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.

 

 

Road to Emmaus

Towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the king of the animals has been killed. As a Christ-figure, he gave his life in exchange for the boy Edmund. And now Edmund’s sisters gently tend the great lion’s body. They turn away to weep, and when they look back, he has gone. For a moment the grief becomes unbearable until they hear a familiar voice behind them. Aslan continues to speak p148.

C.S. Lewis captures well the joy of the Resurrection – that brightest of  mornings as a new life, a new world begins. There is life, humour and fun as the Risen Jesus pops up all over the place astounding his disciples, leaving a trail of joy and wonder behind him.

As Jonathan put it in his Easter poem ‘Erupting anguish obscuring, Gardener’s playful delight, Agony’s deep yearning, aching, Recognition ignites. Exploding joyful elation, Spirit’s music exclaims, Touching, soaring – soul suspended, Jesus beckons my name!’

That playful delight is in this passage too, the Road to Emmaus. I’d never thought of it until we read it with the children a little while ago. Susannah found it absolutely hilarious. Literally laugh out loud funny. Here are the two disciples, plodding glumly towards Emmaus – but we know don’t we that Jesus has risen. And here he comes, sneaking up on them – but they don’t recognise him!

And when he asks what they’re sad about, they start telling him all about himself – that was the funniest bit. He explains the Bible, how it foretold what would happen, but they still don’t see. It’s only at last, when he breaks the bread, that they perceive him.

Lay aside all the arguments about why the disciples didn’t recognise Jesus. Whether it was being dazzled by walking into the setting sun, eyes bleared by tears, only seeing what they expected, or as Luke seems to say in v.16 a spiritual blindness. Put aside all that – as far as my daughter is concerned, Jesus was playing ‘Boo’!

And yes, the Resurrection accounts are full of joy, playfulness and exhilaration. Grief is over. Sin is forgiven. Death is defeated and the horror of Calvary past. A new creation is begun, let us rejoice in its birth! Jesus is alive and will die no more, let us be joyful in his presence!

Surely that is the key message of the Road to Emmaus – that Jesus is with us. He is alive, alive today and we can know him. For that is the heart of Christianity. It is the presence of the living Christ which transformed those two disciples from tearful wanderers to running evangelists, and which transforms us today. All our witness, all our service, all the religious paraphernalia of Christianity is geared up to this: knowing, loving and serving the risen Christ.

I’m doing a leadership course at the moment which the Diocese are organising. It involves a day a month of input and group work. You might think that a course on leadership in the church would focus on techniques – how to be a better preacher; strategies – how to grow a church; and vision – how to discern God’s plan for your parish. There is certainly a lot of that.

Yet at least half of the course is about something much more important: how you live as a disciple of Christ. The inner life, knowing God. For no-one can presume to lead unless they first know how to follow. Last week’s session was called ‘Sustaining your first love’ – and it was all about how to keep your own relationship with God alive and flourishing. After all one of the biggest risks for anyone who tries to do good things for Christ’s church is that the busyness crowds out the love for Christ which brought us there in the first place. The danger of doing a lot for Jesus is that we forget to be with Jesus.

So how do we nourish that love? The Road to Emmaus gives us several pointers. Firstly, let’s support one another. It’s as the disciples were talking with each other that Jesus first came alongside them.

God gives us fellow Christians so we can support one another. Let’s make the most of that opportunity. Often when members of a church meet up there’s so much to talk about: fetes to plan, rotas to organise, gutters to clear, social chit-chat. How often do we actually talk about the faith that’s brought us together? Share the signs of God’s love in our lives? The things we’ve learnt recently? Our needs and support?

In v.18 the disciples begin talking with Jesus, and the equivalent for us is prayer. I find it interesting how honest these two are – they share their hopes and disappointments, their puzzles and doubts. Jesus doesn’t probe, but it’s as they are honest with him that he is able to carry their questions and answer them.

