This summer, as part of my requirements for ordination, I spent time as a chaplain in a hospital. One of the things that all of the staff, from doctors, nurses, social workers, and even our team of chaplains, hoped to determine, for all the patients, regardless of their diagnosis, was their Advanced Directives. That is, if their health took a sudden turn, we wanted the doctors and nurses to know the patient’s will regarding how much effort to put into life-saving tactics. With these documents, the hospital is able to put to rest any discussion by the family, especially those who claim to know what the patient would have wanted. With these Advanced Directives, the doctors can make decisions about patient care under the authority of the patient themselves.
There’s a reason that the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus under whose authority he was teaching. Just like the idea of Advanced Directives, there is a certain authority that comes from knowing which voice has the last say. And so, a question about authority is really a battle of wills. Is Jesus doing what the scribes and Pharisees want? No. So under whose authority – whose will – is he doing what he does? This is the reason why Jesus responded with a question about John the Baptist’s authority, and with the story of the two sons who had different reactions to their father’s requests. The question about John the Baptist’s authority was intended to confront the scribes and Pharisees with their own motivations and claims to authority. And, the story of the two sons was intended to hit that idea home. Because it too, is intended to make all the listeners rethink their own claims to righteousness.
I say, “claims to righteousness,” but what I really mean is that this story, on the surface, seems to be a simple judgment about which son did the will of the father. We are able to make this judgment because Jesus gives us a glimpse into the minds of each of the sons, and explains their actions and motivations to us. By extension, this story demands that we look into our own minds and review our motivations, so that we might judge ourselves by asking the questions, “Am I doing the will of God?” “How do I know?” and “By whose authority do I do what I do?”
When an Advanced Directive is not available, we sometimes find that families begin to argue about who knows the will of the patient best. And often, these arguments about the patient’s choices are guided less by the patient’s will, and more by the desires of the family member making the claim. It’s human nature. We all have desires that can cloud our judgments.
We can do the same with God. We can lay claim to knowing God’s will so well, that we begin to judge others, and question them about where their authority comes from, simply because we do not like what they are doing.. Sound familiar? And from that moment of laying claim to knowing God’s will, it becomes easy to justify ourselves and our actions, whether they are truly God’s will – or not.
Justification can only come from God, but self-justification comes from a place of pride.
This is why Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, exhorted the people there to be of the same mind, to have the same love, and to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but that they should regard others as better than themselves, in all humility, and look to the interests of others.
Just like Christ humbled himself and obediently did the will of the Father who sent him.
Paul wants the believers in Philippi to live in that same humility, and to do the will of the Father who sent Christ Jesus as the model of our faith.
Do the will of the Father. … Do.
Recently I had an incident in which I discovered that someone had been deliberately lying to me, withholding information about what they had done and were continuing to do. And they asked me, “Who knows about this? I need to know how much damage control I need to do.” To which I responded, “No one knows, but the fact that you are more concerned about looking good than about apologizing for or changing your behavior tells me a lot about you.”
Paul Tillich, former professor at Union Theological Seminary, had this to say about the will of God:
People who call themselves Christian – parents, teachers, preachers – tell us that we should be “good” and obey the will of God. For many of them the will of God is not very different from the will of those socially correct people whose conventions they ask us to accept. If we only willed such goodness, they say, we could achieve it, and would be rewarded in time and eternity – but first of all, in time.
It is entirely possible to do the will of the Father without being moved by what we are doing. We can follow all the requirements of a good and just society, without caring about the interests of others. We can do all of these things, but care only about looking good, which is precisely the opposite of what Paul was asking of the believers in Philippi.
If we merely do the things that we have been told is God’s will, but do it only so that we might look good in a society that values looking good, then what we have done is bent God, and God’s will, to serve our own needs.
This is not at all a new phenomenon in human history. The French writer Voltaire made the statement: “If God has made man in his own image, we have returned him the favor.”
It is this tendency in ourselves to use God as a means to an end, to use God as a tool for our own purposes, or at its worst, to weaponize the name of God, that Paul is confronting in his letter to the people at Philippi.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition, but in humility, look to the interests of others.
It is humility that changed the heart of the first son, who at first told his father that he would not do what he was asked, but then looked to his father’s interests. And it is humility that will change our own hearts, and look to the interests of God and God’s kingdom, rather than our own.
Any of us who have been in a relationship know that the only way to truly know the heart and mind of another is to spend time with them, and to be vulnerable, honest, and humble.
And so it is with God.
The more time we spend with God in humility, in vulnerability, and in honesty, the more the image of God that we have created in our minds begins to fade away and disintegrate. And the more that our image of God disintegrates, the more it is replaced by who God is.
That is, the more time we spend with God, the more God becomes less and less of what we say God is, and we come face to face with the reality of a boundless, infinite presence, unfathomable in its greatness and depth.
And when we do, we are overcome with awe and wonder – fear and trembling – and we wish to do the will of God, not because we are afraid, but because we see the majesty and might of an endless being who, in great mercy and love, has chosen to spend time… with us.
Humility allows God to shape us, to move in us, and mold us, to make changes in our hearts and minds. Humility brings us to the point of awe and wonder in the presence of the boundless love that is our God.
And it is in this space of fear and trembling, this space of awe and wonder, this space of humility, that God is able to transform us, enabling us to will and to work for God’s own pleasure, so that just like the first son, we may find that what we formerly ignored, or thought of as unimportant suddenly takes on new meaning.It is less about doing the will of God, and more about drawing so close to God that God’s will becomes our will, and that God’s work becomes our work. And we do this by spending our time in this space of humility, in this space of awe and wonder, resting in the presence of the unfathomable beauty and love that has chosen to spend time with us.
- Paul Tillich, The Good That I Will, I Do Not, in The Eternal Now, 1963, Scribner, New York. pp 49
- Voltaire, “Si Dieu nous a faits à son image, nous le lui avons bien rendu.” Notebooks, c.1735-1750
Note: Normally there would be a video of today’s service right here. Unfortunately, the internet was not working today, so we were unable to upload the service to YouTube and I am not able to offer a video of the sermon.[This sermon was delivered at The Episcopal Church of St. Matthew in Tucson, AZ on October 1, 2023.]
Mike is a jack of all trades. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023.