Discerning the Will of God

Sermon by Bill Chadwick | January 26, 2020

Acts 8: 26-31

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south [ a ] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Today we ordain and install our elders, who will lead this congregation for the next year. What is the role of the elder within the Presbyterian system?

When I do officer training (or teach confirmation) I always give a little exam about church government. I thought I would do something a bit different this year and give it to you all as well. Lucky you. I know many of you don’t have tons of experience in the Presbyterian Church. You will do your own grading, so don’t get nervous.


Here’s the key point of the sermon: The elders’ job is NOT to poll the congregation about what it wants to do and then enact that. Yes, it is a good job to poll the congregation for ideas and opinions. But the role of the session (elders and pastors) is to poll the Holy Spirit, discern the Spirit’s leading and then lead the congregation in fulfilling that.

But how do we discern the leading of God? Let’s think together about that.

Certainly, we follow the Bible, and we will spend some time on this.

In our Acts passage we find one of the newly ordained deacons, a man named Philip, responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit. He is told to “Get up and go toward the south (or perhaps at noon, it’s not a clear translation) to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” And so Philip does. There he encounters an official from the Court of the Queen of Ethiopia, who had come to Jerusalem to worship. Obviously ,a convert to Judaism. He is reading aloud from the book Isaiah. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The man replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

There’s some honesty. Ever sit down to try to read the book of Isaiah on your own? It’s complicated. Or Ezekiel. It’s the only book of the Bible I have never been able to get all the way through. That guy was smoking something. Friends, the Bible is not a children’s book. We’ll come back to Philip and the Ethiopian later.

I once preached a sermon on what the Bible is not. I asserted that it is NOT a baseball bat (to bash people over the head with your interpretation). It is NOT a science book, a bumper sticker, a secret codebook to predict the future in specific ways. It’s not a newspaper trying to be relatively objective, or a batting helmet to protect us from getting hurt. It is not the key to financial success, and yet, neither is the Bible a wet blanket to smother all the fun in life.

It’s actually easier for me to say what the Bible is NOT, but it’s only fair to make some suggestions as to what the Bible IS, at a great risk of being corny and simplistic.

The Bible is (these items were displayed) …a light (as scripture says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path”), a whistle to warn us of danger, lenses to see life without distortion, life preserver, Liquid Wrench to help us get unstuck, key to remove chains that enslave us, a level to see if we are living in accord with the prophets’ call to justice, and my favorite, the Bible is like a set of jumper cables to help us connect to the Source of Power.

Three keys:

The chief value of the Bible is that it is where we read about Jesus, the revelation of what God is like and of what we humans are meant to be like.

Second: to interpret scripture we read through the lens of Jesus. So, in reading scripture we ask ourselves, “Does this particular passage fit with the picture of Jesus—his life, his teachings?” And the ones that don’t, such as the commands in the First Testament to kill not only your enemy soldiers, but their wives and children and cattle and sheep…does that sound like Jesus? Then maybe we put that on the back burner…

Third: I contend that the purpose of the Bible is to teach us, to teach us what to believe and what we are to do. To do! This brings us to today’s subject: authority. That is, how do we make decisions? How do we discern the will of God?

Well, that should be simple. We just follow what the Bible says! Right?

Just follow the Bible. Some of you may have seen this response to a segment by the radio personality Dr. Laura Schlesinger. Dr. Laura had made a definitive pronouncement that certain behavior is an abomination according to Leviticus. Someone wrote this open letter in response. I will read just parts of it.

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend (this certain behavior), for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

…I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

…Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

We just follow what the Bible says, right? A real-life example: One of my best pastor friends moved to a new congregation about 15 or 20 years ago now. There he quickly found himself in trouble with some people in his congregation who claimed to be biblical literalists. It was a very tense situation. At one session meeting one of Pat’s most vocal opponents, a woman, stated forcefully, “We’re simply trying to follow the scriptures!”

The man seated next to her quietly said, “Such as ‘Women should keep silent in church’?” (I Corinthians 14:34)

Not so simple to simply try to follow the scriptures. If you want to see how difficult it is to follow every command in the Bible, I HIGHLY recommend to you the book, The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs.

The Year of Living Biblically is an amazing read, one of the most interesting and fun books I have ever read. I learned a great deal about the Bible and I‘ve read the Bible a few times. Jacobs read through the entire Bible and wrote down every single thing that we are commanded to do in the Bible. It was like 700 different requirements. The one I really remember is that a man is not allowed to sit on a chair on which a menstruating woman has sat. And how does one know? He said he tried asking women, but they found that slightly inappropriate. So, he carried his own little chair with him wherever he went.

I highly recommend it: The Year of Living Biblically.

Back to the issue of authority. Is everything we need to know even in the Bible. For example, if we ask the question, “Is it okay for followers of Jesus to ride in airplanes?” we don’t get an answer in scripture. You go to the biggest concordance you still are not going to find the word “airplane.”

