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Change

1st March 2019

There are so many different sorts of change: some positive, like promotion at work; and some negative, like bereavement or unemployment. And there are some which we're not sure are positive or negative. Or rather, they're both. We lose something and we gain something. Perhaps, really, all change is like that, whether it feels like it or not. We always lose something, and we always gain something. And sometimes we can't see the benefit until later.

At the burning bush (Exodus 3) Moses experienced profound change. He had a deep, life-changing encounter with God. He saw miracle power. He heard a call to lead God's people out of bondage and into freedom. But he lost his life as a shepherd; he lost peace and quiet, and safety. He found the terrifying challenge of having to confront Pharaoh, and Pharaoh's magicians, and Pharaoh's army. And he found his destiny.

When Jesus began to baptise, John the Baptist knew it was time for him to step back:

John 3:27-30
To this John replied, ‘A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, "I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him." The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.'

Sometimes, as with Moses, the change is to become "greater". Sometimes, as with John the Baptist, the change is to become "less". But both are from God. It's hard to see what the Baptist gained on earth, but we can be sure that his reward in heaven is great. And what do "greater" and "less" mean? For the Baptist, he became less famous, less busy, and eventually less free. But Jesus told the crowd, "Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). John never lost his real greatness.

Being seen by other believers to be doing something impressive might feel great, but it's overrated. God measures true greatness in a very different way. At another moment of change, when the shepherd boy David was anointed to be King, God told Samuel (1 Samuel 16:7) "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

When Paul was saved, he lost his sight for three days. He lost everything - his position, his reputation, his home, permanently. But he inherited eternal life, and became an apostle. He found his true calling in life. And he found peace, love and joy. Later he wrote that he had lost all things for Christ and, to paraphrase Philippians 3, he got a very good deal.

The most profound changes anybody ever experienced were, I think, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, when he gave up heaven to live on earth; and the cross, when He died to save us from our sin, and then rose from the dead. These changes were so profound that many people still fail to believe that they happened. But they prove God's commitment to us. God changed so that we could change, from lost sinners to children of God. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God. Once we had not obtained mercy but now we have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2v10).

The greatest change we will ever experience is salvation - the moment when we pass from death to life. We lose our old life, and we gain eternal life. I know that some Christians have a very dramatic conversion and other Christians don't even notice it, but it is the most important change that we ever go though. But again that shows that we experience change in very different ways. I know that change has given me a peace, a love and a joy that I didn't even imagine was possible. And I can weigh the infinite benefits of being a child of God against the disappointments of my life.

And the second greatest change we will ever experience is death. This is the ultimate example of losing something and gaining something. And what we gain is infinitely more than what we lose. Paul wrote:

2 Timothy 3:6-8
I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

For Paul, that was great news. We lose all our earthly possessions, but we gain heaven. I pray we will all finish the race, and keep the faith, whatever changes come our way. And I trust God to ensure that we will.

There are all kinds of change, and each one feels different. We always lose something, and we always gain something. And God leads us through the change in different ways. For Moses, it was a sudden encounter with God in a wilderness, prompted by curiosity at the sight of the burning bush. With John the Baptist, it was a growing realisation that his time in the limelight was coming to an end. For Paul it was a frightening encounter, calling him to repentance.

Sometimes, God warns us of coming change, but we don't hear, or we don't understand, or we don't pay attention. Jesus warned his disciples several times that He was going to die, but they never took it in until it happened.

We always lose something, and we always gain something. And to manage the change in a healthy way, we need to mourn what was lost, and to embrace and celebrate what is gained. We need to acknowledge and accept the loss, and we need to put our faith back in God that the future is going to be good. The future is in His hands. What was lost can be huge, and in mourning it we must be allowed to take time. What is gained is God's will for our future, even if we can't see how it will work out.

Perhaps the most difficult changes to accept are the ones that are the result of being hurt, or abused, or neglected - sinned against by other people. We can only admit that we have been sinned against, and choose to forgive. Even as he fell to his knees under a hail of stones throne by the Pharisees, Stephen prayed, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them". He acknowledged that it was sin. And he forgave.

Whatever the nature of the change, no matter how suddenly it comes, and regardless of how cruel others have been to us, we can choose to cling on to God. We can remember:

Hebrews 13:5b
God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you"

And:

Isaiah 43:1-3a
But now, this is what the Lord says - he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;

We can choose to hold on to God, even when things are completely bewildering. And we can know that God will always hold on to us.

And we can walk through change together. When our brothers and sisters pass through the waters, we can and must be there for them. When Job lost everything - his wealth, his family and his health - his friends came and sat with him for seven days and seven nights, without speaking a word. Of course, after that they started speaking rubbish, but for a week they showed real empathy. And Job's story reminds us that God will always give us more than we lose - eventually.

For me the bottom line is that we pray that we're able to hold on to God, whatever changes come. God is faithful. God does love us. God is omnipotent. And God is very confusing. When change comes, we struggle to trust him, but we know that we need to, and we know that we can.

God is for us. And God has a purpose in every change. Usually, we can't see what that purpose is at the time. But surely every change is an invitation to draw nearer to God, to renew our trust in Him, and to commit our future to Him, whatever it holds.

I'm fortunate in that I believe that God is in complete control of everything that happens. I can trust scriptures like:

Proverbs 16:33
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.

to be absolutely true, and so I can trust God whatever happens - at least theoretically - and that reduces the shock, but there is always shock. I don't like change. And the older I get, the less I like it. But God has ordered all the days of our lives. God is truly the Lord of history, including my history and including yours. He knows what He's doing, and we can trust in Him.