Taking a Chance

The apostles cast lots to choose a successor to Judas, and churches have been having raffles ever since 2014 but is that the best way to make Godly decisions? A sermon for Easter 7b.

SJF • Easter 7b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil oneā€¦ As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

There is a scene in an old W.C. Fields movie in which the comedian plays a card-sharp who makes his living cheating people at poker. In this scene Fields invites a sucker to join him in a hand of the game, and the prim gentleman protests, “Say, this isn’t a game of chance, is it?” To which Fields responds, “Not the way I play it.”

Well, I don’t know about poker, but how many of you here have ever bought a lottery ticket? I won’t ask for show of hands. How about a raffle ticket? Ah — let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that raffles play a venerable part in the history of many churches! If you have done any of these things I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself by any means — for you are in the excellent company of the apostles themselves. For the apostles, as we see from our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, when they felt it necessary to choose a successor to fill the empty seat of Judas among the Twelve, did just that. They laid out requirements for candidates, they nominated two — but then instead of voting, offered a prayer to God and cast lots to determine who would be numbered among them.

This was not, of course, precisely a game of chance — it was not a game at all, but serious business. So serious, in fact, that the apostles simply didn’t want to trust their own judgment in this matter and used this as a way of turning it all over to God. By casting lots it was not their personal choice that mattered, but the short straw or the name drawn out of a hat — and they saw the hand of God at work in the selection, rather than their own personal preferences or choices.

This was not the first or the last time when people earnestly seeking direction from God would turn to such a method to make a decision. Many times faithful people would turn to some decision-making process that did not rely on their own judgment, but rather some random method of selection. Ancient Israel, for example, made use of something called the Urim and the Thummim. We don’t know exactly what they were, but we do know how they were used. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told how decisions were made by casting lots with the Urim and Thummim. They may simply have been a black and a white stone, hidden in a bag or in a box, into which the priest insert his hand and draw one or the other out — and if that doesn’t remind you of a raffle, I don’t know what else to call it!

It might seem odd to us — steeped as we are in the political season — to leave important decisions up to such a random process — but what other way is there to ensure that this isn’t simply fallible human ambition or politics at work? The important thing, as in the case of the selection of Matthias, is that both he and Justus were qualified to hold the office — and rather than getting involved in personalities or politics, the apostles prayed and then cast lots.

I very much doubt that the church today would trust to such procedure in choosing its bishops — and perhaps that shows our lack of trust both in the people who are nominated and in our own faith that God will provide a faithful and appropriate leader from among those nominated. In the long run, it takes a great deal of courage to leave it up to chance, and trust. We would rather, it seems, trust our own wisdom and powers of discernment sometimes, than on the grace of God determined through means that are not under our control. It takes courage, and it takes faith to trust in grace.

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The apostle John, both in his gospel and in his epistles, emphasized the need for faith — primarily faith informed by prayer, and ratified not by human authority but by the Spirit of God, by the presence of the Spirit of God, the Comforter, to whom John so often calls the Spirit. Thus, in the epistle today he does not entirely reject human testimony, but neither does he rely upon it. What is important is the ultimate source of the testimony: that it comes from God. Even if it resides in human beings, this testimony resides there because the spirit of God dwells in human hearts, has spoken into human hearts — into the hearts of those who have trusted and believed, and received the testimony — as we heard last week — the testimony of the water and the blood.

John also shows us that Jesus himself had this kind of trust — Jesus was willing to take a chance and to send his apostles out into the world — a dangerous world, a world where the evil one was at work — and yet Jesus had the trust and the faith to send them forth into the world to carry forth that testimony, trusting that God would protect them, and praying that God would protect them and support them in their work of spreading the good news. He prays that they will be sanctified.

And next week, on Pentecost, we will celebrate the remembrance of that sanctification — the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and filled them with complete and certain knowledge, giving them the strength to rely not merely on chance — but on that indwelling Spirit alive in their hearts and minds.

It is interesting to note is that after Pentecost the Apostles are never again shown to cast lots. They no longer need a method of chance to determine God’s will — for the Spirit of God dwells in them, and when they speak as the apostles of God speaking in God’s name. it is because God has spoken to them inwardly, and through them outwardly. We never again hear of Matthias, for instance — and in one sense the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost might seem to be a gentle rebuke to the Apostles for their impatience. Jesus had told them that the Spirit would soon come upon them; and perhaps in their anxiety they jumped the gun with their decision to elect a successor to Judas. Perhaps the Spirit was saying that no such successor was needed, for as we will hear next week, the Spirit would soon transform the church and enlarge it beyond their former imaginings, not just twelve, not just a hundred and twenty, but on that day of Pentecost three thousand were added to the body of the church, and the Spirit would soon be poured out on all sorts and conditions of people, on young men and maidens, on old and young together, on slave and free, on men and women, on Israelites and on the people of many nations.

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So don’t feel bad if you buy a lottery or a raffle ticket. Don’t feel bad if you are having trouble making some decision in your life — it’s O.K. to say a prayer and then flip a coin to get you out of your indecision. But I will show you a better way: say a prayer and then listen, listen to your heart — for that is where God will speak to you if you take the time to listen. Be patient with the patience that God provides — and take a chance on God. God dwells in your heart — and if you put your faith and trust in God, God will give you guidance. Grace is not a game of chance — at least, not the way God plays it!+