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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Was Indiana Jones right?

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was right – in places. That film, and today’s Old Testament reading agree: God isn’t magical – his power can’t be used at human will. And while his presence brings great blessing to those who worship him, it can also be very dangerous for those who lack humility.

The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box. In it were the tablets of stone on which were written the 10 Commandments. The box itself was overlaid with gold. Between two carved statues on the lid was a special spot – the mercy seat. On this place, once a year, the High Priest would put the blood from a sacrifice. That was the only time anybody was supposed to go near the Ark, which was kept in the Holy of Holies, at the heart of the temple.

That was because for the Jews the Ark was a focus for the presence of God. It reminded them that the God they worshipped wanted to dwell with them. It taught them that he was also a holy God and that sinful people could not take his power or love for granted.

But sadly people forget what symbols mean, or imagine that they can manipulate God. The Israelites took the ark into battle, thinking that would make God win the battle for them. They lost, the ark was captured, and after many adventures David decided to bring it back to Jerusalem.

Which is where we join the story. Although it’s thousands of years old, and comes from a completely different culture, there’s much it can teach us about worship. Christians do not have an Ark, because Christ has fulfilled its meaning. He is God with us. God’s holiness is shown to us through Christ’s cross. That’s how God is both holy and with us – because Jesus deals with our sin there. Christian worship is very different, yet I think you’ll agree, the principles are remarkably similar.

Worship is essential. David wanted the ark back because it was used in worshipping God. And worship makes us complete: as St Augustine said: ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.’ In worship we draw close to God, we drink deeply from the water of life, we’re fed with the bread of heaven.

What does worship do you for you? Does it fill you up? Set you up for the week? Put everything else in perspective? Take you out of yourself into the presence of God? Worship is a human instinct: we observe that if people don’t worship God they often worship other things.

But the worship of God is a great blessing. It can be individual – think of David the shepherd boy composing psalms on the hillside. And worship can be a whole community – as we see in v.5 where the house of Israel join in.

For many of us that’s when worship is at its best. When the whole community joins together in worshipping God for a particular reason. Remembrance Day, a baptism. Times like that have a really special feel to them.

So should our Sunday worship be more of an occasion? Should we be looking for other themes or special events? Songs of Praise, or Sea Sunday? Certainly if we want to include the wider community we do need to think about the words we use – what does Sung Eucharist mean to the average parent?

And we need to think about how church worship relates to a culture which is increasingly informal, and café in style. On the one hand people are quite consumerist – not many come to church out of duty these days. But on the other hand few are content just to watch a spectacle up front – they want to be engaged and involved. So we need to think about how our worship evolves.

Think about the best celebrations you’ve been part of… I bet they involve food. We couldn’t say goodbye to Phil without having puddings and wine. Religions have always understood the connection between food, community and worship. In v. 19 the day ends with David giving everyone bread meat and raisins. Whether it’s Harvest Supper, or mince pies and mulled wine after Carols, or good coffee, food and drink speak of hospitality and shared life.

At church the other week a child came in clutching a piece of toast. It’s a rush for families to get going in the morning. So we’re going to offer breakfast before the Family Service as part of our welcome.

It will be a nice breakfast too. Because everything we do in worship should be our best. God deserves nothing less. When we come together to worship the Lord of all creation, our Saviour and Friend, how could we offer something half-baked or indifferent? God deserves the best.

And of course, the more we put in, the more we get out. Singing is a great example. If you stand up, lift your head and sing out, you feel good. And it’s a virtuous circle, singing up encourages others to be confident too and creates a good feel in worship. Particularly if we’re sitting close enough to each other to create a bit of volume!

Offering our best also makes worship more appealing to visitors. Nowadays we all expect increasingly high standards in every area of life. We might wonder, what chance has the average parish church got? How can we keep up with society’s expectations?

For people can sink into the cushioned seat of their car, and adjust their desired temperature to ½ a degree. They can drive down the M4 listening to Kings College Choir singing Tallis while the children amuse themselves in the back seat with an iPad. You can stop at Cribbs Causeway, do your Sunday shopping and order a double macchiato with hazelnut syrup and chocolate flakes.

How can the church compete with that? Well actually we can. Home made cakes are better than any café. Building projects can improve our facilities. But there is one thing that society values even more than choice and quality. That is integrity.

Flash and technique count for nothing if there is no heart or atmosphere behind them. So many talented people have been brought down because they were not seen as genuine. And that is where the church can shine. In the warmth of our welcome, the reality of our community. In generosity which seeks no return. In an honest sermon and the engagement of the children. If what we offer in our music and our prayers is the best we can do, then that will speak of genuineness, and God rejoices in our best.

Our best also includes obedience. Remember that the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God? Because the Jews knew that God is holy and people are sinners, there were very clear rules about moving the ark. It could only be done by priests, carrying poles which were slid through loops attached to the ark. No-one could touch it.

So when we read verses 3-6 it all seems a bit slapdash. The Israelites load the Ark onto a cart. When the oxen stumble, one of the two men leading the oxen reaches out to steady it, and pays the ultimate penalty for their lack of reverence. David is angry at God, and fearful, and they decide to leave the ark in the nearest home.

Three months later it is clear that God longs to bless his people. So the Israelites return and this time they do it properly, with a sacrifice too. It’s a challenging story, and it’s included in our Bibles as a reminder that, although we do not worship in that way, and Christ fulfils the Old Testament, God is a holy God.

We could misunderstand this. We could be anxious to get everything right in worship, or imagine that it must be very solemn. We must remember that this account is from the Old Testament where worship was ritualised and laid down in law.

For us, Christ has fulfilled the temple law, so it is no longer needed. Our worship remembers him and how he reconciled us with God. He paid for our sins so that we can enter into God’s presence freely. If the ark were here, we could touch it, because of Jesus. This story does not tell us that our worship should be fearful, or sombre, but it does remind us of the price Jesus paid so that we could come to God.

Of course, Christians do have ways of organising their worship. We have a particular way of laying out the communion vessels, a pattern to our service. It’s good to have a way of doing things, otherwise we’d be starting from scratch each time. It’s good for that way to be shared with other churches, so if you’re somewhere new you know what’s going on. But we must always remember: these things are human traditions, they change and evolve. It doesn’t matter if we make a mistake. Stuffiness is not a virtue – reverence, beauty, joy and informality can thrive together. The worship of God is not a performance that we have to get right.

What we do need to try and get right is our obedience. Throughout the Old Testament and the New, God tells us there is no point in having wonderful worship if we’re not living his way. In Amos 6:23 ‘Away with the noise of your songs, let justice flow like rivers’. In Psalm 40:6 ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, I delight to do your will O God.’

Worship must change our lives. When we draw close to God we become more like him. His love fills us. When we hear God’s word we are challenged to put it into practice. When we worship God we are inspired by his love. His Spirit fills us, and sends us out through that door. Worship changes lives to make a difference in the world.