SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 30:11-20 – Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Christian Clichés Sermon Series
#5 – God Has a Plan for You
Feb. 16, 2014
When I’m preparing for sermons, I’ll often visit a website called Sermon Central, which is a warehouse of sermons submitted from pastors all over the country. I’m always interested to see how other preachers tackling certain scriptures or topics. I went there this week and typed in the keywords “God has a plan.” And guess what? According to pastors nationwide, God has a plan for just about everything you can imagine. The sermons titles told me that God has a plan for men, for women, for children, for families, for parents, for kids, for your job, for your house, for your health, for your money, for your intimacy, and for your church. God even has a plan for your planning process for making plans (OK, I made that up, but that was the only one NOT mentioned!). But you get the idea, right? Need to know what flavor ice cream you should have tonight? God has a plan for that!
During our current sermon series, we’re looking at some of the most often said Christian clichés, like “Everything happens for a reason” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” to see if these statements are actually helpful or if they do more harm than good. Originally, today’s statement, “God has a plan for you,” wasn’t one of the clichés on which we were planning to preach. Why not? Because this is a tough one. This statement digs into issues about God’s control versus our free will and the level to which God participates in our lives. I recognize that by exploring this cliché more deeply, it might call into question long-held beliefs about God’s role in how we live, and some of us may not be ready to pull back that curtain just yet. I wonder if we’re afraid to ask, “Does God have a plan for us?” because what if God doesn’t? That’s scary.
In the winter of 2001, I was in my last semester of seminary and beginning to start the job search process. Our denomination doesn’t work on the appointment system, meaning there’s not a bishop somewhere who tells me where I’m supposed to serve. We put out our papers and churches decide whether or not they want to talk to us. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially for a greenhorn soon-to-be seminary graduate trying to figure out how to be a real pastor in a real church. Will anyone want me? Will I be any good? Where am I supposed to go? Does God have a plan for me?
I ended up interviewing with and visiting two churches: one in Fairmont, W.Va., and one in Lincolnshire, Ill. Both churches were appealing, both had their strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, both of them actually wanted to pay me money to work for them. They obviously knew less about what they were doing than I did. So I was faced with a decision: Chicago or Fairmont? How was I supposed to know which one was the right one for me? I prayed, “God, give me a sign, draw an arrow pointing in the right direction, smack up upside the head with an atlas opened to the page of the place I was supposed to go.” What was God’s plan for me?
To be honest, I don’t believe God had one, at least not a specific one. In hindsight, I truly don’t think God cared whether I went to Lincolnshire or to Fairmont. That may sound callous, as if I didn’t believe that God cared about me, and that’s not at all what I mean. What I mean is that I believe I could have fulfilled God’s plan for my life either in Fairmont or in Lincolnshire. I’m not questioning whether God has a plan for me; I’m questioning the specificity of that plan.
That’s the question this cliché raises for me. Just how closely does God direct what happens in my life? Can every good thing that happens be attributed to God? If so, who gets the blame for the bad things? Satan? God? Me? Was it God’s plan for me to go to Lincolnshire, the church I ended up choosing? Maybe. But what if I had gone there and had a horrible experience? Would that have been God’s plan? Because that’s happened to a lot of ministers I know. With this and other clichés, we have to be careful. We’ll often use them when the outcome of a situation is favorable. Are you in a fulfilling relationship? It must have been God’s plan for the two of you to come together! But what about the relationship that started out feeling like God’s plan but turned abusive or neglectful or adulterous? Was it God’s plan for us to experience those things, as well? If we’re going to give God all the credit when things go well, we’ve also got to be willing to give God the responsibility when they don’t, or else we need to rethink our beliefs about God’s role in controlling what happens in our lives.
