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.

 

 

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Vocation 1

Today our churches are beginning a Lent series on Vocation. The sermons for the next five weeks will look at the theme of Vocation.

I wonder if I’ve lost anyone already? Anyone thinking ‘Well that’s not for me, I’m a priest or a missionary’. Or perhaps: ‘I’ve had my career, I made my choice years ago.’ Well, I want to say that each of us has a vocation. Because vocation is much wider than your job. Vocation means more than a career in religion, or the caring professions.

Some common English phrases suggest this. For instance: ‘He’s found his vocation’. Hearing that we might think of a say widow who throws herself into organising jumble sales and hospital visiting. I read about a lawyer earning a six figure salary and a London house with swimming pool who gave it all up to become a human cannonball. It was his dream.

But finding your vocation can mean taking a promotion, putting a bigger vision to good effect. We often think of vocation as stepping out of the rat race, less job, more time. Yet it can mean stepping up to greater responsibility. The common theme is that those who’ve found their vocation find meaning and value in what they do. It’s about finding a place in life which seems as if it were designed for you.

Another phrase we can learn from is ‘Vocational qualification’. Did you know that McDonalds offer GCSE equivalents? Yes, the burger chain has its own recognised vocational qualifications. Someone who can manage a busy outlet, control a multi-million pound turnover and supervise 50 staff can now be assessed and graded, and given a certificate to prove it. Not as traditional as Physics– but maybe they’ll use it more!

‘Vocational qualifications’ remind us that almost any job can be vocational, part of your calling. Your work can be an offering to God if you do it well. Whether paid or unpaid, work can be part of our call – yet our calling is much bigger than whether you have a job or not.

These phrases point us towards a real Christian truth: we all have a vocation from God. It’s easy to give a lot of attention to the special people in the Bible who heard God’s voice and had a unique role: people like Mary, Joseph, Isaiah and Abraham. Our lives may be more like the walk on parts: the farmers, priests, soldiers and mothers who make up much of the Bible. Yet they’re important too. It’s only when they do their bit well, that God’s plan goes forward.

So each of us has a vocation. And it’s far more than what we do to earn a living. It’s who God made us to be. Who we are in relationship with God. At the heart of the idea of vocation is God’s call (vocare). And he doesn’t just call us to work. First and foremost, God calls us to be in a relationship with him. In the gospel reading, Jesus called Matthew to follow him.

Matthew was rich. But Jesus didn’t ask for Matthew’ money. Matthew was experienced and capable. But Jesus didn’t ask him to sign a contract. Jesus called Matthew to walk with him, share a meal, chat around the fire. That relationship with God comes first. Our main calling as human being is to know God and be known by him. Perhaps later we find out that he wants us to do something for him.

In the Bible, God rescues the people of Israel from Egypt and only later makes it clear what role he wants them to have. And in the New Testament, Paul often writes of Christians being part of one body through the Spirit – and in one body exercising different gifts.

So let’s not think of vocation as a job, still less a purely religious one. The heart of vocation is that God invites us to know him, and thereby become more truly ourselves.)

today we baptised a little baby. As a tiny baby, Maisie’s vocation is just being. Being herself, the smiles and gurgles. Glorifying God just by living, and being loved – such a source of joy. As she grows, she will give love back. She’ll develop her own abilities and talents. There will be things that only Maisie can do. That is her vocation – being known by God, being who God made her, doing the things God has put her on earth to do.

As St. Augustine said, ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’ One of the classic images of the hope and meaning we find in responding to God is in our Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel 37.

The background to this is that the people of Israel had been in exile for several years, and they could see no end to it. As it says in v.11, their hope had dried up. They were like the bones of a defeated army, lying in a desert valley, scattered and picked over by scavengers, bleached and crumbling in the sun. There is no life in those bones, just sad memories of failure, disobedience and defeat. But, in v.7 and in v.10 God brings them to life. At the return from Exile, it was like moving from death to life, an amazing miracle.

What’s the connection with vocation? Simply this: that God did this because he loved those people and wanted what’s best for them. He desired to bring the people, and us too, into life-giving, healing friendship with God. From death, meaninglessness into the life of hope.

Look at v.14 I shall put my spirit within you and you shall live. The Spirit will give you life – truly, freely, not held captive by regrets and dreams, but life in all its fullness. And in v.13, ‘you shall know that I am the Lord’ is Ezekiel’s way of saying that they will acknowledge and worship the one true God. In other words, God calling them to himself. Not because he wants slaves to build a pyramid. Not because he wants piles of sacrifices. But because he loves them. Their vocation, and ours, is to know God and glorify him for ever.

In a small kind of way vocation reminds me of my hens. Chantal and I used to keep hens – and until the fox got them it was wonderful. Yes they ate the raspberries and pooped everywhere, but chickens were great fun. Islay laid little eggs for eight months of the year. Evita popped out a sky-blue egg alternate days between from Mothering Sunday to midsummer, and the rest of the year she was on strike.

