In the book of The Acts of the Apostles (1:23-26) in the New Testament when the disciples were faced with a choice between two men to replace Judas Iscariot after he had betrayed Christ and hung himself in despair, the disciples “cast lots” to choose his successor. Casting lots in that day and time was a mild form of rolling dice or flipping a coin to make a decision.
As I understand it, they would write the names of the candidates on pieces of stone or wood, etc., and put them in an urn. The names were then drawn at random and this settled the case. It certainly seems a strange way for the disciples of Christ to choose a successor to carry on his work. Separated culturally by almost two thousand years we should not be too critical, however. It just seems odd that they would seek the will of God this way.
But, then, how does one really know the will of God? This is one of the most vexing questions in our faith, but it hasn’t precluded many from feeling sure they know God’s will.
John Wesley, the founder of the United Methodist Church, struggled with this very issue. Early in his ministry as an Anglican priest, he spent time as a missionary in Georgia. This was during the 1700s. Wesley’s ministry in Georgia was not a successful venture. For one thing, he was attracted to a young woman named Sophia Hopkey. They talked of marriage, but Wesley wrestled with whether this was the right path for him. Was it God’s will? He prayed about it, he sought the counsel of friends, he searched the scriptures, and, finally, when he could not resolve it any other way, he cast lots! Yes, just as the disciples did in choosing a successor to Judas, Wesley cast lots. I suppose he thought that if it was good enough for the apostles, it was good enough for him.
One lot had on it “not to marry.” One lot had on it “to marry.” And a third lot said to break off the relationship altogether, which is what he eventually did. Sophia turned around and married someone else, and young, chagrined Mr. Wesley refused to serve them Holy Communion when they came for worship at the local Anglican church. The matter ultimately ended up in court and Wesley made the wise decision that Georgia was not the place God was calling him to be after all!
This should caution us that even spiritual giants like Wesley may not have a clue as to the will of God in matters of the heart. It is very difficult to know the exact steps to take in life. It is very humbling, but perhaps that is the point.
In the Book of Judges, chapter six, in the Hebrew scriptures, a man named Gideon used similar method to determine what he felt God was calling him to do. In this passage Gideon is given a difficult task by God. Gideon starts wondering if he heard God right, so he “tests” God—or tests his perception of what he thinks God is telling him—by putting out a fleece.
Gideon says to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew in a bowlful of water. Meanwhile the ground around was dry.
I really wish knowing the will of God was that easy for me. Some years ago I read about a very religious couple that tried this very thing…they put out a fleece about whether God wanted them to start a business and were very certain that they had gotten a sign from God that starting a business was God’s will for them. They invested their life savings…and they lost their proverbial shirt. Can you imagine how devastating that was to them spiritually as well as financially?
It is very difficult to know God’s will in many specific circumstances. This coming Sunday I will share the second sermon in my new seriesDid You Get My Text? Decoding Some of the Most Misunderstood Stories in the Bible as we look closer at what Gideon’s “fleece” is really all about, and what the text might have to say to us today. I hope you will take a few minutes and read through the sixth chapter in the Book of Judges that I just referenced. This will be a great way to prepare for Sunday’s worship.
In the meantime, allow me share with you three things that I have always found helpful when facing a difficult decision:
1. Be a person of meditation and a student of the scriptures.
Spend time daily with God. Do not wait until a moment of crisis or when you are facing a difficult decision. Pray daily. It’s a simple starting point, but it will put you on solid ground.
2. Seek the advice of someone whose judgment you respect and trust.
Sometimes we have too much invested in a decision, personally, to see clearly what the best step might be. We need someone else’s viewpoint who is not as emotionally involved.
3. Pray for the wisdom to make the best decision possible. Then make your decision.
It isn’t always wise to look for a sign of some kind. It is better to rest in the knowledge that God has got this and then move forward one step at a time.
I pray that you will know God’s everlasting presence this week and I look forward to seeing you Sunday!
Rev. Dr. Kip Laxson
P.S. In tonight’s Summer Institute at 6:30 p.m., we’ll consider the Hare Krishna movement. Wednesday Night Dinner begins at 5:00 p.m. If you’d like to make reservations for next week, you may do so this evening or online for next Wednesday. As always, childcare is available during the institute. I hope you’ll join me as we explore yet another alternative faith perspective and discover what lessons we can learn in turn!