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How can we know the way? – Revd Dr Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Preacher: Revd Dr Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title of sermon: How can we know the way?

Readings: Numbers 9. 15–end, 1 Corinthians 7. 17–24

Date/time/service: Sunday 23rd January 2022 – 4pm Choral Evensong


In the last week or so much has been said about what it means to have (or not have) a ‘moral compass’. It’s hard to work out why, with so much honesty and integrity in public life.

Nevertheless, when this phrase is used it usually refers to an internalized set of values and objectives that guide a person with regard to their ethical behaviour and decision-making. Day by day and week by week, how do you make decisions? Decisions for yourself or on behalf of others? What set of values and objectives are you using? I guess having a ‘moral compass’ helps us decide what is right and what is wrong, what to do and what not to do. But who sets the compass?

Without something or someone to guide us in the right way, we have a tendency to go the wrong way, because we are all only human, we are, in the words of the book of common prayer like lost sheep who are easily led astray. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We are always tempted to want more, we are programmed to try and control the future, thinking that we are masters of our own universe and that destiny is held within our hands alone. Our compasses are very often turned inwards on ourselves and our own needs and that is always where it starts to go wrong.

I think in the last couple of years we have all come to realise that sometimes we do not always know which way to go, which road to travel on, it’s sometimes felt that all we can do is get through, one day at a time. The world has been catapulted into the unknown. So I suppose the question is how do we navigate a way forward in the midst of so much uncertainty, change and doubt? How do we know which way to go- whether morally, or physically, or spiritually? How do we make decisions in our daily lives, what do we use as a compass or a guide? As we are called to move forward, what can we learn from our global wilderness experience -when the entire human family has been stopped in its tracks and forced to re-set its compass by an airborne virus.

Our reading from the Book of Numbers describes the journey of the people of Israel through the wilderness after their freedom from slavery in Egypt. As an oppressed and imprisoned people they had been isolated, they had been broken in spirit, they had had their hope and their dignity taken away. They were exhausted, they were fearful, they were uncertain. They did not know where they were going, they had lost all sense of direction.

So God provides a pillar of cloud and fire to lead them, when the pillar is settled on the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, the people of Israel make a camp and rest, when the pillar lifts they move on. By night the pillar of cloud becomes a pillar of fire to provide light and warmth and comfort. When all else had been taken away, and in order to simply put one foot in front of another, the people of Israel follow the firey-cloudy pillar and accept God as their only guide.

St Paul in his letter to the Church in Corinth advises this new community of Christians to be careful of their desires and not to put too much emphasis on trying to control the future. To this community, he advises that they remember who they are, that they continue to move forward, and that they focus on the here and now rather than a future beyond their reach or a past life long before they were called.  In all the worlds temptations they are advised to let God be their guide through their pilgrimage of life.

In his poem ‘Lead kindly light’ John Henry Newman reminds us that ‘one step is enough’ in the midst of any encircling gloom. ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene’, he says ‘one step enough for me’.  If we are open to being led by the kindly light, or by the fire and cloudy pillar, we need not worry so much about the future perhaps, we need not be afraid. If we are open to being led by Christ, rather than our own devices and desires, we can walk on in faith, even if not by sight. If we are open to being led by Christ, we may not even need a moral compass, because Christ is the only direction we need.

As we are still journeying through the season of Epiphany and the month of January, it seems appropriate for us to be thinking about what might lie ahead in the year to come or indeed what might happen tomorrow. What choices might we have to make in the days and months ahead and how will we travel on the right way?

I’ll close with the words of another poem, by Millie Haskins, written at the turn of the twentieth century, a poem which can be taken as a prayer, and reminds us that all we need do is put our hand into the hand of God, and let God guide us onwards and upwards. That is probably the only decision we need to make today, tomorrow and every day of our lives.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown”. And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way”. So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.




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