They were eccentric, at times a nuisance, but we loved them. Hens have surprising character. Watching those lardy lumps trying to fly would make anyone laugh. The point is, we kept them, not because they were prolific layers – they weren’t, but because we liked them.

I wonder how God sees us? Is he better off because he’s called us? Does he put up with our occasional awkwardness because we’re useful? Or is it just that God actually likes us? Surely the whole point of vocation is that God calls us because individually we matter to him.

So, remember that you matter to God. Today we think about Maisie especially, but this is for all of us. God cares about you, and invites you to know him. What you are is important. For your character is created by God. Your interests, whether in football, shooting clays or making gateau are part of your beauty in God’s eyes, and should be cherished. Don’t imagine that being closer to God means becoming less yourself. Rather, it is more so, you become the person he created you to be. Later in our series we’ll look more deeply at how God uses our natural abilities and inclinations.

And finally, remember that God calls you into a relationship with him. He appreciates it when we pray, because we’re making an effort to keep in contact. Just as parents like to hear from their children, whether it’s the fumbling efforts of a four year old to describe the school day, or the Sunday afternoon phone home to aged Mum, so our heavenly father values time spent with him in prayer.

One vicar I worked with had a wonderful way to describe his prayer life: wasting time with God. What a lovely picture – prayer as a long summer evening’s chat with a glass of wine. Of course, prayer is a duty as well, and a task to be undertaken for others, and there should also be an element of awe in approaching the throne of the Almighty. But let that not squeeze out the simple fact of a relationship with God, because he calls us to know him. And that is the heart of vocation – that God calls us to be with him. He has a plan for each one of us, and it’s as we get to know him, as follow Jesus day by day, that the plan becomes clear.

Epiphany

I wonder if you did much travelling over Christmas and the New Year? And if so, how was it for you? A long journey that must just be endured before you arrive at the destination? Traffic jams, road closures, pop songs playing in the back, until at long last we reach Granny’s and the celebrations can begin.

For many of us, much of the time, the point is the destination, not the journey. But there can be times when the journey itself is significant. For me, driving over to the 8 am communion is a spiritual preparation – the stillness of the sleeping villages, the orange-misted sun rising over the frosted fields – it’s a time to connect with God and prepare for the day. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination – in The Canterbury Tales we hear the stories the pilgrims tell on the way, but Chaucer never describes their arrival.

Our reading today from Matthew 2:1-12 shows us the wise men on a journey of discovery. Like a treasure hunt, they follow each clue until eventually they arrive in the presence of the infant Christ. Today the story encourages us to think about life’s journey. How does God speak to us now? How does he call you and me to know Jesus better?

For God is a God who guides. The God of the Bible communicates. He calls us to know him; he invites us to respond to Christ; he tells us what is best for us. The story of the wise men wouldn’t make sense at all if it weren’t for a God who guides. It completely depends on the idea that God is drawing these people towards Jesus. It’s often worth looking at unstated assumptions – and the big one behind this story is that God wants to communicate with people and can communicate with people.

That may seem obvious. But it’s really worth pointing out, because this is quite distinctive in the Christian view of God. Some faiths and forms of agnosticism believe in a God who is distant and leaves us to the task of working out what’s best. Even many Christians imagine God giving us direction in the 10 Commandments, then leaving us to get on with it.

But Biblical faith believes in a God who’s interested in each one of us individually, who cares that each person should encounter Christ, who guides us through our own situations and prayers. We believe in God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit, and I want to reflect on that today.

And what a surprising God we worship! I did briefly wonder about showing a clip from The Life of Brian at this point – because Monty Python really do get the complete bizarreness of it. The grand visitors from the east, their peculiar gifts, worshipping a baby Messiah in a peasant’s house.

The wise men are not the people you would expect, nor the guidance that’s obvious. Magi were the scientists of the day, wise ones who studied the stars. Yet mixed in with their planetary observations and predictions of orbits was a great deal of what we would call magic. The science of astronomy was not yet separated from the superstition of astrology – about which the Old Testament is sometimes disapproving.

Somehow though God spoke to the Magi through this star – they grasped its symbolic significance. He can speak to people today through natural wonders: many see in the order and beauty of creation a testimony to God. And it’s true that there are many scientists who are also Christians. Indeed God is perfectly capable of revealing himself to all sorts of people who, perhaps even unwittingly, are seeking him. There are many stories of Muslims having dreams in which Jesus calls them; accounts of New Age spiritual seekers sensing the presence of God. They may be doing unorthodox things, but that is no barrier to God who can call anyone to a better understanding of himself.

What does mean for us? If we have found Christ, we will want others to know him too. We must understand that people will express their spiritual hunger in ways that may challenge and stretch us. We need to be able to engage with them, hear well, listen for the presence of God, and share without condemnation but with love and clarity.