In my own prayers recently I’ve found it very liberating to say to God exactly what’s on my mind. Not to cover up the questions, or thoughts and temptations which seem unacceptable, but to let them all out. To tell God precisely how I feel, even if some of those feelings aren’t healthy or good. You know, you can’t surprise God. He knows it all already. So there’s no point having secrets from him. He’s totally unshockable. I’ve found that when I pray openly to God about the stuff that shouldn’t be there – anger, jealousy, whatever; God doesn’t close himself off and withdraw in horror. Instead he moves towards me and shows me how to deal with it. Keep trying to be more honest in prayer.

One of the ways God helps us is by reminding us of the promises in the Bible. Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the disciples on the Emmaus road. Like those disciples, sometimes we can get stuck with the Bible. Stuck reading the same bits, in the same way, hearing the same morals. So if you’ve got stuck, ring the changes. Try reading a different part of the Bible, use a different translation, get help from some reading notes. Read it in a new style – a whole passage out loud, or imagining it as a play, or taking just one phrase and turning it over and over in your mind.

For instance, a verse that came to mind when I was reading this passage was ‘Practice hospitality’. Paul says it in Romans 12:13, and the disciples did it when they invited Jesus to stay with them. The thing that interests me is that Paul writes Practice hospitality. And we all know that practice makes perfect! In other words, like squash or running, hospitality gets better the more you do it. If you don’t think you’re good at hospitality, try getting some practice in!

Finally, in v. 30, it’s in Communion that they recognise Jesus. And for us today, he offers himself to us in the sacrament so that we can be nourished by his presence. Communion is a very direct way that we can experience the risen Christ. In these churches we offer several communion services on Sundays, in different places at various times, so there are plenty of opportunities to receive. To keep on offering Communion, we need priests – priests who come in from elsewhere like Elveen, our new deacon who will be ordained in July, and priests who are raised up locally like Susan. Please pray that more people will respond to God’s call to be ordained and help us all experience Jesus.

There are many ways that we can know Christ today. For the reading we had this morning is not just a story about something that happened almost two-thousand years ago. It’s not just another piece of evidence in the Resurrection casefile, or an interesting discovery two particular people made. Far better: it’s the proclamation that Christ is risen indeed, that the joy of the new creation is begun, that we can know him today. That the presence of the Risen Christ is with us, ready to be known if we reach out for him

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

Easter mystery

There’s not much room for doubt in Matthew’s Easter story. For Matthew it’s very clear: Jesus was raised from the dead, so go and spread the word.

In the New Testament we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life. And when it comes to the resurrection, the four gospel writers describe the events in different ways. Imagine there’s a car accident, the police take statements from the witnesses, the things they say will depend a bit on whether they were in one of the vehicles, or standing by the roadside – they’ll describe the same events but from a different perspective.

So too the gospel writers tell the Easter story in ways which reflect their own concerns and understanding about what this amazing event means.

Mark’s gospel is mysterious and the ending unresolved. The women go to the tomb, and find the stone has been rolled back. It ends on a cliffhanger – is Jesus really alive like the angel said? Mark draws us in, encouraging us to find out more.

There’s mystery in Luke too but it soon becomes clear. Luke knows that dead men don’t usually rise, so he gives us lots of proof. He describes Jesus meeting the disciples, eating fish to show he’s not a ghost. Luke is very practical: how we can know Jesus today? He tells us how Christians in every place and time can know Jesus walking alongside them in life and can recognise him in the bread and the wine. How Jesus gives us energy to share the good news with the world.

Whereas the others are selective, condensing the story, John’s gospel gives the whole sequence of events. John is the consummate story teller. He describes the horror of finding your friend’s grave empty, the confusion and grief of Mary, the puzzlement of the disciples giving way to understanding. The human drama and emotion appeal to us. For many, John’s gospel is the Easter story as they know it. in some churches John is the only gospel read on Easter Day

The reading we had today, from Matthew is all about the power and the victory of God. It’s stirring stuff, and you might like to have it front of you as we look at it together.

The day begins with dawn’s first light bringing hope to the sky. Suddenly the earth shakes. The power of God splits the rocks in two. If you go to Jerusalem, in the Adam and Eve Chapel of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, they will show you the faultline in the rocks, said to go back to that day.

