Thursday 13th June 2017
Gen 44:18-45:5; Rom 15:22-33 & Mt 10:7-15
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
So wrote Robbie Burns in his poem “To a mouse”, in November 1785. And how true we so often find those words. None more so perhaps than the Apostle Paul as he spoke in our epistle today of his plans to visit the embryo Christian Church in Rome on his way to Spain. In the earlier part of this chapter, St Paul explains that he sees his primary mission as that of an Evangelist to Gentiles, planting new Churches in areas where the Gospel hasn’t previously been preached. He’s spent much time in Asia Minor, Greece and Macedonia, with the result that although he’d like to visit Rome, quite literally the centre of the Empire, yet he’s aware that others have taken the Gospel there, and therefore the task for him in that great city is in correcting misunderstandings and in stretching the spiritual growth of the Church there, which he can achieve, to an extent, by writing to them.
So, in the passage read, he confirms that as he has now spread the Gospel throughout the whole of that region, so that his work there being now complete, he’s ready to return to Jerusalem with financial relief for the Church there, donated by the Gentiles with whom he’s been working. And once in Jerusalem he intends to make final plans for this his next great missionary journey to Spain, in which he will pause briefly in Rome to enjoy fellowship with the Church there before resuming his journey. So, as part of his meticulous pre-planning, Paul asks the Christians in Rome to pray for him. To pray first for his personal safety, as he was well aware of the antagonism towards himself that existed in Jerusalem; secondly to pray that the Church there would welcome both him and his somewhat controversial mission to Gentiles and as a result give their blessing to this planned new journey; and thirdly to pray that God would bring him to Rome with joy.
There’s nothing wrong with Paul’s desires and motivation. There’s nothing wrong with his planning, nor of the prayer that surrounded him at this stage. He had the full backing of the Jerusalem Church, and quite miraculously in many respects he was kept safe, but, so far as we know, St Paul never made it to Spain, and although he did indeed visit Rome for a considerable period, it was as a prisoner and not as a missionary. For whilst the apostle had his ideas as to how he could best serve his Lord, God had an entirely different plan, that included a quite amazing testimony to a ship’s crew and passengers, shipwrecked in a storm, but none lost; the spreading of the Gospel to Malta and a number of soldiers in key positions, who later helped spread that message to all parts of the Roman Empire. For St Paul tended to live very much by that instruction Jesus gave to his disciples in our Gospel this Morning “Wherever you go, proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” None of this was included in Paul’s plan, but God had greater plans that also allowed St Paul time for meditation and writing letters to the benefit of Christians down the ages, far beyond what he might have achieved had his own planning been fulfilled
And this, so often is God’s way. When we make our plans prayerfully, offering our lives and purposes to Him, He will so often do the unexpected and use us in ways we never anticipated, to His own glorious ends. And even, at times when our planning may be more selfish than prayerful, we must never lose sight of His ability to deliver in spite of our ideas. For just look at our Old Testament reading. How dire the scheming of Jacob’s sons when they captured and sold their brother into slavery! How little could they ever have imagined how God might use their plans to His own ends. The years Joseph spent in captivity. The false accusation and imprisonment. How often Joseph must have wondered where God was. And yet, as explained in this passage, after Judah’s inspired and heart-breaking confession and offer of himself in place of his brother, Benjamin, Joseph makes that incredible statement “Now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
What an amazing revelation. Judah and his brothers thought it was their scheme that had taken Joseph away. But Joseph here, in that astonishing act of complete forgiveness attributes it entirely to God. He had a purpose, and despite your believing you were working without Him, He really was still in total control.
What a lot we have to learn. How hard it is for us when things go wrong, to relax and leave it all to Him. Whether in fears as to outcome of Brexit; of problems with health; in difficulties in growing the Church or in prayers for new Priest; In all of this we can lay it all out before God and relax, knowing His plans are far greater than ours. And how crazy for us at times to scheme and plan or play politics. For He can and will, in the long term outplay the best of us. So let’s just in all things be men and women of prayer, content to leave the outcome of all our lives to Him. Dare we make this our prayer? Or perhaps I should ask, dare we not?
Thy way, not mine, O Lord, however dark it be, lead me by thine own hand, choose out the path for me. I dare not choose my lot; I would not if I might: choose thou for me, my God, so shall I walk aright. Not mine, not mine, the choice in things or great or small; be thou my guide, my strength, my wisdom, and my all.
Duncan Burr, 13th July 2017, at Aljambra