THE GIFT OF DISCERNMENT
To discern is to be able to recognize or see clearly.
For a Christian to discern is for him or her to see or figure out where God is working in the world.
A discerning Christian can point to
God at work among us.
Most of the characters in the Christmas story
did not use the gift of discernment.
The shepherds were terrified by singing angels.
They didn’t discern anything godly among them.
Herod didn’t discern God in the wise men.
Herod figured that the “King of the Jews” whom the wise men sought was a threat to him and he tried to get rid of Jesus, the interloper.
Even Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus,
didn’t discern God in him.
Both Mary and Joseph, when Simeon, in the temple,
spoke about their son, “were amazed at what was being said about him.”
An angel had told Mary she’d been chosen by God
to give birth to the eternal saviour.
Why would she be amazed at Simeon’s words?
His parents berated Jesus when he didn’t return from the Temple with them because they couldn’t see that Jesus was in his father’s house.
They didn’t see or discern God at work in their son.
But Simeon - now there was a man of discernment!
Eight days after Jesus’ birth,
Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms,
praised God, and said,
“O God, now I can die in peace.
I’ve seen your salvation in this little child. I can see that in this One you’ll save the Gentiles, the Jews and all people!”
But Simeon discerned more than that.
He could see that Jesus would make enemies;
he could see Jesus would divide the people.
Simeon warned Mary that she’d feel a sword pierce
her soul because she’d watch her son die.
Also in the Temple was Anna, an old female prophet
who discerned that Jesus would redeem Israel.
She discerned Jesus as the Saviour of the people.
What enabled Simeon and Anna to discern, so well,
the will of God in Jesus?
Nothing’s explained but the narrative gives us clues.
First, it’s significant that Simeon and Anna were old.
Simeon was at the end of his life and Anna was 84.
The gift of discernment isn’t reserved for old people,
but it’s a gift which takes time to develop.
It takes time to learn the ways of God.
It takes time to look past the obvious
to see where God’s acting.
It takes time to recognize God in
the small, dirty, weak things of life.
Here’s a confirmation class discernment exercise.
I strewed pictures of people around the room.
I usually included
a picture of the pope,
a picture of a minister,
a picture of a starving baby,
a picture of an old woman,
a picture of a beggar,
a picture of a king or queen,
a picture of a sports hero,
a picture of a famous musician,
a picture of a movie star,
a picture of a doctor,
a picture of a teacher.
I asked the members of the confirmation class
to tell me which one of those people
looked most like God or Jesus.
I wanted them to discern in
which one of those people God was at work.
Most students identified the pope
as the one most like God.
Several were diplomatic enough
to say the minister was like God.
Some would say the king or the doctor looked
most like God.
A few pointed to
the sports hero or the musician as God-like.
Nobody saw God
in the starving baby
or in the beggar,
or in the old woman.
There’s no right answer, of course.
God might look like any of those people.
God might work through any or all of them.
But the young people hadn’t had enough experience of life to discern that God can come to us in
They were blind to the ways of God
and so they missed God.
It’ll take them time to learn how God works.
It takes time to develop the gift of discernment.
Second, notice that both Simeon and Anna were
devout people of worship and prayer.
Worship and prayer are the tools of discernment.
Today worship and prayer are not much in vogue.
We’re too busy.
Even in the Christian church the active, outgoing, exciting things we do seem to be valued more highly than worship and prayer.
Worship and prayer don’t show instant results.
It would seem that worship and prayer are impractical
when it comes to
building a relationship with God,
teaching in the congregation,
appealing to people.
Worship and prayer are for “introverts”
who can spend hours alone and
don’t need the support of others.
None of that’s true, of course;
but that’s the perception.
What is true is this:
worship and prayer bring us closer to God and
make us more sensitive to God with us.
Worship & prayer needn’t be formal or involve words.
They may be spontaneous and
include feelings and colours.
Worship and prayer may be silent or ecstatic.
But worship and prayer are part of
our tradition and practice and we’d be foolish to ignore all that, or to look elsewhere.
The truth is that if we want to
develop the gift of discernment we’ll have to take time for worship and prayer.
Third, note that both Simeon and Anna
spent much time in the temple.
The temple, for the Jews,
was the place where God was to be found;
was where the people of God gathered;
was where the things of God happened.
The Jews and Jesus knew - as we know -
that God can’t be tied to one place.
God isn’t only in the temple or mainly in the temple.
God is everywhere and is the ruler of all things.
But the temple is one obvious place for God.
God can be found in the poolroom and the strip club
but the poolroom and strip club don’t attract
spiritual people and they’re not devoted
to searching for and meeting God.
In the temple men and women apply themselves to considering the ways of God and they grow in the knowledge of God shared there.
Jesus went out among the people where
they ate and drank and did their daily chores
but he also went to places of worship.
