Responding to God’s surprises

If you haven’t seen it on tv, you have probably heard the story of the original Van Dyck discovered on the Antiques Roadshow. It will most likely take up a few lines of news print over the coming days. The owner of the masterpiece has already decided on his next step. Father Jamie McLeod is a priest who runs a retreat house. He has decided to put the painting up for auction and use the proceeds to purchase new bells for his church.

Father McLeod is clearly a man with a sense of mission. Even though he had never thought that the painting in his possession was so valuable, he had already worked out what to do with a large sum of money that came his way.

When something unusual or unexpected happens, it can take us by surprise. The Antiques Roadshow story is a positive one of someone being surprised in a positive way. You don’t have to search too hard, however, to find stories of people who won large sums of money only to find that their unexpected “blessing” becomes a curse. 

As we say “Goodbye” to 2013 and “Hello” to 2014, we will find moments when life surprises us. And we will find moments when God surprises us. How can we handle the “surprise” element of life in a godly way?

The kings from the east were people who knew what is was to be surprised. Surprised by a star (Matthew 2.1-12). They were just going about their business as usual when God surprised them. They were attentive.

God’s surprises are often found in the every day. When we are just “doing life”. At work. At school. At home. With our friends. Worshipping. Praying. And all the while being attentive. It does not seem that the kings were looking for something special. They were simply being attentive to what they did day in day out.

If we get on with our lives and stay attentive, we might just find God highlighting things we would otherwise have missed.

Secondly, they acted upon what they saw. They made some plans to go to Israel. They could have sat in wonder at the star until it disappeared. And then talked about it for years and years to come, without ever discovering its true implications.

Admiration is no substitute for action. The celebrity culture that afflicts the western world has sadly crept into the church. Certainly, there have always been famous preachers and leaders; Jesus had to battle with attempts to make Him a  king – a first century equivalent of celebrity culture in action. One of the big dangers with celebrity culture is that our admiration for someone who is doing something three thousand or five thousand or ten thousand miles away undermines our desire to take action in our own neghbourhood.

The whole point of the star was to get the kings moving! When God does something unusual it is to get us moving in a new direction.

Thirdly, they abandoned a plan that didn’t work, but they didn’t abandon their mission. When they turned up at Herod’s palace and didn’t find the new king, it would have been easy for disillusionment to set in. You can almost hear one of them say “We’ve come all this way for nothing, let’s go home.” But they kept going. Only a few miles down the road was the new king.

Abandoning the mission is always a temptation when our plans haven’t worked out. Sometimes our plans and strategies don’t work. I know, I have experienced that many times! But that is no reflection on the mission. Better abandon the plan and stick with the mission, instead of doing what we sometimes do, sticking with the failed plan and losing sight of the mission.

Finally, they accepted a change of direction for their return journey. They had to avoid Herod. They were caught up in something that had big political implications and they needed to act with wisdom.

Thankfully, most of us don’t have a Herod after us. But we do have an Enemy who wants to destroy us. We need to walk wisely. We need the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Often that means that we have to accept a change of direction.

You might not have an original Van Dyck hanging in your front room. You might not want to spend four hundred thousand pounds on church bells. No, but it’s still worth being attentive to what is going on around you. You just never know what surprises God has for you. 

Christmas is a good time to…

I don’t know how you would end the statement above. There are a multitude of alternative endings. Eat. Drink. Socialise. Go to church. Sing carols. Sleep. Play with the toys you bought for the children. Blame someone for not remembering to buy double A batteries. Or forgetting the cranberry sauce. Phone the family members who live in Australia – remembering the time difference of course (they won’t be chuffed with a “Happy Christmas!” at 3 a.m.). Watch tv. Watch the Queen’s speech. Watch it later in the day. Watch the way it is reported in the news. Watch endless repeats. And you can add your own variation to a well-known theme.

Of course, this holiday season has its own patterns in every culture that celebrates it. It’s all too easy to grow cynical about Christmas and the way a materialistic society has tried to hijack it. However, it does give us an opportunity to reflect, not least on the miracle of the incarnation, the mind blowing truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.(2 Cor.5.19) What an absolutely mind blowing scripture. God takes on flesh so that He can turn a world which has turned its back on Him into His friends. If you forget everything else from today’s post, please take this one thought and chew it over all over Christmas.

One of the amazing things about the miracle of Christmas is that the Christmas story is played out in the lives of ordinary people. And the story of God’s quest to turn people into His friends is still played out in the lives of ordinary people like you and me. Some of the themes and dynamics of the original Christmas story still have a resonance in our lives today.

So how would I complete the statement, Christmas is a good time too…? What would be a biblical way to end the statement?

Here are a few suggestions.

