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 5 – 1 Samuel 3

Dad, when I grow up I want to be a bin-man.

Ok son. Er, why would you like to be a bin man?

Well Dad, I’ve only seen them work once a week.

Mind you, you could say the same about Vicars. Not as bad though as the lady who asked her daughter: ‘What would you like to do when you’re big like Mummy?’ To which the child replied ‘Go on a diet’.

I wonder if any of the children here have an idea what they’d like to do when they grow up? Anyone like to tell us? Or what about the adults – can you remember what you wanted to be when you were a child and has that changed at all?

 of course, you often end up having several ideas: when I was at primary school I wanted to be a palaeontologist – which basically meant I wanted to be paid to dig up dinosaur bones. And when I was a student I thought I might go into forestry. But God had other plans

I wonder what hopes you’ve got for Sophie? What sort of job do you dream of her doing? I’m sure we all want her to be happy whatever she does. Would we hope that one day she might be a parent herself? Soon we’ll be making promises for her – and one of the things we hope for there is that she will have her own living faith in God.

The wonderful thing is that God has a plan for each one of us. God knows us better even than we know ourselves. On this Mothering Sunday we give thanks for the love of mothers – and we also remember that God loves us even more than the best parent could ever love their child. And God calls each one of us to know him and to follow Jesus. We call that Vocation and in during Lent we’re thinking about that in our sermon series

Whatever your age, whether you’re a little child or a great-grandparent, God has a role for you and a plan for your life. We hear about that in our reading from 1 Samuel 3v1-18.

Samuel was a miracle baby. He was an answer to prayer. So when Samuel was born his mother wanted him to serve God. She took him to the temple, which was where people worshipped God. Samuel lived there and the chief priest called Eli looked after him. It seems that Samuel actually slept in the temple, right next to the Ark of God.

In the middle of the night, Samuel heard a voice calling ‘Samuel, Samuel’. So he ran straight to Eli, who told him to go back to bed. Again, God called, Samuel ran to Eli, and Eli sent him back to bed.

I wonder why this happened? Why didn’t Samuel realise it was God? Any ideas? It seems he hadn’t heard God calling before. Maybe no one had told Samuel about God communicating. Certainly the reading says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Perhaps no-one imagined this kind of thing could happen. (spiritual state of the nation)

Eventually Eli worked out what was going on. He said to Samuel: ‘if he calls you, you shall say speak Lord for your servant is listening.’ And that is what happened. God spoke to Samuel. Samuel listened, and God gave Samuel a message for Eli and all Israel.

It’s a wonderful story. But what does it mean for us today? After all, when Christians read the Bible we believe it speaks to us and our lives now. What does it mean for you and me? 

If you’re a young person, it says that God can call you. Even if you’re very small God has a plan for you. There are special things that only you can do. That child who’s by themselves in the playground, you might be the only person who notices and can be friendly with them.

There are only a few people who can be like big cousins to Sophie. Older children she’ll look up to. That’s your job. 

If you’re a young person, this story says that God wants you to know him. As you are now, not waiting until you’re a grown up. It says that however young or old you are, you can hear God.

How do we hear God? We might not hear a voice calling like Samuel did. But if we take time to pray, it’s amazing what can happen. If you can be still and ask God questions, and leave time for him to answer, often an idea will pop into your head, or maybe you’ll imagine a picture. When we read the Bible and reflect on it, we often get a sense for what God wants us to do. Jesus tells us that when we seek God we will find him. 

What does the story of Samuel say to grown-ups? I think it tells us to be humble like Eli. Ready to listen to what children have to say. Able to hear wisdom and the nudging of God in the words of the very young. 

Children need help from adults in their spiritual development. Eli had to tell Samuel how to identify God’s voice; how to respond. Eli had to encourage Samuel to speak up and give the message.  

When God speaks to children, it’s so important that they have understanding and wise adults they can go to. People who aren’t going to dismiss their experiences. Who will take them seriously and encourage them.

I read a remarkable story. It was written by a mother about her child. The mother is an atheist and she brought up her daughter that way. But through assemblies in school the little girl began to develop a faith in God. The mother found this very strange – but she didn’t want to squish it. Mother encouraged daughter in what was important to her. Still an atheist, this loving mother spends Sundays dropping off her daughter to sing in the choir, and taking her to confirmation class.

