Vocation 5, Ezekiel 3 and Matt 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our destiny: Glory!

Today’s my first Sunday back after being on holiday down in Seaton, on the Jurassic Coast. The Jurassic coast is so called because it is the place for fossils. The steep streets of Lyme Regis are full of fossil shops, where you can buy bright polished ammonites varying in size from little golden pyrites half an inch across to great monsters of two foot wide.

They are wondrous to look at – shimmering colours, whirling patterns, fine details and texture. You can pay uto buy one – or you can pick among the flotsam and pebbles to find similar specimens on the beach. The seashore ones won’t look the same – the fossil shops have washed them, picked off encrusting mud, cut and polished the fossil shells to a finish. Yet the beauty within is there ready to see.

It’s like that with the pebbles on the beach. They shine in glorious pinks, greens and sapphire shades. You take them home, and drying out they fade to a disappointing off-grey. But immerse them in water and the glorious beauty emerges again. In the right situation, at the right time, for those who are there to see it, there is glory to perceive.

And so it was with Jesus. Usually there was nothing extraordinary about his appearance and as the three disciples climbed the scented slopes that day, they probably thought they were going to spend some time in prayer. After all, mountain tops are where you go to be alone with God. But as v.2 in our gospel reading from Matthew 17 says: ‘Jesus was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun.’

Suddenly Jesus’ true nature shone through. Awestruck, Peter James and John saw Jesus as he really is – the Son of God. We might speak of a bride being radiant on her wedding day, or of someone exuding cheerfulness, and in the Old Testament there is the story of the face of Moses shining with reflected glory after spending time in the presence of God.

But this is on a whole different level. This transfiguration is not of human origin, nor even is it from reflected divine light. Instead it’s part of who Jesus is, his real nature revealed. God himself affirms in v. 5: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!’

This had been God’s plan right from the beginning – that’s the point of Moses and Elijah being there – they represent the Old Testament Law and the Prophets, who predicted the coming of Christ and looked forward to him. God intended to send his Son and to reveal him.

Those words might remind you of another event? They’re almost identical to the words of God at Jesus’ baptism. Both times God says that Jesus is his own Son, divine but come to earth as a human being. There are many pieces of evidence in the gospels that point us to that conclusion: the miracles Jesus performed like calming the storm, his power to heal and authority over evil. Jesus himself believed that he was God’s son: he claimed to be able to forgive people, which only God could do; and when he taught he did so with authority: ‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’ And of course his Abba Father gave him the ultimate vindication in raising him from the dead

In a way, the Transfiguration looks forward to the Resurrection. The glory revealed here is the glory that Jesus will share when he has conquered death. But looking down from this steep hill, there’s a long and dusty road back to Jerusalem. A path of pain and sorrow that Jesus is about to tread, the way of Holy Week, that leads up to the cross. Only by coming down the mountain, by embracing a suffering world and transforming it, can the glory be made available to all.

Understandably, St Peter doesn’t want to come down. In v.4 he offers to build dwellings so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah can stay up there with them forever.

I think that speaks to us of three choices that we have today. We too can be like Peter, and try to hang on to the spiritual experience. For instance, there are churches which are incredibly well resourced, with amazing music and technology, and they can be very popular. People travel miles to get to them – they drive though many parishes to get there. Maybe that’s not a problem if that experience enables them to serve better, to engage more closely with their community, to love their neighbours more deeply. But it is a problem if it’s just about seeking an experience. If worship isn’t geared up to making a difference.

Christians rightly seek to be built up in our faith and spiritually nourished – and sometimes we do need extra input beyond what we can do in one smallish church. To resource us in these churches we have Group Services where we all get together, housegroups for mutual support. Some of us go to the Filling Station or New Wine. I need to receive and be topped up so I go on annual retreats and the odd trip to HTB. For if all you do is give out, then you dry up. But if all you do is receive, you stop gaining any benefit because it’s as we give out that we grow.

The other danger to watch out for is what happened to the disciples after the reading. They came down the mountain, encountered difficulties, and promptly forgot the power they had just experienced. When we are preoccupied by challenges, they crowd us in and we neglect the resources we have in Christ.

We can become like the guy who was king in the time of Elisha. Samaria was besieged and all king Joram could see were crowds of enemies. Elisha the prophet prayed ‘Lord, open the king’s eyes’, and he saw the angels of God, an invisible army protecting the city.

That’s why the Transfiguration happens at this particular point. It’s a blessing and encouragement for Jesus and his disciples. Knowing who Jesus really is gives them strength and persistence for the road ahead. ‘Get up and do not be afraid’ says Jesus in verse 7.

