A Sermon for Worcester College, Oxford
Sunday 14th February 2016
Thy will be done
In nomine . . .
I’m delighted to be here; delighted to have this title to preach on: ‘Thy Will be Done’; and equally delighted to be able to tell you that if you type ‘Thy Will Be Done’ into a well-known search engine (who probably pay less tax than you do) the first thing that will appear is a magnificent lurid green graphic informing you that ‘Thy Will Be Done’, a legal firm who are, and I quote, ‘Worthing’s first choice for pre-paid funeral plans’ , were winners of the 2015/2016 Splash FM Best Business Award. This gave me, as I’m sure it gives you, immense satisfaction. I do hope that ‘Thy Will Be Done’ will find their way into the Pantheon of appropriately named business, such as the legal firm near my old haunts in Coventry rejoicing in the name of Wright Hassall Solicitors.
I wonder how many of the good folk of Sussex twig, as they go to visit ‘Worthing’s experts in lasting power of attorney’, that the name of the firm comes from the Lord’s Prayer. One fairly recent study suggests that, while 92 per cent of adults surveyed said they knew the Lord’s Prayer as a child, only 55 per cent knew it today.
Frankly I was surprised that it was that high – when I arrived in my present parishes just north of this city six years ago, I discovered that the Lord’s Prayer was never said, nor had it been taught in recent times, in our three Church of England schools. It is now.
I think that scripture gives us plenty of evidence to suggest that doing God’s will matters. To flick through the Gospels gives us a good idea of just how essential, how non-negotiable this is. For example, it’s clear that God’s will is that people should not be lost – such as in the parable of the lost sheep.
It’s clear that doing the will of God brings one into intimate relationship with Jesus.  It’s clear that Jesus sought to do God’s will, and not his own. It’s clear that those who perform God’s will – and only those – will enter the kingdom of heaven.  It’s clear that God’s will is life-giving: it is bread – my food, says Jesus, is to do the will of him who sent me.
- S. Lewis wrote that
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”
That seems a long way from Narnia – but is it true? Can we be that definitive? There are those who do what God wants; and those who do what they want? And it is, ultimately, a matter of heaven and hell. Are we really going to be divided into sheep and goats?
Our bible readings tonight gave us two highly contrasting examples of submission to the will of God. Let’s start with Jonah. Poor old Jonah. As you know
he lived in de whale, Fo’ he made his home in Dat fish’s abdomen. Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale
Not one you’ll be hearing at Choral Evensong any time soon. I love Jonah. He’s such a mixture. He is obedient – sort of. And then he’s disobedient – sort of. Eventually he is definitely obedient – but that doesn’t quite work out either. Rather like Peter in the Gospels, he never quite gets it right. After all, he does obey God’s will – he gets up and going, as soon as God tells him to. Trouble is, rather than head for Nineveh as God requires, he chooses Tarshish instead: ‘away’ we are told in doom-laden words, ‘from the presence of the Lord.’
Jonah uses the command of the Lord to run away from the Lord. Ironic. Thy will be done? Yes – and no. Well, no, in fact, but you see the point.
Eugene Peterson, the American pastoral theologian, suggests that this is key to understanding our vocation as Christians. This is what we tend to do. We get what he calls ‘a taste of God’, and, somehow, it’s twisted into a tendency to behave like God. Look at Eden. Look at Jonah. Look at us. We prefer Tarshish to Nineveh. Or perhaps I should say Barcelona rather than Bridlington – Tarshish, some scholars think, is what we now call Spain.
Avoiding God’s will, if Jonah is to be believed, means we end up in very stormy weather. And the less said about the whale, the better. Except that bit about him being in dat fish’s abdomen for three days and three nights –Jesus said something, didn’t he, about the sign of Jonah?
Talking of Jesus, our second lesson gives us rather a different take on what it might mean to pray ‘Thy will be done’. A former Chaplain of this college has written
I used to think of this clause [Thy will be done] simply as a prayer of resignation. ‘Thy will be done’ with a shrug of the shoulders . . . no: this is the risky, crazy prayer of submission and commission . . . it is the way we retune our instruments, to play God’s oratorio for the world to sing.
There was dark music that night in dark Gethsemane, the place of pressure, ‘the night for weeping, when powers of darkness overcame the day’. When you go to Gethsemane today, it’s hard to get hold of the pain, the pressure, as the cars and coaches zoom past on the road alongside the Kedron Valley. But that night, we are told by Luke, the Saviour sweated blood. Jonah ran. Jesus didn’t. Jonah chose his own destination. Jesus didn’t. ‘Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done’.
Professor Christopher Evans, in his classic work on The Lord’s Prayer, suggests that there is more to Jesus’ submission to God’s will than we might first realize. He writes
The context of the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane shows the temptation which he undergoes there to be not simply a temptation, but the temptation, which has the destiny of the world at stake, and the prayer uttered there ‘not what I will but what thou wilt’ is not simply a prayer for the performance of one amongst other moral duties, but a prayer for the doing of the final will which preserves the world’.
In other words, had Jesus done a Jonah, you and I would be damned. No cross. No resurrection. No Good Friday. No Easter. No heaven. Only hell.
Ok. So I seem to be saying that all you good Christian folk of Worcester College ought to be more like Jesus and less like Jonah. Head for Nineveh. Head for Calvary. Neither, on the face of it, sounds that much fun. Furthermore, how exactly are we meant to know God’s will? How are we meant to discern the destination?
I think one way forward is the gift of the season we find ourselves in – the springtime of the church’s year, the heart’s time, Lent. Like Jesus, and, to an extent, like Jonah, we are called out to spend time in the wilderness. The wilderness can be a good place, a place where some of our dafter notions about God get knocked out of us, leaving us with a faith that is stronger, deeper, more gentle, more real. It is a place of testing. But it is also a place of calling. It is full of prowling beasts. But it is also a place of solitude, of contemplation, a place, as the poet Jean Watt describes, of
. . . starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place . . .
Jonah sought a hiding-place, and was sacrificed to the waves. Jesus sought no hiding-place, and was brutally executed. To pray ‘thy will be done’ – and to mean it – is dangerous; the ‘risky, crazy prayer of submission and commission’, remember? But what choice do we have, if the Lord and his Prayer are going to shape our praying, our witness, and our worship?
The business of discerning God’s will is always stretching, always costly, whether we are on the quayside at Joppa, or in the agony of the olive grove. But it is our life’s calling, our life’s prayer.
It is our final destination.
 Matthew 18.12-14
 Mark 3.35
 John 5.30
 Matthew 7.21
 John 4.34
 C. S Lewis, The Great Divorce (Geoffrey Bles 1945)
 It ain’t necessarily so, from ‘Porgy and Bess’; Written by: Dorothy Heyward, Du Bose Heyward, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin; Lyrics © Imagem U.S. Llc , Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
 Jonah 1.3
 Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans/Gracewing 1992), p. 12
 Matthew 12.38-41
 N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (SPCK 1996), p. 32
 Peter Abelard (1079-1142) Nox ista flebilis praesensque triduum
quod demorabitur fletus sit vesperum; from In Parasceve Domini: Notturno III
 Luke 22.44
 Luke 22.42
 Evans, The Lord’s Prayer (new edn. SCM Press 1997), p. 41
 Jean M. Watt, ‘Lent’, from ed. Robertson, A Touch of Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry (Lion, 1989)