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.




Being a servant

Tina works in the NHS at a major hospital. As a consultant she works alongside people from all walks of life – hospital porters, doctors and nurses. One of the most important people is Tina’s overall boss – let’s call her Elizabeth. Elizabeth co-ordinates a large team of regional specialists. She’s capable, organised, perhaps we might say formidable. It is said even some of the consultants are a little scared of her.

One day recently Tina was passing through the hospital foyer when she saw Elizabeth pushing a shopping trolley into the ladies loo. It wasn’t just any shopping trolley either, it was laden with old carrier bags, blankets and bits of junk. When the shopping trolley was safely inside, Elizabeth lent her arm to an old woman who was obviously sleeping rough, and helped her in too. The old lady was desperate for the bathroom, didn’t want to leave her worldly goods outside, but couldn’t get them in on her own, so Elizabeth, the senior executive, lent a hand.

It’s not often someone tells me a story and I think, wow, that’s just right for my sermon next week! But what a wonderful true story of someone who was first, but was willing to be a servant of all!

Jesus did not just ask this from those who followed him. He modelled the principle in his own life. It’s clear in verse 30 of our gospel reading. When it says ‘they went on from there’ it’s referring to the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus had been revealed in all his glory. There, his disciples saw and heard who he really is: God’s own Son. Now they will find out what that means.

Jesus takes them through the quiet paths of Galilee as he explains to them what lies in wait for him in Jerusalem. It’s an accurate prediction of Holy Week: ‘The Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.’ Despite this foreknowledge, Jesus does turn aside, but in love and courage deliberately goes up to Jerusalem.

He is not some general way behind the lines sending men over the top to their deaths. Jesus is a leader who leads the way. He gives himself for his followers. He alone can do this, because only when God becomes human can the broken relationship between humanity and God be healed. Humanity has turned away from God, and our sin, our tendency to go our own way, creates a barrier between us and God. But God comes to meet us in Christ. He deals with the barrier of sin by taking it away, taking it onto himself on the cross and dying as a result of it.

This is how God forgives us – by bearing the cost of forgiveness. Inspired by love Jesus gives himself for us. He serves us in the greatest way possible. No-one else can do what Jesus did, he alone could do that. But in our own way we can follow his example and serve others. Jesus followers must turn away from pride and selfishness.

So it’s particularly bad timing when Jesus disciples take this opportunity to argue about who is the greatest! In v.33 Jesus challenges them – and notice how he does this. He doesn’t let it pass because it’s important to fix the problem. We know that when the Holy Spirit pricks our conscience it’s for our own good. Don’t ignore the Holy Spirit’s nudgings. It may not be comfortable but it’s much better to face an issue than pretend it isn’t there. And like a good friend Jesus doesn’t go straight in with an accusation. He asks a question.

Which meets with a guilty silence. I wonder: were the disciples quarrelling blatantly? I’m the greatest. I’m better than you. Was it like the mother of James and John who shamelessly asked Jesus if her sons could sit at his right and left in his glory?

Or was it more subtle? ‘While James and I were preaching in the last village, God did amazing things. We were so blessed. Of course I thought no-one would turn up, but there were 100! Maybe more. We baptised 30 of them. Isn’t God wonderful! How was your trip Simon?’

If they had Facebook in those days, would their posts have been real? Honest about difficulties? Or would it all have been gorgeous sunsets in exotic locations and happy children, a presentation of a together life? From certificates in the downstairs loo, to subtle visual signs in the car you drive, even the vexed question of jumper or jacket, there are so many temptations to present ourselves as successful, to be the best.

I love the way Jesus deals with this. He’s so refreshingly honest. In the second part of v.35 ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and the servant of all’. See what he does? He deals with us as we are. He’s not urging us to be dishonest and pretend particular feelings aren’t there. He’s not pretending people don’t have ambition. He deals with it as it is.

Jesus encourages us to be honest, recognising what’s in our hearts. The first step in a healthy spirituality is self-knowledge. Knowing what we’re really like – the best and the worst of what is in our own soul. When we are honest and acknowledge what are like, then God can do something with us. It’s much harder when we’re in self-denial. Perhaps as we look inwards we find ambition. Is it a godly ambition, seeking to excel, to make a difference? Or is it a selfish ambition desiring power and position? We’re human, so often the two are present together.

And Jesus tells us what to do with it. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all’. He tells us how to act. What to do. To be last, and a servant of all. Jesus doesn’t tell us to repress our feelings or go into denial. He says if you feel this way, then do that. Change what you can, your actions. If you feel you want to do things your way, perhaps it’s time to serve the tea for a bit. I remember arriving early for a big meeting with the Bishop of Worcester. He was busy setting out the chairs.

It’s particularly vital that we serve those who are seen as unimportant. That’s the reason behind taking a child in his arms.

Little children had low status. Until they could work or be married they were unimportant. So when Jesus talks in v. 37 about ‘Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me’ he’s challenging the preoccupations of an adult world. By welcoming children, we welcome Jesus. (I find it interesting how it’s relatively easy to get helpers for a Sunday service at which there may be two dozen people present. But how many people have been to, let alone volunteer for, Little Lights or Messy Church which are larger and reach out into the comunity?)

Jesus tells us to serve because he himself served. We should lead in a servant way because Jesus led like this. Seeing service as being Jesus-shaped will help us to address some of the questions about this passage. For it could be quite easy to misunderstand what Jesus says. He’s not saying that it is wrong to lead or have responsibility. He’s not saying that Christians should be a walkover – the kind of servant who gets told what to do, who has to defer to others’ opinions, who is weak and not able to take care of themselves.

When we look at Jesus do we see someone like that? Of course not. He took necessary care of himself. He knew what was right and wrong and stood up for it. Jesus had a very clear idea of his priorities and refused to get sidetracked into other tasks. Jesus was a servant in that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many – but he was no pushover!

If we put this teaching into practice it might have many applications: it is good to improve your abilities, to do well, not to reach the top of the tree for its own sake, but to be more effective and make a difference for the Kingdom. It is good to do your best and be satisfied that you have done so. By all means assume the lead role when your gifts suit it – but not if others are better? Let others have a go, train them up and rejoice in their success, not being threatened by their abilities. Don’t stand on ceremony or be stuffy about titles, positions and perks.

Perhaps there are some questions too for us to consider: What is a healthy balance between work and the rest of life? Are all of our aspirations healthy? Or necessary? If you get promoted, will you be able to do more good, or more paperwork? When is it right to take on tasks because they will improve your CV? How much time do you spend on updating LinkedIN versus the job in hand?

No doubt you will have thoughts of your own as the Spirit leads you. Each one of us must answer those questions ourselves. Let us allow Jesus to speak with us as he did his disciples. Let us be honest about what is in our hearts. And let’s ask God to guide us in what we do, so that we too may follow Christ and serve as he served us.