September 1, 2019 Sermon
First Scripture Reading: Deuteronomy 9:8-14
8 Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you. 9 When I went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water. 10 And the Lord gave me the two stone tablets written with the finger of God; on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken to you at the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly. 11 At the end of forty days and forty nights the Lord gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. 12 Then the Lord said to me, “Get up, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have been quick to turn from the way that I commanded them; they have cast an image for themselves.” 13 Furthermore the Lord said to me, “I have seen that this people is indeed a stubborn people. 14 Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and more numerous than they.”
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 4:1-11
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
NOTE: Prior to reading the sermon, I recommend watching a YouTube video entitled, “40 – A Video of Jesus in the Wilderness”, which can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-6a25Yo2wE.
Message – “Discernment: Forty Days”
What is it with the Bible and “forty days”?
- In the time of Noah, God sent rain to fall on the earth for forty days and forty nights;
- After the death of Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel, the physicians embalmed Jacob’s body for 40 days?
- In the time of Exodus and as re-told in Deuteronomy, Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God, receiving God’s commandments, God’s teaching and laws, for God’s people;
- During the time of Israel’s wilderness wandering…when spies were sent to the Promised Land…those spies spent, you guessed it, forty days spying out the land;
And, y’all, we haven’t even made it through the first five books of the Bible! Clearly, forty days was a period of time that held some kind of SIGNIFICANCE in God’s story with people.
Apparently, the Bible isn’t the only place where you’ll find a significance attached to forty days. Just do a quick Google search, and you’ll discover that 40 days is STILL a big deal. In fact, there are TONS of book titles that begin with or include the phrase “40 days”; some are ostensibly Christian while others are not:
- “40 Days and 40 Nights” – a book not about Noah but rather about a trial in Pennsylvania. It turns out there’s a book by the same title about Noah, as well.
- “40 Days with the Holy Spirit”
- “40 Days to a Finished Book”
- “40 Days with Jesus”
- “40 Days to Wholeness”
- “40 Days of Prayer and Fasting”
- “40 Days of Freedom”
I could literally read a list of books that include the phrase “40 days” in their titles for the rest of my sermon time and not get to the end.
There’s even a “40 Hands in 40 Days” fundraising initiative for Colorado nonprofits that tries to connect businesses in Colorado who want to help communities with not-for-profits seeking donations.
So…what is up with 40 days? Why was it in scripture and has it become in our society such a big deal? Is it possible maybe God KNEW something, maybe God KNOWS something, so powerful that even people who don’t want to have anything to do with God have caught on? And, of course, what does this have to do with discernment?
Today is the final Sunday of our 3-part sermon series about discernment, about seeking to know the will of God so that we can DO the will of God…as individuals and as a community of faith.
You might recall that I began the series by proclaiming the biblical truth that God desires EVERYONE to partake of this discerning-God’s-will thing in the decisions of our lives. And I continued last week by providing the first piece of biblical advice about HOW to do this discernment thing. The advice was to simply – or maybe not so simply – cut out the material and not-so-material clutter of our lives that gets in the way of focusing enough on God to discern God’s will.
Today’s sermon is the final message in the series, and it’s another application sermon, another message about the HOW of discernment. And it has to do with “forty days”.
In the Bible, the number 40, whether it be associated with days or years, is typically used to represent two distinct epochs. It’s easier to see with 40 years…since that was considered to be the length of a generation. The passing from one generation to another clearly represents a significant change…change in leadership, change in composition of a people, change in attitudes, change in culture. Just think about it in generational terms today:
- you’ve still got a few folks from the G.I. Generation, also called The Greatest Generation;
- you’ve got a generation called the traditionalists or the silent generation;
- you’ve got the baby boomers;
- you’ve got Generation X, my generation, sometimes also called the Busters or the Thirteeners;
- you’ve got the Millenials;
- and, of course, you’ve got the newest generation, Generation Z, also called the iGen or the Centennials.
Think about these names and the characteristics of these generations. As time passes and a new generation emerges…THINGS CHANGE. A new epoch in our society begins. You can see that; you GET that, right? Y’all, this isn’t new.
In fact, it’s so NOT new that, even in the days of the Bible thousands of years ago, people GOT that 40 years represented such significant change, epochal change, that 40 could then be used in smaller terms, like DAYS, to represent this kind of change. In other words, the number 40 became a metaphor for significant change…even if attached to days instead of years:
- So that the 40 days between pre-flood and post-flood in the days of Noah represented epochal change…the world CHANGED irrevocably in that 40 days;
- So that the 40 days between Moses going up the mountain to be with God and Moses coming back down that mountain with around 600 commandments represented epochal change…Israel’s relationship with God changed irrevocably in that 40 days;
- So that the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness represented epochal change…Jesus’ life shifted from being a seemingly normal guy to beginning His ministry of ushering in God’s kingdom…meaning Jesus’ life and even the whole world changed irrevocably in that 40 days.