Christmas is a good time to suspend our desire for closure on painful relationships. The biggest threat to the incarnation project was not from Herod. Or the devil who was pulling his strings. It came from one of the most humble, understated characters in the Bible, Mary’s husband to be, Joseph. When he heard that Mary was pregnant, he decided to end the relationship (Matt.1.19). You can’t really blame him. Mary’s explanation was hardly credible. Joseph’s pain was understandable.

When we’re in pain, especially when it is connected to a relationship, and very especially when it is connected to a marriage, the desire for closure can feel irresistible. No doubt Joseph felt that way. But God stepped in (Matt.1.20-25)

Sadly, some divorce lawyers say that there is an increase on Christmas Day of what they call “text message bustings”, where one spouse discovers the other’s infidelity by reading his or her text messages. Christmas can be a painful time.

I’ve been a pastor for over twenty years. I’ve seen a lot of painful situations, but none I find more heartbreaking than the collapse and dissolution of a marriage. I’ve also been a pastor long enough to realise that people don’t always find healing in their relationship in the way Joseph and Mary did. Whatever the ultimate outcome of any relationship difficulties, Christmas is a good time to suspend our desire for closure and give God a chance to work in our relationships.

Christmas is also a good time to set a priority on connecting with family. 

For many people in our society, family has almost become the f-word. But God loves families. Not just the nuclear family, but the big extended families that we are all part of whether we like them or not! Some of you might think that you have a nuclear family – because it goes into nuclear meltdown every Christmas!

When Mary discovered she was pregnant, the angel Gabriel told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant (Lk.1.39-45). The young, most likely teenage, woman and her elderly cousin, were experiencing the joy of God’s blessing. God was doing something special in both of their lives.

Of course Mary and Elizabeth are unique in the plans and purposes of God. But God’s plans and purposes aren’t unique to them. We’re all part of the story. Christmas is a good time to believe that God is at work in our families and to make it a goal to connect with them.

Finally, Christmas is a good time to re-centre on Christ.

When a baby is born, it changes everything in a family. The whole focus of attention shifts to the baby. Everything centres around the new born.

Everything focuses on Jesus. The whole story centres around Him. Mary and Joseph head to Bethlehem, because of Him. Shepherds leave their fields and flocks, because of Him. The Magi make a journey from Iraq, because of Him.

And after they have met with Him they are changed. The shepherds go back to their flocks changed men (Lk. 2.17-20). The Magi go home by a different route (Matt. 2.12). Joseph and Mary leave Bethlehem for Egypt instead of Nazareth (Matt. 2.13-14).

When you centre your life on Jesus, things change. Your future is different to what it might otherwise have been.

As Queen Lucy says in The Last Battle, “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

Once you’ve met with the One who is bigger than the whole world, Christmas is never the same again. Life is never the same again.

Christmas is a good time to recentre on Christ.

Happy Christmas.

From Mess to Mission

Most good Christians have at some time in their life sang that famous Christmas song Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Of course, there is nothing specifically Christian about it, but it is famous. One recording sold twenty-five million copies. Up until the 1980’s it was the second best-selling record of all time.

The song was based on a story written by Robert L. May. The story is, as you might guess, about a misfit reindeer who saves Christmas with a glowing nose that turns out to be a better guide for Santa than any satnav.

In writing the story, May was drawing on his own childhood experiences of being teased because he was shy and small. Perhaps Rudolf was his revenge!

The nativity stories found in the New Testament, record the story of a man who really did fit in, but who was made to stand out. In some ways he is the unsung hero of Christmas. I am, of course, talking about Joseph.

According to some biblical scholars, Joseph was very likely a respected member of the community in Nazareth and was perhaps expert in the Torah, the law of God. It’s not hard to imagine then how he must have felt when he found that his wife to be was pregnant and explained her pregnancy as a “God thing”. It must have appeared to him that she was simply adding dishonesty to her infidelity. The whole thing was just a mess and divorce was, in Joseph’s eyes, the only option (you needed a divorce to end a betrothal in Jewish culture). Until, well, you know the story. An angel appears in a dream and gives Joseph a whole new take on his situation. What seemed like a huge mess, becomes a doorway to a great mission.

This Christmas you might be facing a set of painful circumstances that you had never chosen to bring about. And it is easy, like Joseph, to seek to bring closure in some way or other. However, what we think of as a mess can be the gateway to a mission.

How can we move from “mess” to “mission”?

Sometimes we have to push through our pain (Matthew 1.18-21). Joseph had to push through his pain. The pain of misunderstanding and apparent infidelity would give way to the social pain that he would feel because of questions raised about Jesus’ parentage. But in His pain, Joseph met with God.

Joseph also revised his perspective on God, Mary and himself (Matthew 1.24). As a man described as righteous, he was no doubt familiar with the word of God. Now he was about to learn the ways of God. The ways of God would take him to Bethlehem and then to Egypt for a couple of years and then back home. None of this was in his original plans! To see the shape of mission in the shapelessness of difficulty we need a fresh perspective. Consider this thought for a moment: what if you are where God means you to be?