What a wonderful example of support and open-mindedness 

That’s why God gives us families – and the family of the church. Together we encourage one another in our faith. On this Mothering Sunday let’s give thanks for the whole church family and the way God uses us to support one another.

  

Sophie is going to need that as she grows up. She’ll need people who can encourage her in the faith. People who can nurture her spirituality and show her how to listen to God. This is particularly a role for parents and godparents, but it’s for all of us too. So I’ll ask you to turn to the order of service and join in with the first of the promises

EXTRA AT EVENSONG: 

That support would have been tested to its limit when Eli heard the message that Samuel gave. It was a message of judgement against a corrupt priesthood. Although Eli had been warned many times, he had done nothing to restrain his sons who were abusing their position. So God gives notice that the privileges of priesthood will be taken away from Eli’s family and given to others who will honour the role. 

At various points in the Old Testament, when people have received similar messages, they come to their senses. They repent: in other words they change their words and demonstrate their sorrow for their past behaviour. And when people respond like that, God relents. As it says in Ezekiel, he does not want the wicked to perish. He wants them to change their ways and live. So even the seemingly harshest words in the Old Testament are sent to bring life – they are final warnings to bring about a change of behaviour. 

In that light, Eli’s response in v.18 is so tragic. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t speak to his sons. He is resigned, spiritually numbed, saying ‘He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.’ Although he has heard the word of the Lord, Eli has not really listened. Eli is not discerning its true meaning; he needs to listen for the spiritual subtext. so as we listen for the voice of God, it’s so important that when it is discerned we act on it.

If we wish to hear the voice of God it is essential to cultivate the habit of obedience. As we do so, God’s guidance becomes more familiar, perhaps more readily discerned. God speaks to us in many and various ways. We hear his voice and hone it through one another. And when we hear, let us be ready to obey. Amen.

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.

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.

 

A different kind of hope

Jeremiah 29

The Vicar was passing the allotments when one in particular caught his eye. The cabbages were the size of basket balls, the garlic looked more like leeks and it was surrounded by an abundance of beautiful flowers. The Vicar had been on the Diocesan Evangelism course, so he said to the old man tending the plants: ‘God has really blessed you with this allotment.’ ‘Aye, said the old man ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it all to himself’.

Harvest is the result of commitment. The produce that we enjoy today and which fills our church is the result of long hard work, and stability in one place. Year after year the farmer ploughs, sows, sprays and reaps. There are drains to keep up, hedges to trim, machinery to maintain and barns to repair. The fields around us are the result of generation upon generation doing their bit to improve the land. From the Neolithic farmers who first cleared the forest, to today’s agribusiness, there is a long line of workers who have invested in a place, so that their labours will bear fruit the next year.

But what happens if that stability is taken away? If the family farm is lost? What happens in any of our lives if we had plans and they didn’t turn out the way we hoped? What if you were building a future and something came along and wrecked it? If in the blink of an eye a car accident changes the course of your life forever?

This is the question faced by Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading. As it says in verse 1: ‘The letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the people in exile in Babylon’. As we’ve heard in our sermon series over the past few weeks, the Babylonians invaded Judah and eventually captured Jerusalem, deporting most of the people. Some had already been taken into captivity – over the course of sixteen years several thousand people were led into exile, eight hundred miles away in modern-day Iraq, where they scratched a living.

How did they respond? How would we respond?

One possibility is to try and get back to where you were. Life before the big change was better, so perhaps the logical thing to do is to try and go back to how it used to be? I knew a woman who moved out of her village, spent a few years elsewhere, never settled in, and eventually moved back where she’d come from. Sometimes that makes sense.

Often though we can’t turn the clock back. That’s true for life-changing injuries and bereavement… There are different stages to life, and sometimes you just cannot retrace your steps –for instance the experience of a mature student is very different to that of an undergrad.

And would you actually want to turn the clock back? When I look back on my grammar school days I remember it with great fondness, I’ve got so many happy memories. Which is weird because I hated a lot of it. Double maths and bottom set rugby – who’d want to go back to that? Rose tinted spectacles are a real phenomenon: scientists have found that our brains actually make memories better over time. Which I guess is something to be grateful for, but it can trick us into idealising the past. So Jeremiah says to the exiles, don’t listen to the prophets who promise things that can never happen. Face the situation as it is now.