But…what does this mean for us?
I’m sure you’ve figured it out, but I’ll tell you anyway. If you want to truly change your life, if you want an epochal change in your life, if you want to transition from being a person who struggles with discerning God’s will to being a person who is completely in synch with God’s will…YOU’VE GOT TO WORK FOR 40 DAYS to make it happen. You’ve got to do something very different from what you’ve been doing previously…with great intentionality…for 40 days before you can expect to see results. It takes 40 days for this kind of change.
I remember when I lived in San Antonio…back before I was a minister. My morning and evening commute was somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on traffic, so I had to figure out something to DO with that 40 minutes twice a day every week day. Being quite the sports fan, I settled into a routine of listening to sports talk radio. There were a couple of stations to choose from, and I settled into a routine of listening to a few different programs. Then, one day, one of my favorite programs went off the air in San Antonio and was replaced by something new, something very different, something I wasn’t very sure at all that I liked. It was the Jim Rome show. Rome-y, as his fans called him, was a very different kind of sports talk personality in that time. He was young; he was brash; he cussed; he was rude to people. And I thought to myself, “I need to find something else to listen to.” But, just as I was about to find a different sports talk show to listen to on my commute, Rome said something that stuck with me. He spoke to all the people who, like me, didn’t like his style, and he told us to give him 2-3 weeks. Listen every day for 2-3 weeks and, then if we still don’t like the show, he encouraged us to choose something else. And, you know something? After 2-3 weeks, I was hooked. I still didn’t like the things I didn’t like about his show, but I found so much more I DID like because I stuck in there.
Discerning God’s will is a lot like that. When you start, it’s difficult. It’s painful. It’s very DIFFERENT from what you’re used to. I mean, I want to choose what to eat based on what I like, not based on what I discern God wants me to eat. So…it’s difficult. Indeed, as 21st century Americans, CHOOSING to give up our autonomy…it’s DIFFICULT. But, after a while, you start to discover some of the benefits that you didn’t recognize at first. You start to discover that God really does want what’s best for you and, SHOCK, God actually KNOWS better than you do what’s best for you. It takes a while to figure that out. Actually, it takes longer to figure that out than it takes to get used to Jim Rome…which is why 40 days instead of half that time. Epochal change requires a longer commitment.
So…ok, let’s say that I’ve convinced you to try this 40 days thing. You’ve STILL got to figure out what to do during that 40 days, right? I mean, if you could just say something like, “I’ll make every single decision of my life for 40 days based on what I discern God wants and see what happens” and have that work…I’m guessing a lot more people would be doing it. But, typically, when I’ve talked to people who’ve tried this, they give up after about 10…minutes. OK….maybe a little longer than that. Typically, what happens is that they stop being intentional about it after they wake-up the next morning or when so much trying to figure out what God wants about seemingly little things like getting up from the chair or walking to the kitchen or brushing their teeth gets them to decide that these decisions are too insignificant to give to God, so they’ll wait for the bigger decisions, and then they just forget. That’s really what seems to happen.
So…I’ll give you some tools for your 40 day journey. You don’t have to use ALL of these tools, but you could. My recommendation is to use whichever ones resonate most with you…to begin with. Then, add and subtract as your going through your 40 days based on how you’re doing.
Tool #1 – “A Guide to Spiritual Discernment” by Ruben Job. I’ve recommended this to a great number of people, and I’ve used it myself. It actually guided me during my sabbatical time last year. What I like about it is that it utilizes a form of daily prayer and reflection that teaches you how to discern from God while in conversation with God. If you just sat down and looked at the chapters, you’d wonder how this could possibly help you with discernment; yet, when you come out on the other side of 40 days…if you’re anything like me…you’ll feel as in touch with God as you ever had in your life. Oh…another thing I like about it: there’s an outline that tells you what to do. Certainly, you can modify the form if you desire, but you don’t have to. Everything is spelled out for you…with instructions at the beginning of the book…if you need that.