A mighty angel of the Lord descends like lightning from heaven. Singlehandedly he rolls back the stone… and sits on it. That action says it all – the angel sat on the stone. Job done, that stone is not going back. Death is defeated once and for all. The tomb lies open – for everyone. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of ours also, if we place our trust in him. We shall live forever. Then we too, forgiven through Christ, will be as holy and as pure as the angel’s white garments.

Overwhelmed the guards lie flat out. So much for the imperial might of Rome! God is victorious, Christ reigns. Sin and evil defeated.

<heartily> ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel says to the women. <to the point> ‘Look, that’s where he was. He’s not here. He’s risen. You’ve got a job to do: go and tell his disciples.’ Afraid, but full of joy, the women turn to leave, and there is Jesus! They worship him, convinced he is alive. Only when the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee does Matthew mention that some of them doubted.

How can Matthew be so clear when the other gospel writers take a while to get to a point of conviction, if at all? Partly it’s because they answer different questions. John wants to describe what the first Easter was like; Luke how we can know Jesus today. Partly it’s down to personality: Mark appeals to those who are inquisitive and like open-endedness.

Can they all be true? Yes. The others tell the story from a human perspective. We accompany Peter and Mary on the journey to the tomb, we share their shock and puzzlement. As we work out with them what’s going on, we slowly become convinced that Jesus is alive.

Matthew writes with an all-seeing divine perspective. Jesus has risen. Of course he has – this has been planned from eternity. God acted, and it was done. Nothing, not even raising the dead, is a problem for God who spoke the worlds into being. God’s victory is assured, the only thing that’s a bit puzzling is why the people take so long to get it.

As we celebrate Easter today, we need to hold together both approaches. We need the human quest for understanding, the faith that wrestles with doubts and looks for evidence. If we are told ‘It says so here, you must just believe’, it feels pastorally insensitive, not taking account of our need to think things through. If that’s you, you can take comfort that Jesus understands this: he was gentle with doubting Thomas and gave him the assurance he needed.

Yet we also need that divine perspective Matthew gives us. We should remember that the power of the resurrection is not limited by our ability to understand it; that truth is not constrained by our consent. If something is true, it is true whether or not you or I believe it. Matthew’s gospel is an important corrective to the human tendency to feel that our doubts and questions in some way affect what actually happened that day. It challenges us not to wallow in doubt. Matthew says this is life-changing truth.

The other gospels invite us to make up our minds. They include us in the story. They ask us to consider the evidence. But Matthew proclaims the resurrection. He invites us to live in the light of the new life of Christ. To rejoice that life begins afresh with him. To know that we are forgiven. To have faith that this life is not the end. To be changed by the power of the Risen Christ. Happy Easter!

Vocation 5, Ezekiel 3 and Matt 28

Ezekiel left the refugee camp behind and stood on the banks of the River Kebar. Grand name for an unpleasant reality.  The drainage ditch was filthy, polluted with a scum of green algae and unspeakable things. Gloomily he stared at the water and felt utterly miserable. His life was pointless. Messed up, and there was no going back.

What is a priest supposed to do without a temple? A servant of the Lord far away from the Lord’s land? Ezekiel’s 30th birthday was meant to be the high point, the time when he could begin the ministry for which he had spent his life training. But the Babylonians had come. War, capture, and now exile. In the prime of his life, Ezekiel’s future was forced labour. He’d missed his vocation. He was far from home. What a waste.

To cap it all a storm was brewing in the North, and fat raindrops began to fall. Turning for shelter, he looked back at the black cloud – and saw visions of God. As it says in Ezekiel 1 v1 ‘In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’

It may be obscure, but this is one of my favourite verses in the Bible. Because it says that no matter where I am, no matter what awful things are going on around me, no matter how much I may have messed up – God is there. However veiled it may be, his glory is ready to be revealed. The sovereign Lord is present and he is in ultimate control.

