Bob Munford tells of a certain Italian harbor that can be reached only by sailing up a narrow channel between dangerous rocks and shoals. Over the years, many ships have wrecked, and navigation is hazardous. To guide the ships safely into port, three lights have been mounted in the harbor on three huge poles. When the three lights are perfectly lined up and seen as one, the ship can safely proceed up the narrow channel. If the pilot sees two or three lights, he knows he’s off course and in danger.
Mumford goes on to say that God has also provided three beacons to guide us. The same rules of navigation apply – the three lights must be lined up before it is safe for us to proceed. The three harbor lights of guidance are 1. The Word of God (objective standard) 2. The Holy Spirit (subjective witness) 3. Circumstances (divine providence)
Together, notes Mumford, they assure us that the directions we’ve received are from God and will lead us safely along His way.
Using Mumford’s three harbor lights as a guide and outline, I want to have us think about why and how these three together help us discern, individually and corporately, God’s will.
Three passages of scripture will serve as the Biblical basis for understanding these three important parts of discerning God’s will.
The first passage is 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing that God wants us to do.”
It is said of Alexander White, a preacher of great renown from another generation, that when he was to old to enter the pulpit, he still arose every morning to prepare a sermon, even though he never preached them. He did so until the day he died.
We do not have to be a preacher to understand the value of Bible study. God has given to us a book of great importance.
The Bible contains everything that we need to clearly understand and live out God’s will throughout our lives. Nothing else available to us provides us with such clear directions.
The 2 Timothy passage indicates why the Bible helps us discern and experience God’s will. First of all, God inspired it. The Bible is a book with a divine origin. It has stood the tests of time and attempted obliteration of those opposed to it. Because it is inspired by God, it is therefore a primary way to understand God and his purposes for humankind.
Second, it is God’s way of preparing us to do what is right – a key part of God’s will. Not only does the Bible reveal who God is and what His purposes are, but it also reveals what we are to do and how we are to live in light of God’s plans and purposes.
But, how to we read God’s word in order to understand and experience His will?
Martin Luther wrote,
“I study my Bible like I gather apples. First, I shake the whole tree that the ripest may fall. Then I shake each limb, and when I have shaken each limb, I shake each branch and every twig. Then I look under every leaf.
I search the Bible as a whole like shaking the whole tree. Then I shake every limb – study book after book. Then I shake every branch, giving attention to the chapters. Then I shake every twig, or a careful study of the paragraphs and sentences and words and their meanings.”
So what? You may ask. Who has the time today for such a deep study?
If we want to line up the lights and avoid unnecessary difficulties in life, then we must become students of scripture. God w-a-n-t-s u-s t-o u-n-d-e-r-s-t-a-n-d H-I-s w-o-r-d. God wants us to not be afraid of the Bible, nor give up studying it as we make our first frustrating attempts to study it.
Why would God not want us to understand his word? Why would He have gone to great lengths of time to have it written down? Why would He have allowed so many persons to give their lives in order to spread it throughout the world, if He did not want us to understand it and apply it?
If we are going to line up the first ‘beacon’ to navigate life well and obediently then we must become people of the Word. And we become people of the Word, when we make the decision to study the Bible, daily and prayerfully with God’s assistance.
Many years ago the Associated Press carried the story about a man who discovered after struggling to start his car, that someone had stolen the motor.
If, you will, call the Bible, an owner’s manual, the Holy Spirit is the power under the hood.
When was the last time you checked under the hood of your life?
In the hours prior to the crucifixion, Jesus tells the disciples of the coming of the Holy Spirit who will help them as they fulfill the great commission.
We read Jesus’ statements about the Holy Spirit in John 16:8-11. ‘And when He (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convince the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgement. The world’s sin is unbelief in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgement will come because the prince of this world has already been judged.’
God’s will is made more understandable when the authority of the word is combined with the experience of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is whom God uses to accomplish His will.
Why is the Holy Spirit necessary in understanding and experiencing God’s will? Because in God’s plan, the Holy Spirit does the inner work necessary to both influence us toward and transform us into persons of God.
Sometimes I wonder if, in our post-modern ways, we have forgotten the Holy Spirit? I wonder if we have attempted to get people to change without praying for the Holy Spirit to do His work.
