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3rd January 2021

Choices: to stay put or to move on?

Passage: Matthew 2;1-12


As I travel through the bad and good… where I see no way to go, you’ll be telling me the way I know. Uh Huh……..

The Monkees (Sixties pop group not swinging animal) sang a song called “Only shades of Grey”. When the world and I were young, just yesterday; life was such an easy game a child could play… it was easy then to tell what was fair, when to keep and when to share, how much to protect your heart and how much to care; easy then to tell right from wrong, when a man should stand and fight or just go along…. But today there is no dark or light, today there is no black or white, only shades of grey.”

This new section of Walking The Way is all about Choices. We are, so we are told, free to choose right or wrong, good or bad but our choices are seldom absolute- as in, no matter what the situation, this is what you do. Sometimes it is right to stand up for yourself and sometimes it is right to go along with what someone else wants. Sometimes it is right to act in accordance with our heart and sometimes to do what our head is telling us. Our choices are never simple and since March of last year we have seldom known from one day to the next what the right course of action is.

Our Politicians have been likewise trapped- what do you do? Do you base your decisions on people’s physical wellbeing or their mental health? Do you risk the collapse of the economy or the collapse of the NHS? Do you do children a favour by sending them back to school or are you putting them at risk? Politicians say that they base their decisions on scientific evidence, which is quite right, but even scientific evidence can change. So how can we possibly make the right choices? And can we really rely on God to let us know the right choice for our life at any given time?

Today’s reading is the story of the Magi. They chose to follow a star and yes, that does sound a bit ‘loopy” to us, but they were astrologers- scholars of the stars- it was what they did. And, so far as I can see, their biggest mistake was to stop following the star and head in the direction of King Herod’s palace. That was what caused the horror- as Herod decided to get rid of a possible new King by slaughtering all the babies in Bethlehem.
Why did the Magi change course? It was their underlying assumption that kingship is about political power. Therefore, you look for a new King in a palace in the capital city. You choose to ignore the star, which is shining over a small, insignificant village.

This story reminded me of how our underlying assumptions affect our choices. I was thinking, for example, of how politicians, journalists, captains of industry, Ministers, most of us actually, in our various relationships will tell people what we think they want to hear rather than work out for ourselves first, what is actually true. Our underlying assumption being that our personal success is measured by our credibility in the eyes of others, our status in our professional or personal world. And this assumption will affect in the choices we make.
Jesus pointed this out about certain religious leaders of his day- they were fanatical in observing all the rules and rituals which other people could see but they were not fanatical about true prayer and reverence before God. Their choices would always be based on their own public image rather than on what God might actually be calling them to do.
In the same way, King Herod spent lavishly on fine buildings and even rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. But, given that besides the babies of Bethlehem he also murdered one wife, three sons, a mother in law, a brother in law and an uncle from within his own family, we can assume that his choices were based on the underlying assumption that Kingship is about lavish display and ruthless power; not on serving his people or his God.

Reading about the ancient myths of various civilisations, I noticed that their gods always seemed to be at war with each other. First there was one great god; then another would be jealous and try to cast him down; then another would take revenge. It was all about power struggles whether you were talking Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Hittite stories- being god meant proving yourself by crushing all your rivals.
There is something of this in the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible): our God comes wading in with a sword and thunderbolts to do battle against your gods. Our God will always win, which makes us better than you and we shall go to war to prove it. And if we are honest, this attitude figures more strongly than we might wish in the history of the Christian church.

But the actual Christian religion takes a completely different stance. Jesus Christ came into the world as a vulnerable child. He lived his life as a poor, obscure preacher. Rather than forcing us to surrender to him, he surrendered to us. The “enemies” he crushed were sin, evil and vengeance as they threatened what he was. This is a totally alternative concept of power and of godhead. The Magi were not the only people not to get their heads round it.

Yet there had been hints even in the Old Testament. Isaiah wrote that the “glory of the Lord” would rise again upon his nation. To his people, suffering in exile or under enemy occupation, this was a sign that they would soon rule the world and all other nations would pay them tribute. But Isaiah had made it clear that “the glory of the Lord” was about justice and compassion and care rather than one-upmanship. Other nations would marvel at what the true kingdom of God looked like and they would come to learn how to order their own lands in the same way.
This was the understanding of being “God” by which Jesus lived, by which he taught and healed and by which he made his choices. The victory of Christ, like the kingdom of God, was not political but spiritual. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

OK, but does this help us in the appalling situation we find ourselves in right now?
For me, it has taught me a lot about prayer- that although, yes, we should pour out to God everything that is on our minds, the bad and the good, the greatest value of prayer is learning to listen. We tell God what we want to happen- yes, fair enough. But it is not like ordering something on Amazon, where you place your order, expect the goods to arrive and raise hell if they do not. It is about listening for what God is trying to tell and to send us. Guidance then, making the right choices, comes through learning to listen.

I don’t know about you, but I want guidance as in a life-plan for the next few years: This is what you should do Jennifer, and this is what will happen as a result. But I realise that my idea of a life-plan is very much based on my own underlying assumptions of what success and credibility and security look like. And when my plans are torn apart- as most of our plans have been over Christmas- I panic and scream at God (which may sound rather bad for a Minister, but I think it is better to scream at God than at our wonderful Church Secretaries).

The miracles which God works start with us on the inside. And it is only as we learn to listen to God that these miracles can start taking place. If we are going to make the right choices for our lives, for our church, for our nation, for our world and expect God to direct us, then we have to put aside our underlying assumptions of what we expect to happen and listen for what God is telling us.

It still sounds a bit bleak, doesn’t it? What we really want is a magician with a wand who will make all the bad stuff go away. But I remember years ago watching a television programme about people who had been pronounced clinically dead but had then revived. It does happen. And one lady-not particularly religious- spoke of her experience. She knew that she was “dead” and for a moment she was frightened but then, she said, she knew that she was in the presence of this overwhelming, incredible love. That was all she could say. But she had never forgotten that and she was no longer scared of dying.

And all I can say, is that when I have actually stopped screaming and started listening; when I have simply said “over to you, God. I just don’t know what to do anymore,” I have gradually become conscious of this immense love there for me and from that love has come guidance just for the next step.
It is not a 24/7 experience. There is still plenty of fear and frustration and panic and screaming going on. But remembering that love helps us somehow to keep trusting that “As I travel through the bad and good, keep me travelling the way I should. Where I see no way to go, you’ll be telling me the way I know.”

Life is always going to be a mystery. There will always be a lot we do not know. (Good job too or we should have nothing to do except watch mind-numbing Christmas television repeats.) But this is why we need a God who entered this world as a human being, confronting all our fear and sin and pain. This is why we need a God who saves us as we need to be saved- from the inside out-rather than as a political ruler- from the outside in. This is why we need a God whose love is all powerful and will remain with us through life, even through death and into eternity.

May God guide you each step on your journey through this coming year. May God surround you with his love. May God give you grace as you need it to listen and to make the right choices. Amen.