Ways of guidance

A motorist once stopped his car in a Wiltshire village, and asked a passing local: ‘Excuse, could you tell me which way to go to get to Bristol?’ ‘Oooh,’, said the villager, ‘if you’re going to Bristol I wouldn’t start from here.’ And there’s the guy who stopped in Surrey and said ‘Leatherhead?’ to which the reply was ‘Potato face!

Knowing which way to go in life is a question which affects many people. We feel the need for guidance. Of course there are those who seem to find their way in life with a quite untroubled ease – everything they do seems a natural progression without wondering whether it’s the right thing. But many of us seek God’s guidance.

It may be for the big things in life: what career to follow, where to live, which school to send the children to. It may be for smaller day-to-day decisions – which route to follow on the journey, a choice of holiday cottage. It may be decisions which involve others such as which project to develop at work or in church. In all of these things we can seek God’s guidance, we can ask him to show us what is best, the right decision to make, what his will for us is and how it fits in his plan.

There’s a pretty key assumption lying behind that and I want to make it clear. Christians believe in a God who loves us, who cares about us as individuals and who therefore guides us. That’s an amazing thing – I was in sporting event the other day and struck by the crowds. Thousands and tens of thousands of people – you can tell I live in a small village and don’t get out much – and I was thinking to myself ‘How on earth does God know each person and care about them?’ But he does: remember how Jesus said that sparrows are two a penny but God knows every one?

It’s wonderful. It didn’t have to be like that. Imagine an indifferent God who creates a world and looks on with detached interest to see what it will do in the way that you or I might observe a nest of ants going about their business.

Or he could have given us general rules to obey like a herd of cows, a time to come and a time to go. Or at the other extreme, we could imagine a God who was a dictator, moving chess pieces around.

Instead God gives us individuality, free will and moral responsibility. He grants us liberty to fulfil our desires and the chance to grow in discernment. Sometimes Christians think of guidance as being a bit like a treasure hunt: you follow the clues, you go from Bible reading to prayer to wisdom of friends to common sense to signs to a feeling of peace and when you’ve found all the clues you get the answer. As if God knows what’s best but hides it and we then have to find his will.

Perhaps we could think of guidance being more like orienteering with a guide. As you go out walking together, finding new places, you also get to know one another. You learn from his experience and if he is a good guide he will teach you to read the map yourself. As we journey through life with God, our relationship with him deepens, we learn to trust him, we discover more about ourselves and become more practised in discernment. That image also helps us understand times when God has allowed us to learn from our mistakes and dead ends.

So what sorts of guidance are there? I heard of a chap who had a message from God. God wanted him to build an ark. It had to be a bit like Noah’s, but this one needed many decks on which to hold many fish tanks. These fish tanks had be filled with all the different types of carp. It was to be God’s new multi storey carp ark.

That’s very particular guidance. Often though guidance is general – and we find a great deal of it in the Bible. Do no murder! It is good to work to earn a living and to support your family. Anyone may marry but no-one must, and singleness should be honoured as a vocation. God’s word gives us all that we need to know for salvation and ethical living.

But the details of it we will need to work out for ourselves. The Bible won’t tell you which job to apply for. It won’t tell you who to marry, although there are indications that it’s good to share your life with someone who shares your faith.

That’s a lot of the background behind today’s reading from Genesis. It’s a couple of thousand years BC, and Abraham wants to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac. God has called Abraham to live in Canaan, where the people worship idols. But Abraham wants Isaac to be a partner with someone who worships the Lord, so he sends his servant off to find a bride for Isaac from the area that Abraham originally came from. In this part of the reading the servant recaps his story.

In v. 42: ‘I came today to the spring and said ‘O Lord if now you will make successful the way I am going’. All guidance starts with faith and prayer. The servant shares Abraham’s faith. He believes that God is there and that God answers prayer, so he prays to God for guidance. Faith, prayer and crucially obedience are at the heart of guidance. It’s no good having a doctor but not going to the doctor when you feel ill. And when you’re there, you don’t just tell the doctor your problems and go away again, you listen to her answer and take the medicines.

As Jesus says in v.25 of the gospel, ‘these things are hidden from the wise and intelligent but revealed to infants’. It is possible to overthink guidance, to worry too much about the right thing to do. But if we are humble then the path can be more easily revealed to us.

Prayerful obedience means we get used to hearing the voice of God. In my last parish I was doing some visiting. As I walked past one house, I felt the nudge of God – go and knock on that door. But it was getting late, there wasn’t really time so I carried on home. Next time I was that way I felt God prod me again. Harder this time. I knew the people there had moved in recently but it wasn’t that long ago, surely they could wait and I was in a hurry.

A week or so later, same place, but this time more like a command ‘Go and knock on that door’. The guy opened it, looked surprised but also relieved. ‘Ah, you must have heard about my wife. The cancer is quite bad now. Come on in.’ I didn’t know their situation, but God did, and eventually managed to get through to me! ….

Perhaps sometimes we also need to repent of our willfulness, entrust our future to God and actually trust him. There’s no point praying for guidance if we’re not prepared for the answer, if we’ll only accept it if it fits our existing dreams.

That’s the point Jesus makes in the Gospel reading, 18 and 19. ‘John came eating and drinking and they said ‘He has a demon’, but the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say ‘Look a glutton and a drunkard.’’ The people’s hearts were in the wrong place, so they couldn’t respond to the message of John and Jesus. The crowd were judging, condemning, contrary, not open to God’s voice. When we seek guidance it’s good to ask God to purify our hearts too, make us ready.

So the Bible guides us generally, prayer helps us listen to the voice of God. Sometimes God guides us using signs. In v.43 and 44 the servant suggests to God a sign to point him to the right young woman. And God graciously grants it. We might also remember Gideon’s fleece. Both of these signs are given to people who humbly seek reassurance, who really don’t know what to do. And it can be legitimate for us to ask for a sign – as long as we are humble and not putting God to the test.