Knowing who Jesus is means that we can be secure in following him. It also means that we can be secure in our own identity as children of God. For one day we too shall share in Jesus’ glory. St John says in 1 John 3:2 that we shall be as Christ is. Isn’t that amazing? That one day we shall be like Jesus!

Jesus didn’t become human by kind of popping God inside human skin. Or by a divine soul descending into a human body. Jesus became human by assimilating humanity, by taking humanity into divinity. And so as people who are united with Christ we shall one day share his glory. Because we have that identity, because we have a glorious future, we can act with real integrity now.

What I’m trying to say is that when we understand what our future is in Christ, when we understand our real identity, it changes the way we view ourselves and the way we act. We will move in the direction of our destiny.

Society today is very keen on the idea of authenticity. That we should be true to our inner selves. That what we are outwardly should be the same as what we are inwardly – otherwise we’d be hypocrites. But there’s a problem with that. A writer summed it up very well in this article from The Week, originally printed in the Observer.

“‘Be true to yourself’ is one of the most common pieces of advice given in graduation speeches. But it is a strange vanity to think that it is this is deeper unfiltered version of ourselves, as opposed to the one we show the world, that is the better part of our nature. My own authentic self, sadly, is a fan of pyjamas and inertia. She doesn’t take out the bin or write thank you notes or file tax returns. Her heart tends to sink when she spots the lonely woman from next door. Authenticity is, at its heart, the idea what we should make the way we behave match what we feel on the inside. But really a functioning society depends on keeping a healthy distance between the two.”

So, seeing problems with authenticity, she sets up an alternative. One that will sound familiar to a lot of Christians. Perhaps we too think of themselves as trying to do the right thing outwardly while struggling with all sorts of inappropriate thoughts and wrestling with darkness within. Do you know what I’m saying? The outer me I present to the world, versus the inner me which I need to keep under control? Which one is real?

Actually neither of those understandings are fully Christian. The Transfiguration points us to an alternative way. Those who trust in Christ will one day be like him. We shall be glorified. That is our destiny. So our outer actions and our inner thoughts are all on a journey, a journey of transformation. What we are inwardly is not fixed, a grubby self to be beaten down. Instead the Holy Spirit strives within us, helping us to be more like Christ.

I find understanding this really helps me. It gets over the sense of being divided, a good person versus a bad person and which one’s the real me? It means the struggle against sin isn’t about fighting a losing battle. It means I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say ‘sorry that’s who I am.’ The Transfiguration tells me that my destiny is better than that, in Christ.

Imagine a gangster and thief released from prison, who manages to go straight and get a job. He works his way up a company and does pretty well. At the weekends does he go back to the old ways, smoke pot and get in fights? Hardly. That’s not him any more. He is looking to what he has become. A new life.

Christians are called to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. So the real you is not some shabby, sinful, ashamed or inadequate self-image. That is the old man, who died with Christ. The real you, the real me is the new creation. The one who is being formed in Christ’s image, made like him. So become what you are! Let the glory of the Transfigured Christ transform you! Lord let it be so.

 

 

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

She doesn’t have the presidential look. So said Donald Trump about Hilary Clinton, and when challenged, he repeated it. ‘I just don’t think she has the presidential look. And you need the presidential look. You have to get the job done.’ I wonder what he meant? Do we expect leaders to fit a certain mould? Do you have to have a particular appearance or air to be able to get on? What speaking skills and demeanour are necessary to be effective in the world?

The good news in our Corinthians reading is that whoever you are, God can use you. The world may value a particular sort of wisdom, but the Holy Spirit uses those who are open to him. So we place confidence, not in fancy techniques and special skills, but in the Spirit’s power. For it is God’s Spirit who convinces people of the truth about Jesus.

St. Paul had discovered this through experience. He was a real gospel pioneer, explaining and enculturating the Christian faith wherever he went. In AD 51 Paul went to Corinth, a sea port in Greece. Chapter 18 of the book of Acts describes how Paul and his companions stayed in Corinth for 18 months – a long time – because many people came to faith in Jesus.

Soon though it all began to go wrong. The letters to the Corinthians are the most personal and passionate in the New Testament, as Paul tries to win back his former friends. Within just a year or two of his departure, the Corinthian church had divided along class lines, gone downhill ethically, and wandered away from Christ as they experimented with so-called wisdom. Paul, the wandering unmarried missionary who supported himself by making tents, was an embarrassment to these ambitious, sophisticated Corinthians. Paul was so yesterday! Hadn’t they grown out of his homespun approach?

The passage we’re reading today, from 1st Corinthians 2:1-12 is a model of a Christian response to criticism. Paul does not stand on his dignity, instead he focusses on Christ. He does not defend his style, instead in verse 1 he admits: ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.’

