“Are you in the will?” That’s a really terrible question, isn’t it? Because last will and testaments are kind of funny things, aren’t they? They’re a little uncomfortable for us to discuss because they’re planning for when we’re gone. And they can be even more difficult/touchy if you’re discussing what somebody else is going to do with their estate. But one of the worst kinds of questions, I think, is: “Well, are you in the will?”
It’s bad in a variety of ways, isn’t it? If you are in the will, you probably ought to know it – if somebody wanted you in there, they likely would have told you. And, if you’re not, but you think you should be – that usually indicates some kind of weirdness is going on. And, worst of all, if you’re not in the will – and you don’t belong in the will, necessarily – but it’s your life-goal to get in there… Well, there are adjectives for that kind of operation – and they’re mostly negative.
I wonder if that negative question, “Are you in the will?” is a decent way to assess our year-end / year-beginning time. This is a natural time for end of year review and new year planning. It’s also a natural time for the kind of thinking that assumes we’re not okay or we might need better. Are you worried about 2024 at all? I am… Some news show the other day was saying there’s going to be a “major black swan event” in 2024? Some kind of devastating attack or electronic event or power outage? I’ve had quite a few family friend conversations in the last weeks, many about all the acquaintances and family members whose health is failing. What will your health be like – or mine – this year? Others share their inability to find a job. Someone else fears that the market will crash. Another, how the last election was bad and this coming one will likely be worse… Pick a thing – likely there’s just as much trepidation about what’s coming this year as about what you’ve dealt with in the one past.
In his letter, James was addressing all kinds of life situations with brief little admonitions – here, passions and pride perhaps. He says something interesting for our new year considerations, “Now listen you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’” He’s talking about how we might face the uncertainties of life with the certainty of our own devices and designs and desires. But he says these plans can also be “arrogant schemes” and even “evil boasting.” Really, he’s accusing his listeners of considering ourselves and our abilities so highly, that we live that way. We say that it’s make it or break it in any year – and, perhaps in this new one, we’re going to make sure we make it ourselves.
Planning’s not bad. Making an effort and doing your best and using your wisdom is also not bad. They’re good. But you can get a sense of what troubles James from his solution: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”
If we paraphrased him, perhaps we’d say – James is assessing whether we care about what God wants or not. Like…
- Are we about “my will be done” – most concerned about what we want and need – determined to do what we feel is best? And maybe with a casual disregard for whatever God would say about it? Or just not believing that what God wants is good… With varying degrees of arrogance, we could be saying, “If it’s my will, I’ll live and do this or that…”
- Or, in a seemingly holier way, we might worry about how the Lord’s will will be done – even trying to figure out what the Lord’s will is: wondering where God wants us to get coffee, how much he wants us to spend on groceries, or whether he’d be happy if we went to Disney for vacation. As though life is this dangerous balance: either discover what God wants or make a choice that could ruin everything.
It’s sadly funny. We can be very overtly arrogant, trusting in human things. But we can also be “holier” and constantly hunting for God’s will – which we end up measuring by signs and symbols and things we can see – and say, “If I choose rightly, it’ll be the Lord’s will…” In either one, we end up in a self concerned idolatry…
So, perhaps a worthwhile question: Are you in it? The Lord’s will? What is the Lord’s will anyway? Well, it’s two things actually – one is everything he plans but that he hasn’t revealed to us – you know, whether we’ll buy gas at Kwiktrip or Mobil, or that there’ll be an earthquake on Tuesday, when the End will come. And, while that’s perhaps the “will of the Lord” we want to know most… And while that’s the one James tells us to submit to: whatever God has in store… We can really only rest in “the Lord’s will” about what will come when we understand the other part – his will that he’s revealed. And, in a sense very much like in a written will, God has declared what his will is to us, written it out. And, blessedly, he has written us into it.
As Jesus told us in the gospel, the Lord’s will is certainly not that we store up for ourselves everything we can. As we heard in the first reading, it is rather that we know that righteousness (being right with God) is something he gives, and salvation (the rescue that brings us to righteousness) is something we need. In fact, reading what he’s told us, we can confidently say what the Lord’s will for us is in this coming year:
- Regarding who we are – God’s Word was spoken into the world in Jesus Christ; he enlightens us to know grace and love from God; particularly, that we are God’s children and have a close relationship with him (so, St. John told us at Christmas – John 1). And that Jesus accomplished this by being born of a woman under God’s law like us to redeem us from the guilt of the sins we are and have. So that, in the end, we are God’s heirs – sons and daughters with family rights and family love. (so St. Paul told us at Christmas too – Ga 4:4-7).
- And, as a side-note, that’s not just for us: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Ti 2:4)
- Regarding what we do – You are God’s holy child by faith in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, you have forgiveness of all your sins. Daily he calls you to know that “God doesn’t want anyone to perish (eternally in hell) but to come to repentance (turning away from sins).” (1 Pe 2:9) So we can look back on all we’ve willed and done and, for any wickedness or sin, boasting or evil self-service, we say, “Lord, I am sorry for my sins.” And all our sins he pardons again and again. We even have his last will and testament – that meal he made the night he was betrayed. Where he promises in his own body and blood he comes to forgive us again and strengthen us more and send us away as his own. So that…
- Regarding all we plan – We don’t actually know, then, what all God wills to happen to us in 2024. But we know that he promises to work whatever it is for our good (Ro 8:28) – whether earthly good or eternal good. And that, being so caught up in his all-encompassing goodness, we do good ourselves – whether as Peter proclaimed: do good to silence ignorant talkers (1 Pe 2:15) or as Paul said it, “that you be sanctified” or holy just like God has declared you to be. God’s will is that you will live as good people of your good Lord. Being careful about what we do and say (Ep 5:15) and not simply conforming to whatever this world is doing, but being in the Word of God so that he transforms our minds by faith and we can more and more discern what is best to do…(Ro 12:2)
Each of these things the Lord has willed and revealed and into them he’s written you so that, altogether, you are able to say, “Your will be done, Lord, (Mt 26:42)” and, “Thank you, Lord, that I’m in your will,” and, “may what I do and plan and how I live show that I am in it…”
That’s what we’re going to pray in a few moments now – on p.12, a prayer of commitment for the new year. We recognize what God has done and we ask that he let us serve him under his will in this coming year. In a way, we’re taking up as our theme, “If the Lord wills it…” but not in any kind of ambiguity; not worrying about what we’ll have or do, but recognizing what God has done and that we are in his will. Looking ahead, we’ll say, “Lord, you are mine and I am yours. As it has been in this year past, may it be so in the next, and for ever. Amen.”