It is the Holy Spirit who convicts us after we have cheated on a test, or lied to our spouse, or talked about our boss behind his/her back. It is the Holy Spirit who helps us realize that we are weak, that we are fallen, that we are flawed, and that only He, in cooperation with God the Father and God the Son, can make the changes in our lives that we cannot make.
It is the Holy Spirit we grieve when we fail to confess our sins and admit our wrongs to God.
The Holy Spirit is God’s direct contact with us as we walk with God in a flawed and fallen world.
How does the Holy Spirit work? I don’t know.
All that I know is that He does work and when He does, either we cooperate with Him, or we don’t and there are consequences to both choices.
But, if we are going to understand and experience God’s will for our lives, then we must align ourselves with the Holy Spirit by asking Him to cleanse us and transform us into the person, and people, of God.
In Acts 16 Paul, at the beginning of his second missionary journey, encounters the will of God through circumstances. Beginning with verse 9 we read: “That night Paul had a vision. He saw a man from Macedonia in northern Greece, pleading with him, “Come over here and help us.” So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, for we could only conclude that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.”
Paul and his companion Silas were obedient to God because as we review verses 6 through 8, God’s spirit kept them from going in the direction they had mapped out and directed them into Greece and ultimately, as we read in verse 12, to Phillipi, a major city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We stayed there several days.’ Notes the text.
What happened there? They met Lydia, ‘a merchant of expensive purple cloth. She was also a worshipper of God.’ I believe that this was the beginning of a church.
But, Paul and Silas were also beaten and jailed. But, God was in that as well. For we read in verses 29 and 30, that the jailer, in the aftermath of an earthquake that shook the jail cell doors open, calls for lights and ran to the dungeon cell where Paul and Silas were and cried out to them, “What must I do to be saved?” A man was brought to God!
In the New Testament, there is a book of the Bible called “Philippians.” It was written by Paul to the church, whose members included a seller of purple and a jailer, who met God because Paul had lined up the third light of guidance – circumstances with the first two.
And in that book we read these words, “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me strength.”
Paul did not learn that overnight. He learned it by lining up the lights of scripture, the Holy Spirit, and circumstances in the day in and day out of life.
Why does God use circumstances to help us experience and understand His will? In Paul’s situation, it was to expand His kingdom. Come to think about it, I think that is the only reason God uses circumstances – to expand His kingdom through the fulfillment of His will in and through us.
How does God use circumstances to help us experience and understand His will? In James chapter 1, we read about endurance and the testing of one’s faith. Verse three says, “For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.”
My message this morning is a revision of sermon that I gave over 15 years ago to a congregation who was displaced about a month earlier by a devastating fire. It was an event that no one saw coming and it led to many transitions and changes over the next 18 months – including my departure from there and my coming here.
As I look out this morning I am aware of many different transitions that are taking place in the next few weeks with the re-start of not just elementary, middle, and high school but also college.
There are other transitions as well.
Some of our congregation have moved from one house to another and begun a new chapter in a new location. Others of us have switched jobs, or are hoping to switch jobs, and there are lots of transitions there.
This time next year, God willing, a significant group of teens from our church will be preparing to head to college. Many of them have led us in worship for several years, as well as in other ministries, and they will leave this platform.
Some of us are thinking, “Who will take their place? What are we going to do without them?”
God knows and, I think He is providing. After all there are three young adults in this congregation who have significant musical ability and leadership that I plan to include in the worship mix over the next year.
I also see some young adults who grew up in this church starting to taking on some leadership in the next year. And I see some children coming to our children’s group this fall who were not here a year ago.
So as we navigate this next year we need to line up these three lights – in our own lives and as a congregation because God has a future for us here, on this corner, and in this community somehow, some way, and somewhere, in the years to come.
And I am excited about that…
And it will also take three additional things we need to ask the Lord to help us develop – patience, trust, and faith – in God, in ourselves, and…in one another.
The understanding and accomplishment of doing the Lord’s will have been part of my faith journey for many years. It has also been a key theme in many conversations I have had with people over the years as a pastor.
The title of the first sermon I gave was “What Does It Mean to Do God’s Will?” And the text for that message was Colossians 3:1-17
I close this message, as a reminder to myself and an encouragement to all of us here, about the kind of life that lines up the three lights, by reading that text and I invite you to follow along in your Bibles.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Let the journey continue… and begin!