Heritage Presbyterian Church

May 16, 2021
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Scripture readings: 1st John 5: 9-13 & Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

I once had a seminary professor who possessed a quirky sense of humor.  You gotta watch out for that type of teacher because they often have very unique methods of making a theological point.  First, he asked us if we believed that God was the creator of the universe and everything in it.  We all agreed on that point.  Then he asked us if we also believed that God was in control and ultimately the universe followed his direction – even if individuals decided not to.  We agreed again.  Finally, he asked us if we believed that God cared deeply about what happened to each and every one of us.  We agreed a third time.

Then he revealed his point: he took out a coin and told us that he was going to flip the coin – or what he referred to as his version of the Biblical “casting of lots.”  If the coin came up heads, our upcoming test would be two pages with a total of 20 questions; if it came up tails, our upcoming test would be four pages with a total of 40 questions.  We all took in a collective breath, but he smiled and said that we had all just agreed:

  • God created and controlled everything in the universe;
  • God cared about each one of us.  

With that in mind, God would also be in control of the coin flip.  We had no reply.  He flipped the coin.  It came up “tails.”  4 pages, 40 questions on that test.

What had happened was that our beloved professor had challenged us on our specific beliefs and then had put them to the test.  Each of us was in that class voluntarily.  Each of us had the chance to comment on his three questions.  And each of us had chosen to take the direction leading to the outcome. 

At least…that was his intent.  He certainly did get us talking about our free will, choices that God makes, and our input on those choices.  I’m not sure that he convinced us of anything else.

Choices guided by God are as old as the Old Testament itself.  In the days of Moses, Aaron wore a set of Urim and Thummim on the breastplate of his robe whenever he was in the Holy of Holies and a major decision was needed (Exodus 28: 30). Later these odd items were also mentioned in the Book of Numbers when Joshua was commissioned as the successor of Moses.  In 1st Samuel, Saul could not get an answer using them when he was facing the Philistine army at Shunem (28:6).  Later, in the New Testament, all four Gospels report that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing; I doubt these were Urim and Thummim, but the process is very similar: casting objects and then determining how to act by how they land.  In Biblical cases, lots were cast only after the people of God determined exactly what the question was and they prayed to God to guide their answer correctly according to God’s will – and not their own. 

All of this leads us to today’s reading from the first chapter of Acts, in which Matthias is chosen by casting lots as the replacement for Judas Iscariot.  What a unique method for the earliest Christian church to find a replacement!  Casting lots!?!?

But notice what they did BEFORE they cast lots!  First, Peter stepped up and gave a speech describing what had happened and why a replacement was needed; this was not just some random act Pete and the Boys were trying figure out for their own well-being.  This was a decision that would have far-reaching consequences.  For some reason, they believed that the number 12 was important: it represented the number of tribes of Israel in ancient times. Now their own version of this number was “broken” because of Judas’ betrayal and death.  So they needed to quickly restore that number.  This event was so significant that Peter was speaking boldly in this setting – even before the Holy Spirit descended on them in the next chapter.

It is also significant that the Apostles didn’t cast lots anywhere else in the New Testament; it was only reserved for this important decision to choose Matthias.  

Makes you wonder why, doesn’t it?

But there is so much more to glean from this brief reading.  First, Justus and Matthias were chosen based on their qualifications and the divine choice involving casting lots.  Notice that these two men were both eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, miracles, life, death, and resurrection; this was vital to the new Christian community, but it could not last long.  Being a Christian was so dangerous and so deadly that it didn’t take long before that generation of eyewitnesses had died out.  After that, new disciples – not Apostles – were chosen for their faith.

Next, Peter’s speech reminds us of Judas’ betrayal, but it also serves as a warning to anyone who is chosen to serve the Lord.  The chosen will face difficulties; nothing about being chosen by God will be easy or safe.  In this world – especially in the early days of the Christian church – just mentioning the name of Jesus Christ could get you killed.  Later in the Book of Acts, King Herod had the Apostle James beheaded, and no successor to James was chosen at all – either by casting lots or by any other method.  So we don’t know about any successors to any of the other Apostles.

In life, sometimes we have no choice and little input before we are chosen for something.  If the boss wants you to do something, you have to do it or you could be replaced and/or fired.  If the military draft begins again, we could see thousands of young people being chosen to serve our country – whether they want to or not.  If you lose the flip of a coin or even an informal show of hands, that may not change the course of your life for the next twenty years, but it might put you in a position you didn’t choose.

Chance is a scary thing.  Being chosen by God to do something, to fill some role or need can be just as scary.

I think the main difference might be in who guides us to make the decisions, who is choosing us for a task.  If we only believe in blind luck, impartial chance, random acts without God behind them, then whatever happens is dependent on us.  If we trust God and pray often and do as the Bible suggests – “inquire of the Lord” – perhaps we can trust whatever comes to pass.

Once again, I must think of some people I have known in my life for my examples.

One is a righteous Christian woman who is very active in her church.  She and her husband are the last two to leave the church each Sunday.  After she tabulates the offering for the day and completes the paperwork, she safely prepares the deposit for the night drop at the bank.  Then before she leaves the building, she pauses to ask the Lord to protect their church. When I noticed her doing this one time, she responded that she wasn’t about to leave her church to chance; she wanted God’s help and protection.

No casting of lots helped her make that choice.

Another saint I have known was in oil and gas here in Texas and was extremely good at it.  He had advanced degrees in both oil and gas, as well as business.  He was doing just fine.  Yet he felt a pull, a tug at his attention to do something else with his life.  So he chose to follow that impulse and check out what going to seminary would be like.  I once asked him how he could afford to go to seminary full time, and he grinned and told me that a buddy would still direct oil and gas deals his way on occasion so he could pay the bills as he pursued his call to ministry.

He could have just kept following the money, but instead he chose to follow the Lord.

No flip of a coin helped him with that choice.

Finally, I know of a missionary back in the very early 1900’s who felt the call to God’s work very early in his life.  John Rogers Peale attended seminary, was trained to be a pastor and an overseas missionary, and headed to rural China upon graduation in 1905.  Four days after he and his wife arrived at his new assignment, they were murdered for asking a local Chinese official to move a festival away from the Christian hospital because the sounds of cannon fire were disturbing the patients.  

No flipping a coin…no casting of lots…just brutal murder.  This reminds us of Peter’s words and the need for others to step up and take the place of those who were called first.  And this is exactly what happened in the case of John Rogers Peale.  Because of his murder, local Christians honor his grave and many have traveled to America because they chose to become pastors and missionaries themselves. 

I will end this message today with just one thought:  I don’t believe in flipping coins other than just for fun; I don’t cast dice unless we are playing some board game; I don’t use much chance in my life unless it is just to have fun with those I love or to make a sermon point here in our house of God.

Instead, I firmly believe that all of us are chosen to do something in our lives; whether that is grand or simple, it can all serve God and whatever God has in mind.  Inquiring of the Lord, praying before major decisions, looking to others for their collective wisdom is the way I like to do things.

Too often, I know I have made a poor decision when I relied on my own thoughts or impulses.  Sharing joys, sorrows, and choices with a loving Christian community worked for those early Apostles; I believe it works for us too.