That needs strength and hope. Another possible reaction would be to give up. And sometimes one does meet those for whom life has lost its savour. It was once good, something went wrong, it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, and now they just survive. That hopelessness is deeply tragic because God is a God of hope. In his eyes no-one is cast aside on the scrapheap of life. However late in the day, there is still hope. And so Jeremiah commands the exiles to increase, not decrease. Be hopeful.

The third possible reaction might be to adapt, and blend in to the new situation. Here we are in Babylon, we might as well make the most of it. Face it, we’re not going back to Israel, so let’s forget it and move on. The God we worshipped there judged us, perhaps we’ll get more luck with the gods of Babylon.

No doubt some did feel like that, and that’s what seems to have happened to the lost tribes of Israel – they were assimilated into the peoples around them. Forgetting, moving on and adapting may seem like a robust realistic strategy, but if it’s not grounded in God it’s lacking in long term hope.

What God calls us to is a trusting hope. A hope that has faith in his plan, a hope that believes in the Spirit’s ability to heal and transform situations. A hope that accepts the path ahead may be long and sometimes hard, but treads it knowing that God can see the destination. A hope that walks by faith not sight.

In v.10: ‘Thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s 70 years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.’ The exiles will return, after 70 long years. So yes, do adapt, do commit to Babylon. As verses 5-7 say, build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry, have children and grandchildren. But don’t lose sight that your true home is somewhere else. Be in this world but not of it. Put down roots – but be prepared to pull them up.

‘For surely I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ Wonderful words. Powerful enough when standing by themselves, written on a bookmark, but all the more amazing when you consider the context. You may be a long way away, far from home. Maybe you wish life worked out differently. But God knows the plan he has for you.

Perhaps his plan is different from what you imagined. How often do we hold a church meeting and ask God to bless our agenda and the plans we have? Lord, bless the things we’d like to do in your name. How much more should we be open to let go of our ideas and ask God to reveal to us His plans! Lord guide us into your will, show us how you will glorify your name.

For God’s hope invites us into a surprising reality. God’s hope often goes further and deeper than we could have imagined. God’s hope invited Jeremiah’s listeners to make their home in exile. To build community amongst those you thought of as the enemy – with the implication that you find peace through forgiveness. God’s hope invited them to seek the welfare of the city in which they lived and be blessed with it – even though that city was Babylon. To commit to life around them, even while remembering that they belonged elsewhere.

It involved commitment, trust, patience, sacrifice and not a little letting go of cherished dreams and a rose-tinted past. But it was the way to a hopeful future.

I wonder how might we apply this in our own situation? Firstly, it suggests that God calls us to get stuck in; to create connections with the communities around us. They are part of God’s gift to us and we should seek their welfare, just as the ancient Jews sought blessings for Babylon. Jesus calls us to be salt and light to those around, that his people might be a sign of God’s love. We cannot do this in isolation but are called to belong. And I think on the whole our churches are good at this, although we do need to be aware of how our communities are constantly evolving and new things happening.

Secondly, it is good to look for our vocation where we are. We often think of vocation as going somewhere else to do God’s work – I think we’re unduly influenced by that image of the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. But when they did that they were called into a new stability.

For most of us, most of the time our vocation is to serve God where we are. We are called to be the people he wants us to be in our villages, workplaces, families and networks. We do not need to up sticks in order to serve God – often it is just a matter of becoming aware of the opportunities he sends us daily.

Thirdly, there is here a challenge to commitment. Our society is in danger of losing sight of the truth that perseverance through difficulty usually yields much greater results. I see so many CVs where people have stayed in a job less than 2 or 3 years. Perhaps it is possible to bring cosmetic change in such a time, but deep-rooted transformation needs quality relationships and commitment. It is the same in many areas of life. I’m not saying short term projects aren’t worth it – they often are. But you get so much more from a long term commitment.

Finally, let us praise a God who brings hope and transformation. A God who calls us to a join him on a journey which is both realistic and hopeful. A journey of loving trust with a God who knows the plans he has for us. Amen.