A preface to the rest of the tools. Each of them is a kind of spiritual practice or discipline. Knowing this, you might decide that any spiritual practice or discipline would be a good choice…so you can discard these in favor of one you already like or use. But I’ll warn you against that. If the ones you currently like and use are not helping you discern God’s will in the decisions of your life, it’s time to move onto something else…for at least 40 days. And I’m offering three that I’ve found to be incredibly useful for THIS purpose, actually the three that best helped me get into the habit of discerning God’s will for every decision of my life while I was in seminary…during the time when I was most connected to God’s will in my life. Oh…one more thing…as I talk about these, I’ll briefly describe them but won’t tell you in detail how to use them. I don’t need to…because I’ve put packets with copies of each on the tables outside the sanctuary for you to pick up as you depart. So…don’t get bogged down in the details right now; rather, listen to see if one of these discernment tools resonates with you.
Tool #2 – “The Awareness Examen.” This is based on a practice utilized by Ignatius of Loyola and developed about 500 years ago…so you know it’s withstood the test of time and helped countless people become better discerners of God’s will. It’s a fairly simple practice to perform…but it’s time consuming…and deep. It’s about asking God to help you review your most recent day….both to celebrate your day and to receive advice from God about how a particular decision or group of decisions could better be made in accordance with God’s desires. If you tend to like guided meditations, this might be a good discernment tool for you.
Tool #3 – Praying the Scriptures. This is also called Lectio Divina. It’s also fairly simple but can take a few days to get used to it. Actually, I’ve known very few people who didn’t need at least a week to get comfortable with this one…but, remember, 40 days. Praying scripture is different than reading or studying scripture. It’s more like asking God to reach out to you through a few words or phrases in the passage; you don’t even have to really understand the scriptures for this to work. It’s really a great way to connect scripture and life, particularly with respect to discerning God’s will for your decisions.
Tool #4 – Labyrinth walking. I don’t know where your mind goes when you hear the word “labyrinth”. Maybe you think of fantasy movies or stories of minotaurs; maybe you think of confusing mazes. This is a different kind of labyrinth. It has but one path that twists and turns to lead you to a central space from which you then return. It’s a great discernment tool…if used correctly for discernment…because the primary task of the labyrinth is to do exactly what I talked about last week: clear the clutter from all around you, so you can better focus on God. In essence, that’s what a labyrinth is: a focusing tool. If you don’t have a labyrinth handy, don’t worry. In the packet outside the doors to the sanctuary, I’ve provided a picture of a hand labyrinth, meaning a laburinth you can trace with your finger. It’s almost as good as walking a labyrinth. If you get to the point where you want to walk a labyrinth, there’s one out front of the congregational church a few blocks from here…and there’s one at 1876 16 Road in Loma. Susan and I built it so people could go out and use it.
I hope you see that all of these tools help in some way simulate what Jesus was up to during His 40 days spent in the wilderness. During that time, Jesus had nothing with him but stuff provided by God. Jesus removed all the stuff of the world from His experience; Jesus cut out the clutter. But Jesus ALSO replaced the clutter with stuff that helped Him discern God’s will. That’s what these tools are about – finding some things to replace the clutter in your life, finding some things that direct your focus to God’s will for your life. If you practice one or more of these things for 40 days, I am confident you will become much more at ease with this discernment thing…even with the seemingly tiniest decisions in your life. Amen.
Spiritual Practices for Discernment
Prepared and Recommended by
Rev. Brad Barton
First Christian Church,
September 1, 2019
A Guide to Spiritual Discernment
Compiled by Rueben Job
Almost 500 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola proposed that Christians partake daily of something called “an examination of conscience.” What Ignatius proposed was rather detailed, but the principle is simple. It’s about taking time with God each day to consider God’s vision for your life (even your day) and also taking time each day to ask God to show you how you’re doing. That’s pretty much the Examination of Conscience in a nutshell, but in this truncated form it is sometimes referred to as “The Awareness Examen.”
Here are the steps I recommend:
- Beginning – Close your eyes. (This is pretty important for this one. It’s important to keep your eyes closed for what is to come.) Take time to clear your mind. Breathe in and out slowly, becoming aware of each breath. Imagine breathing in God’s presence, God’s spirit, and breathing out everything that distracts you from God.
- Invite God’s Presence. Take some time to invite God to be present with you. Try your best to imagine, even envision, God with you.
- Review Your Day. Ask God to review your past day with you. (If it’s been less than a day since the last time you did this, ask God to review the time since your last Awareness Examen with you.) in whatever way works best for you, imagine God actually showing you the details of your past day. Perhaps God is showing you a video on a television or reading the events of your day to you like a story. Just watch and listen. Don’t focus on anything…yet, but be sure to pay attention to your emotions. When were you happy, sad, fulfilled, etc.?