This statement implies that God has mapped out some sort of life route for us, like some divine GPS that already has signaled the turns we should make in order to reach our destination. But I wonder if our route hasn’t been planned ahead, but that we are co-creators with God in creating the map as we go. A pastor friend of mine has written a book called, “We Make the Road by Walking.” In other words, we participate in the creation of our plan, using our free will and God-given gifts to plot our journey. This cliché makes it sound like if we sit back and wait, God will illuminate the right way for us like a Yellow Brick Road leading to the Emerald City. If we wait for that, we may actually miss God’s presence with us, encouraging us forward, one step at a time. We may not recognize God with us because we are searching for a superhighway of destiny rather than a twisting, meandering road that only appears with the next step. Could God’s plan for us simply be to take the next step in front of us?
Let’s add a little more grist to this mill by turning to our scripture reading for this morning. Moses is speaking to the Israelites at the end of his time with them. He is about to die and they are about to cross over into the Promised Land. So in this last paragraph of the last sermon he’ll ever preach, he boils down all of his teachings about God’s law and God’s guidance to this one simple passage. He basically says to the people, “God’s word for you is clear. It’s not hard to reach. In fact, it’s right inside of you. You know what God’s word says: follow God and live or don’t follow God and die.” God has set before them life and death, blessings and curses, and Moses exhorts them to choose life.
As I read the passage, that in a nutshell is God’s plan for us, to choose life and live out God’s commandments of grace, love, and forgiveness. I could have lived out that plan in Fairmont or in Lincolnshire. I could have lived it as a pastor, a professor, or a plumber. I believe God gives each of us certain gifts to use, and then gives us the free will to choose how to use them. I believe God’s plan for us has less to do with what we do with our lives and more to do with how we live it.
This statement is not unlike another trite cliché: “When God closes a door, God opens a window.” As one of our Sermon Talkback participants pointed out, windows tend to be a lot smaller than doors, so I hope God is also going to take away about 15 pounds so I can fit! But the real booby trap in this statement is the idea that God closes doors in our lives. Did God cause me to lose my job so I could get a better one? Did God undermine my financial investments so I could learn humility? When we say these sorts of things, we have to be aware of how we are characterizing God.
That’s where we can get in trouble with this cliché. I’ve most often heard it said in response to someone’s disappointment or disillusionment. A person is fired from their job, or a significant relationship ends, or they come to a fork in the road of life, and their supporters say, “Don’t worry, God has a plan for you.” That’s actually a thinly veiled way of saying, “I have absolutely no idea what to say to you right know, and I certainly don’t have any answers about what you should do next, so I’m going to invoke God’s omnipotence to let you know that God’s got this all taken care of so that I can get out of this really awkward conversation.”
What’s a lot harder to do is to stay with the person in the midst of their not knowing, in their midst of their lostness. The Jews have a ritual that accompanies the death and burial of a loved one. After the burial, the immediate family returns to a home designated as the “shiva house,” to begin a seven-day period of intense mourning. This week is called “sitting shiva,” and is an emotionally and spiritually healing time where the mourners dwell together and friends and loved ones come to comfort them with short visits referred to as “shiva calls.” The mourners experience a week of intense grief, and the community is there to love and comfort and provide for their needs. This is a critical point, for if one must feel the heart-wrenching pain of grief and loss, it should be done at a time when all those around are there to help and comfort.
When we use “God has a plan for you” as an escape hatch from a difficult conversation, we are excusing ourselves from helping the other person bear their burdens. Instead, I believe we are called to dwell with them in the midst of their struggle. We are called to sit shiva with them, helping them deal with their own sense of loss and fear and unknowing in a time of disequilibrium by showing them they are not alone.
Ultimately, I do believe God has a plan for us. In Jeremiah, God says to the prophet, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Doesn’t say anything about who you should marry or where you should live or what you should do for a living. God wants you to thrive, to have hope, to have a future. God has given each of us the gifts necessary to live a life of significance and fulfillment and service, and then God places before us the choices of how we can do that. Then, we choose: life or death, blessings, or curses. Can you still serve God in a bad job? Sure. Can you still honor God in a stale relationship? You bet. I believe God is less concerned with what we do and more concerned with how we do it: we grace, we integrity, with love, each day becoming more and more like Christ. Ah! Striving to become more like Jesus Christ. Now that sounds like a good plan.