How do you know what God wants you to do?

GOD’S WORD TODAY - Francis D. Alvarez S.J. (The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2016 - 9:00am

Every three years on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time and every year on the Thursday after Epiphany, we hear the core of our Gospel today. Jesus proclaims from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). Listening to Jesus apply these words to himself as a new year begins brings both opportunities and challenges to a homilist.

The first year I had to preach on this Gospel was easy. I said that Jesus’ words were like his mission statement. I then challenged my parishioners to craft their own mission statements. Instead of just coming up with New Year’s resolutions like exercising more and eating healthier, could they write how they wished to make “a year acceptable to the Lord”?

The second year, I could not just repeat what I had said 12 months ago so I went deeper into how one should write a mission statement. Getting pointers from Jesus’ own mission statement, I gave my parishioners two tips: (1) Do not begin with what you can do or what you want to do. Begin with what the Lord has done for you and what God may want from you. Jesus began with the recognition that the Spirit was empowering him (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”); he could not do anything apart from this. And Jesus’ mission was not just from his own dreams; it was Spirit-given (“he has anointed me to…). (2) We do not begin with ourselves, and neither do we end with ourselves. Jesus’ mission was not about himself. It was also not just about his family and friends. It was about the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.

The next year, I am embarrassed to admit, I just went back to my first homily about this passage and hoped that people had already forgotten what I had shared before. The year after that, I used my second homily. I wish I could just alternate between Homily A and Homily B, but after six years of priesthood, even though I can get away with it because I am now preaching at a different parish, I find my old homilies lacking and unsatisfying. Perhaps, it is because I have different questions now, and perhaps, it is because the people I serve also have different concerns.

After reading this Gospel now, I find myself admitting that writing a mission statement is not as easy as it sounds – even if I give more pointers and guidelines. You cannot just sit down somewhere quiet and dream up something. How would you know if what you came up with was God’s will or just your own? We can easily deceive ourselves into thinking we are following the Lord when we are just insisting on what we want. How do you know what God really wants you to do?

When I was still discerning whether God was calling me to enter the Society of Jesus or not, I remember once, in frustration (and maybe desperation), shaking my fists and head at heaven and saying, “Why don’t you just come down and tell me what to do? You know I’m going to follow. So tell me already!” How do you really know what God wants you to do?

If the Philippines were not given the special feast of the Sto. Niño to celebrate, our Gospel last week would have been the story of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana. That was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel according to John. From that story, I think we can learn how to begin our own missions this year also.

Mary went to Jesus and told him, “They have no more wine.” This might seem like a simple observation, but behind this statement was a lot of sensitivity and care. Mary was at a party. She was not the host nor one of the waiters. She could have just allowed herself to be caught up in conversation, in eating, or in merrymaking. But she did not. She probably had an eye out, an ear close to, and a hand ready for whatever the newly-weds and their guests needed.

How do we know what God wants us to do? By first making sure we are not just caught up in our own “parties” and concerns. What does God want us to do? This is the same as to ask, “What is it that the world needs?”

When Mary told Jesus about what the gathering needed, Jesus’ reply seemed like a rebuff. But still Mary went to the servers and told them, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus words could be interpreted as dismissive: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?” How did Mary know her son would still do something? The answer: She knew because she knew her son. There was a closeness there like the closeness of a husband and wife who only need a quick glance to communicate, like the closeness of best friends who understand each other’s moods even without words.

How do we know what God wants us to do? By developing the same closeness with God. And this is why we cannot just sit down somewhere quiet to find out instantly God’s mission for us. The answer needs the investment of a relationship – in prayer, in reflection, and in worship.

We try to be sensitive to what the world needs. We try to be more intimate with God so as to sense what he desires for us. But even then, we cannot be sure if we are doing God’s will. How do we really know what God really wants us to do? The Hebrew word for know is yada, which is not just a knowing by thinking things out. It is a knowing by doing. We will know what God wants when we take a risk, maybe dipping our toes in at first, but then diving in. There is no getting out of making the leap. We will know when we jump in.

But what if we are wrong? Then we try again. We listen to the world again. We invest even more deeply in our relationship with God. Then we hold our breath and plunge in again. In the end, this is all we can do.

Thomas Merton’s prayer expresses all this more eloquently: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

How do we know we are doing what God wants us to do? We may never know until we meet him face to face. But something tells me that the honest attempt and the sincere effort to know and do his will is enough for him; it is more than “acceptable to the Lord.” And maybe this is the best mission statement we can have for this year: To try to follow the Lord and trust that as we do so, though we may lose sight of him ahead of us, we will feel him somehow beside us, behind us, over us, and under us.

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