This was a deliberate choice, in v.2: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’

Paul could have adapted his message to make it more philosophical, he could have copied worldly wisdom. Paul could have focussed on the glory and power of Christ and forgotten about the shame of Jesus death. But no, Paul made the conscious decision that his message would be about Jesus the Son of God, and how he saves us through his death on the cross.

Paul did this because, as we heard last week in v. 18 of chapter 1, although the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jesus death on the cross is contrary to the glory, wealth and power of human wisdom, but it is the way that God saves us… As Jesus dies, he atones for the sin of the world. Mercy overcomes judgement, forgiveness triumphs over hate, love is discovered in the midst of suffering. Through his death Jesus sets us free from the power of evil.

Paul knew that we do not find salvation through our own efforts or morality, but through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. So Christianity without the cross would not be Christianity at all. Of course, Paul is not anti-intellectual – after all his own writings show great depth of thought. Paul is not saying that it’s wrong to communicate the gospel in the best possible way – for his own letters use all the best rhetorical methods. But is he saying that all these things must be pointing towards Christ crucified – they must shed light on the message rather than obscure it 

I think that’s an important message for the church today. To have confidence in the good news, that the power of the message itself will take root in people’s hearts and change lives.

It is not wrong to advertise: to use everything from Facebook to posters. It is not wrong to create glossy videos, have high quality music – whether by choir or worship band. It is not wrong to be warm, to serve decent coffee and sit in comfy chairs. But it would be wrong for churches to rely on those things; it would be wrong if the experience was wonderful but the gospel was not heard; it would be wrong if people went from church to church like customers seeking livelier music and eloquent preaching.

Look at the church in many parts of Africa. If they have buildings they are more like sheds. The pastor is lucky if he’s been educated to secondary school. Yet the churches are full and joyous, for the gospel is proclaimed.

And that is what Paul did. In v.3 he admits that he came to Corinth in much fear and trembling. But as v.4 and 5 say, this was so that their faith might rest not on human wisdom but on a demonstration of God’s power.

What is this power? Does he mean miracles? Was the power of God shown through miraculous healings and raising the dead? Certainly that does happen throughout the book of Acts but interestingly when Paul comes to Corinth in chapter 18 miracles are not mentioned at all.

Does the power mean the gifts of the Spirit? The supernatural abilities like giving prophecies, speaking in tongues or interpreting them? Certainly the gifts of the Spirit were very important to the Corinthians – so much so that Paul has to tell them that the gifts are not ends in themselves. Instead the gifts receive their power when they are used to serve one another in love.

This is the meaning of power. A changed life brought about by God. The Spirit’s power is shown when someone believes the good news and becomes a changed person. It’s as we become more like Jesus that the Spirit’s power is shown. That’s a real challenge to our priorities. What is it that shows the presence of God in a church? Lives changed to be more like Jesus. It’s not the quality of the experience for an hour one Sunday morning that matters – it’s what you do with it for the rest of the week.

I wonder who the best preacher you’ve ever heard was? I think of a certain chap. I can’t remember any of his sermons – perhaps one or two jokes and illustrations but no more. I certainly can’t think of any one set-piece where I thought ‘that was an amazing talk’. But I do know that for three years at university I was nourished and developed in my faith through the biblical message he gave.

It’s a bit like meals: I suspect there are very few individual meals you can remember, perhaps the odd special occasion. If I were to ask you what you had for lunch last Tuesday you might struggle to answer. But the fact you’re alive means you have been sustained by regular meals – they have nourished you day to day. It is like that with hearing and reading God’s word – regularly receiving nourishment gives us life.

And when we come to God’s word, we must do so with humility. That means asking God to speak to us when we read the Bible. It means praying that when we listen to a sermon we can hear whatever nuggets are there – because there are always some if you listen hard enough! Coming with humility means wanting to encounter God and being open to whatever change he wants to make in our lives.

Without humility we are like the rulers Paul speaks about in verses 6 and 8. Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priests did not understand the significance of Jesus, and so they condemned him to death. Yet by this action they fulfilled God’s hidden wisdom which he decreed before all time, they did what was necessary for God’s plan of salvation.

Incidentally verses 6 to 9 are not saying that God has hidden knowledge that he only reveals to a select few. This doesn’t set up a kind of super-religious elite. The secret and hidden wisdom in v7 is the message of the cross – which did not make sense at the time but is now available to all. God’s purpose was mysterious but in Christ he reveals it to all.