So, what do we use for our authority if there is not a clear answer in scripture? Let me offer the following as what I call a think-with. (original idea from UCC pastor Harrell Beck)

Authority: How do we make decisions?

Let me be utterly clear that we start with scripture, as interpreted through the lens of Jesus. Yes, there are some unclear things in scripture. There are some absolute contradictions. But there are some things that are 100% clear. We are not to steal. We are not to be promiscuous. We are to welcome the stranger and the refugee. We are to love, even our enemies. Give me more examples… (People offered… “)

We are to forgive. We are to care for one another. We are not to greedily clutch everything God has given us, but we are to share. There are in scripture thousands of verses about money and about how we treat the poor.

But there are some things that are not clear from scripture. Let’s say a person is making some vocational choices. Teacher or hit man? That’s clear from scripture. Teacher or businessperson? Less clear. The world needs good teachers and the world needs good businesspeople, people that care for their employees, that treat their customers honestly, that care for the environment. So, teacher or businessperson? Not obvious. And if you decide to be a teacher, where do you teach? Small town or inner city? In the US or as a missionary teacher in the developing world?

These are hard questions.

If it’s not clear from the Bible, where do we go?

I suggest that we pray and listen to our guts. As we pray, what feels right? In our Acts passage from today Philip “hears an angel.” What does that mean? An audible voice? Probably he was at prayer and felt the Spirit’s nudging. And it told him to do something weird. Go out to the road at noon. But the Spirit had arranged a “coincidence,” or “God incidence.” It led to the Ethiopian man’s conversion to the Way of Jesus! Probably led to the spread of the gospel throughout Ethiopia! Listen to our guts.

Now, we’ve got to be careful! I read about a young woman who graduated from college and sought a teaching job. They were hard to come by. She finally was offered a job by a rural district and signed the contract to begin that fall. Two weeks before school started, she was offered a job by a larger district for more money. What to do? Ultimately, she went to the superintendent of the first district and told him that she was not going to teach for him after all and explained the situation. She said, “I prayed about and I have peace that this is the right thing to do.” Hmmm?

The superintendent’s response: “She has peace. I am left with the pieces.”

My feelings can sometimes be dead wrong. There are a million pop and country songs along the lines of, “If it feels so good it must be right.”


If it feels that good, it most likely isn’t right. There’s that old definition of a conscience: Your conscience is what feels bad when everything else feels so good.

I know that my gut is not entirely reliable by itself. But sometimes it’s right on. Which I have realized in the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Back in my early 20s there was one car I really wanted to buy. I had wanted this model for years. I’m embarrassed to tell you what it was, because it shows you how boring I am: a VW bus. Just before my last year of seminary I was going to be working with youth and I thought it would be great for hauling kids around. I found a nice baby blue one.

But my gut didn’t feel good about it. There was no logical reason, so I ignored my gut.

A couple days later I headed for seminary in San Francisco via the northern route. I got as far as Fargo before the van broke down. Over the next two years I spent more on repairs than I did on seminary tuition.

And I could give you other examples vastly more important than purchases. Now I listen more to my gut. But not alone.

The third leg of the authority stool is to listen to the advice of our trusted Christian friends.

John Calvin warned that we are to interpret the Bible in groups. Otherwise we can get it to say whatever we want.

Listen to our trusted Christian friends. Speaking of friends, the Society of Friends, the Quakers do this regularly. For example, when you want to get married the couple comes before the meeting (the church members) and the couple talk about why they want to get married and the elders ask them questions and then everyone prays. If the church says it’s a bad idea, the couple can’t get married in the church. If I had done that before my first wedding, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache, because AFTER the divorce LOTS of people told me they thought it was a bad match.

Another example. In 1995 I was in a vocational quandary. I had four different choices. I don’t mean to be bragging. There have been times in my life where I didn’t have any vocational choices and I sure didn’t like the situation I was in at the time. But in 1995 I happened to have four very good choices. Two in business and two in the church. It wasn’t obvious to me from scripture which to choose. My gut was in a different place every day. How to decide? Kris and I called together about ten of our best friends, all people who knew us well and who had a deep faith. And we laid out the opportunities and we asked them to pray, which we did right there in our living room. Then we asked for their wisdom. They were unanimous in their recommendation that I accept the call to become co-pastor of St. Luke Church. Which we followed.

When the inevitable trying times took place (it was a pastorate after all) it was very comforting to know that we had followed the wisdom of these people. We felt pretty darn certain that we were following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Authority: How do we make decisions? How do we discern the will of God? We start with scripture, scripture through the lens of Jesus. We pray and listen to our own guts. And we seek the wisdom and discernment of our trusted Christian friends.

If we get all three to line up, we can with confidence move forward. Amen.

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