Trouble Ahead: be prepared!
In recent weeks the news has been full of gloomy predictions about what lies in store for the people of the UK over coming months. The cost of living crisis is already causing a squeeze for many, and predictions of further increases in inflation driven mainly by energy costs are certainly concerning. Within the last week, I heard a radio commentator summarise their perspective with the words, “there’s certainly a lot to worry about” and a Christian leader predict a future in which, apart from a few super-rich people, the majority of us will struggle to make ends meet (i.e., the comfortable middle class will become a thing of the past).
I claim no expertise in economics and will not try to say whether these predictions are correct or not. It seems wise to me that we all try our best now to make whatever adjustments we can to reduce spending and tighten our belts. Beyond that, we trust that the government might find a way to rebalance families’ finances and that global conditions will stabilise, perhaps through peace in Ukraine. It strikes me, though, that this latest shock is only one in a serious that has hit us in recent years and that it is a moment, as every shock is, whether global or personal, to think twice not only about short-term survival but also about long-term destiny.
The phrase ‘trouble head’ might remind you, as it does me, of the 1936 Iriving Berlin song entitled ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’. Sung by Fred Astaire, it forms the backdrop to one of his iconic dance routines with Ginger Rogers. The idiom ‘face the music’ is around a century older than the song. It means to face the unpleasant consequences of one’s choices. In the song, Berlin plays with the phrase. We may have trouble ahead, but we can dance to the music. We can, to use another idiom, ‘make hay while the sun shines’. There is no point worrying about future trouble. Just live for the moment.
Is that not how many of us often live, especially in our present day? We try to live for the moment and put off the future. Then when a shock comes, we worry for a while, but we always try to return to living for pleasure. It is as if we think that life should be a long dance and that the shocks are interruptions to life. If we could shift our thinking to see the shocks as life too and find in them opportunities to grow and prepare for what lies ahead, that would serve us better. Every shock is a wake up call. Not only to prepare for our financial future, but to think about our eternal destiny and how we can be prepared for it. We must think about how to be prepared to meet our Creator.
The first part of this post’s title (‘Trouble Ahead’) was given to me by Scrabo Hall, where I will be speaking this coming Sunday morning from Acts 21:1-16. That passage tells of how the apostle Paul, journeying resolutely towards Jerusalem, convinced the Spirit was leading him to go there, heard three warnings about suffering that would come to him if he went ahead. Furthermore, it is clear that these were messages from the same Spirit Paul believed he was following – the enacted prophecy of Agabus, a bona fide prophet, makes that crystal clear. His friends pleaded with him not to go. He described himself as heartbroken in his anguish over the decision. He told them he would continue with the journey because he was willing even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus. They gave up arguing with him and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (verse 14). Paul continued his journey and did suffer in Jerusalem, but he did not die there. Rather he ended up in Rome, where God used his ministry (as with some important officials on the way) to testify to Jesus and even see some saved from within the household of the emperor.
This episode in Paul’s life teaches us important things about divine guidance (especially if we put it alongside the other varied ways in which Paul and his team experienced God’s direction throughout Acts). It reminds us that prophecies in the New Testament, unlike the ‘thus says the Lord’ of the Old Testament prophets, are not always commands to be obeyed directly. In this case, the predictions of suffering were intended to help Paul be ready for what was coming as well as to show his friends, and we the readers, his Christ-like resolve to obey his Father. Any message that is claimed to come from God must be tested to see if it truly is from him (is it consistent with the Scriptures?) and weighed for its proper application.
More importantly, though, this episode reminds us of the shape of every authentically Christian life. We are called, like Paul, to live for the name of the Lord Jesus. Our bottom line must be to say, “Let the will of the Lord be done”. Our struggles with that are much less often to do with lack of clarity about exactly what God’s will is, but with lack of willingness on our parts to suffer loss for his sake. Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in Acts clearly parallels that of the Lord Jesus in its prequel, Luke’s Gospel. Both were determined to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-23; 21:13 c.f. Luke 9:51). Both had three predictions of suffering to come there (three for Paul in Acts 21 and three by Jesus in Luke 9:21-22; 43-45; 18:31-34). Jesus’ close companions also tried to dissuade him (not in Luke, but in Matthew 16:22). Paul’s anguished decision echoes Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) and his friends’ submission to God’s will echoes Jesus’ prayer in that garden (Luke 22:42). Agabus’s prediction that Paul would be handed to the Gentiles to the Jews follows the pattern of what happened to Jesus (Luke 18:32). Above all, both suffered according to God’s will and for the sake of others. Paul suffered because he desired to see people saved. Jesus suffered to save them.
The pattern of Christian life and decision making, then, is always one of following the path that is most like Jesus and that means the path that is not about self-protection, self-advancement or self-promotion, but the one that is about helping as many others as possible know the blessings of God. The key principle is always “Let the will of the Lord be done” and that always means becoming like Jesus and sharing Jesus with others. We may have many questions about the specifics of God’s will for us in all of life’s choices. Sometimes it won’t be obvious that one option is right and another wrong. In such cases, I think God is giving us freedom to choose wisely. If we choose prayerfully, with advice from others (knowing they may be wrong as Paul’s friends were but will always help us prepare better), with that goal at the centre, we won’t go far wrong and our Lord will lead us on.
There will be trouble ahead. The ‘may’ in the song is wishful thinking! Death is in store for all of us, and after that we will face our God. We must be prepared. That means, first and foremost, coming to know our sins forgiven and ourselves reconciled into relationship with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose again. Secondly, it means committing ourselves each day to live in step with the Holy Spirit by making every decision on the simple basis of the Lord’s will of us showing Jesus being done.