Your will be done - Psalm 103:1-22
This week saw the publication of a new biography of our Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. And what’s caused a storm in the press has been his claim that God was useless to stop those terrorist attacks on Sept 11th. For Rowan Williams, God didn’t cause 9-11; and God wasn’t going to stop it. Why? Because God has granted us free will, so it’s our fault. For archbishop Rowan Williams, 9-11 wasn’t God will.
Contrast that will another bishop who been under the media spotlight recently. The Bishop of Lewis: the Rt Revd Wallace Benn. In a recent church newsletter, Bishop Wallace claimed that the credit crunch was God's way of punishing Britain for being too materialistic. According to Bishop Wallace, the pain of the credit crunch could 'force' people back to God, and if it did, then, ultimately, it would have been a good thing. And so for Bishop Wallace, the Credit Crunch is God’s will.
2 painful issues we need to address: terrorism and the Credit Crunch. And 2 CofE bishops with radically different ideas about whether such events are God’s will. One says that when bad things happen, it’s not God’s will; it’s our fault not God’s. But the other says that even something bad is God’s will, because good will come out of it.
So which one is right? Or are they both wrong? And it’s an important issue isn’t it, because unless we understand what God’s will is, then we won’t be able to pray for it to be done? It’s like when your family starts asking you what you want for Christmas? And my answer is usually: I don’t know? And if you don't know what you want, you can’t ask for it can't you? And it’s the same with prayer. What is God’s will? And what are we asking for when we pray: Our father in Heaven, may your will be done.
And that’s where we’ve got to in our series on the Lord ’s Prayer: your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And the first thing we’ve learnt about the LP is that it’s a model for all our prayers, not just a set prayer; no: this is how you should pray. And as we’ve gone through it, we’ve seen that prayer begins with God; it begins by addressing God properly; our Father in Heaven. And as saw a couple of weeks ago, the first petition of the prayer is that God’s name would be glorified: Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be your name. And then last week, we unpacked the coming of God’s kingdom; Our Father in Heaven: may your kingdom come. May your will be done, on earth as in heaven. So what is God’s will?
1. God’s will is His eternal plans
And the first answer is that God’s will is His eternal plans. God’s will is His eternal plans.
When we were thinking about God’s kingdom last week, we learnt that history wasn’t random; it’s linear; it's heading somewhere, and that somewhere is Judgment Day; the second coming; the day when Jesus returns. And so not surprisingly, this next line in the LP picks up on that same theme. God’s will in this sense, is His eternal plan; His eternal plan to usher in the kingdom; to install His eternal King on the throne of the New Heavens and the new earth. That’s God’s will. And God’s eternal plans are not vague or random. No from all eternity, He's had a master plan.
Some of you might know that the council are planning to extend [SD: the Community Centre where Riverside church meets; Riv: this building]. And so I’ve been to various meetings recently; I’ve studied the architect’s plans and we’ve discussed the overall project plan. If you‘re going to achieve anything in this life, you have to have a plan. You have to know where you’re going. And it’s the same with God. He has a plan. An architect’s master plan.
And to help is see this more clearly, let’s turn back to our second reading in Eph 1 on p [1089/ 1817] and look with me at v9:
Eph 1:9-10: “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
What Paul’s saying is that God’s will has now been revealed or made known. It’s something that God was pleased to do because it’s in accordance with His good pleasure. So what is His eternal plan or will? Well it’s the end of v10: “To bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head- even Christ.” That’s God’s eternal master plan for the whole universe. To bring everything under the lordship of Jesus! One day Jesus will be seen to be Lord over the whole universe. He will rule supreme. And on that day, there’ll be no more opposition and all God’s enemies will be defeated. God’s kingdom will have come in this full and final sense. Because that’s God’s will.
And it’s guaranteed. How do we know? Well notice how Paul phrases it. God has purposed these events in Jesus. Purposed past tense. When the times will have reached their fulfilment, all things will come under Jesus. And so in v14, as Christians, we’re given a down payment or a deposit guaranteeing what’s to come: the HS. If we’re Christians, then our eternal future’s guaranteed. As a modern hymn puts it: No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand; ‘til He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand!
