because I’m not confident enough that you actually want this, too, and I don’t want either of us to look bad if you don’t do what I’m asking.”

James is right that we don’t know what the future holds… but that does not mean we can’t ask, that we aren’t invited to ask, boldly. This, remember, is what Jesus did on his night of agony in the garden. He prayed fiercely for what he wanted… AND prayed for God’s will to be done. There’s a difference – it sounds subtle but I think it’s significant, between saying, a) God, heal this person, please, we’re begging… AND, we trust you and your love. Your will be done.” And saying, b) “God we’d love for you to heal this person… IF it isn’t too much trouble, and IF it’s your will, and oh gosh we’re sorry we even asked.” [all cowering/shrinking lower and lower]

Friends, we know it’s God’s will. AND, we live in a world in which things happen that are NOT God’s will… but that God can redeem, and use for good.

It’s not that we are assured we will get what we ask for, it’s that God asks us to pray boldly, and so I’m inviting you to do that, this week. Take these prayer cards that you [see below], and pray for what you want, and pray for God’s will, and observe how your wants are shaped and molded to what you know to be true of God’s. Pray confidently, in faithfulness and obedience, knowing God doesn’t need our protection, and knowing that praying in this way does something in us, when we articulate God’s vision of the coming kingdom, when we join our lives, in vocal prayer and leg prayer – action, with the goal of making that vision a reality.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so.  Amen.






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