Jesus worshipped in the synagogues and the temple.
He did that because he knew he could expect to deal with the God issues of life and it was in the synagogues and in the temple that such issues were raised.
Simeon and Anna developed the gift of discernment because they spent years maturing in the temple in worship and prayer.
Simeon and Anna were able to discern,
to recognize Jesus when they met him -
even when he was a baby.
What about us?
Do we have the gift of discernment?
Can we discern Jesus among us?
Can we recognize God at work?
Everybody has the gift of discernment to some extent.
But we need to face the fact that it’s difficult for our untrained eyes to see Jesus in the world.
I visited an art gallery run by a Christian man.
I was impressed by all the oil paintings
on the walls, on the floors, on the chairs.
Many were abstract paintings which said little to me.
I spent some time in front of one painting with flashes of green across the bottom and splotches of brown across the top.
There was something that resembled a lamp-post on the right and a star in the upper left corner.
In the foreground there was a broken bottle.
In the middle of the picture there were black spots as if flies had crawled into black paint and walked across the canvas.
When the curator asked me what I saw,
I could only reply, “Nothing.”
He persisted, but I could see only chaos, confusion.
Then he pointed out a form -“Do you see this?”
I replied, “Yes.”
He explained, “That’s hair. Now look at this chin,
those eyes, and those hands
folded in prayer.”
To my amazement, there, in the midst of
what appeared to be disorder, was
an image of Jesus in Gethsemane
with hands clasped in prayer.
Isn’t that symbolic of life?
Around us there’s turmoil and confusion.
We try, but we can’t see any meaning or purpose to it.
But, when someone else recognizes the presence of Christ and bears witness to his presence, they help us discover him in the midst of life.
All around us, scientific discoveries are being made in the material world, and it may be that one day the substructure of the physical universe will be explored to discover an even greater indication of God in that realm.
The tools of our research in the depth dimensions of life will be responsible commitment and creative action.
Our difficulty in seeing Jesus in life isn’t unique.
The Christian Jews of Paul’s day, couldn’t see Jesus
in Paul’s relationship with the Gentiles.
Paul’s conviction that Jesus was in the midst of the non-Jews led to
and his rejection.
Most Christians couldn’t discern Jesus in
those who weren’t Jews.
But the Church exists today because of
Paul’s inclusive vision.
Because Paul saw Jesus alive and active among
non-Jews, the Church was able to reach out beyond Jews to embrace the world.
If Paul hadn’t discerned Jesus beyond Judaism, Christianity would’ve remained a Jewish sect.
My wife, Nance, is amused by me when I always try to discern the Christ figure in the movies and plays we see.
Sometimes there is no Christ figure but often there is, & it’s good to exercise the gift of discernment.
Once upon a time, a minister was told by God,
in a dream, that Jesus would visit his church the next week.
The minister figured he’d better get ready.
He called in the custodian and told him to
work overtime and do a special job of
cleaning the sanctuary.
The custodian said he would, but then he spent
almost an hour recounting his family problems to the minister.
The minister was very impatient and worked hard
to escape from the custodian.
When he got free he then went to the secretary.
He directed her
to straightened up her desk,
to do up her hair,
to put on some good clothes
because a special guest was coming.
The secretary said she’d do that, but she took much of the minister’s time talking about people she knew in the congregation who needed visits.
He tore himself away from the secretary and went to his associate minister and told her to prepare a specially good sermon because the church would be visited by God that week.
The associate minister wanted to
waste his time talking theology.
She argued God was always trying to get into
that church but often had a hard time because few cared, or listened, or invited God
The minister had to tell her to stop her rambling and get on with doing a super sermon.
So the church was cleaned,
the desks were tidied,
the staff was well dressed,
the associate’s sermon was good.
But the minister never saw Jesus.
He never saw anybody remotely resembling Jesus
at his church that week.
The next week he complained, in prayer,
that God had not kept the promise to
come to visit his church.
That night he had another dream in
which God appeared to him.
In that dream, before God could say anything,
the minister berated God for not coming to visit when God had promised to do so.
God replied to the minister,
“I came to you three times in three people
but you didn’t discern and wouldn’t listen.
I approached you in the custodian but you
refused to see me and you didn’t hear my story. I reached out to you in the secretary,
but you could only see her messy desk and
bad hairdo and didn’t hear what I had to say about the members of the congregation in need. I spoke theology to you through your
associate but you didn’t want to talk theology.
You wanted to be the boss and tell her what to say. I tried to get you thinking about how I come into this church but you couldn’t “see”
what I had to say. I’m sorry you missed me.
You know, Life’s like baseball. Three strikes
and you’re out. By the way, when I couldn’t get into this church, I went down the road to St. Alban’s Anglican church. I bet you never thought I’d go there.”