Does God have a Plan for Your Life

Saturday 21st June, 2014

Does God have a plan for your life?
Of course He does. And the plan is this: that He will gather you, holy and clean—without spot or blemish—into his eternal kingdom (Ephesians 5:27), a place where streams of living water flow and where we will praise Him for ever (Revelation 7:17).
This combination of images from the writings of St Paul of Tarsus and St John the Divine provides a wonderful glimpse into what God has in store for us, but it leaves us with many questions. The plan doesn’t look like any other we’ve ever come across. There appears a chronic shortage of detail and direction, of where we go from this moment on, and of who does what and when. The mechanics of how it will happen aren’t covered and no one knows exactly where it will all take place. What we do know, just as Jesus knew, is that the process will involve us in a physical death. Our own death won’t have the cosmic significance of Jesus’ death, but it will be pretty significant to us.
Why does God do things this way? There is heaven, waiting for us, with eternity stretching out, but we have this small pimple of life on Earth, three score years and ten if we are lucky (and many are not), and then we have to take a journey across this great divide.
Heaven and Earth have featured in the human psyche since time immemorial, but our perception of the boundaries between the two has changed over the years. Two thousand years ago Jesus told us that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It’s as though Heaven infiltrates the earthly realm. In 1543 Copernicus began a revolution that for the next four hundred years pushed the boundaries of Earth into the heavens and today we loosely equate Earth, the things seen, with the whole Cosmos. Consequently, our perception of Heaven, the things unseen, has assumed the air of belonging to another universe, albeit interlacing with the one we know just a little bit more about.
If we pull out from own personal experience of life and death, we can taker a wider view of the interrelation of Heaven and Earth. Our Rector Mark has lately been at pains to ensure we know God’s first injunction to humankind: ‘Go forth and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28), a command we have in the main set about obeying with some enthusiasm. Put against this Jesus’ remarks that in Heaven there is no requirement for men and women to marry (Matthew 22:30), and we start to appreciate that Earth is in the soul creation business, with sole rights. Earth isn’t succeeded by Heaven, as the individual experiences, but rather the two march together into eternity, and, even when they don’t, John the Divine records in his book of Revelation that God will start the relationship again by creating a new Heaven and a new Earth.
Our preoccupation, the preoccupation of humankind over the course of history, is to ensure a smooth transition between the two realms, to leave Earth and arrive safely in Heaven, rather than any other place we might arrive at. Instead of pushing around the figments of our own imagination in the hope they will miraculously transform into fragments of the Truth, we would do well to turn to Jesus, because when it comes to questions about what lies ahead for us Jesus doesn’t shilly-shally. After all, that is why he came to earth - to tell us all about God’s glorious provision. At least five times the gospels usefully record Jesus being asked point blank: how do we get to heaven? And on other occasions he helpfully proffers answers without even being asked the question.
The crowds that followed Jesus after his miracle of feeding the five thousand wanted to know what they should do to inherit eternal life (in other words: get to heaven). Jesus replied “This is what God wants you to do: believe in the one He has sent”. As a job of work, this doesn’t sound a great deal. But first appearances can be deceptive. Aesop with his story of the race between the hare and the tortoise was the first to warn humanity of the dangers of underestimating a modest-looking challenge. More recently, in a radio sketch, the comedian Count Arthur Strong provided another example. He had decided to learn a foreign language and signed up for French lessons. But when he discovered the French for table was ‘la table’ and the French for toilet was ‘la toilette’, he decided to throw in the sponge. “Call that a foreign language” he said, sniffingly dismissing it as unworthy of his application. And then there was Crocodile Dundee in the film of the same name. When he was confronted in a New York street by a hoodlum with a knife, he faced up to his assailant by drawing out his own much larger knife and famously remarking “Call that a knife? This is a knife”.
So is that what we say to God when he says our work is to believe in the one he sent? Do we draw out our own agenda of what we want out of life, what we want to achieve and where we want to go and say to Him “That’s not a job of work; this is a job of work.” And if we do, are we sure that we’re not underestimating what he has asked of us, and that, in fact, the tables are turned, and God’s work for us is much greater than we had realised?
Belief may usefully be defined as ‘conviction in the face of uncertainty’. Belief in Jesus is important to us because without it we are cut off from his promises and his commands. We insulate ourselves from his love; the adoration and praise that he deserves, and is our destiny to utter, is stifled in our throats. The constant feeding of Jesus into our thoughts, our desires and motivations dries up. And the hope of heaven evaporates like mist in the morning sun. Uncertainty is clearly part of God’s deal for us and is not wholly to be feared. It provides us with space into which our conviction can grow, gives us an empathy with those at different points in the journey and allows us to anticipate new insights into old truths, the things we thought we had grasped.
Belief comes easily to some, but to many of us there is a battle for belief, a battle that demands discipline. Not for nothing St Paul advises his young friend the pastor Timothy to ‘fight the good fight for what you believe’. Unless we win that fight we can’t take seriously what Jesus has said to us, and there is much to absorb. One such thing was that we should be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). That’s one huge aspirational (and a spiritual) challenge, a challenge that no one else in their right mind would place on anyone. Even the Duke of Edinburgh must have baulked at that one when he came up with his award scheme. To attempt it, to try to be perfect, we must seek Jesus and his righteousness at every turn.
For this reason, we see in our gospel reading this morning how Jesus pressed his disciples to declare their belief in Him, because he knows that not just our effectiveness depends on it (Matthew 16:13–19), but that with failing belief, our feet lose contact with the very rock on which we would build our lives. The Pharisees and Sadducees had come to Jesus asking him to prove who he was by sending a miraculous sign from heaven, but Jesus refused. In the twenty first century, the condition we put on our belief is centred less on miracles and more on mechanisms. If only we could have it explained to us, perhaps in a Powerpoint presentation, how it all works, how the dead become the living, we would gain the conviction we so desire. But mechanisms are clunky; God is spirit and the spirit does as it pleases. We shouldn’t really expect anything different.
To the question ‘how do we get to heaven’ Jesus replied to his disciple Thomas ‘I am the way’. There is no doubting Thomas was an ardent fan of Jesus. When Jesus was summoned to Bethany to heal his friend Lazarus, many of his disciples advised against it saying ‘Only a few days ago the Jewish leaders in Judea were trying to kill you. Are you seriously intending to return there?’ (John 11:8, 16) But Thomas urged his fellow disciples to go with Jesus and if necessary die with him. Even so, following Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas still needed to see and to feel in order to believe (John 20:27).
The word ‘way’ is used to describe both walking and working; it’s both a path to follow and a means of achieving something. Perhaps Thomas had been concentrating more on the means than the path. Jesus told his disciples that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven we must become as little children. We learn from this that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with mechanisms. We don’t need to be, it doesn’t help to be, professors of astronomy, or evolutionary biology for that matter, in order to grasp the basics, and gladly accept the seemingly impossible. But it’s not only trust that characterises a child’s approach. Children also have unbounded energy to pursue what interests them. In their exuberance, the children coming to listen to Jesus made a nuisance of themselves pushing their way to the front in order to be with him. And that is where we must place ourselves, close to him. At the wedding in Cana only those standing close to Jesus would have realised what Jesus was doing when he turned the water into wine.
Jesus’ mechanism is that he calls us. It may look a chancy, haphazard, way of proceeding, but his sheep know his voice. If you are old, it’s not too late to listen and consider how you will respond; if you are young, it’s not too soon. There is a plan, there is a way, there’s work to do. Amen.

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