In his ‘Sacred Diary’ the Christian writer Adrian Plass feels he ought to go carol singing with the church. But he’d like to stay at home and watch the Bond film. So he asks for a sign: ‘Lord, if the doorbell rings at 9.04 pm and it’s someone dressed in the uniform of a Japanese Admiral, I’ll know you want me to go carol singing.’

The sign the servant asks for works because it’s about character. In v.44 the right woman is the one who gives the servant a drink and offers to water his camels too. Given that a mature camel can drink 30 gallons, and the servant had ten of them, that’s a lot of water! Rebekah is a woman who is practical, strong, thoughtful and kind.

In other words, Abraham’s servant uses common sense. God gave us human wisdom, let us use it! Do a job that plays to your strengths. Work out the budget for a property renovation. It’s ok to be restricted to living where you can support your ageing in-laws. Sure, there are times when it is a sign of faith to go against prevailing opinion, but God doesn’t call us to pigheadedness. Remember that what’s right for someone else is not necessarily right for you: John was called to fasting, Jesus was called to party with tax collectors and sinners. Both were right, both fulfilled their vocation, and as Jesus points out in v. 19, wisdom is vindicated by actions: you can tell it’s right by the results.

Another source of wisdom can be found in the wider community. Friends, family, church, colleagues – all can give wisdom.

In this reading we see it in v.50, where Rebekah’s family are involved in the decision. At last, there is her own consent in v. 58. Anything which involves other people will include them in the guidance process – for instance those seeking to be ordained or become Lay Ministers have to seek the goodwill of the wider church.

Finally, abiding in the will of God brings us a sense of peace. In v.30 Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Often when we have prayed about something, thought about it deeply, agonised before finally making the decision, a sense of peace will come. That is not to say that the right course of action does not involve challenge or uncertainty. It may, but alongside that there is often a sense of ‘rightness’, of trusting God for the unknowns.

All of these things together make up guidance. We bring them all together in prayer: Biblical commands, circumstances, common sense, wisdom of friends, consent of others. God could have just told the servant the girl’s name. But what then would he have learned?

As it is, God guides free people; Isaac and Rebekah are brought together, and through their marriage God’s plans are advanced. May we walk with him through our lives, know his guidance, and play our part in Growing his Kingdom.

 

 

Vocation sermon 2

Genesis 41:15-36, Luke 12:35-38

Thanks to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is one of the best known stories from the Old Testament. It was even used by the BBC as a follow up to ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria.’ – where a group of hopefuls auditioned to play Joseph in a West End production.

So I’m guessing that the central story of Joseph is familiar: the spoilt dreamer who so wound up his brothers that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. He endured many difficulties and imprisonment, before we get to today’s passage, where we hear how his ability to interpret dreams saved Egypt from famine. And, in so doing, it also rescued from starvation his own family, with whom he eventually got reconciled.

Where the musical and film are different from the Bible story, is that they don’t recognise the part God played. In the Genesis account, it’s clear that God works everything together for the good, so that his people will survive. God looks after Joseph and protects him. And it’s clear too – as in v. 25b, that his dream interpretation is a gift from God.

It’s those gifts from God that I want to think about today in our second sermon in the Vocation series. Last week in the evening we looked at what vocation actually means. And fundamentally it’s not about your job. Vocation is bigger than being a priest, missionary or teacher. The key to vocation is that God calls you as a person. He calls you to know him individually. That’s the point. God doesn’t call us because he wants jobs to be done. He calls us because he wants us to be his friends. So don’t think about vocation as being about careers. Think about it as God’s call to you – have you responded? Do you continue to respond by spending time with him? Because he values time with you.

That’s why each of us has a vocation – everyone can be the person God wants us to be. He’s made us unique. He’s given us special gifts and interests – things that make us tick. They have been implanted by the Creator. And it’s part of our vocation to make the most of them.

We glorify God by what we are. Joseph did it through his dreams. Sometimes our gifts can be used in a clearly religious way. I read an article by an evangelist who reaches out to walkers in the Scottish Highlands. He had seen the job advertised and wasn’t sure whether or not to apply, so consulted a friend. ‘Richard,’ the friend said, ‘what sort of God do you believe in? One who wants you to do things you don’t enjoy? Or a God who wants you to flourish? Your two passions in life are hiking and bringing people to Christ. This job is made for you!’

In my curacy church, there was a man with learning difficulties. Couldn’t read. But he was a real people person, a great welcomer, and loved being useful. So he became a sidesman – and no-one ever took the offertory plate up with a greater sense of occasion.

Using our gifts doesn’t have to be stereotypically religious. Do you remember the film Billy Elliott? – about a boy from a mining community who has a natural ability to dance, and takes up ballet? Can that glorify God? Yes, I think it can, because whenever the gifts that God gives us are used well, then that is a glory to our Creator. It shows off the beauty and wisdom of his world.

So, if each of us has a vocation, and if that vocation can evolve over time, then it makes sense to be aware of it, to search for it. Where to look? Start with what you’re good at, the things you love. If there’s anything that you’re enthusiastic about, whether it’s astronomy, flower arranging, or writing, develop it, invest in it and see what happens.

Encourage your children or grandchildren to take up their interests. Of course, there may be a risk in this – their chosen career may not be as stable or as supportive as a parent might wish. But then, what do we value? Wealth or service? Success or fulfilment? I knew a man who was a great musician, but Father felt it was an unpredictable career, so he was pushed into an unhappy 9 to 5 at the bank. Taking up our vocation may have some sacrifices, but we’ll consider that next week.