 

 

When God closes a door he opens a window

‘What can we do with a problem like Maria’, sang the nuns. Some time after, in the Sound of Music, it becomes clear that the novice Maria is a square peg in a round hole. Mother Superior has a pastoral chat, and her message is: ‘When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window’. In other words, it may not be right for Maria to stay in the convent, but God will have a bigger and better plan for her.

I have a hunch about folk wisdom quotes like that. I have a feeling that they’re mostly true 80, perhaps 90% of the time. True enough to be a good generalisation. But that remaining 10% – the times they don’t work – that’s big enough to be a problem. Those times when, even with the benefit with hindsight, we can’t see what God’s plan was. There needs to be an additional understanding.

For instance, one lovely service the Methodists have which Anglicans don’t really do is the covenant service. This happens once a year, where people dedicate themselves to follow Jesus whatever happens in their lives. It includes this moving and profound prayer:

‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will…
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.’

Sometimes we are laid aside. We recognise that there are times when the door closes, and a window opens. Maybe you’ve put all you had into a job application which seemed so right, and yet it came to nothing. And then a new opportunity came up where you were and the reason became clear. But sometimes also there never seems to have been a window and it remains a mystery to us. Sometimes a venture may seem so right, it doesn’t work out, and this side of eternity we never know why. I must say that, because tonight’s passage talks about the times when it does work out, but we need to keep the balance.

In Acts chapter 16, Paul has begun his second missionary journey, encouraging the churches he started earlier on. As he ventures towards uncharted territory, in v. 6-7 he has a strange experience. ‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia.’ Why on earth would the Spirit of Jesus stop them going somewhere new and telling people about Christ? Surely that’s a good thing?

Why not go into Asia? It’s a completely new mission field. What could be more strategic than opening up a new province, a new continent for Christ! One day it would happen, but not now. Again in v.7 – When they had come opposite Mysia they attempted to go into Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. What could be wrong with that? At one level, nothing. It’s not a bad thing to do, far from it! Yet it’s not God’s will. Somehow the Holy Spirit stops them – perhaps by events one might call coincidences but they spiritually discern them as coming from God? Perhaps by convicting them it’s not right? Even physically holding them up? Whatever the means, they knew it was from God.

Maybe some of us have had times when a proposed course of action, say buying a particular house, has seemed right. Rationally speaking, it all fits. There’s no reason not to, perhaps every reason to do so. And yet it doesn’t feel right. When you pray about it, you don’t get a sense of peace. Far from it: you feel uncertain or bothered. That can be from God. Both the peace and the lack of it. He knows more than we do, and he can guide us like that. Ignatian spirituality makes a great deal of this sense of inner peace or discomfort. If we are genuinely trying to seek God and obey him, if we are praying, he may confirm his will by this sense of peace.

I keep on learning to trust God’s guidance. Not just rationally, but also intuitively. Sometimes there are things which to all intents and purposes look sensible, but God says no. Maybe that house you looked at had unseen subsidence. Or maybe by moving somewhere else God knew you would meet lifelong friends. At the time we just don’t know.

We have to trust, which is hard if you’re turning down an opportunity. Paul trusted God, and the reason became clearer: In v.9 ‘Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’. There was another field of opportunity. At this point, St Luke joined the band – v.11 begins ‘We’ whereas v. 6 started with ‘they’, and Luke describes their itinerary into Greece.

But when they got there it must have seemed unpromising. Whenever he entered a new place, Paul went first of all to the synagogue, because there he could speak with people who were already familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. That gave him an obvious opening, a point of contact and some faith background. Just as when we have Back to Church Sunday or Alpha we often start by inviting people we know who have some Christian background. It gives something to build on. It may be easier for people on the fringe to make steps into faith – although of course we should try and offer the message to all.

But in the Roman colonial town of Philippi there’s no synagogue. That means there were hardly any Jews. You had to have a minimum of ten men to employ a rabbi – on the basis that each man would be giving 10% of his income. Here there’s less than 10. So there’s only a place by the river where a few women gather and pray. Interesting how Paul and his colleagues supposed there would be a place of prayer by the river, and were proved correct. Is there something about water which helps us be still, reflect and pray?

These women find it helpful although some of them, like Lydia, aren’t even Jewish – v.14 makes it clear she was an interested Gentile. However, God opens her heart. That’s an important point. From the way some Christians speak you might imagine that it was our job to convert people. It isn’t. It’s the Holy Spirit’s role.

