Open Hearts

In our journey through the book of Acts, we have reached Philippi, where Paul’s preaching established a church in that Roman colony and to which he later wrote one of the most encouraging letters in the New Testament. (Acts 16:11-40) There, we see Paul and his companions initially preaching to a group of women who gathered by the river to pray and we are told that one of them (a dealer in purple cloth named Lydia from Thyatira) responded to Paul’s message because ‘the Lord opened her heart.’ (Acts 16:24)

We all need God to open our hearts, minds and understanding if we are to respond to His words. Paul talks of the god of this age blinding the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4); we need God’s light to ‘shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.’ (2 Cor 4:4) To the Ephesians, he said, ‘I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.’ (Eph 1:18-19) Jesus gave a very vivid picture of opened hearts when He spoke to the church at Laodicea and said, ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.’ (Rev 3:20)

To open our hearts to God means to receive His words gladly and to act on them: Jesus said, ‘everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.’ (Matt 7:24) James reiterated this when he wrote, ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.’ (James 1:22-25) To open our hearts to God means we submit to His word and receive His commandments gladly. Opened hearts are sensitive to God and will therefore be able to respond to what God says. We all need opened (and open) hearts if we are to grow spiritually.

Concluding & Inferring

Acts 16:6-10 is, for me, a challenging and (dare I say it?!) infuriating portion of Scripture. It challenges me because it shows me a level of guidance which does not always make sense to my rational mind and leaves me dangling (which infuriates me, as I’m the kind of person who likes neat endings, with all the loose ends tied up!) I don’t know how the Spirit of God prevented Paul and his companions from preaching the word in the province of Asia and how the Spirit of Jesus prevented them from going to Bithynia, nor do I know why He did this. And, more often than not, I don’t know why God prevents me from doing certain things in life and I find it difficult at times to judge whether He wants me to press on in faith or draw back. Circumstances which slot nicely together are a useful way of following God, but what do we do when those circumstances seem unfavourable or we just don’t know which way to turn?

The combination of prevention and a vision which offers a new direction ultimately clarified the position for Paul and his companions. They ‘concluded’ or ‘became convinced’ that this was what God wanted them to do. They weighed up all the facts and decided to go to Macedonia; they used inference from all the facts they had to reach a positive conclusion. ‘All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.’ (The Message) I often think the Israelites had it easy in the wilderness, with a cloud or pillar of fire to guide them; they had the luxury of a visible sign of God’s presence! It can be much harder for us, even with God’s Spirit guiding us, to be sure that we are doing the right thing, but this is where faith and trust are proved. We are called to live and walk by faith and not by sight. (2 Cor 5:7) At times, that will feel very uncomfortable and even frightening, but we have to learn to let go of our obstinate need for control and surrender to God’s leading.

 

Double Guidance

The Bible has much to say about God’s guidance, making it plain that God leads and guides His people (Ps 23:2-3, 2 Cor 2:14, John 16:13, Ps 25:5), but it’s the ‘how?’ of divine guidance that often confuses us. There are times when God’s word seems to tell us directly what to do, times when a word of prophecy comes to us with startling clarity, but there are also many occasions when we feel torn and do not know which way to go, and we feel then that our Christian journey is rather like ‘plaiting fog’, as the idiom goes.

In Acts 16:6-10, we see something of the difficulties involved in guidance. Paul and his companions had clear plans as to where they should go; it made sense to continue in the direction they were heading to preach in the province of Asia, but they were ‘kept by the Holy Spirit’ from doing that (Acts 16:6). They then intended to enter Bithynia, ‘but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.’ (Acts 16:7) These phrases do not give us perhaps the fulness of answers we would like (how did the Holy Spirit do this? – through circumstances, illness, opposition or what?!) Nonetheless, it was only when Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man begging for help that they moved on to the province of Macedonia. (Acts 16:9-10)

Perhaps what we see here is what A. T. Pierson dubbed ‘double guidance’ or ‘permission and constraint, prohibition and restraint.’ Sometimes, we feel unease or disquiet in our spirits, which can be God warning us not to do something, even though (to all intents and purposes) that seems the best thing to do. On other occasions, we feel the nudge (and even the shove!) of the Spirit, pushing us into new territories or unfamiliar places.

Nicky Gumbel writes of five compelling signs of God’s guidance, talking about commanding Scripture, the compelling Spirit, the counsel of the saints, common sense, and circumstantial signs. Certainly we see that guidance is perhaps not as clear-cut as we would always like it to be, but these verses remind us that God is an expert at both opening and closing doors (Rev 3:7) and as God’s flock, we need to be attentively listening for the Shepherd’s voice. (John 10:3-5, Is 30:21)

Staying Spiritually Fit

Over the past weeks and months, great emphasis has been placed on staying physically fit and well. The importance of physical exercise even in lockdown was recognised by the government, and Joe Wickes’ fitness workouts became a useful part of families’ home-schooling efforts. People have become very alert to symptoms of Covid-19 and as the country begins to creep back to some kind of normality, things like temperature checks are being used as a way of measuring this new normality.

