Text: Luke 12:54-56
Series: “The Church Your New Pastor Deserves”
Someone has said that one of the hardest things to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn. I would have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, given how so many decisions we find ourselves facing in life can either make us or break us, depending of course on how those decisions work out.
That’s because every decision involves some type of risk. “Do I seize this opportunity, or do I wait for a better one to come along?” “Do I go in this direction, or do I stay put, content with where things stand today?” “Do I change my approach, or do I continue to embrace the status quo?” All these decisions require us to project life beyond the present and to make some prediction as to their consequences. But since we cannot possibly know every eventuality, we make the best decisions we can and then we live with the results.
However, as people of faith we approach our decisions in a different way, do we not? We believe that while none of us knows the future, God does. God knows everything about the future holds because God holds the future, and so nothing about tomorrow ever escapes Him. Why, then, would any person of faith ever think about taking a step into the unknown without first seeking God?
That’s precisely the question that Jesus was posing to the crowd that had been listening in on what he had been teaching his disciples. As we have seen, this section of Luke’s Gospel recounts Jesus final instructions to the twelve. As God Incarnate, Jesus knows what his future holds, and for him it is cross-shaped. Consequently, he has made the decision to embrace the cross because of the Spirit’s leadership in his own life. Jesus knows as well that this crowd that has been listening in will in due time face a decision of their own. “Will they embrace Jesus as God’s Messiah, or will they reject him as a pretender?” He worries that they will make their decision like they do every other decision in life – by instinct or impulse, neither of which represents a heart that is open to God. So, Jesus offers them a parable that might jar them out of their misplaced confidence and call them to trust in God.
“When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and so it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is.” Jesus knew that even though none in the crowd had a degree in meteorology, they could draw on their vast experience of seeing how clouds forming over the Mediterranean always meant impending rain and strong winds from the Arabian desert unbearable heat.
But just when the crowds most likely thought Jesus would be complementing them for their intelligence, he instead chides them for their false faith. In particular, Jesus chides them for not humbling themselves before God, given how they lack the devotion to recognize what God has been doing in him, preferring instead to proceed into the future based on their own best judgment instead of following in Jesus’ way. “You hypocrites (you play actors)! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”
What Jesus wants the crowd to understand is that their problem is not so much that they lack the ability to make projections of what lies ahead based on what they recognize in the present moment; it’s their failure to factor in the way that Jesus represents the bridge toward God’s future. Instead of crossing the bridge between where they are and where God would have them to be, they are burning it through their cluelessness about Jesus so that they will not be able to enjoy the fullness of the Kingdom that Jesus will be bringing to bear upon the earth.
How easy it is for us to read such passages and turn our noses up at the ignorance of the crowd that rejected Jesus in his day. “How could they have missed the significance of Jesus?” we ask ourselves. “How could they not have looked to him and placed their trust in him?” We should be more careful. After all, we pride ourselves far too much on our ability to make good decisions, but when it comes to the things of God and how we might be a part of that Kingdom work, it’s essential that we follow the lead of the Spirit instead of following our instincts, our impulses, or even our best judgment. In short, we do best when as we are faced with where to go into the future, we do so by pursuing a process of discernment instead of merely making what we hope is a good decision.
So, what is the difference, you ask, between discernment and decision? They both seem to involve the same thing. Actually, they don’t. Decisions are made based on past experience. Discernment is an awareness that comes to us as we attempt to see everything in light of God’s presence and God’s purpose in every circumstance and situation in life. Decisions can be made quickly, and sometimes circumstances require that we make them quickly. But discernment takes a lot longer, especially in light of how with discernment we’re not operating on our timetables or even the world’s timetables. We’re operating on God’s timetable. And God never seems to be in as much of a rush as we are to decide a matter.
For that reason, discernment is not an easy practice. I remember in one church I served how the congregation was split down the middle when I arrived over whether to relocate the church. Now, that’s a major decision. Some argued that the church had no future in its present location; others countered that the location was an historic one and too many memories were connected to that place to leave it behind. I hadn’t been there two weeks before I was being bombarded with questions on my position, and my answer may have seemed to be naïve to all of them, but it was truly my heart. “I don’t care where we do church; I just want to do church as God leads us to do church. Here or some other place, it matters not to me.”
Long story short, it took ten years for us to come to God’s resolution. And it wasn’t that we simply sat on our hands during that period of time. We did our due diligence. We had conversations with property owners and city officials. We analyzed demographics and studied reports of how other congregations had successfully relocated their facilities. And God shut every door. So, when the time came for us to make the decision to stay put as a church and address our facility challenges there, everyone was on the same page, because everyone knew that we had sought God instead of following our own instincts.
Over the course of the coming years, this church will be facing similar decisions, certainly not in terms of relocation but rather in terms of staffing and ministry priorities and facility upgrades. Past experience will be helpful, but in order to move in a direction that aligns best with God’s purposes for Mountain Brook Baptist Church, we will do well to take whatever time is necessary to understand what God is doing all around us that as a community of faith we might offer the best witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we may end up burning bridges that God’s Spirit is calling us to cross.
I like the way Ilio Delio, the Franciscan nun, has explained it. “God is doing new things, Jesus proclaimed. But only those with new minds and new hearts can see a new world breaking through the cracks of the old” (The Hours of the Universe, p.79.) Or might we even say that God is burning down old bridges and building new ones to cross over?
Then let us pray for God to give us new minds and new hearts that we might better discern His new thing. Because when that transformation happens and our minds and hearts are made new, then our decisions won’t be ones we make on our own. They will instead be decisions God leads us to make so that our faith will not be in any way hypocritical, but genuine and authentic, as we see how God is at work in our midst and join Him in it, today, tomorrow, and forevermore.