To understand God’s word we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us. This is what verses 10 to 12 mean. Why did the rulers not understand Jesus? Why do many not get it today? Why can a child grasp the gospel whereas some professors cannot? Because in v.10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. We need to be humble and open to the Holy Spirit who alone understands the things of God.

Think of horse whisperers – we had an email the other day from a guy in Singapore who puts a lot of effort into understanding the different moods of horses. Susannah went on a trip to Bristol zoo recently and found out about the body language of gorillas. Apparently when gorillas are happy they relax. And every muscle relaxes. So their faces go all droopy. Which means that if you see a gorilla looking spectacularly fed up, it’s actually really chilled out. At least that’s what the zoo say!

Gorillas though would understand gorillas. And horses horses. Humans intuitively understand one another. Like understands like. That’s what Paul is saying in v.11: ‘for what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within’. And here comes the punchline: ‘So also no-one comprehends what is truly God’s except the spirit of God.’

And amazingly in v.12: ‘We have received the Spirit of God!’ Isn’t that astonishing?! We could not naturally understand the things of God, but he gives us his Spirit so that we can. Because the Holy Spirit is divine, he understands the mind of God. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians, he can lead us into truth.

What a wonderful gift God gives in the Holy Spirit! May we ask for his illumination every time we come to God’s word. May we use the gifts the spirit gives us, all our time and talents, and submit them to the service of Christ crucified. May we seek to be filled regularly with the Spirit and live out our lives in courageous obedience to him. May we pray the Spirit’s blessing on all that we do, and trust in God’s strength, so that others may find a faith which rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

The foolishness of the cross

I wonder if anyone knows what the earliest picture of Jesus is? The answer might surprise you. The earliest known artistic depiction of Jesus dates from the second century. It is not in a church. It’s not an artwork on a catacomb, nor precious jewellery. It’s a piece of graffiti, scratched by Roman page boys on the wall of their boarding school.

The legend says Alexamenos Worships His God. And you can see a cartoon of Alexamenos himself. A little figure holds his hand up in an attitude of worship towards the crucified Christ on a cross. But in the picture Jesus is not as we know him. He has the head of a donkey. The meaning is clear: look at Alexamenos, worshipping a crucified fool. What an idiot! A God who is crucified – what’s that about?

In 1st Corinthians chapter 1, verses 18-31, Paul urges not to be ashamed of the cross. Do not be embarrassed by the message of a crucified Saviour, for it is the power of God. What appears to be foolishness on God’s part is wiser than the greatest human wisdom. The cross appears to be folly, but it addresses our deepest needs.

From our reading you get the impression that the people in the church at Corinth wouldn’t have appreciated the Alexamenos graffiti. They wouldn’t have laughed it off nor taken it on the chin. For the Corinthians were very concerned with appearances.

They took pride in their education and their achievements. They noted who had spiritual gifts, and who didn’t, who had the power of persuasion and influence. The Corinthians admired people who were self-sufficient, not depending on others; they valued connections and the esteem of the wider community. Had there been Facebook in those days, they’d have spent all their time on it, updating their status with sunny holiday destinations, pictures of their children’s latest awards, and namedropping their connections. They did it ‘their way’

They wanted their leaders to model success. So Paul the tentmaking unmarried itinerant apostle was a bit of an embarrassment. Next week we’ll hear the criticisms against him – all the areas where he was deemed lacking and not the right sort of apostle for a place like Corinth.

Now Paul could have stood on his dignity. He could have asserted his right to lead, or argued that he was as good as any other of the leaders. Instead Paul challenges the very base of their value system. What they cherish does not matter – Jesus upends the worlds’ values. The Kingdom turns the tables upside down – just look the prime example – the cross.

In v.18: ‘The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’. This surprising wisdom was foretold in the Old Testament, and Paul quotes an example from Isaiah 29. Verses 19-21 observe that what humanity did not guess, God revealed. Did any of the scribes or philosophers foretell the cross, God’s way of saving us?

Paul says that there are Biblical truths which are so far beyond our understanding, so counter-intuitive, that they must be revealed by God himself. God tells us the deepest things through Christ and the Bible.

Our human understanding is limited, it is also tainted by sin. So the power of human reasoning: logic, science, philosophy cannot unaided discover God’s deep plan. Of course, once it is revealed to us, God’s character and plan do not contradict science – God’s two books of Scripture and Nature are not opposed to one another – but we need God’s revelation to show us the whole truth. And sometimes that revelation, truth from God, will look like foolishness to the world.

What does that mean? In verse 23 Paul says ‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ The cross was foolishness to the Greeks because it didn’t resemble any philosophy they recognised. Instead of being mystical speculation, the Christian message is about events that happened in this physical world: God became man, he died on a cross to save us and rose to life again.