In v14 c it says ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’. In other words, God did it. Christians are called to be faithful witnesses, but it’s the Holy Spirit who drives the point home. It is God who convicts people, both of sin and the truth of the good news.

That is liberating for us. We aren’t responsible for God’s call, for how people react to Christ, we can only witness and speak, we can’t make them respond. We must show the gospel by the way we live. And explain it by what we say – for if we don’t say anything, how will people know that it’s Christ who empowers us? If we just do good deeds but don’t say anything, all the attention and credit might go to us! Word and deed should work together, and the Lord confirms them both.

So in v.15 Lydia responds to the message and is baptised – along with all her household. That’s how it worked in those days. The head of the house made a decision and the rest of the family, the servants and slaves followed along. The ‘whole household’ may also imply infant baptism – that the little ones were baptised as members of God’s family

The apostles stay at Lydia’s house, events unfold and several people are converted.  From these tiny beginnings grew a significant church whose descendants are in the modern town nearby to this day. By all measures, this journey had been a success. Several hundred miles, undertaken because Paul felt God said ‘No’. And what faith to turn your back on the obvious and trust in God’s leading.

If Paul hadn’t been listening to God this might not have happened. He might have been very frustrated in Asia or Bithynia. But because he listened, God could do great things.

I wonder what opportunities we are faced with? May we too seek God’s will for all of life’s decisions. May we be open to his leading, both when he tells us to do something, and when he says no. May we listen for that presence or absence of a feeling of peace, which so often confirms important decisions. May we stay with God when his guidance is puzzling or the reasons unclear. And may we also be able to look back and see with hindsight that maybe there have been times when God has closed a door but opened a window.

 

One of the things I love doing in the Summer is building a dam. A holiday isn’t complete unless we’ve been to a sandy beach, found a little stream and built a dam across it enclosing a massive pool which you can then breach creating a wave of water rushing down the beach. It’s great because I can spend the whole afternoon dam-building and still say ‘Look, it’s for the children, honest.’

I soon found out that if you’re building dams you have to work with the natural features of the beach. Use the natural contours to shape your pool, build where the rocks are already restricting the flow. See where the water wants to run and work with it.

Working with God’s Kingdom is like working with water. Like the stream on the beach, the Holy Spirit is already flowing. God was active long before you or I arrived. We don’t do well if we then start building somewhere completely different! If we dig where the Spirit isn’t, if we try and channel God into our plans, little happens. Often the first step in our task if we want to grow the Kingdom of God is to listen, observe and see what God is doing. If our church wants to serve God well we need to ask: What is God calling us to do? Where does he want us to join in? For the church doesn’t take God into the rest of the world – it is his world and he is there already.

The people that we meet will have all sorts of experiences, sometimes quite profound. There will be beliefs they have been taught about God, some will be helpful, others not. So when we speak to someone about faith, they are not a blank sheet on which we write the gospel message. They already have their own views, own spirituality. There may be places where God is active in their lives, even if unrecognised.

Our task is to be open and sensitive. Listening and responding in Christ’s loving wisdom to what we hear. We see a lovely example of this in today’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian. Acts 8v26-end

If everything was going well for you in your job, if you were overcoming challenges, recruiting people, meeting success everywhere how would you feel about being posted to the middle of nowhere to start again from scratch?

That’s what happened to Philip. In v.5 Philip went to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, many miracles were done, evil was overcome. It was great.

And then in v26 the angel of the Lord appears to Philip and tells him to leave this wonderful successful ministry, walk 66 miles across the hills, not stopping at Jerusalem, down to the wilderness road that goes towards Gaza. And then when he sees a chariot God tells him to run, in the heat of the desert, and catch up with a trotting horse!

I’m struck by how amazingly open Philip must have been. Open to God guiding him in different ways. He recognised the nudging of the Spirit and responded obediently. Open to the possibility that he might be needed elsewhere. All the facts on the ground suggested he ought to stay in Samaria, but he was able to hear what God wanted. Open to sacrifice. Trusting God though he had no idea how it would turn out.

How do we trust God? Often we do that by straightforward Christian obedience. Most of the time the things God wants us to do are the obvious things right in front of our noses. Doing our work well, being loving to the people we meet, taking the opportunities to share our faith. All the guidance to do these essential things is in God’s word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us to do something particular.