Physical check-ups may be useful, but so are spiritual check-ups. God’s word encourages us to come before Him and ask Him to search us and know us (see Ps 139:23-24). Paul tells believers to ‘examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.’ (2 Cor 13:5) He knew the benefits of physical training, but also stressed the value of godliness to spiritual health. (1 Tim 4:8)

Martyn Day, in his book “Beyond Easter”, writes of the spiritual check-up Jesus gave Peter when He asked him three questions about his love for Him in John 21. He refers to three things we can be checked for in the natural realm and relates these also to spiritual health:

  1. Jesus took Peter’s spiritual temperature by asking about his love for Him. Whilst a raised temperature in the physical realm causes concern, in the spiritual realm, what is dangerous is being lukewarm. (Rev 3:16) We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt 22:37) and anything less than this is not good.

  2. Jesus checks our breathing. “It has been said that prayer is to the sould what breath is to the body – in other words, rather important.” (Martyn Day) Our prayer life reveals much about our spiritual health. How much time do we spend talking and listening to God? Are we short of breath, coughing and spluttering? Respiratory problems have been one of the major issues raised by Covid-19. Are we experiencing similar problems with our communication with God? Our prayer life, usually secret and unseen, is perhaps one of the greatest barometers of spiritual health.

  3. Jesus checks our reflexes and responses. “How do we respond to God and His requirements? Does He get much reaction from us?… Are we sluggish in how we view His authority? What is the extent of our obedience?” (Martyn Day) The Bible has much to say about listening and doing. (James 1:22-25) Jesus spoke about putting His words into practice. (Matt 7:24-27, John 13:17) The challenge is always how swiftly we respond to God.

Spiritual fitness, like physical fitness, requires our commitment, discipline and effort, all of which have to be mixed with faith, hope and love. As we draw closer to Jesus, He enables us to ponder these things and gives us the power to change. Peter reminds us that failure does not have to have the last word!

Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

Tonight’s service looked at John 10:1-18 and the fact that Jesus is the good shepherd and we are His sheep. Jesus contrasts Himself – the good shepherd – with all who might get paid for looking after sheep but don’t really care about them, a theme found also in the Old Testament (see Ezekiel 34). Jesus demonstrates His love for us, the sheep, by laying down His life for us and we can be secure in His care and protection of us, as Ps 23 also indicates.

We need God’s protection, not only because of our own sin and stupidity, but because there are enemies who would seek to separate us from God. Jesus gives us great encouragement, however, telling us no one can snatch us from the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-30) The key to succes lies in knowing and recognising the shepherd’s voice. This takes time, effort and practice, for there are many voices crying out for our attention, but as we learn to ask, seek and knock (Matt 7:7-8), we are reminded that God does want to speak to us. He is a God who is always speaking and if we seek Him, He has promised we will find Him. (Jer 29:12-13)

God speaks in many ways, sometimes (but not always by any means) in an audible voice, but also through His word, the Bible. He may well confirm or explain further through the prophetic (a word of knowledge, word of wisdom or prophecy given to someone to build us up), through the counsel and advice of others (who may not know the significance of what they are saying but who can be used by God to speak to us!) or through circumstances and timing which really can’t be explained in any other way than as coming from God.

Fundamentally, we need to understand that:

  • God desires to speak to us

  • God will speak to us

  • God has our best interests at heart

  • God leads us as a good shepherd

  • our role is simply to follow Him, wherever He leads.

 

Trusting God For Every Need (2)

Dave reminded us this morning that the Lord’s Prayer offers solutions to all of life’s seven problems.

  • God’s answer to my inferiority is His person — I know Him.

  • God’s answer to my confusion is His plan and purpose.

  • God’s answer to my worry is His provision — “Give us this day our daily bread”.

  • God’s answer to my guilt is His forgiveness.

  • God’s answer to my strained relationships is His peace.

  • God’s answer to my temptation is His protection.

  • God’s answer to my fears is His power.

The Lord’s Prayer also teaches us that we should always put God first in life as the source.It’s so easy to look to jobs, relationships, money or other things as the source of our confidence, but we need to seek God first. Secondly, we need to be specific as we pray. Many of us feel discouraged by unanswered prayer because we don’t really ask God for anything specific (perhaps afraid that He will refuse us.) We need to be specific:

  • When you feel like you’re falling apart and you have low self-esteem and feel inferior, pray for His person in your life.

  • When you’re confused pray for His plan in your life.

  • When you’re worried, pray for His provision.

  • When you’ve got guilt, pray for His pardon.

  • When you have strained relationships, pray for His peace.

  • When you’re tempted, pray for His protection.

  • When you have fears, pray for His power.

You can’t get any more specific than that. He says, “trust Me.”

The Lord’s Prayer isn’t just a pattern for prayer, however. It’s a pattern for life. We can’t pray this prayer without being challenged and changed – and the first step for praying this prayer is to know God as our Father, to be born again into HIs family. As we learn to trust Him with our lives, our attitudes and behaviour are changed and we find His person, plan, provision, pardon, peace, protection and power.