Ezekiel realised God was there. Even by the river Chebar God was there. When all hope had fled, God showed Ezekiel that he is still Lord, that he rules. It was the beginning of something new: a prophetic ministry that brought Israel back to their God; a call to repentance; the rebirth of Judaism.

Up until that point the Jewish people had more or less gone along with the idea that each nation had their own god. And that each nation and god had their own territory, the place where they belonged. Of course, they knew the God of Israel could defeat the gods of Egypt. But Ezekiel discovered something new: that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. He’s not restricted to one place – he is everywhere.

In the gospel, Jesus similarly tells us all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. For those who have eyes to see it, God’s glory is potentially everywhere. Not just in the temple, or the Holy Land, but here in life and joy, the beauty of creation all around us, the love of family and friends. We can be aware of God when we stop and pray, we sense his presence in a holy place. But Jesus means more than this.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that is often most known in times of trial. In the hardest moments of my life I have felt God more closely than in the times of blessing. He is alongside us in pain and suffering. In our darkness, when we experience difficulty, we can find God. Isn’t that the message of the cross on Passion Sunday? That God enters human suffering and we can find him in the midst of it? The cross gives us the deepest insight into God’s heart. For God cares about his world, and calls us to work with him in putting it right.

This is the final sermon in our series on vocation. So far we’ve thought about how God calls everyone to himself, adult or child – we are all called; how God uses our gifts, and how we may have to overcome our reluctance to respond. Today we’re looking at how God calls us to serve him in the world. The call of Ezekiel in Chapter 3 tells us that people may or may not listen to God’s message – but fear of that reaction should not hold us back. And, when we witness to Christ we must be rooted in God and genuinely caring for the people we serve.

Look at v.4. ‘Mortal go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.’ Right at the beginning of this series, I said that the most important thing in calling was that we are called personally to know God. I said that being called is not about doing a job, but about being in a relationship with God through Jesus. He wants us to know him.

It’s also true that the more we get to know God, the more we will share his love for his creation. It’s like a fire within us, his compassion will lead us to serve. So relationship with God is bound to make us look outwards. Christian faith must lead to practical service, a better world.

Ezekiel was given the job of conveying God’s words. So, in a general sense are we. We may not all be called to be evangelists or Bible teachers, but all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus. We are meant to be lights in the world, and speak of our faith.

That’s what the church is for. In the gospel reading, Jesus sent the apostles out to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded. The church continues that task and we all have a role to play. Lost for Words?

Like Ezekiel, that may meet with rejection. V.5-6 describe how Israel, who knew God, will not listen, even though those with foreign languages would. Do we not see that still today? In China, South Korea and Nepal, huge numbers are becoming Christians. England, with a long history of Christian faith, is resistant to the gospel.

But I don’t think we should over-emphasise that. I’ve found that many individuals are willing to listen and discuss. I had respectful discussions with atheists, good arguments with articulate Muslims. I find that Agnostics Anonymous is much appreciated – someone even travels from Bristol to join us. Younger people can often be very open because they haven’t had religion drilled into them. They really respond if they see a genuine faith that makes a difference in our lives.

So non-believers are not necessarily hostile. They may be searching for meaning, they often find alternative lifestyles interesting. One of the biggest traps is when we assume we won’t get a hearing, and so don’t speak. Often I have been pleasantly surprised.

When I became a curate my vicar said to me: ‘We’ve got these paperback gospels. Drop them into people’s letter boxes would you? It was some kind of evangelistic initiative. I didn’t even have to knock the door. Yet even such a timid effort with minimal contact brought a two people to a real faith. Any of us could do that, couldn’t we? It doesn’t need much courage to drop off the parish Christmas cards, or publicity.

But fear inhibits us. ‘Oh, I couldn’t speak about my faith’; or ‘I can’t do children’s work’. ‘What if I messed up?’ Well, what if? So it went wrong – at least no-one died. Put it down to experience and try again. Fear like that is a devil’s trick – he exaggerates the danger so we don’t share our faith. What really is the worst that can happen? Being seen as a religious nut? That pales in comparison with what Jesus did for us. Never forget that Matthew 28 is a resurrection appearance. Christ sends the disciples out to tell the story of a God who died to save us.