Does vocation stay the same? Quite possibly not. A particular talent or interest may come into its own at a certain time and place. Joseph was called to be a son, which took him a long time to work out how to do well, and for a while it looked as if that vocation had died. He was called to be a good servant, until he was set up and thrown into prison where his vocation was to be a witness. Finally his gifts came into their own as an able administrator.

Today someone who chooses to marry takes on a vocation as a husband or wife, perhaps also parent. In younger years your vocation may take you abroad with a company, but later on you may be called to a change of career. Within a career, vocation develops. Many who are ordained come to that call later on in life – and I don’t think that means they were missing their purpose until that point. Vocations can evolve.

We may go through times when our talents seem unfulfilled. Early on we hear how the young Joseph had prophetic dreams in which the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. It’s pretty obvious that referred to his father mother and eleven brothers – that one day he would be greater than them. But it was perhaps unwise to share it! Early on, Joseph’s dreams just caused friction.

Only later, after the suffering of kidnap, slavery, false accusation, and imprisonment, did Joseph’s dreams really come into their own. Or perhaps his experiences gave him the wisdom to deal with them appropriately. It’s one thing having gifts, it’s quite another knowing how to use them. As someone said: ‘Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is actually a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’

More seriously, it’s interesting that as Joseph’s gifts develop, he seems to become more dependent on God. He says God enables him to interpret dreams. How might we give God glory for our talents?

Furthermore, any ability can be used for good or for evil. A well known example: nuclear technology could power the world without carbon emissions, or it could blow us all up.

It’s down to humanity what we do with it. Gifts and talents are given by God to be used for the good, but people can twist them to wickedness.

There is a moral ambiguity about this in the story of Joseph. After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams he then displayed another gift. In verses 33 to 36 he advised Pharaoh on what to do about the looming famine. After all, Biblical prophecy is never given for idle curiosity, it was so that people could act upon it.

Sometimes, that’s so they can avert disaster by repentance. Here, in v32 says Joseph suggests they build up food reserves for hard times ahead. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom, that he gives Joseph the job of organising the plan. And so the original dreams of greatness are fulfilled, and Egypt is saved.

God uses this to bring healing in Joseph’s family too. Far away in Israel they are affected by the famine and come to buy grain, and after a complicated sequence of events, Joseph’s real identity becomes clear, he forgives his brothers, and the family move to Egypt permanently. So all’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. Later in the story In chapter 47 the famine is still ongoing…and then in verse 19b ‘the people said “buy us with our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh, just give us seed”. In times of plenty Joseph took the excess grain. In hard times he sold it back to the people – in exchange for their money, livestock, land, and very selves.

Power corrupts? Perhaps. Just following our God-given desires and developing our inbuilt talents is not enough. They have great potential, for better or for worse. We must ensure that we use our abilities, our vocation for the good.  

As the gospel reading reminds us, we have been given a trust. We should be ready with our gifts, able to serve. Using our talents for the good of all, our vocation to the glory of God. So that when the moment of truth comes, Christ will find us prepared.

Jeremiah 8 verse 18 to 9 verse 1

‘Escape by the skin of your teeth’, ‘A drop in the bucket’, ‘Scapegoat’, ‘Casting your pearls before swine’, ‘to everything there is a season’ – everyone got the connection by now? These are all phrases that entered the English language through the Bible. The first translations of the Bible into English coined some memorable phrases which have had a lasting legacy. In fact, some university degree courses in English literature offer an introductory lecture on the Bible, so that students reading Shakespeare and Milton can get the references.

Although sometimes the earliest translations lacked a certain resonance. For instance in verse 22 of our reading from Jeremiah, Henry VIII’s Bible had ‘Is there no treacle in Gilead?’ – creating an image of the prophet bemoaning the lack of a crucial ingredient for his gingerbread.

Of course, Jeremiah is mourning something far more significant. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, hark the cry of my poor people.’ It’s about 590 BC. A great army is poised on the borders of Judah. The Babylonians are soon to invade. There is a sense of looming disaster: everyone can see what is about to happen yet no-one can do anything to stop it. And they cry aloud: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?

As can happen in times of hardship, they feel abandoned by God. God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to retrieve the situation and rescue them. It can be a very difficult thing to bear when we are going through a troubled time. Christians may say that when life is tough we are very aware of God’s presence and strength – that is often true. Occasionally though it feels as if God has abandoned us – and that is very hard – perhaps the hardest part. We have to persevere, carry on doing right seek God in the darkness until that sense of separation passes.

That can happen to the most faithful of Christians. So if anyone feels that God is a long way away it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s our fault. Sometimes though, if God feels distant it may be because we’ve moved, because we’re building walls against him and need to repent.

Just as thirst tells you that you need a drink, so the feeling of separation and distance can be God calling us back to himself. So that we can love him more, he may allow us to experience the results of when we turn away from him. How do we know? Our conscience will usually make it abundantly clear if we have been at fault, if we ask God to show us.

That was the truth for Israel. God spoke through Jeremiah words which were strange, challenging yet ultimately much more hopeful. God’s message through Jeremiah is that he has not abandoned them. Far from it, in fact he is acting in judgement.

As it says in verse 19: ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’ Judah had stopped serving God and instead were praying to statues to save them. God warned and rescued them time and again, eventually allowing them to experience the consequences – he permitted them to find out that statues could not save. We see God respects our free will, and they got what they chose.

For us idols are more often disordered loves. Something which is good become too important and takes over the centre of our lives. It might be money, as we heard in the Gospel parable. It might be relationships, power, work – even the best things can become idols if we try and build our lives upon them. And when we do we become dissatisfied because only God can meet that deepest need. Placed in the space that belongs to God alone such things collapse under the weight of our expectations.