The perfect New Creation and Christians place within it is God’s eternal plan. It’s His will. And on that day, God’s will really will be done on earth as it currently is in heaven. Because the earth will have been renewed in line with His promises. And so in this sense, praying for God’s will to be done is the same as praying for God’s Kingdom to come. We’re praying to our Father to send Jesus back as soon as possible, so His kingdom may come in its fullest sense.
But as we saw last week, there’s a now as well as a not yet aspect. God’s Kingdom is growing in this age as well as being consummated in the next. And the church is central to that kingdom here on earth. Through Jesus people are being rescued from their sin and brought into a relationship with the God who made them. They’re coming under the kingly lordship of Jesus. And so, just as the Kingdom was said to be coming now on earth as people become Christians in this age, God’s eternal will is also being done here on earth as people become Christians.
So in a sense, it’ the same sermon as last week. Pray for Jesus to come back and for people to become Christians in the meantime. But there’s more. Because God’s Kingdom and His will are broader than just people becoming Christians. Remember the beginning of the LP: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name; or in other words, may you be gloried. God’s glory is His supreme concern, and this is even more important than our salvation. Last week we reflected on some verses from the prophet Isaiah and we were reminded that God is God and we are His creatures. We saw that there was a distinction between the Creator and the Created. And the rest of the book of Isaiah makes it crystal clear that the Lord didn’t just create the world and then leave it to its own devises like some celestial clockmaker. No the Lord continues to be sovereign over every aspect of His creation. Listen to these words from Is 46:10: “I say my plan will stand and I will do all that I please”.
As we’re reminded at the beginning of the book of Job, even the devil has to operate within boundaries set by God. Because it’s God’s world; indeed God’s universe, because He made everything in the first place. And he’s not just the Creator, He's the Sustainer and the ruler of His creation; nothing happens in God’s universe without Him, at the very least, permitting it.
And so in this sense, the Bishop of Lewis is right and the archbishop was wrong. God could have prevented 9-11 and the credit crunch, but obviously chose not to do so. Whether it was the Lord’s will to use the credit crunch to wake us up from our materialist idolatries and come back to him, we can’t be certain about. But what we can be certain about is this: God’s not only completely sovereign, He’s also totally just and loving, and so whatever He permits in His world must ultimately be for His own glory. And Rom 8 also reminds us that whatever happens in God’s world to God’s people, will also be for their eternal good; not necessarily for their immediate comfort; but for their eternal good.
So how does this help our prayer lives then. Because some of you might be thinking: well if God’s plans are eternal and certain, if nothing get in the way of God achieving His will, then what’s the point of praying? Does prayer actually change anything?
Well the first reason we should pray is that the Creation is in some respects a reflection of God’s character. And at the heart of the godhead, is a perfect relationship between the 3 persons of the Trinity: F, son and HS. God has created a relational universe, and he has chosen to work out His purpose through the prayers of His people. The prophet Ezekiel spells it out for us in chapter 36 [v37] where he writes: “Once again I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel...”. Why pray when God’s will is certain? Because God delights to do his will in answer to the prayers of His people. And if you understand that, it changes the way you think about prayer doesn’t it? We're not twisting God's arm to do something that he doesn't want to do; no, prayer at its best is asking God to act in line with His. And to see his in action, look on to Eph 1:15:
15For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
Back in v4, Paul’s told us that God is totally sovereign over whether someone becomes a Christian. How’s that? Because v4 tells us that God chose His people back in eternity before He even created the world. And in v13 and 14, He encourages the Ephesians by telling them that, if they are genuine Christians, then nothing can take their faith away: their eternity is secure. But then in the very next verses, he goes onto tell them that he’s always praying for them; praying that they would be kept strong and Christians and continue to grow in their faith. And so the point is this: God is keeping His promise to the Ephesians as Paul prays for them. And it’s the same with us. Yes God has already decided who will become Christians; and yes he will keep or preserver His chosen people till the end; but the way He does that is through our prayers. So we need to pray for those who don't know the Lord, that God would open their hearts and minds to the message of Jesus. And we need to pray for ourselves and our fellow Christians, that the Lord would keep us faithful and strong in Him as we continue to grow in our knowledge of Him.