The Greeks understood moral guidance and there is instruction in the good news. But morality wasn’t the main point. The cross is not about how to live a moral life, but about how God himself deals with the problem of our sin. It is a rescue. On the cross Jesus takes sin upon himself, he bears the burden of evil, he suffers the consequences of human wrongdoing. Our sin deserves punishment but Jesus willingly takes the penalty for us so that we do not have to endure it. That is the power of the cross – Jesus standing in our place – but the idea that God might actually do something was a huge thing for Greeks to accept.

There are plenty of people today who like their religion philosophical, without the call to act and follow a crucified a Saviour. The church would be very popular if all it did was preach morality – but Christianity without the cross is empty of power, not really Christianity.

For Jews it was harder. How could a true Messiah end up like that? Today Muslims have a similar objection. Islam teaches that Jesus was just a prophet – and in Islam prophets always triumph. So most Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified – it’s a huge step to imagine that God could be human and offer himself to suffer for them. How amazing that love is – and yet it can be hard to grasp.

I wonder in what other ways the cross is a stumbling block or foolishness today? Last Easter there were newspaper reports about people who were deeply offended by an outdoors Good Friday service. It was a re-enactment and apparently the crucifixion bit wasn’t very nice. After all religion must be nice, mustn’t it? Never bring you up short.

Many of us struggle with the idea of the wrath of God. The belief that God is righteously angry at sin, and that he will ultimately punish evil is something that we naturally resist. But if God was not a judge who stood up for justice, could he really be a God of love? In other words if we want a God without judgement are we asking for a God who doesn’t care? And why would Jesus endure the cross if it weren’t necessary? The Bible tells us that what we see on the cross is God’s way of forgiving us.

In our society belief in God’s judgement on sin is difficult. Not least because we’ve all done wrong. As Rom 3:23 says ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…and are now justified by his grace’

Freely put right with God through his immense love. So the cross is good news for everyone. Anyone can come to Christ and be forgiven through him. The cross holds out to us the vast compassion of God. It shows his incredible sacrifice for us. Yet in order for the cross to be good news, people have to first understand that they need it. If we cannot accept that we need to be forgiven, the cross is a stumbling block. But if we know our need, the cross is the wisdom of God

There is wisdom in forgiveness. Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him, and taught his followers to forgive just as they had been forgiven. One person who showed that in her life was Jill Saward – you may have read her story which was widely publicised when she died a couple of weeks ago. Jill was horrifically assaulted when her father’s vicarage was burgled by three men in 1986. Later on she said:

‘If I had carried on hating, it would have destroyed me and I didn’t want those men to have that sort of power over me.” That is a very hard-headed approach to forgiveness – it recognises that forgiveness heals. The foolishness would be to carry on hating, to imagine that the hate in your heart is a way at getting back at those who’ve hurt you. Of course hatred has no effect on them at all. Instead, forgiving turns the tables – the one forgiving has power: to present the attacker with a choice – will they accept forgiveness and the responsibility for change, or will they stay locked in a prison of denial?

So the cross is the wisdom of God. In apparent weakness comes its power. It seems foolish but is wise. This is a principle God uses. He can use people who are weak – as Paul points out in verses 26-31 the Corinthians weren’t actually remarkable people. Not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. God chose what is weak to shame the strong, so that no-one might boast in his presence.

This isn’t to say that Christians should be incompetent! We should always give of our best to God. It’s good to try and understand what we believe and to communicate it in the best possible way. And Paul is not saying that God isn’t interested in capable or privileged people – we all matter to him equally. It’s just that those who are able can easily end up relying on their own ability, doing their own thing. Capable people have to be able to understand their own limits, their own need of God, before God can really use them. It’s when we apply the cross in our own lives that the power works in us, when we grasp forgiveness and our new identity in Jesus.

And so the cross has become the Christian symbol. Interesting that. The symbol of our faith could have been many things. The Trinity is central but the symbol of a triangle hasn’t caught on. Nor has an empty tomb for the Resurrection. I’m not sure how you’d represent the incarnation – it doesn’t help that there’s no record of what Jesus looked like. And while the ancient symbol of a fish has been popular recently it’s far from universal.

No, the symbol of Christianity is the cross. Twenty foot high on the face of a towering cathedral, painted on a rocky outcrop in India, a gold chain on the neck of a girl or scratched on a prison wall, the cross is the instantly recognisable reminder of a crucified and risen Saviour. It speaks of a God of love; of strength shown in forgiveness; of mercy triumphing over judgement; of compassion in suffering. The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, his weakness is stronger than human strength. Let us therefore proclaim Christ crucified.

 

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.