Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Friendship Vision,
Faith on Fire:
Following Holy Nudges Through God's Open Doors
Acts 16:6-10

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, February 15, 2004)

Several months ago, Ann and I joined a local gym. In the course of my time there, we’ve become somewhat acquainted with a young man who works there. I’ll call him Chad. Chad has always struck me as a hard-working guy. He gives tours of the place to potential members about the gym. Often, when I’m on the elliptical running device or straining to push a five-pound weight, I’ll see him, exuding enthusiasm, as he talks about various exercise stations. While Chad and I have had a few conversations over time, none of them have been much beyond perfunctory. Nonetheless, we always seem to run into one another when I go to the gym.

The other night as I was leaving the gym, I had the sense that I should seek Chad out in his office. To tell you the truth, I was busy and had other things to do. But I had this feeling that wouldn’t go away. Even as I walked toward Chad’s office though, I kept thinking, “This is silly, Mark. You should just leave.” But something told me to see Chad.

I wasn’t even sure what I was going to say. When I reached his office, Chad looked up at me with a tired look on his face, something not characteristic of someone usually so energetic and so young. I plopped down in the chair in front of his desk and, not really knowing what I was going to say, asked, “Chad, are you happy working here?” Before I even had the chance to wonder why I’d said that, Chad said, “I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve been looking.” He went on to tell me that he was working close to seventy hours a week and hardly had time to see his fiancĂ©. He told me that while he loved the job and the opportunity to help people, it was beginning to wear him down. He’s a young guy, just out of college and I remembered those days in my life—I’d worked in a paint store and as a substitute teacher that first year I was out of college. “Can I sound like a father for a second, Chad?” I asked him. “This working lots for little pay right out of school is usually just part of the drill. You will be okay.” We talked more and eventually, I was able to give Chad the name and telephone number of someone I thought might be able to mentor him a little in his field. Chad shook my hand and thanked me as I got up to leave.

Driving home, I wondered, “What made me do that? And what exactly caused me to begin my conversation with Chad with a question about whether he was happy with his job?” You know something? God has an impeccable sense of timing. He also knows how thick I can be. He laid in my lap an example of the very thing He knew that I was going to talk with you about this morning. You see, God had given me what I call a holy nudge.

A holy nudge is that prompting that God’s Holy Spirit gives to people who follow Jesus Christ. It’s that sense we have of things we should do and things we shouldn’t do, of doors we should enter and doors we should pass by. Lest you misunderstand me, I am not talking about living life on the bases of hunches, good luck charms, and voices in our heads. People who live life like that are superstitious or, in some cases, even psychotic. But when we have a relationship with the God we know through Jesus Christ, when we get to know Him and His character, His love, and His holiness through His Word, the Bible, God gives us discernment.

Discernment is the ability to tell the difference between what’s true and false, right and wrong, necessary and unneeded, helpful and hurtful. Discernment allows us to know whether the prompting that crossed our minds is likely a holy nudge or the result of last night’s stop at Gold Star Chili or worse, the sin that lives inside us.

When God nudges us, He may prompt us to do things that will express our love for Him or for others. He may also prompt us to avoid things that will be hurtful to Him, to others, or to ourselves. Bill Hybels is the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, a massive congregation near Chicago. The congregation was in need of a staffer to head a major ministry arm. One man’s name had come up time and time again as Hybels made inquiries about the right person for the job. He and others from the congregation had interviewed the man several times. The entire leadership team had been favorably impressed and Hybels was authorized to offer the man the job. A luncheon appointment was arranged. During lunch, every time Hybels began to make the offer, he sensed he was being told, “Don’t do it, Bill. Don’t do it.” Lunch came to a close and the man asked Hybels, “Was there any particular reason you wanted to get together today?” Hybels said, “No, no. Just wanted to get to know you better.” After the lunch, Hybels was unable to explain to his mystified staff and volunteer leadership why he hadn’t made the job offer to the man. But a few weeks later, it was clear why. The man to whom Hybels had been prepared to give a major job at his church was at the center of a huge scandal that broke in the news. Hybels said that after learning of the man’s scandal, he ran to his office and prayed, “Thank You, God. Thank You for watching out for us.”

Part of the vision for Friendship Church is that we will enjoy such a close relationship with Jesus Christ, that we will all learn to be sensitive and respond to the nudges of God in our every day lives and in the life of our congregation.

Our Bible lesson for today is an intriguing one for several reasons. One reason is that it’s part of that section of the New Testament book of Acts that contains what are known as the “we” passages. You see, Acts was the second volume of two written by the Jesus-follower, Luke. The first volume, the Gospel of Luke, is one of four New Testament books that tell us the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Acts then takes the story from Jesus’ return to heaven—His ascension—through the first thirty years or so of the Church. Through most of those two books, Luke tells the story in the third person: He did this, He said that, she went here. But in some sections of Acts, Luke recounts events in which he was immediately involved and he switches to the first person: we did this, we went there, and so on.

In today’s lesson, Luke is traveling from town to town with Paul and Silas, sharing the Good News that Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the world, offers new life to all who will turn from sin and receive forgiveness from Him. During their travels, the group gets a series of holy nudges—don’t go into this place right now and do go there. What amazes me is that they are immediately responsive to these nudges. They accept the doors that God closed and they boldly walk through the ones God opens.

I don’t know about you. But I have wasted an awful lot of time in my life trying to force my way through doors that were locked to me and I should have just moved on with my life.

There have been other times when I knew God didn’t want me to take a certain pathway, but bent on doing things my own way, I crashed through locked doors! Doing that has caused the saddest, most regrettable passages of my life, creating pain in the heart of God, the lives of others, and in my own life.

So, just a few points for you to think and pray about this week. First: The best way to become sensitive to God’s holy nudges in your life is to get to know Him intimately. God will never give you a bum steer. When we take time to know God through Bible reading and prayer, we’ll get to know His character so well that we’ll know the difference between His nudge, on the one hand, and Satan pushing us over a cliff, on the other.

Second: Decide in advance to be open to the crazy things God may call you to do, as well as to the sensible ones He may call you not to do. If the thing you feel nudged to do entails foregoing short-term pleasure in order to please God over the long-haul of your life, it’s probably a holy nudge. If your nudge asks you to do something too big for you to accomplish in your own power, it’s probably from God. If people around you might consider you nuts to do the thing you feel nudged into doing, it’s probably from God.

Ann and I were happy as I served as pastor of my first congregation. We loved the church and the community. Some of you have met the people from that first parish and you know how wonderful they were. I just assumed that I would die there. (Not because I thought folks would kill me...but because it was so wonderful.) Then, one day I received a telephone call from a representative of the Lutheran Church, asking if I would be interested in starting a new congregation in southern Ohio. While I prayed long and hard about it, I know that even as I spoke with that man, I was packing my bags in my mind. It was a crazy thing to do...and it was so right! This congregation is the result of Ann and I opening ourselves to God’s nudge...and we feel so blessed for it!

Finally, when confronted with situations in which you’re not sure what to do, Know that as long as your intent is to love God and love your neighbor, you can’t go very wrong in the eyes of God. God understands our hearts and when our hearts are with Him, He is quick to forgive and gently correct.

A woman once asked a prominent English preacher, “Do you think we ought to pray about even little things in life?” The preacher replied, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?” The fact is that God is bigger than our little and our big problems. If we will tune into Him and surrender our every moment to Him, He will guide us through all the problems, challenges, mountains, and valleys—big and little—that we may face. The God we know through the risen Jesus Christ has offered to be with us always. Let’s take Him up on that offer and follow whenever and wherever He nudges us to be. Amen!