And Joseph allowed God’s purpose to have priority over everything else in his life (Matthew 1.25). We are told that he did not consummate his marriage to Mary until after Jesus was born. He put a brake on his emotions and desires. Life didn’t revolve around him and his desires but around God and His desires.

This Christmas, like Joseph, God calls us into His mission – whether where we’re at is “messy” or not. 

Secret strength

Some years ago I met a man who had spent a while in prison. He was quite open about the fact that he had done something wrong, even though at the time it seemed right to him, perhaps even heroic. During his time inside he had become a Christian and his life had been totally changed.

One evening I was visiting his family and I happened to notice a picture of him and his wife standing outside Buckingham Palace. I was intrigued. So I asked what the occasion was. It turned out that he had been decorated for gallantry at one time in his career. He said it was something he did not talk much about. He explained that twice in his life he had acted on instinct. The first action had taken him to the palace, the second, to prison.

Exodus chapter 2 records how Moses, having acted instinctively to defend one of his own people ended up with a price on his head. He fled Egypt and, on reaching Midian, it seems that almost immedaitely he became embroiled in more conflict. As Reuel’s daughters are watering their flocks, some shepherds come along and try to stop them. Moses intervenes and drives the shepheds away. This time his intervention gains him a wife and a very positive connection with his father-in-law Reuel.

There was no questioning Moses’ courage or his strength. However, by the time God calls him back to Egypt (Exodus 3), both seem greatly diminished. What had gained him both favour and disfavour were not enough to enable him to fulfil the mission of God. He needed something more. Hebrews 11.27 explains what that “something” was:

 “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.”

Moses strength lay in His ability to keep his eyes fixed on an invisible God.

Our natural strengths, our humanity, can be a mixed blessing. It can achieve good results and help us realise desired objectives. But it can also get us into trouble. It can, at one extreme take us into palaces and, at the other extreme, drag us into prison. It’s a good servant, but a bad master.

We need something more if we are to be the influence God has called us to be in this world. We need an ability to see the invisible God. It is that kind of vision that provided secret strength for Moses. And it can provide secret strength for us. It fuels faith, undermines fear and nourishes perseverance.

Whether you think of yourself as strong and courageous or not, is really beside the point. Courage and strength aren’t enough in themselves. The gamechanger is the ability to see the One who is invisible.

When you’re not where you think you should be

Some stories are just too hard to believe. If I had not found this one on the RAC website – and even there it is qualified with the words “It is reported that” – I would not repeat it.

A Syrian truck driver allegedly (note the note of caution!!) set out in his thirty-two ton articulated lorry for Gibraltar. So he did what any sensible twenty-first century driver does when they are travelling to an unfamiliar destination, he entered “Gibraltar” into his sat nav. And set out. The story goes that sometime later he arrived in Gibraltar. The only problem was that he arrived in Gibraltar Point, Lincolnshire.

It sounds like an apocryphal tale or even an urban legend to me, but it illustrates the point that sometimes we find ourselves in places we never thought we would be. Oddly enough, I have found that many Christians – many – feel exactly this way about where they are at currently in their lives and or in their walk with God. And I confess, that, on occasion, I have even felt that way myself.

I say “oddly” because it is odd. We’ve been given the Holy Spirit as our helper and guide. We have been given any number of promises that assure us of God’s presence and faithfulness, yet somehow we have this idea that we should not be where we are. Of course, I’m not saying that sometimes it is right to move on from a job or a role, or that we need change. And of course I believe in wanting to do better, be better, grow, develop and all the rest. But an all pervading feeling that we are “in the wrong place” can undermine our contentment and our faith and bizarrely, hinder the very progress that we are seeking.

Towards the end of the second chapter of Exodus, Moses found himself in a destination that seemed more like the result of a spiritual sat nav mistake than the faithfulness of God: Midian.

Midian was never part of Moses’ life plan. The Egyptian palace, perhaps. Standing in solidarity with his people when he discovered who we was, undoubtedly. But Midian. Where was Midian anyway?!

Moses’ hurried and unplanned flight to Midian might have seemed more like the product of chance than the hand of God. And it certainly wasn’t what Moses, given other circumstances, would have chosen. But God had chosen it.

And God had gone before him. He connected him to a family who would have a shaping influence on his future.The family head was Jethro or Reuel, which means friend of God. Moses would marry one of Reuel’s daughters, Zipporah.

Wherever we’re at, whether it is somewhere where we think we should be or whether it’s somewhere we would rather not be, God is with us. And God often shows His faithfulness by putting people around us who are His friends. When you’re not where you think you should be, it’s okay to pray “God get me out of here”. But it might be more productive to pray “God, put some of your friends around me so that this time can be one of real fruitfulness”.