Our Father in Heaven, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. What is God’s will? Well first of all, we’ve discovered that it’s His eternal plan. His eternal plan to usher in the New Heavens and the new earth; His eternal place to save a chosen people to live with Him in that perfect new world; and His eternal plan to begin transforming those people into His image in the hear and now.
God’s Will is His Moral Law
And that brings us to the second aspect of God’s will. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. What is God’s will? Well God’s will is His moral law. Let’s go back to 9-11. And you’ll remember that argument from Isaiah that if God really is sovereign over everything, then in some overall sense, 9-11 was God’s will, in the same way that it was God’s will to permit the devil to attack Job. But in another sense, of course, we know that the 6th Commandment is: do not murder. Yesterday at her 40th birthday party, Hannah was wearing a t-shirt with these words on: which part of thou shalt not don’t you understand. God’s revealed moral law or will is crystal clear: do not murder. Do not fly planes into buildings. Whatever God permits in His overall providence, His moral will for us is clear: and it starts with the 10 commandments.
And so if someone comes up to me and says: I’ve been praying about my marriage, and I really think it’s the Lord’s will for me to leave my wife and move in with this other woman. What do I say? Well the answer’s clear: God’s will can never be for you to do something that’s contrary to His word; His word says do not commit adultery; and so whatever you feel, it cannot be the Lord’s will for you to do this.
And so often the issue isn’t that we don’t know God’s will for our lives, it’s that we’re not prepared to do it. Deep down, we’re not really convinced that God’s will really is in our best interests, and more importantly, for the glory of God. And so when we pray; Our father in Heaven, may your will be done here on earth in my life, we praying for His strength to obey His laws: we’re praying for sexual self control; we praying for the strength to love our wives, to root our hypocrisy, gossip and idolatry. We’re back to Paul’s prayer in Eph 1: that we would become more like Jesus.
As Mark Twain put it: it’s not the bits of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand. No matter how much of the Bible we know, we all need help to obey it: I do, you do; we all do. Which is way we pray a confession every week. And we pray for the forgiveness of the sins that we have committed not just in ignorance and weakness, but those we’ve committed through our own deliberate fault. Because none of us live up to the knowledge of God’s laws we do have.
But there is also a problem of Biblical literacy, or rather illiteracy. A recent survey if church-goers has revealed that 24% only read their Bibles occasionally, 18% hardly ever and 17% never read them outside a church service. If we’re not reading God’s word, then we’ll not only be sinning through deliberate disobedience of the few bits we do understand, but we’ll also be sinning massively through ignorance - through our biblical illiteracy. What is God’s will: well it’s in the Bible: it’s His moral law. How many of us could recite the 10 commandments; how many of us could explain to a friend why God’s will is opposed to abortion and euthanasia? Biblical ignorance and illiteracy is a growing problem in society and even in the church. And if that’s true at an individual level, it’s also true corporately.
Let’s come back to the America presidential election and focus on the defeated vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Commenting on her decision not to abort a baby she knew had Downs Syndrome, a senior doctor said this: “Ms Palin’s widely discussed decision to keep her baby, knowing he would be born with the condition, may inadvertently influence other women who may lack the necessary emotional and financial support to do the same”. In other words, unless you’re financially and emotionally strong, then it would be immoral not to abort a baby with a defect; morally wrong not to kill a disabled baby.
The Nazi’s systematic extermination of the Jews is well known. But perhaps less well know is their euthanasia programme of the sick, the old and the dieing. As early as 1935, Hilter had outlined his plans for systematic Euthanasia in the event of war so that hospital beds could be freed up. By 1939 the killings had already started and those who weren’t healthy, were no longer allowed to live.
In 1945, we defeated the godless Nazis with their chilling policies of systematic euthanasia or murder. And yet, 60 years on, once again we need to be vigilant against an ideology that says it's the morally right thing to get rid of both the young and the old who are a financial or emotional burden on their families and wider society.