Christ’s love compels us. But we do have to acknowledge the fear we sometimes feel. We should bring those fears to God, praying he will take them away, or give us courage to overcome them. As he says to Ezekiel in v. 9. ‘Like the hardest stone I have made your forehead’. Like him we may feel that the concerns we had just evaporate, or we are given strength to carry on.

God also commands Ezekiel not to fear. Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and get on with it. For courage is not the absence of fear. John Wayne said ‘courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ So let’s take a chance, stick our necks out for God. It may well be that we get an encouraging response and something good happens – particularly if we’ve prayed beforehand.

Isn’t it encouraging that Jesus’ disciples doubted even when he appeared to them. How did they doubt? Did they wonder if it was really Jesus? Were they in two minds about whether he was actually alive or a vision? Or did they doubt the appropriateness of worshipping him?

The word for doubt is the same one that’s used when Peter gets out of the boat to walk on water, and then sees the wind and waves and gets scared. So doubt isn’t incompatible with faith. Nor does doubt necessarily stop us from being useful to Jesus. He told these doubting people to start the church! He used them for an enormous job. We may have doubts too. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t true Christians. Nor does it mean that God can’t use us.

So be encouraged to step out for God. Don’t be shy of speaking of your faith for fear that you don’t know all the answers, or have worries or doubts. Often a real story of faith, honestly told with times of joy and of sorrow and doubt can be much more compelling than one which is so confident that it sounds otherworldly.

And of course, what we do and say needs to be a fair reflection of God’s word. As it says in v.10 ‘Receive in your heart’ – God’s word must be true in our lives. We need to take it to heart. It’s said that a preacher always preaches to himself first. Anyone who tries to speak about God is not a mere mouthpiece nor a typewriter keyboard, conveying a message without understanding. Instead, we should be more like a dancer, who interprets and embodies the script. People instinctively know when the story doesn’t ring true. That’s why, in v 12 and 13, Ezekiel has visions of God, so he can reflect what he has seen. So use your own words to describe your faith, not Christian cliché. (LFW)

Unfortunately a spiritual high can be followed by a big comedown. We can’t spend forever up high in spiritual experience, you have to descend to the hurly burly of train tickets and the school run. It’s a shock. Sometimes people can be really bitter because there’s such a contrast between the joy of their conversion, and the hard work of being faithful to Christ day by day. There can even be anger at what we’ve been called to do. But that’s o.k. God’s big enough to cope when we bring it to him. Ezekiel describes it in v. 14 ‘I went in bitterness of Spirit’.

But the hand of the Lord was upon him. It was less obvious, but God’s presence was still there. If any of us are finding life hard, we should remember that. Present, not in felt glory, but present nonetheless.

Finally, in v.15 ‘I sat there among the exiles, stunned for seven days’. Ezekiel remained one of the people, he continued to share their lives. If he were just to speak God’s message with God’s fearlessness, he might have come over as condemning, unloving, hard. But he sat as one of them; as Jesus did, sharing our weakness, loving us, acting with compassion and praying to God for us. Anyone who would share their faith with friends and neighbours should be the same. Christians cannot set ourselves apart and criticise from a distance. We must sit among our people – one beggar telling another where to find bread.

So, God has called us to himself. That means we are also sent, from God’s presence, equipped with a vision of his glory and strengthened by his love and courage. In the words of Christ in the gospel: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

 

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.

A New Year Covenant

I wonder how those New Year resolutions are going? Three hours since we woke and still going strong! Someone once said that a resolution goes in one year and out the other. My favourite is the chap who said: ‘May your troubles last as long as your New Year’s Resolutions.’

Why do they have that reputation for fading quickly? Perhaps it’s because of what they are. A resolution could be defined as a promise to make a dramatic, sudden and major change in one’s life, usually for one’s own benefit, and attempting to do so by one’s own will power and strength. Often once the resolution is broken, we throw in the towel and go back to having a drink every day, or whatever it may be.