When that happens the sensible thing to do is return to God in repentance. Sadly Jeremiah’s people were not doing that. Although they lamented that God had abandoned them they failed to take serious steps to change. And so Jeremiah records God’s lament over them.

It’s not an easy passage to read or reflect on, yet there are three really important things to notice here. Firstly, God laments. He does not delight in judgement. God loves us and hates it when we suffer.

You know that dreadful caricature of the Old Testament, where God is the heavenly psychopath who delights in plaguing people? It keeps on popping up – Stephen Fry does it very eloquently. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Ezekiel puts it: ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’

Some of you may remember our Passover meal that we did one Thursday before Easter a few years back. At the point where the Jewish people remember the plagues of Egypt they spill ten drops of wine on their plates, one for each plague. There is silence as they mourn the Egyptian dead and remember that God takes no pleasure in judgement.

It is a useful reminder for the church. I think it was Billy Graham who used to say ‘We should never speak of hell without tears in our eyes’. We should not delight in being proved right, nor rejoice in evil getting its comeuppance. The Church may be called to be prophetic, to point out to society where it is going wrong, but it must not be self-righteous. The church’s voice should not be like Basil Fawlty speaking to a foreigner – just shout louder and more slowly and they’ll be bound to get it. Instead we must speak from within the society which we challenge, as members of it who share in its responsibilities.

Secondly, grief is often necessary. It’s not helpful to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that all is well. Sometimes grief can wake us up to reality. We know that with personal grief, it’s equally true for groups and society. I heard of a vicar who came to a church where not much had changed for a long time. The faithful congregation had grown old together, not acknowledging the steady slow decline, or the end of Sunday School.

Before anything could happen, they had to learn how to grieve. That Vicar had to help them see what had happened, then she created the space for them to mourn what they had lost. Like Israel, only when that grief was articulated and shared could they begin to look to the future.

Until they did that, they were kind of numb. Half-conscious of what was going on, they were too frightened to acknowledge it. What would happen? Perhaps it would be too painful? Would they find there would be no future? It was only when someone was brave enough to point out the elephant in the room – and travel with them on their journey – that new life and hope could bring God’s grace into that situation.

That vicar had to travel a painful path with the congregation. In a small way she points us to a much deeper truth which Jeremiah only hints at. In this reading we hear of a prophet – or is it God? – who wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears so that he might weep day and night for his people.

True prophets, living churches, don’t stand over and against their society, throwing in criticisms like hand grenades. The Biblical prophet and the truly Christian church identify with people’s situations, walk alongside them, challenge, support and transform. They bear the cost of the repentance and change; they suffer alongside the victim, and accompany the oppressors as they learn to serve.

In doing so, they take their inspiration from God himself. God in Christ entered this world so that he could walk in our shoes. He did not come triumphantly to blast the opposition, but in humility. Christ was rejected, mocked, unjustly condemned. God’s Son suffered cruelty, indignity and a painful death. He took onto himself the worst that this world could throw at him – and forgave his persecutors.

By bearing the cost of forgiveness himself, God through Christ opens the door to a new creation. The power of evil cannot triumph over the love of Christ. Death cannot hold him and he is resurrected to a glorious new life. A fresh start, the Kingdom of God beginning among us and inviting us to join in. The path of grief faced and trod, and turned into Easter joy.

 

Resurrection Breakfast

One day a rather inebriated ice fisherman drilled a hole in the ice. As he prepared his line a loud voice called out ‘There are no fish down there’. Startled, he walked a few yards away and drilled another hole. But just as he was stringing a worm onto the hook, the voice boomed out again ‘There are no fish there.’

He then walked on about fifty yards, drilled another hole and looked cautiously in. Again the voice said ‘There are no fish there.’ He looked up into the sky and called out: ‘God, is that you?’ ‘No, you idiot,’ the voice said ‘it’s the ice rink manager.’

Today’s gospel begins with seven blokes going fishing. Nothing remarkable about that, it happens all the time and it was a daily occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples had grown up as fishermen, that’s how they earned their living, so at one level there’s nothing unusual here.

But actually it’s the strangest thing in the world! These are the disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus who had proclaimed himself the Messiah, entered Jerusalem in triumph, been captured and put to death. And then risen again! Barely a week or so before, their Lord and Master had risen from the dead – and now the disciples are going fishing? Shouldn’t the Resurrection change everything? Jesus is alive – take the message to the four corners of the world! Be inspired! Or go fishing?

I suppose fishing is what they’re good it. They’ve been doing it for years, it’s what they understand. In a sense they’re comfortable with it. Not that this is relaxing angling – you know the joke about angling? Give a man a fish and he’ll eat tonight. Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend all day in a boat drinking beer. What Peter and the rest were doing is serious work: pulling in heavy nets, soaked to the skin and an April night in Palestine is none too warm either. But despite the hard labour, the routine is what they know and it’s familiar.

Moving on to something unknown can be hard. Even wonderful opportunities can suddenly look challenging when you get up close. Sometimes you hear of lottery winners saying ‘Nothing will change me. I’m going to stay in the same job and won’t let it get to my head.’ That may be a genuine humility or it might be worry over what’s coming, an inability to handle the implications. Statistically you or I are unlikely to win the lottery. On a fishing theme, you’re more likely to be attacked by a shark than win the jackpot.

But we can find ourselves in a similar situation to the disciples or the lottery winner. Where opportunities present themselves but the familiar seems safer. A new job. A move. God may call us to do something for him – I don’t mean going to Papua New Guinea as a full time missionary – a woman I know felt God nudging her to become part of the Open the Book Team telling Bible stories in school assembly. It was a real step into the unknown as she’d never done anything like it before, but she loved it and God used her abilities wonderfully.