It’s good to think about how we might explain our faith in ways that make sense to them, without slipping into a kind of relativism in which all beliefs are portrayed as equally true. You know the kind of thing: it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it! Yet that ignores the differences between faiths. Nor does it explain why the Magi bothered.

For the Magi represent all Gentiles, All nations now invited to be part of God’s family. They show the good news is not just for the Jews, but for everyone! Anyone who comes to Christ can be part of God’s family. This was revolutionary in the first century – in our time the idea that everyone needs to come to Christ might sound radical. We are used to hearing the idea that all religions are essentially the same. But if that is true, why did the Magi bother? Why travel all that way if they already had the truth? Why ask all those questions if they already had the light?

The other thing we can learn from the Magi is that they act. They see, they understand, and they do something about it. If you want to steer a car you turn the wheel, but if you’re not moving, the power steering will just grind holes in your driveway. Similarly, with God’s guidance we need to be moving to get a sense of direction.

If we have an important decision to make, we should pray that God will show us what he wants us to do – and then try and push some doors to see if they open. Apply for that job, look at some houses, test out a new ministry. For instance, the Diocese are holding a day entitled ‘Am I called to be a LLM’ – if the thought has ever even crossed your mind do go along –Reader ministry may be different from what you expect!

So the Magi act. A huge contrast to the Priests in v. 4-6. Imagine it, the Magi have turned up, announcing the birth of a new King. Everyone knows about it – verse 3 says all Jerusalem is in turmoil. So Herod calls in the religious experts, who know all the answers. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea just like the prophet said’. And, er, that’s it.

So exotic visitors say ‘We’re looking for the new King of the Jews. We’ve seen his star. Can you tell us where he is please?’ And the priests reply: ‘What, the Messiah? The promised Saviour? The one who will redeem Israel? The one for whom the prophets looked? Promised and foretold these three thousand years past? The long-awaited Redeemer who will be the fulfilment of our religion? He’s been born? He’ll be in Bethlehem then. Good luck and cheerio.’

How could they not go? Did they not actually believe it could be here and now? Would the coming Messiah upset their comfortable position? Had it just not occurred to them that the words might require action? Or were they afraid of Herod and his reaction against the truth?

Lord preserve us from hearing the words of the Bible and thinking it does not apply to us! Lord protect us against having defended hearts explaining away every Scriptural challenge! Lord keep us from saying with our lips ‘Christ will come again’ whilst never imagining in our hearts that it might be in our time! Lord strengthen us against the fear which says ‘We could never actually do what Jesus teaches because…’

Whereas the Bible is the main way that we get general guidance from God, there are many ways that he can guide us individually. The Old Testament told the Magi in which region to look, the star guided them to the precise house. With us the essentials for living as a disciple of Christ are all in God’s written word – what it is to have faith, how to treat one another. The individual decisions: where to live; what career step next; how to be involved in the community – these are discerned through personal prayer.  So it’s important that we spend time with God regularly, because prayer enables us to see him at work.

We might also notice that the Holy Spirit can give us the benefit of hindsight. No doubt the wise men’s gifts seemed bizarre at the time, but when the gospel was written down, Matthew would have seen in them a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

So was the journey more important than the arrival? Or has the journey only just begun? In one sense the Magi have reached their destination, they have found Christ. But in another sense, this is the beginning of their story. Now they must return to their own country, work out what it means to live by the promise of a world’s redeemer. For Mary, Joseph and Jesus too a new episode unfolds: of sudden flight, refugee status, and being uprooted to a new home. Much of it is left to our imagination as the journey continues.

So too with us. Finding Christ is only the beginning. Then follows a lifetime of discipleship, of listening to God. How will he guide us? Through the world around us – earthly wisdom and good friends; through his Word; through prayer as we seek as his personal direction.

I wonder with which of those you are most familiar? And which might need development? Could you watch to see God at work in the world around you? Reflect on your own background, formation and understanding? Could you benefit from the shared wisdom of others? One of the best things about our Lent groups is the way that members from different churches share their experiences and thoughts and we learn so much from one another.

Is it Biblical guidance that you could develop most? If so, there’s nothing which builds up our understanding quite so much as reading a passage of the Bible each day. It needn’t be long, in fact it’s better to read a paragraph or two slowly and thoughtfully than try a big chunk in one sitting. It needn’t take a lot of time – a few minutes before bed or in the morning each day quickly adds up and makes a huge difference.

Or would you want to focus on developing your prayers? Again, a time each day for prayer is a great blessing. At the end of the day, try looking back at it. Where can you sense God’s presence? What has he been saying to you? How has the day been guided, held in his love?

And above all, act. When God speaks, may we hear him and put what he says into practice. May our lives be like the Magi, characterised by a listening obedience. Amen.