There is a Biblical alternative. A model which has very deep roots in the Christian tradition and Judaism before it. Something we’ll be doing later in the service. It speaks, not of a one-off change, but of being continually transformed by grace. It calls us, not to a brittle promise, but a lifelong journey with God, where when we fail we are picked up again, forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit.

This Biblical alternative is the Covenant. A committed relationship, a promise of faithfulness between God and his people. It’s almost like an agreement: there are duties set out, blessings for obedience and consequences for failure. But it’s not a legalistic thing like a property covenant – a Biblical covenant is always held in God’s grace and love, and though people broke them many times, God never broke faith.

Why today? We’re thinking about Covenants this Sunday because the 1st January is the eighth day of Christmas, and as it says in our reading from Luke 2:21 ‘On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the child and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.’ Jewish people circumcise male children because it is commanded as one of the Old Testament covenants. Circumcision for Jews is a sign of belonging to God’s people.

The background is that when God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, God also commanded that all Abraham’s descendants should be circumcised as a reminder of this promise. There were other covenants God made with his people – for instance the giving of the Ten Commandments after the Exodus was also part of a covenant.

There’s a pattern we can see. The initiative is always God’s. God called Abraham. God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. It wasn’t the people who approached God, rather he moved in grace and love towards his people. Then, as they respond to his call, God instructs them in the right way to live. He shows them how to thrive. These commands are for their good, so if they keep them they will experience blessings showered upon them. But if they turn away from the right path, it’s like putting up an umbrella against the shower of blessings. In other words, sin stops us enjoying the life God has called us to.

The idea of the covenant is that God and his people are bound together forever. Think of a marriage – which is often described as a covenant, the relationship is meant to endure through thick and thin. For richer and poorer, for better and for worse, God will be faithful to his people. When they sin they experience his faithfulness as judgement, discipline which brings them back. When they repent, God’s faithfulness means they are forgiven. It’s not two-faced but two sides of the same coin.

Let’s get one thing clear. A covenant isn’t about winning God’s favour. Sometimes people think that a covenant is all about doing good and avoiding evil so we can get into heaven. That is not Christianity. That would be like one of those comedies where someone is trying to catch a train – their legs go faster and faster but still the carriages draw away from them.

True Christianity teaches grace: it’s more like Jesus is the train driver who stops for us so we can get on. And a covenant is a bit like not doing anything stupid while you’re on the train: don’t get off before the destination; don’t stick your head out of the window when a tunnel is coming up. Covenants keep us abiding in the grace of God. His love brings us in and the covenant stops us messing up.

Christians don’t see a covenant as an attempt to earn salvation, because Jesus has already done it for us. That is what St. Paul is saying in our reading from Galatians chapter 4. In verse 4: ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’ – this refers to the circumcision we thought about earlier. Jesus lived in the covenant, he kept the Jewish law fully, the only person ever to keep it both in letter and in spirit.

In verse 5: ‘In order to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as children’. Redeem means buying back, giving a payment in order to rescue someone. The payment that Jesus makes is his own life. He offers himself as the perfect substitute in our place, a sacrifice which brings forgiveness and wipes away the wrong we have done. Only a sinless person who did not have to account for his own sin could stand in our place and take our sin upon himself.

The result is in verse 6 ‘Because you are his children, God has sent his Spirit into your hearts, crying Abba Father.’ So we are no longer slaves but children, and if children then also heirs through God. In other words, because Jesus was perfectly good, we can be forgiven in him, and we can have perfect confidence coming to God through Jesus.

That is the covenant God makes with us now. To gives us peace, forgiveness and new life through Christ. It is God’s initiative, his covenant. That’s why Christianity is not a religion of outward observance. Christians don’t need to keep Old Testament law – but we also don’t have to do the external things which are so important in other religions.

Sikhs have their turbans and Kirpan daggers, but Christians do not have to wear a cross. Muslims pray 5 times a day and fast during Ramadan. But Christians can pray anytime, wherever they are; Christians can fast during Lent – if it’s helpful, or any other time, but we don’t have to.