Stepping out into something new can be hard, but God promises to be with us when we serve him. Denial or running away is never satisfying because it’s not based in reality. As John Maynard Keynes said: ‘If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’

Maybe the disciples went fishing for practical reasons. Presumably they still needed to eat and pay the rent! Yet Jesus appears with a full BBQ – bread, fish and fire, with no explanation of where it came from – suggesting he can provide. In his teaching about food, clothes and money, Jesus said ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you as well.’ He didn’t say they were unnecessary. He never said we wouldn’t have to work for them. But he did tell us not to chase after money, that God provides us with the essentials and to put his Kingdom first. So don’t let busyness get in the way of being a Christian disciple or finding God’s will for you.

I wonder if the disciples were suffering from a spiritual comedown? It can happen in any area of life: after a big success comes a feeling of flatness. You win the contract and then have to knuckle down to the paperwork. You take home the trophy but on Monday morning you’re back at the training ground.

The same can happen spiritually, after a high point there is often a down. I guess that’s why they call it Low Sunday after Easter! Although funnily enough, I always enjoy that day! Spiritual rhythm is built into life, but can catch us out. We may find ourselves thinking: Those worship experiences were wonderful, why does prayer feel tough again today? God felt so close, was I really imagining it? Lots of people came to our new event, but was it just out of curiosity? Will they come next week?

When we feel like that it’s good to recognise what’s happening. See that this is part of the natural spiritual cycle; recognise the battle that’s going on. Rebuke the evil one and keep on through the challenging time, because one day it will pass. Remember the good times and be sustained by the glimpses of grace God gives in the midst of difficulty.

Perhaps it was all these things together. The disciples just felt flat and unprepared. They hadn’t seen Jesus for a bit, the task ahead looked vast, money was running out and the answer seemed obvious. ‘Let’s go fishing’. They met with a lack of success, perhaps a sign this wasn’t what they’re supposed to be doing? There’s a symbolic significance too, because whenever we wander from God’s will for us, we feel dissatisfied. Even if what we’re doing is a perfectly innocent thing, if it’s not God’s plan it doesn’t fill us up.

Only when Jesus appears and they obey him do they get results. What a lovely moment it is in verse 7 when John says to Peter ‘It is the Lord’.

Of course they recognised Jesus. Doesn’t it all sound familiar? A bit déjà vu? Yes it does! It should. Almost the exact same thing has happened before. Not at the end of the gospel but at the beginning. One of the very first miracles Jesus did was a catch of fish. He met some disciples – these disciples, in the morning. They had caught nothing. Put your net on the other side, he said – they were inundated with fish.

Yes, they would have got the point. He’s back. And they would have got the meaning too – because immediately after that first miracle Jesus came out with his famous pun: ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ Become my disciples and share the good news. Now, post Easter, Jesus does it again, after the disciples have lost their way a little.

And if the point is still not clear, it’s there in the number of the fish. 153. A curious detail – but apparently 153 was regarded at the time as the number of nations on earth. It’s Fishers of men again. Join me, says Jesus, in bringing all nations into my Kingdom. He’s calling them back to their original purpose. Especially Peter.

Peter can’t wait to meet Jesus, even though they’re only a hundred yards from the shoreline he jumps into the lake and swims to the shore – not forgetting to put his clothes on first! Sounds daft. But is there symbolism here? Does it recall guilty Adam in the garden of Eden, putting on clothes before he can meet God? Even in the joy does Peter remember there is something he needs to sort out? Does the charcoal fire that Jesus has lit remind him of that other charcoal fire, the one at which he denied Christ?

Soon, Jesus restores Peter. Peter, who had three times denied Jesus, is given the chance to assure Jesus of his love three times. Broken and now restored, he will be a wise and sympathetic pastor for Christ’s church.

So Jesus called them back to following him. When they had been distracted by busyness, he gave them focus again. When they had been paralysed by fear, he gave them purpose and power. When they had been discouraged and flat, he restored their vision.

He can do the same for us. Each one of us here will be in a different place. But it may be that some of you will recognise yourself in that description of the disciples. Having lost the way a little bit, let Jesus call you back. If our relationship with Christ has been squeezed out by activity, he can enable us to reprioritise. If our spirituality feels flat, Jesus can envision us and give us strength to persevere. If we know he is calling us onwards but worry about the consequences, Jesus will enable us to face reality and the future with confidence. If you are feeling like those disciples, I encourage you to bring it to God and ask him to meet you and bless you at this resurrection breakfast.

The moral of the story

Four missing, presumed dead, in power station collapse. Ebola devastates long term health of those who survive it. One in every two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country. Just a handful of recent headlines. How could anyone remain unmoved? Many of us do what we can to help, or give to charity. But we might also wonder ‘why?’ Why do these things happen? Why is there this suffering?

People have always asked this question. Our gospel reading makes that clear – St Luke describes how Jesus responded to two contemporary events. All we know about the two tragedies in the reading is what’s written here. It seems that Pilate, the notoriously cruel Roman governor had ordered the killing of some Galileans despite the fact they were engaged in sacred duties. Siloam, in v. 4 is part of Jerusalem and it appears that a tower suddenly collapsed on a crowd.

Why did these things happen? The people who spoke to Jesus thought they had an answer. But Jesus refutes it: ‘Do you think these Galileans suffered this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No I tell you.’

They thought that bad things happen because you’ve been bad. Plenty of people think that. Faced with suffering it can be tempting to find clarity in easy answers – such as ‘well, they must have done something to deserve it’. Our tabloid press likes that view because it imagines a world where bad things happen to bad or careless people, while those who enjoy good things can carry on doing so, confident in the belief that they must have earned them. The people who came to Jesus thought that the suffering were getting their just deserts. Maybe they wanted Jesus to moralise.

