On July 15, Newlife’s Elders called our church to a season of 40 days of prayer and fasting. In this season, more than ever, we need to hear the still, small – yet unmistakable – voice of God. And I know we will. How can I be so sure? Well, God is always speaking to us in a variety of ways (words of knowledge, visions, prophecy etc.), but most especially through his Word, the Bible, often through a particular verse or passage that speaks powerfully into a moment.
Paul tells Timothy that scripture is ‘God-breathed’. While written by human hands, it is divinely inspired and authored. And by the same Spirit that inspired scripture, we can hear God’s voice speaking a fresh word of revelation today. This has been our story through my almost 13 years leading our community.
So, as well as looking forward with anticipation to what God will say in this season, I want to remind us what God has already revealed to us in seasons past. We carry these scriptures with us; they are already written into our story. These four scriptures remind us that we are to take courage, passionately pursue the presence of God, be clear about our purpose and look forward with expectation
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
Late in 2006 we changed our name to Newlife Uniting Church, nine months after I began as Lead Minister. We adopted a new strategic plan, vision statement and values. But it was the change in name that people around then will remember. Any change causes pain. Often it’s resisted. And often it’s not managed as well as it could be. Suffice to say, all of this was happening. And it was causing me to doubt whether we were heading in the right direction; even to doubt myself as a leader. No one would have known as I put on the ‘brave face’ I though was required of me.
Then one Sunday morning Mary came up to me after church. She grabbed me by the hand, looked me in the eye and said with conviction, ‘Stuart, the Lord has said, as for Joshua, “Be strong and courageous…Be strong and very courageous.”’
As she said it, my shoulders lifted, and more importantly, my courage returned. It was a word in season for me. And, I believe, it was a word in season for us. It still is.
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” (Exodus 33:14-15)
We were about to move from our auditorium into the hall as we engaged in the nine month ‘Time to Build’ project that would double our worship space, give us our fabulous courtyard, and expand our Kids Ministry facilities. I was listening, I think, to a John Ortberg sermon when this scripture he quoted grabbed at my heart and mind.
The context is that Israel has just prostituted itself to the golden calf. God is angry and says that, while he will fulfil his promise and lead them to the land of promise, his presence will not go with them. The people mourn, knowing the grave consequences of their sin. God, full of grace and mercy, relents.
Moses’ observation ‘unless your presence goes with us, do not send us up from here’ became our prayer in that season of change and transition and all sorts of distractions. It was the focus of our Vision Sunday. Who would we be, even with wonderful new facilities, unless God’s hand was on us, and presence around and moving among us. It was a word in season for us. It still is.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)
It was November 2013, a few weeks after we had moved into our new facilities. There were lots of new faces around as God grew us in amazing ways. A lot of us were tired. I was very tired. One day I flew down to Melbourne to attend an advisory board meeting for Empart, a church planting movement in North India founded by Jossy Chacko. Our time together was drawing to a close. The half-dozen of us in the room prayed together. I was praying out of habit; it was what pastors are expected do after a day together.
Tim, a pastor from Tasmania that I had just met that day, stood behind me and rested a hand on my shoulder as he prayed. As he prayed, out of nowhere, a vivid image of a lighthouse was impressed on my tired mind’s eye. It was both unexpected and startling. Then, a few seconds later, as that image was still before me, Tim prayed ‘…and I believe God is calling your church to be a lighthouse to other churches.’ It was one of those moments where even I knew God was speaking in a powerful way. As he continued to pray he said, ‘…and God will raise up your hands in battle, as he raised up the hands of Moses.’ (Exodus 17:12) It was all rather strange, unexpected – at the same time wonderfully encouraging.
I flew back to the Gold Coast, not sharing with anyone (perhaps Sue?) what had occurred. The following Sunday as we sang our last song at our 8am celebration, I raised my hands in worship. I often do. While my eyes were closed, I felt hands gently rest under my outstretched arms, supporting them from behind. As we finished singing, I turned around to see Helen and two companions. Helen said that she didn’t know why, but God told her to do what she, and the two friends she invited to join her, had done. But God wasn’t finished.
During the week, a friend shared with me that ‘God was saying that Newlife was called to be a lighthouse church.’ By this time, not only did I know God was speaking, I was revelling in, and in awe of his grace toward me and us.
This time there was no scripture offered (there’s nothing about lighthouses in either the Old or New Testaments I can think of). But God offered an image that immediately drew me to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Five years later we have, and continue to see this prophetic word fulfilled in amazing ways. It was a word in season for us. It still is.
Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” (Joshua 3:5)
Every time I open my bible and prayerfully read and reflect on its words, God speaks. Every single time. But sometimes the message is so direct, it arrests my attention and captivates my imagination.
It was like this when a few years ago I read these words offered by Joshua to Israel the night before, after 40 years of wilderness wandering, they enter the promised land. God slowed me down to pay attention.
These are words of faith and expectation; words that propelled the Israel forward the next day, even as they faced the impossible task of fording the Jordan river in flood. But as the priests led them, carrying the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders – as their feet tentatively touched the angry water’s edge – God, who not only meets, but always exceeds our expectations, held back the water of the Jordan as he had held back the water of the Red Sea 40 years earlier. God truly did an amazing thing among them.
As I read again this familiar story, I sensed God saying to me, ‘Will you believe for me to do amazing things among Newlife in all your tomorrows?’ With the gift of faith, I answered, ‘Yes!’ It was a word in season for us. It still is.
So as we seek God in this season, I know that God has already spoken. He is reminding me, he is reminding us to take courage, passionately pursue and rest in His presence, be clear about our purpose and look forward with expectation. Thank you, Lord!