Sermon: How To Become A Saint
Scripture: John 17: 1-5
Date: November 6, 2016
All Saints Day always brings out in me thoughts concerning my own mortality on this earth. As we celebrate the lives of these who have passed from our midst, I can’t help but wonder if in a relatively few fleeting years from now, a church family somewhere will gather and remember my life on a special Sunday such as this. We can’t help but wonder, especially as we get older how we will be remembered after we’re gone. And I have to confess that such speculation has led me to have a great fascination with what people have placed on their tombstones, or what others place on their tombstones, when they die. An Epitaph. A statement or two intended to sum up our life. I confess that I like to stroll through cemeteries studying tombstones. Now, of course, messages on Tombstones take many forms. Some are straight and to the point. Dates, spouse of, child of, etc. Others are flowery and poetic. Sometimes designed to not reveal ones true nature but rather make them seem more acceptable in the after life. For instance, in a cemetery in Dallas Texas there is a stone that reads: As the flowers are all made sweeter by the sunshine and the dew, so the old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you. A beautiful sentiment. However, it is on the tombstone of Bonnie Parker, of the notorious criminal duo Bonnie and Clyde. And then there are others that are brutally honest, sometimes confessional in nature. In a cemetery in Plymouth, Mass. where many of the first pilgrims are entombed there is a tombstone that reads: He was a failure as a husband. He was insane 15 years because of liquor. May Christ have mercy on his soul. And just in case we were wondering it concludes: He was not a pilgrim.
But then there are others that seek to invite serious reflection. The English Architect, Christopher Wren is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London which he designed, and on his monument are printed these words:
If you seek my monument, look around you.
But my favorite epitaphs are those which reflect our struggle to know and live out God’s will for our lives in this world. Somehow they give me hope and encouragement in the midst of my struggles’. Often those are summarized by a favorite scripture and while those vary widely, by my casual observation, the most prominent one is some variation of Paul’s words to Timothy:
I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.
Now that seems to me to be the perfect epitaph for a saint. Because it acknowledges that a life of faith is sometimes a struggle, a fight, a race to the finish. But that for those who keep the faith there is grace and eternity. Saints aren’t perfect people, but rather people who spend a life time seeking to discern and live in God’s will and who are rewarded for their struggles and perseverance with an eternity where righteousness prevails. And so in those times when we reflect on our own mortality, that reflection inevitably turns to God’s will for us. And it seems to me that’s the question that we wrestle with every time we reach a crossroads in our lives – a moment of decision, or perhaps indecision. Often times God’s will becomes most troublesome for us when we are making choices about things like our vocation, or marriage and family, or school. Life changing kinds of decisions. The kind of things that sometimes end up not only being our direction in life, but also our epitaph. I have struggled with these kinds of questions on more than one occasion in my life. And it is in moments such as these that I reflect on my own fight, my own race towards righteousness.
Lloyd Ogilvie a Presbyterian Pastor who served as Chaplain of the US Congress reflects on his own struggles with God’s will and his place in that will, in a book entitled Asking God Your Hardest Questions. And he writes this:
I was a guest speaker at a college and began my address with the (rhetorical) question, “What is your greatest need and your greatest fear?” I had already decided what the response should be and had planned an incisive answer to my question. My mistake was to pause too long after asking the question. Suddenly a young man in the second row stood up and blurted out: “Sir, my greatest need is to know God’s perfect will for my life and my greatest fear is that I will miss it, or if I know, that I will resist doing it.” It was an unexpected answer to my question. He really thought I wanted an answer ( to my rhetorical question). I was stopped in my tracks. I could either tell the young man and the entire audience that I had already planned to answer my own question with another subject that I had predetermined was their greatest need and fear, or I could scrap what I had prepared and respond to the urgent serious question which had been posed. What I did was ask the audience of bright, vital minds if the young man had really articulated their greatest need and fear. I hoped they would say no, so I could get on with what I had prepared. Once again I should not have asked because they all nodded in agreement.
Sometimes our epitaphs are reflections of our greatest struggles in life.
Well, this 17th chapter of John is a prayer of Jesus, spoken just hours before his death, could have been his epitaph, the words on his tombstone, if he had stayed in the grave long enough to have one. He says to God:
I have glorified You on earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do.