And you can understand why they thought so. After all, it is true to a degree, that if you do bad things you suffer the consequences. If you overeat you feel ill. If you steal from your employer you eventually get caught and dismissed. If you mess up your environment, you find it can no longer support you.

And the people in Jesus’ time saw that pattern in their history too. It had been drilled into them at school. That reading from the second book of Kings describes how Israel went into Exile because they turned away from God. Right at the beginning of the passage: ‘This occurred’ – in other words the King of Assyria invaded and took the people captive – because ‘they had sinned against the Lord their God.’

This passage is important because it’s a kind of conclusion to a lot of the story that has come before. The writer of Kings chooses this important event to teach a crucial moral lesson. The writer draws on the Biblical story thus far to make a point about God’s people. The Lord had brought them up out of the Land of Egypt. He had rescued them and given them a land to live in. God gave them his law to show them the best way to live. They were meant to be a blessing to all the other nations – a kind of example or experiment in living God’s way.

Sadly it went wrong. The books of Kings – and Judges and Samuel – describe a cycle of events. Israel disobeys God’s law, God warns them of the consequences, they ignore God, bad things happen, the people turn back to God, God rescues them. It’s ok for a bit, and then it starts all over again. But a little bit worse, a little bit more territory lost to the enemies, until eventually there’s nothing left and Israel goes into Exile.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Old Testament seems so full of threats and judgement this is why. If you’ve ever read the prophets and felt, this just seems to be warning after warning, that’s why. Every time it goes wrong, God sends a prophet. The cycle goes round several time, so a lot of prophets get sent. It’s God sending his messengers to call his people time and again. He’s giving them another chance to turn back and change. It’s a sign of mercy.

Perhaps you feel it makes for heavy reading? A bit gloomy or threatening? I can understand that. But think about it: the alternative would be that God didn’t care. If he didn’t speak to warn it would be as if a parent saw their toddler wandering onto a train track, yet didn’t rush to pick them up, didn’t even bother to yell ‘get off the line’. Who would do that? The repeated warnings of judgement in the Old Testament are a sign that God does not want to carry them out.

Tragically in this case the child kept going back until the inevitable happened. Israel and then Judah went into Exile. Even then God was merciful – seventy years later the people began to return. So people in Jesus’ time had learnt: actions have consequences. It was deeply ingrained: if you are bad, bad things will happen. Not always – we see that sometimes the worse characters seem to get off scot free.

Some of the Psalms deal with this problem: why do the wicked flourish asks Psalm 73? But then, says the Psalmist, ‘I understood their final destiny’. Evil people will not get away with it forever – they will be accountable to God the judge. Sin will not go unpunished.

But does that mean that if you suffer you must therefore have been bad? NO! It’s a big mistake to make. Just because bad deeds often cause suffering, doesn’t mean that those who suffer must have been bad.

Saying so would be tremendously insensitive and wrong. Look at the children in Syria. They suffer because of human wickedness. But it’s not their fault. The people who spoke to Jesus should have known this – they knew the book of Job, in which Job suffers even though he is a righteous man. Jesus himself taught this – when his disciples pointed out a blind man and asked whether it was the blind man who sinned or his parents so that he was born blind, Jesus said ‘Neither.’ If proof were lacking, surely the ultimate example is Jesus: he suffered greatly but never sinned.

Saying that sin causes suffering is not the same thing as saying suffering is always caused by a particular sin, or bad karma for that matter. It’s a logical error. It’s like saying all elephants are big and grey – therefore all big and grey things are elephants. They’re not – big and grey things can also be tower blocks and battleships!

Yet if we stop there, we would miss what Jesus actually says here. Jesus chooses to make a very different point. Perhaps because his questioners are self-righteous and inviting him to judge, Jesus says something very challenging. Look at verse 3: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No! But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ And again: ‘Those eighteen, do you think they were worse offenders? No. But unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’

All people are in the same boat, says Jesus. We all need God forgiveness, we all need to repent, because we have all done wrong. The questioners wanted to divide humanity into the good guys and the bad guys. But Jesus tells them that unless they repent, they too will perish. Certainly some may appear better people than others, but all have failed to do what God requires.

Imagine a machine which consists of a headset and a video screen. And when you put on the headset, it replays every event in your life for all to see. Would anyone volunteer to do such a thing? I wouldn’t. I have things of which I am ashamed. I expect we all do. During Lent we reflect on ourselves and acknowledge our need of God. We repent – which means turn back to him, receive his forgiveness, and try to do the things he wants.

We turn back while we can. That’s the point of the parable of the fig tree in verses 6-9. God is like the gardener. He looks for good fruit. What happens if he finds none? Perhaps he will give us another chance. But Jesus says don’t try his patience. Don’t take his mercy for granted. Jesus says make sure you do respond to God. Repent, be sorry for your sins, trust in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you, change your ways and do good. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. And don’t delay! The message of this parable is: If you don’t act now, it may be too late.

For one never knows when the end may come. I’ve been in a car crash. There’s no time to put your spiritual affairs in order. It’s too quick. In the split second before impact my thoughts were: ‘Car! Brake!’ And, bizarrely, ‘If I survive this, it’s goodbye to the no-claims bonus.’ And then the airbags went off. Not very spiritual thoughts if that had been my last moments. If disaster strikes there’s no time to prepare to meet God. We need to be at peace with him all the time.

Perhaps I’m preaching to the converted here. If so remember: Jesus talks about bearing fruit. It’s not just about making a commitment to follow Christ, but letting that response transform your life, affect your actions. For that is what it means to flourish. A fruitful fig tree is a fig tree that is fulfilled. It is doing what it was designed to do. Similarly, only when we are in relationship with God will we find a deep and lasting satisfaction.