God’s will is clear: do not murder. Our father in heaven: may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
God’s will is His plan for my life
We’ve seen that God’s will is His eternal plan; His eternal decrees that is. But we’ve also seen that God’s will is also his moral will: His revealed will; His law. And it’s easy to discern what God’s will is when we’re talking about something as clear cut as murder and adultery. But what about those grey areas? What about decisions where there’s is no right and wrong; decisions where the Bible appears to give us freedom of choice. And this brings is to the 3rd aspect of God’s will; what is God’s will: Well in this final sense God’s will is His plan for my life.
So how do we work out that plan? How do we know what the Lord wants us to do. We’ll we’ve already seen that the first step is to examine the scriptures to see if any of God’s laws apply to the situation. Some decisions will clearly be right and wrong as we’ve seen. But others will come into the category of wisdom; some decisions won’t be morally right or wrong, but could still be either wise or unwise. Take the example of who you should marry: If you’re a single Christian, then God’s law permits you to marry anyone of the opposite sex who’s not already married, who’s not a close relative and who’s a professing Christian. But what about someone who meets those criteria but whom you don't find in the slightly bit attractive and whom, privately, you find rather irritating. Would it be God's will to marry that person? Well it wouldn’t be morally wrong, but it’s probably not wise and so probably not the Lord’s will for you. And that’s where the Bible’s wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs helps us; helps us to be wiser in our decision-making and so more in line with God’s will.
But often, we need to make decisions where even applying wisdom doesn’t help much. I know there are some in our congregations struggling with decisions about jobs and housing. And sometimes it would be nice to receive an e-mail from heaven telling us what to do wouldn’t it? But God doesn’t work like that. In all of life’s experiences He’s working to make us more like J; to make us more dependent on Him more and to bring glory and honour to His name as we live and work through the struggles of life. And so he wants us to pray about the struggle and decisions we’re all facing. And He may end up leading us in a totally different direction to what we originally thought was right.
The Apostle Paul was commissioned as the Apostle to the Gentiles. It was God's will for him to go and tell the Gentiles about the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. But when should he move on and where should he go next? That was often Paul’s struggle. In Acts 16, we see that Paul was trying to go into modern day Turkey to preach the Gospel. No doubt he’d prayed about it and originally felt it was the right thing to do. But the Lord closed that door and opened up an opportunity in Greece. And so for Paul at that time, it was clearly the Lord’s will to live and work in Greece not Turkey.
And it's a similar process of discernment for us. First look to God’s law and seek to rule out immoral choices, like working for a brothel. Then we look to Biblical wisdom to rule out unwise choices. And after that, we pray to the Lord that as we explore various options and possibilities within the freedom God has given us, that he would shut doors that are not of him and lead us through the circumstances and coincidences of life down the path he would have us go. What’s God's will: it’s his plan for my life: a plan that’s moral, wise and soaked in prayer at every stage.
So before we close in prayer, let’s remember those 3 main aspects of God’s will:
God’s will is His eternal plan; his sovereign plan for the entire universe, a plan to save His chosen people.
Secondly, God’s will is His decrees; His Moral law; His commandments.
And thirdly, God’s will is His plan for my life: a plan that’s moral and wise and dependent on the Lord at every step.
This then is how you should pray: Our Father in Heaven, may your will be done - on earth as in heaven, both now, but most importantly, for all eternity in the New Creation. Let’s pray.
Our Father in Heaven, there seems to be so much confusion in the world and even in the church about your will. But you’ve shown us in your word that you are sovereign; even when we don’t understand why you permit bad things to happen, help us to continue trusting that you’re still in control and that you work out everything for your own glory and the eternal good of your people; help us to know your moral will, revealed to us in your word, and equip us in the spirit to be obedient to those parts we do know and to grow in our knowledge of the bits we don’t. And finally, grant us wisdom and guidance in our daily lives, that we might bring honour to your name and blessing to those around us. For our good, but your ultimate glory we pray, Amen.
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