In other words, Jesus had fulfilled God’s will for His life. But it’s interesting that Jesus never did most of the things that we think about when we think about God’s will for our own life. I think about the times when I have really struggled with this question. For most of us, those are the times, when this question of God’s will and purpose really comes to us and causes us to wrestle with life choices that we make. But if you think about it, Jesus did not have such struggles. There is no evidence that Jesus ever struggled with the question of whether it was God’s will that He marry or start a family. He certainly didn’t struggle with God’s will when it came to questions of schooling or vocation or even ministry. The earthly things that we struggle with in relationship to God’s will, were not a concern for Jesus. I think Jesus’ understanding of God’s will and purpose transcended earthly concerns. And what I have come to realize in my own struggles is that discerning God’s will becomes a real struggle when we try to place the Will of God into our earthly concerns, rather than place our earthly concerns into the will of God.
- S. Lewis once wrote:
There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way”.
As I read that bit of wisdom from such a great Christian mind it occurred to me that often my wrestling with God’s will for my life is directed towards trying to make God submit to my will and say, “All right, then, have it your way.” Because, really, the scriptures are pretty clear about what God’s ultimate will for our lives is. In the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes: . .do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is good and acceptable and the perfect will of God. And what is the perfect will of God? Paul goes on to define it this way:
that we fulfill the purpose for which we were created; to know God, receive His love, and live in communion with Him forever.
Thousands of years ago, the prophet Micah said much the same thing:
What does the Lord require of you? But to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
No more, no less.
And so as we are thinking about potential epitaphs on this all saints day – words that somehow reflect the essence of our lives – I think these are words that summarize the life of a Saint. Not a perfect life. Not miraculous deeds. But rather saints are those who do their best to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. So as we honor these saints today, I wanted to suggest some ways that we need to be writing the epitaph of our life. Some simple instructions about how to be a saint.
First, we must follow the instructions. Now I confess that I am terrible at following instructions. I have this project before me and my first assumption is that I know better how to put it together then those who wrote the instructions. So I just jump in. I only refer to the instructions as a last resort and even then it’s more to try and fit someone else’s vision into mine. Give me a picture of how things are going to turn out, and then rather than read the directions I’d rather struggle to figure out how to get there on my own. Men – are you with me here. Well too often that’s how I approach God’s will for my life. I know that the instructions are here (show Bible) but often times I would prefer to struggle and try to find my own way. And so in all of the important decisions of my life I have struggled because I thought I was trying to discern what the instructions were, what God’s will was, but what I was really struggling with was how to fit God’s will into what I really wanted for my life. Lord, I have this vision for how things should work out, please make Your Will fit my vision. But the instructions say that to be a saint, it doesn’t really matter what choices I make as long as I follow these simple instructions.
Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with God.
That’s God’s perfect will for each one of us. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when He prayed this prayer. Because those are the things that characterized Jesus ministry and life. He had treated everyone with justice. The lepers, the Pharisees, the temple officials, the Roman centurions, the fishermen – all of them had an equal place in God’s kingdom. He loved them all, not because they were deserving, but through his grace and mercy. Even when they put Him on a cross to kill Him. And through all of that, He glorified God. In God’s will an instrument of violence and torture and death, becomes a place of love and grace. Dante wrote in his Inferno: “In His will, we find our peace.” Saints find peace in following the instructions.
Then secondly sainthood is lived out in the context of our relationship with God. You see, we often view sainthood in relationship to the world – relate it to worldly things and practices. But that’s not where we see true saints. Paul says that we can only understand His will for us when we “live in communion with him forever.” We can only know God’s will when we know God. Saints are those who are coming to know God. One writer makes this comment:
His revealed will and His plan for our lives are part of our larger relationship with Him. Our primary purpose as Christians is not to figure out what lies ahead for us, it is to glorify God with our lives.
Karen and I have been married for almost 40 years. In those years, I have come to know how Karen will react in nearly any situation. Often I know what she needs and wants before she ever asks. But when we were first married, all of that was pretty much a mystery to me. However, as our relationship has grown and matured, those things have become much clearer to me. I still get it wrong sometimes. I’m still learning. But I’ve come a long way. That’s how it is with our relationship with God. The more we come to know Him through scripture, and prayer and worship and Christian fellowship and service, the more we will understand how His will is manifested in and through our lives. The closer I am with God, the more I find myself in His will. Saints are those who focus on their relationship with God first and out of that relationship discover His will.