There has been a challenge in today’s reading: we all need to repent. No matter who we are, we need to say sorry and return to God. Jesus speaks the truth, isn’t afraid of the hard word: don’t delay, it may be too late, don’t try God’s patience. But there is also a promise: Come back to God, live his way, bear fruit and you will find new life, forgiveness, purpose and meaning with him. Amen.

In his light we see light

In the foyer of a Manchester hotel Sir Thomas Beecham saw a distinguished-looking woman whom he believed he knew, though he could not remember her name. He paused to talk to her and as he did so vaguely recollected that she had a brother. Hoping for a clue, he asked how her brother was and whether he was still working at the same job. “Oh, he’s very well,” she answered, “and he’s still the king.”

In the case of Jesus, people could have been forgiven for not recognising the king. God’s king came to us humbly. He was a human being, from an ordinary background, with nothing to make him stand out. Yet as today’s reading shows, he was also divine, God himself on earth as a human being.

Of course, Jesus’ disciples already had some idea of who he was. His teaching was so profound, and his miracles so remarkable, his healings so compassionate, that the disciples had started to form their own view. Shortly before this reading, in Luke chapter 9 v 20, Jesus asked them ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered ‘The Messiah of God’.

That’s important, because right at the beginning of today’s passage, in v.28, there’s a little phrase, easy to overlook: ‘Now about eight days after these sayings’. Do you see what Luke is doing? He is deliberately linking what’s about to happen with what Jesus said eight days before. The sayings are going to help us understand the event. The things Jesus said are about to happen, are now taking place at the Transfiguration.

So if you could pick up a Bible and turn to page 66 of the New Testament, we’ll take a moment to look at them. That’s Luke chapter 9, v.21 onwards.

There are four points here. Firstly, Jesus is the Messiah. We get that from verses 20-21. Then in v.22 ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day rise again.’ Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem – his death and resurrection. Thirdly, those who follow Jesus must take up their own cross, we get that from verse 23 ‘If any want to become their followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ Finally, in verse 27 ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see God’s Kingdom come’.

These four sayings are all demonstrated in the Transfiguration. We see that Jesus is the Messiah, we hear that he will die, we understand that his followers cannot stay in glory but must take up their crosses, and we see the glory of the Kingdom of God. What Jesus prophesied has come to pass.

Nobody knows for sure where the Transfiguration took place. Traditionally it was on Mount Tabor, and if you’re on the tourist trail you can hop onto an ancient minibus which grinds its way at alarming speeds up increasingly sharp hairpin bends. Eventually you get dropped off, weak and wobbly, at the flat top of a pleasantly wooded hill. You can see that it would have been a good lonely place to pray.

I’ve always imagined that the Transfiguration happened in the daytime. I’ve got a mental picture of the disciples toiling up through scented pasture, with the view rolling out beneath them. But the fact in verse 32 that the three disciples were sleepy, and in v.37, the observation that they came down the mountain on the next day, makes we wonder: was it night time? Just goes to show, every time you read the Bible you can find something new.

And if was night time, I suppose that Jesus’ clothes and face would have shone all the brighter. They shine with the glory of heaven. In Jesus God’s reality bursts into our existence. We see who he truly is –God’s Messiah, and we get a glimpse of his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Once we have seen, once our eyes have been opened to the vision, we know we’ll never see things the same old way again.

Money, success, relationships and children, career and priorities, everything is seen in the best way in God’s Kingdom. Once we’ve caught sight of the glory and allow ourselves to change, life is wonderfully transformed. In the light of Jesus we see things in different ways. This is why the voice from heaven affirms: ‘this is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.’

Listen to Jesus as he explains the Old Testament, which points to himself. In verse 30 Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets which are fulfilled in Christ. They are talking with him about his departure, which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Interesting word departure. Perhaps not the obvious way to speak about Jesus’ death and resurrection. And how do you ‘accomplish’ a departure? It always used to puzzle me until I learnt that the word translated departure is in the original Greek ‘Exodus’. So it is ‘The Exodus he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem’.

Yes it can be translated ‘departure’. But Exodus is so much more. It brings to mind that wonderful Old Testament story of God rescuing his people, of the Passover lamb. In Jesus God is about to rescue his people once and for all. Jesus is the Lamb of God who will offer himself for our sins. In his resurrection he will defeat death and set us free from its power forever.

This is God’s loving plan, which he knew right from the beginning. The fact that Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about it emphasises that there’s continuity with the Old Testament, that’s it’s all part of God’s great plan. God did not have a Plan A Old Testament and when that went wrong came up with Plan B New Testament. Nor should we look at Jesus’ death as if it were just a human tragedy, and try desperately to find some meaning in it. The Transfiguration tells us that Jesus knew exactly what he was up to when he set his face to Jerusalem. He deliberately, freely, chose to complete God’s plan.

Unfortunately Peter hasn’t understood this. He would like to cling onto the glory, and in verse 33 offers to put up three tents so Moses Elijah and Jesus can all stay there. Of course we’d like it to be permanent! Someone has built a church on top of the hill I talked about. A very grand, beautiful commemoration of the Transfiguration – but rather ironic when you think about it. Because Jesus didn’t stay there. He came down the mountain to the plain. He left the spiritual retreat and re-entered the hurly burly of daily life.

There are some interesting parallels with Moses here. Moses too went up a mountain – in Sinai. He too met God in the cloud and glory. The disciples were told to obey Jesus – Moses was given the Ten Commandments. When Moses came down the people had already lost faith and made the Golden Calf.

Now Jesus returns to the crowd and finds the rest of the disciples struggling. He has to rescue them from their own inability. That’s a common spiritual principle. The high is often followed by a low. Mountain-top experiences, whether they’re on pilgrimage, retreat or conference, must then energise us for life on the plain.