- Second Review. Ask God to go through your day with you again, showing you a point in your day in which your discernment of God’s will could have been better. Be sure to ask God what God desires you to have done differently in that moment. Talk about it with God. Why did you do what you did? Why does God desire something different? What are the implications for your life and relationships? Also ask God to show you a glimpse, a vision of God’s desires for you in the coming day.
- Prayer. As the last step, say a prayer in which you thank God for reviewing the actions and words of your life and for showing you God’s desires for something a little different. Conclude by asking for God’s strength for living into God’s vision for you in the coming day.
Tool # 3:
Praying the Scriptures
Lectio Divina literally translates (from Latin) as “divine reading.” It’s a way of praying the scriptures. What this means (to me) is communicating with God through the scriptures, or, more precisely, listening to what God has to say to us in the scriptures. If practiced in a particular way, it can lead to discernment of God’s will or desires.
Here are the steps I recommend for using Lectio Divina as a discernment tool:
- Prepare. Choose a passage of scripture. For the first week, I recommend using a narrative passage (a story) or a psalm. However, you’ll need to switch from selecting passages according to your will/desires after you become accustomed to the practice. After a week, perform your preparation by asking God to guide you to the text God wants you to read and then open your Bible (seemingly at random) and use the text God provides. Once you’ve chosen a text, take some time to prayerfully get centered and focused on God. I use a simple breathing technique for this. Close your eyes and breathe in and out slowly. Focus on breathing in God’s Spirit as you inhale and breathing out everything that distracts your focus from God as you exhale.
- Read. Read the text, but don’t read it the way you would read a book or a newspaper. Slow down. Read it aloud. Listen to how it sounds. Don’t think about what it means; just listen, and let the words soak in. Then, take a few minutes to be quiet and present with God before proceeding.
- Listen for a word. Read the text again, this time listening for a word or phrase from the text that sticks out for some reason. Listen for a word or phrase that is speaking to you. When you have finished reading the text and have found that word or phrase, take a few minutes to repeat the word/phrase to yourself. Allow the word or phrase to interact with your thoughts and memories. Ask God, “why this word/phrase?”
- Listen for an invitation. Read the text again, this time seeking an invitation from God to do something concrete in the next day (or even in the next few minutes.) Perhaps the invitation comes from the word or phrase identified in Step 3, but it can come from anywhere in the text. Don’t leave step 4 until you have discerned an action from God for your life in the very near term (less than a day.)
- Pray. Pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God for this interaction with God through scripture. Then, be sure to ask for God’s strength and assistance in responding to God’s invitation identified in Step 4, as well as illumination for why the word identified in Step 3 was speaking to you.
Walking/Tracing a Labyrinth
A labyrinth is a focusing tool. It has no mystical powers; rather, it helps take your focus away from everything else, so you can focus on one specific thing. When the labyrinth is used as a Christian spiritual practice, that one specific thing is God (or God’s will.) When the labyrinth is used as a tool for Christian discernment, that one thing is God’s desires for your life.
Following are instructions for tracing a hand labyrinth as a discernment tool. Also, a hand labyrinth is provided. Essentially the same steps can be used to walk a labyrinth, inserting words having to do with “walking” in place of words having to do with “tracing”. Here are the steps:
- Relax, breathe, and focus on God. Find a quiet place without distractions where you can take time to relax and breathe. Focus on God as you breathe, and clear your mind of the clutter.
- Set an intention, question, or short prayer for the “walk”. Since you’re using the labyrinth as a discernment tool, consider:
- Is there something you need to ask God, something you need God’s help in deciding?;
- Is there something upon which you need to focus but haven’t had time?
- Consider what might be blocking you from truly experiencing God;
- Trace the labyrinth with your finger (maybe even try your non-dominant finger; it changes the experience). While you trace the labyrinth, place your intention from step 2 before you on the journey.
- While you trace, imagine the labyrinth as being a metaphor for your journey of life in faith:
- Sometimes it moves quickly, other times slowly;
- Sometimes you’re overwhelmed with thoughts/feelings/emotions, but other times you’re empty;
- Sometimes you notice God’s presence with you, other times you don’t;
- As you “walk” the labyrinth, open yourself to whatever presents itself, and consider whatever presents itself:
- Pay attention to any distractions and discuss them with God;
- When you get to the center of labyrinth, don’t rush out; stay a while and consider what presented itself, even asking God to help you understand;
- Leave the way you entered, but don’t rush;
- Afterward, take time to thank God for the experience. In the process and ask God to guide your learning from the experience;