We live in a transient age – life is fast paced, jobs are often uncertain, international travel is increasingly accessible and the idea of being settled somewhere for decades to come is alien to many. At many stages of life it seems that the only constant fixture is constant change!
There are lots of things that people talk about when preparing for change; saying goodbye ‘well’, managing expectations in the new situation, the reality of grief for people and places left behind, the need for patience in forming new relationships. As a family, we have recently had cause to listen hard to these wise and godly reflections and to spend a lot of time preparing for and dealing with change! After finishing our studies at Moore College in Sydney, we packed up our ‘Australian’ lives and with suitcases, children and new baby in tow headed for the frosty climes of the North East of England.
We spent time drawing up lists of ‘last things to do’, planned time to say goodbye to dear friends, and we even intentionally drank a final cup of good Newtown coffee! We steeled ourselves for the inevitable ups and downs that were to come. I was prepared for loneliness, tiredness and even teariness at times, but felt confident in God’s care and provision, and excited about the opportunities and adventures that lay ahead. What I wasn’t prepared for was feeling flat, discouraged and even joyless as a Christian. This was an unexpected and most unwelcome part of the change package! Perhaps there was a clause I had missed in the small print? Why was I not prepared for this?
In times of change, our circumstances are altered; in a move like ours our lives are filled with new places and new people. What I hadn’t foreseen was the inevitable loss of activity that goes with that; not simply losing relationships, but losing opportunities to serve within those relationships, losing roles and ministry involvement. The things that I was doing as a Christian – many of these vanished in the move. It doesn’t take an international move to have the same impact; smaller changes in circumstances can bring with them a similar loss of ministry opportunities. Perhaps caring for ageing parents means pulling back from helping with youth group; a new baby means no longer serving on the music team; or our children changing schools takes us out of a social group where we were seeking to evangelise – the list could go on!
It is so easy to find our Christian identity in our service of Jesus – what we are doing for him – and to ascribe value and confidence to our output. But when these things are stripped away, where does that leave us?
In fact, this has been a temptation from the very earliest stages of Christian ministry! In Luke 10, Jesus sends out seventy-two workers, commissioning them to go ahead of him, proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God. We are only left to imagine what their ministry may have been like – perhaps a sell-out tour, with crowds hanging on their every word, full of dazzling miracles that were only a glimpse of the power of the King they proclaimed? What we do know is that as they later return to Jesus, their excitement is palpable! They return “with joy”, amazed at what they have seen and done in their ministry, eagerly sharing their experiences. What an atmosphere it must have been! Yet Jesus’ response is striking: “Behold I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:19-20) He doesn’t deny the influence of their ministry – indeed he affirms that they have been given extraordinary opportunities to serve the Kingdom. He confirms that the authority they have been wielding does indeed come from him. Yet his focus is not on their service, or their achievements in the kingdom, but on their hearts. He loves them enough to reach into their buoyant excitement, and to draw those emotions back to their true anchor. He exposes a shift in the source of their joy, and lovingly corrects them, bringing them back to the source of true rejoicing. Their joy should not flow from the roles and responsibilities that they have been given, however exciting and fruitful they may be, but from their secure place in the kingdom. Each of their names is written in heaven, and they are individually known and loved by the Father and welcomed into his family – now that is a cause for rejoicing!
I wonder if we recognise ourselves in this narrative? I know I do. How easy it is to enthuse joyfully after an exciting evangelistic event, a successful Bible study, or a morning where the kids’ group at church really engaged with the lesson plan. These are good things! All our service is a gift enabled by God! Yet Jesus looks at our hearts, and lovingly reminds us that above all our joy should flow from knowing that our names are written in heaven.
We need to see that our joy, our confidence, and our identity is bound securely with Jesus and what he has done for us – not what we do for him.
In the context of change, whether that’s a change in the service teams at church, a change in personal or family circumstances, or an international move; as roles and responsibilities are stripped away, these verses speak powerfully to us. Whether we see clear opportunities to serve, or not, whether our ministry feels exciting or mundane, whether public or private, whether to many or few – whatever our ‘output’ for Jesus, we need to come back to the true source of our joy as a Christian. If our joy is flowing from things we are doing, then when our situation changes we will be left flat and joyless in our faith, perhaps even wobbling in our assurance. We need to remember that our value is seen in Jesus’ blood, not our activity; our confidence is in his perfection, not our efforts; our identity is as a child of God, not a role or position. Our joy flows from our knowledge of these unchanging truths.
So as we prepare for seasons of change, or help others to do that, let us hold on to Christ with confidence. Let’s prepare for the reality that as times move on, our service of Christ will look different, but let’s do that without fear. Let’s face change rejoicing that wherever we are, whatever part we play as the kingdom grows, our names are written in heaven.