If we’re not expecting the contrast, it can be overwhelming. Just a short time ago everything seemed so good, but suddenly there’s intense spiritual opposition and hard work. Even those close to you who seemed so reliable can surprise you with their wobbles.

When we set out to do something for God, we must expect the challenge too. We’ve recently got permission for our reordering and we’ve got some great plans for a new service – this is hugely exciting but it’s also now that the real work begins. We must be vigilant, prayerful and prepared. Let’s persevere in what God has called us to.

I think it’s perseverance which is key to the Transfiguration. After all, why was Jesus transfigured? So the disciples could understand and believe? So that whenever difficulties came they could look back on that day and remember: yes, that’s who Jesus is, and one day he’ll triumph. Perhaps also for us, so we can be strengthened and assured in our faith – that’s what St Peter says when he talks about the Transfiguration in the first chapter of his second Epistle. It happened so that we might be confident in our faith and persevere in building the Kingdom.

Most of all though, I think it happened for Jesus. To encourage him. To give him the strength he needed for the road ahead. To assure him that what he was doing was right and God would honour it. If Jesus needed encouragement, how much more do we! If he can accept it and receive – how much more should we! Let us then be encouraged! As we set out into Lent, may we be strengthened in our disciplines. As we try and build the Kingdom here, may we be encouraged to persevere when trouble comes. As we travel our path, let us remember that he cares for us. Amen.

Surprise

Naming a baby is a task fraught with difficulties. Obviously you want to find a name that you like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but I know some parents who don’t like their James being called Jimmie. Does it work with the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.

And then, does the name have a meaning? Henry for instance means Home Ruler, which makes a kind of sense. But what does William, composed of the words Will and Helm (or helmet) mean? Willpower perhaps?

In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading. But Elizabeth, the little boy’s mother, wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.

No doubt that’s what Elizabeth was feeling. As the earlier part of Luke Chapter 1 tells us, Zechariah the priest was well advanced in years, as was his wife Elizabeth. They were faithful people, serving God, but sadly had no children.

One day Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. Apparently by this time in Israel’s history there were so many priests that entering the sanctuary was statistically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can imagine that this might have been a real spiritual event for Zechariah – made all the more so when he sees an angel!

The angel has a message, in v.11 ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John – he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.’ We of course know him as John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ.

So this may be why he is known as John. God is gracious. God has graciously answered Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayer at the point when it seemed too late. God has graciously reached out to his people in the midst of their oppression, promising release.

But Zechariah asks: ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.’ Perhaps an understandable reaction – people of that age do not have children. Yet Zechariah was a priest, well versed in the Old Testament. He knew the stories of Abraham and how Sarah bore him a son in his old age. He knew how God gave Rachel and Hannah the gift of children. Did he perhaps think that miracles were for the past and not his own time?

You might think that perhaps seeing an angel would be evidence enough. Maybe years of disappointment have made him bitter or even cynical. When you have lived long and seen the world, that can happen. If we have had dreams that have never come to pass, it can be hard to be open to future possibility. Allowing yourself to hope can feel like making yourself very vulnerable – will you suffer the hurt and disappointment again? It takes real strength to step out of the protective shell and allow ourselves to be open to God and his plan for us.

But we do need to be able to do that. For God does have a plan. No-one is on the shelf as far as God is concerned. No-one is useless. No-one is too old or too young to play a role in his Kingdom. In fact, for Zechariah and Elizabeth the most important thing they did was near the end of their lives. Just imagine – the previous 80 years have been a prelude for what God is asking you to do now!

I wonder what God might be asking us to do? What opportunities he may have in store for you and for me? Let us ask him to show us. We can do a great deal where we are. The people we meet – how can we show Christ’s love to them? How can our words build people up and encourage? Even someone who scarcely goes out can pray.

Elizabeth and Zechariah were called to be parents to John the Baptist. His miraculous birth would be a kind of parallel, a foreshadowing of the even more amazing birth of Jesus, our Saviour. But because Zechariah did not at first believe, he was struck dumb until the angel’s word was fulfilled.

Not saying a word for the best part of a year. Zechariah would have had to complete his time of temple service in silence, make his way back home, explain things as best he could to his wife. Eventually the baby was born, and 8 days after his birth it was time to name him. As Zechariah writes on the tablet ‘his name is John’, he shows that he has believed the angelic message and is living in obedience to it.

Immediately Zechariah can speak again. He praises God, using the words of the Benedictus which have become a much-loved part of our liturgy. If you grew up with Mattins you will have sung this many times, and there are glorious settings of this canticle. Many are beautiful, some are ethereal – do they run the risk of giving the impression of an other-worldly spirituality? I wonder how many of them really bring out the triumph and revolution of Zechariah’s song?

Now at last, after so many years, God is doing what he has promised. Now, the Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled. Here, today, God is saving his people. We are being rescued from our enemies and delivered from those who hate us. There will be justice and freedom. It is strong stuff. (Like the Magnificat – the words of which resemble a first-century Billy Bragg rather more than Cathedral Evensong.)

Everyone was amazed by these events, the word travelled all around the hill country of Judea. The passage ends by telling us that ‘the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.’ We do not know how long Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, how much of a role they were able to play in their son’s upbringing.

But we do know that they passed on the angel’s message – he will be a Nazirite, dedicated to God. We do know that John followed their strong faith. We do know that God kept his promise and John was the greatest of all the prophets.

This is a wonderful story of a God who is able to transform disappointments; of a God who keeps his promises to his people over many centuries until when things seem darkest relief comes. It is a story of a wonderful God whose plan for us is able to surprise and inspire, even to the very end of our lives; a story of a God who can use our faithfulness – and even our half-believing prayers – at any point. It is a call to follow God now, be open to his will, and never to allow ourselves to believe that our time is past.