Rules do not define Christians, because the heart of our faith is a relationship with God through Christ. Jesus fulfils God’s perfect requirements for us; we then live out our faith, not in ritual observances, but in love and in service for God and one another.

For Christians that covenant begins in baptism. It is continued in confirmation. But it can also be helpful to renew those promises from time to time – and what better occasion than the New Year?

As we look to the future and think about how we would like to act in 2017, our New Year service invites us to affirm our covenant with God.

There are some wonderful words of commitment and openness which we’ll be hearing in a moment. Let me just quote some:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult;

some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both… We’re invited to trust in God’s use of us, to be at his disposal.

and later on we say together:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,

It’s a radical openness to God. Whatever may come our way, God will be faithful. He sees a bigger picture that we cannot; he knows what is best for us, what will grow us and how we can benefit others. God walks with us on the journey, leading and teaching us through the hardships. He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.

We can trust in God utterly because he is faithful. He has made a covenant with us, the covenant we remember at the Eucharist, the blood of the new covenant. God has given us a promise which is unshakeable because it is grounded in his consistent character, his covenanted love.

I’ll end with a poem which is well known, deservedly so. It was quoted by King George 6th in his 1939 Christmas broadcast – if we think we live in uncertain times, how much more so back then!

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Is your imagination up to it?

‘Life after death’ said the barber. ‘I mean, nobody knows what happens do they? After all, it’s not like anyone’s been there and come back? The clergyman, who was in mufti at the time, swallowed hard and said a silent prayer: ‘Actually,’ he began…’ there was Jesus’

Last week we celebrated the feast of All Souls. We gave thanks for those who have died with faith in Christ, and we looked forward with hope to the day when we shall meet again. For many people, that’s a great source of hope. It gives us comfort when loved ones have died. I still remember feeling that when my grandfather died – he was the first person really close to me who died, he’d been a wonderful example of steadfast faith. This amazing sense of peace came that his long battle was now over and a real confidence that he is now with Christ.

And when someone close to you is constantly living on the boundary between this life and the next, believing that there is a resurrection enables you to cope with it all. I know some of you were at the the confirmation service on Wednesday. I think it was the closest I’ve ever been to heaven: a glorious celebration; friends and family from every stage of your life; all gathered together in joyful worship of our amazing God. When time stands still and eternity seems very close.

But I also know it doesn’t always feel like that. At some times and for some people it’s really difficult to believe in the resurrection. For some folks, the doctrine is more of a stumbling block, a difficulty for faith. Like the barber, they might ask: How can a dead body live? What if there’s nothing left to bring it back together from? What will we look like, what age will we be, will we know each other? How will it happen and when?

Undoubtedly it can be hard to imagine. Or maybe the imaginings that we do have don’t really seem up to the job. How many people have I spoken to who say that they can’t believe in an old guy with a long white beard sitting on a cloud! To which I reply: I don’t believe God and heaven are like that either! But we have to remember: just because we struggle to picture it, doesn’t mean the underlying belief isn’t true.

That was the mistake the Sadducees made in the gospel reading. When Jesus was on earth, there were two main religious groups in Israel: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were working people who took the Old Testament law seriously. They believed that one day the dead would rise to life and God would make the world perfect. The Sadducees on the other hand were the priestly aristocracy. They believed that once you were dead, that was it.

There’s no reason for us to think that their beliefs weren’t honestly held. The Sadducees seem to have struggled with the resurrection on day-to-day grounds. If God will bring people back to life, what sort of lives will they lead? How are the practicalities going to work out? For instance, what about marriage?

Imagine, they say to Jesus, imagine a woman whose husband dies young. Now we all know that Moses commanded that she should marry the dead man’s brother. But before they can have children and carry on the family line, he too falls sick and dies. In order to pass on the inheritance, she marries the next brother. But he falls out of a tree picking olives. Hoping to be looked after in her old age, she marries no. 4. But he falls under a chariot. And so it goes on.

Finally no 7, who must have been a bit of a mug not to notice what’s going on, predeceased her. So, say the Sadducees, in v.33: imagine the resurrection. The woman climbs out of her grave, then her husbands rise too – all seven of them! So which of them is her husband now?