And then, I have discovered that God’s will is often most clearly seen in retrospect. Most often, it’s easier to see where you’ve been rather than where you’re going. When I go to the movies, I like to get there early because one of my favorite things about the movies are the previews of the coming attractions. I like to know what’s up ahead. And when we try to discern God’s will, it seems to me we are trying to get God to give us previews of the coming attractions in our life. If I make this choice now, how will it turn out. But God doesn’t work that way. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.” One writer comments:
When you take time to examine your life’s journey so far, you may be surprised to see God’s fingerprints in places you never noticed before – not only in the things that have happened but also in the things that haven’t happened. The fact is, God closes as many doors as He opens.
I have had many times when I have been confronted with very difficult choices and have struggled to see God in the midst of those. Discern His will. But now I can look back and see how God was working through all of that. Often times God’s will becomes much clearer in retrospect then it is as we try to gaze into the future. And so saints are those who place themselves in His hands and pray “Thy will be done”, and surrender our future to Him, rather than trying to place Him into the future we envision for ourselves. And when we get in trouble, it’s because we try to wrestle that future away from Him, and take it back on ourselves. Saints live by the wisdom, of (say it with me).
I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.
Because here’s the thing, we can never envision a future greater than the one that God has planned for us.
And then, finally, As saints His will for our life is always good, even though there are times when it doesn’t seem that way. The perfect will of God does not mean that our life will be perfect. There will be times, when our life will be shaken to it’s very core and we’ll face struggles and trials. You see, we often think that discerning God’s will is equal to finding where we fit in life. But the truth is that sometimes God’s will makes us misfits. If we truly submit to God’s perfect will for our lives – if we do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with Him – there are going to be times when we are at odds with the world. And we’ll find ourselves outcasts, ostracized, placed in circumstances where we’ll be most uncomfortable. Saints are not perfect people but rather know that God’s will is perfect because it is eternal not momentary. Only God can see beyond this world into a life lived eternally. Where we struggle is when we try to confine the will of God for us just to the things of this world. When Paul wrote to the Romans: For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose, he did not mean that things in our earthly life would always work out for the good even for those who love God, or especially for those who love God, but that in the context of forever with Him, things will work out for the good. It doesn’t mean that we won’t make some mistakes in this life. That some of our choices will be bad choices. It doesn’t’ mean that we will never get sick. Or live without resources. Or that we will never squander the resources we have. But it does mean that for those who do justice, love mercy, and walk with God, even the bad things in life will ultimately be to His glory.
The Scriptures are full of such examples. God called on Jonah to go into the heart of his enemy to do justice and love mercy and though his initial choice was to run in the other direction, eventually God brought salvation to Ninevah through Jonah. Joseph was thrown into a pit and sold into captivity by his brothers. Now I’m not saying that Joseph deserved such treatment, but he was a little hard to take. He kept telling his brothers about these dreams in which he was elevated to a place of prominence and favor over them. And so instead of taking the elevator up, he ended up going down into the pit. But of course, God did bring salvation and reconciliation to Joseph. And eventually Joseph says this to his brothers:
I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.
There will be times when we get off track. When the choices we make, or others make for us, place us out of God’s will. One writer compares those to detours and says:
Life’s detours often reveal to us that God is a God of fresh alternatives. God works after the fact of tragedy and trouble to reveal new avenues of growth, hope and opportunity.
All of that can be ours, dear saints, when we stop trying to take God’s will and fit it into our lives. His will for us is too big to be contained in these earthly vessels, but saints are those who take their lives and seek to place it into God’s will. The story is told of a young man who was confused about his life. And one day he went into a church sanctuary determined to discern God’s will for his life. And he knelt down at the altar and took a piece of paper and began to write down all of the promises of things he was going to do in his life for God, and then he signed it. And he sat back and waited for God to reveal His will to him, but there was no response. He waited there for hours and then finally the Lord spoke to his heart and said to him, “you are going about this all wrong. I don’t desire to consecrate your life like that. Tear up all that you’ve written.” And so reluctantly the young man tore up the paper. And then the Lord said to him, “Now take a blank piece of paper, sign your name to it, and let me fill it in for you.” And years later, after he retired from the mission field, the man was sharing this witness and he said: “It was just a secret between God and me, as I signed the page. And God has been filling it in for the past twenty-six years.”
What does the Lord require of you? What is His perfect will for you? That you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. And if you do that in your work place and your home and your church, and in your friendships and in the way you treat strangers, then you will always be in the perfect will of God. You too will be a saint. And your epitaph will read that you fought the good fight, and now you have received your crown of righteousness. Offer Him your life, all that you are, and He’ll fill in the rest. That’s how you and I become a saint.