We had a great time over Christmas as we looked at #GodWithUs. It was great to see so many people at our Christmas events - be it the Christingle, the Wadsley Christmas Festival, or the Carols by Candlelight.
But now we're on to 2018, and as a Church we are beginning to look at the journey of the book of Exodus.
So Happy New Year! I figure I can still say that as it's still January... At the start of the New Year, it's a good time to set ourselves goals for the coming year. Be it to eat healthier; to exercise more; or to read more. And I've been really challenged on what I'm setting myself up for this year. What do I want this year to be about?
The Israelites had this amazing journey of being freed from hundreds of years of slavery. They had the Promised Land to look forward to, a goal, somewhere to go. Now that's exciting, that's something to keep you motivated. And it's not too far away, 100 miles or so.
But it's not an easy road. It takes 40 years to travel 100 miles, significantly worse than my Park Run speed. And it's a pretty easy explanation as to why. They take their eyes off God, they forget who He is.
In Exodus 16, the Israelites start to look back on their time in slavery with nostalgia. Ooo some warm pots of meat. They forget the promises of God and instead want the comforts of the past. They take the easy road. And again in Exodus 32, they seek the comforts and safety of something other than God. They take their eyes off Him. And we take our eyes off Jesus so easily as well. I know that there is an easier road - a road of satisfaction, of safety, of comfort. But that's not the road we are called to.
The road we are called to is one of pilgrimage.
I was reading Psalm 84 recently and God pointed out to me a verse which I had never really noticed before.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
I've read this Psalm a lot over the years, and I've always sort of focused on the "as they pass..." bit; knowing that as we walk through the Valley of Baka (valley of tears), that God comes through and turns those tears into blessing.
But, this comes after the key verse for me. "Blessed are those whose strength is in you, WHOSE HEARTS ARE SET ON PILGRIMAGE."
This is the road we are called to travel down. That is a high bar to set for us. To set all my heart's desires aside and instead to set my heart simply on my journey with God. Because that is the end game, to appear before Him in Zion. To keep our faces turned towards His.
And this isn't an easy road either, just like the Israelites were on. There is a call here to set our hearts on something so much more, rather than harking back to "easier" times. The Israelites looked back to a time they saw that was free from hunger, free from suffering - and in the midst of this, forgot exactly who God is.
They forget His promises, they take their eyes off Him and instead on themselves. Let's not do the same, let's not take our eyes off Jesus.
Sometimes there are tears, sometimes there is pain. But we don't walk this road alone. No, Jesus gets down in the trenches with us. The most powerful verse in the Bible to me is John 11:35 - "Jesus wept". No matter how hard the road is, Jesus feels that pain with us. We're not alone on the road.
In the darkness, what do I want my response to be? To look to the easy comforts? To take the easier path?
What I want to do this year is to want to want God. For a real hunger in my heart to go pursue Him, to take the road less travelled. That's the person I want to be. A person whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend;
For I perceive the way of life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let's neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.
John Bunyan, A Pilgrim's Progress