You see what happened? They’ve got carried away with their own rhetoric! They’ve set up a straw man and knocked it down. They’ve taken the idea of the resurrection and assumed that life after the resurrection would be just like this life. A continuation. And because there are obvious problems, and that doesn’t make sense, they said the whole concept is flawed. But nobody said the resurrection life is just like this life. It’s not a simple continuation. In the case of marriage, relationships are not the same in the resurrection. Marriage is a sign of the soul’s unity with God – and in the life to come the reality is fulfilled

Jesus then shows the Sadducees how the parts of the Old Testament that they accepted point to the Resurrection. The Sadducees only regarded the books of the Pentateuch as Scripture. But even there, points out Jesus, there is the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses approaches the bush, God speaks to him, and when Moses asks who he is, God replies:

‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Not the God whom they worshipped when they were alive. Not I was their God. But I am their God – because they are living with God still. To him all are alive.

The mistake the Sadducees made is easily done and we do it all the time: Because I can’t imagine it, therefore it can’t be true. rpt.

This is not some kind of religious cop-out, or invitation to believe uncritically anything outrageous. Coping with the limitations of our imagination is an issue for scientists too: for instance in the book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ Richard Dawkins says that the reason some people struggle with evolution is that they just can’t imagine it happening.

I wonder how many of our doubts are intellectual or moral, and how many are due to a simple lack of imagination?… I once read a physicist musing on eternal life – I’ll get bored he wrote. I’ll run out of things to do. I’ll get fed up with my own flaws. And as I get older I find I have a little more sympathy with that idea. You know that line in the hymn: ‘Amazing Grace’ – ‘when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’ve first begun.’ Sometimes I sing that and it feels wonderful. Sometimes it feels a little unnerving – I don’t know what 50 years is like, let alone ten thousand. What about life without end?

That too is a lack of imagination. So how can we begin to dream of eternity? Look back to the very best holiday you’ve ever been on, one you never wanted to end – and imagine that the whole of creation is perfect, ready to be explored. Or how when you’re totally absorbed in good useful work you lose track of time. Remember being engrossed in conversation with friends, or completely lost in worship which lifts up the soul to the presence of God – and imagine that there is never any earthly weariness or sin to drag you back down again.  We’ll be made perfect in the world to come. The infinity of God is able to keep us occupied. And eternity isn’t the same thing as a very very long time.

That physicist should have known we don’t need to be able to visualise something in order to believe it. He would have studied quantum physics, and that’s a prime example of what I’m talking about. For nobody has seen a subatomic particle and they have strange properties like nothing we experience.

And yet that physicist was willing to believe that in physics there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Why not apply the same logic to faith? Our imaginations are limited. There are some things we may never be able to grasp, or we can only approach by using pictures.

Are we ever like those Sadducees? Do we struggle to believe in the return of Christ because the words St Paul uses are hard? The Biblical imagery of stars falling from the sky, is a sign that words and images are striving to portray a reality that no-one has set seen. The Biblical writers were stretching their imaginations to describe it. No surprise that we have to too.

Let’s therefore be honest with ourselves. Most people have doubts. Not about everything all the time, but occasionally on particular subjects we do doubt. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s only human. Don’t try and hide it from God though – no point because he knows everything, and it’s when we’re open and honest with God about doubts that he is most able to help us.

Do address doubts. They show us where we haven’t quite understood our faith, where there is space to grow, as long as we address them. So don’t let doubts fester. Bring them to God and pray about them. Think about them and reason them through. Find a helpful book, ask a minister, go on a course. Have we really understood what Christians actually believe, or are we trying to believe something the church has never actually taught? Allow God to renew your imagination and draw you closer to the unimaginable.

On this earth, we won’t understand what life after death is like. Not until we get there. It will hold wonderful surprises! There’ll be limitations we didn’t know we had that we’ll be free from, things we can do that we couldn’t have thought possible, experiences that are inconceivable to us now. For God is the God of the living, and to him all are alive.