It happened to me once when I was walking through the town and I felt God draw my attention to a particular house. I knew the people there had moved in recently and I thought perhaps I ought to knock on the door and say hello. But I was in a hurry so I didn’t.

Next time I went past, there was the nudge again. Ok God, I’ll do that, but I haven’t got the welcome leaflet on me at the moment. A week or so later, quite a strong feeling this time. So I plucked up my courage – you never know what people are going to be like – knocked on the door. A big guy answered it, seemed emotional – ah Vicar, you must have heard about my wife’s cancer. Glad you’re here. Do come in.

God knew Floris and her needs. He wanted to her to be supported. Sometimes you or I are part of someone else’s solution. If you sense that God is prodding you to do something, pray it over, and if you think it is God, you may not know why but pluck up your courage and act.

When Philip does so, the guy he meets is an Ethiopian. Obviously interested in the Jewish religion, perhaps even a convert, but Gentile background nonetheless. Perhaps Philip had been able to discern that God is widening out the good news to other nations – first including Jews, then Samaritans who were kind of heretical Jews, now a Gentile proselyte. But this man was also a eunuch. Someone who was banned by Old Testament law from worshipping in the temple. What can God do with him? Philip might well have thought.

I once said to a colleague: ‘Isn’t it good that Pete has started coming to Evensong’. ‘Naah,’ said the lay reader, ‘must be someone else. Pete’s lived in this village for 70 years, only ever come to church for a funeral.’ Next week he came up to me ‘God’s amazing. Pete was at Evensong!’ Pete was pretty amazing too – it’s not easy to change your habits when everyone in a small village knows who you are. Let’s not write people off, but give them the opportunity to find God.

Philip’s openness also comes through as he draws alongside the chariot. He doesn’t leap in with: ‘God’s told me to speak to you’. Instead he listens, hearing the Ethiopian read the prophet Isaiah. He then initiates conversation with a genuinely open question: ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’

We can only connect with people if we listen to them. So often Christian evangelism is full of its own ideas, so keen to tell everyone that it never takes the time to get to know them, or ask the questions which reveal what people really think. On the other hand Christians don’t genuinely respect people if we refuse to engage with their views, by avoiding discussion or saying ‘that’s fine if it works for you.’ Good listening means being able to respond, appropriately

One very important thing is to be aware of the subtext. For instance if someone says ‘if there’s a God how comes there’s so much suffering in the world?’ – is that a question to debate? It might be. Or are they asking because they’ve recently been through the mill? Rather than jump in with an answer, a different response might be ‘that’s a good question, can you tell me how it’s important to you?’

We can see that Philip has listened by his conversation. He starts where the man is. It’s an odd question – ‘is the writer of Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?’ Seems obvious it’s someone else, but Philip takes it seriously as an honest question. I’ve had all sorts of strange conversations with people about spiritual stuff they’ve read on the internet, aliens and what have you, and however daft you think the question is it’s important not to be dismissive.

But also to ground what we say by referring back to what God tells us in Scripture and speaking about Jesus. Scripture explains God’s purposes. Jesus provides the context that makes sense of faith. For instance someone who’s talking about ghosts may need to be reassured that whatever strange things happen, Jesus has power over evil and we can be at peace if we trust him.

The Ethiopian trusts God and decides to get baptised. It seems like this is the end of the story but of course it isn’t. I wonder what happened to that Ethiopian? Where did he go next? How did his faith grow? Was he the only Christian in his country? Did he share his new found faith? We just don’t know. But God does. God had a plan, and he knew when to bring someone else in, and when that person had done what he could.

God had led Philip to the Ethiopian, and now the Holy Spirit takes Philip away again. Philip has done his bit – and God will carry on whatever he’s doing. It’s like that with serving God – we’re called to play our part, and leave the rest with God. It’s not down to us whether someone responds to God – that’s between God and them. We’re not ultimately responsible – God is.

I find that incredibly liberating. It’s a great encouragement to join in God’s work. God is already active in people’s lives. He calls us to join him in what he’s doing. You and I have our bit to do – let us do it faithfully, open to God’s leading and rejoicing in the privilege he gives.