"You will walk through burning flames
but you will not be burned."
A sermon on Luke 4:14-21 by Jill Friebel 21 January 2007

How do you hear God's voice? How do you know if it is God is speaking to you? How do I know the difference between God and my own mind? So many people have such different experiences and it can be really discouraging if you don't hear God while others around you do. It can be a really confusing and vexing question especially when you are longing to hear from God. When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue he knew he was reading his own manifesto. This was written for him and it was for this particular day. Deep within he knew this was his calling - God had spoken to him in some unmistakable way.

Two weeks ago on the Saturday evening 14 of us were here to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. It was a wonderful liturgy. However it started a chain of events for me that surrounded an epiphany of my own some 23 years ago. An epiphany can mean an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity or a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience. In other words it is encountering God through an everyday human experience which takes on a significance that can potentially transform your life and it is just God speaking to you.

We left the Epiphany service and went to Anne's place for tea. There were 7 of us and after we had settled down for coffee it was suggested being the eve of Epiphany we might like to share a story of our own. It was a delightful time, listening to one another's story of when our lives had taken on new meaning or direction. As I was feeling particularly tired I slept on the way home, and David travelled in silence.

The next morning I woke early, in a fair degree of muscular pain but realized it wasn't the only source of pain lurking, there was something much bigger and deeper that I couldn't touch. Memories started flooding back. And my tears began to flow. I couldn't stop and David like most husbands was trying to find out whether he was the source of my pain. I couldn't talk to him except to assure him that he wasn't. It probably didn't help him a lot as when one can't talk the other is left out in the cold feeling rejected and imagining many things. It wasn't what I wanted to do, but I just couldn't talk. My tears turned to sobs, deep penetrating racking sobs and I couldn't pretend to be OK when I wasn't. I didn't get up, I did what I tell others to do, go with the tears, and stay with the pain. I do attempt to practice what I preach, in case you have ever wondered. I knew this hadn't come from nowhere, but I didn't understand why it had come with such ferocity, especially when I thought that the pain of this experience was behind me.

I eventually got out of bed and pulled myself together in time to come to church. I wasn't going too badly until we reached the last song. That was very nearly my undoing, and you may connect with why when I have finished this story and we sing it again tonight. The tears kept flowing for a lot of the next day as well.

The memories that were overwhelming me had been set in motion from the story I had told the night before. That night I had shared an experience that happened when we were applying to go with SIM International to work at Galmi Hospital in Niger. We felt called by God to go to the toughest hospital we knew about. However, schooling for the children was also going to be extremely difficult. At the time most MK's (Mission Kids) were sent to the mission boarding school in Nigeria, the neighbouring country below and we were being encouraged to do this. Home schooling wasn't really an option for us for many reasons. But I had to know that God was in on this. I knew I would never last the distance if He wasn't and I needed some indisputable confirmation that this was going to be all right. I got it, I had an amazing epiphany experience when reading a children's story at bedtime and we weren't left in the any doubt that God was saying, "Go ahead and trust me. I am calling you all to go to the poor and hungry and sick and I will be with you even in the separation." I will tell you that story another time if you want to hear it.

That was a good experience, but the one now flooding back was one of the darkest nights I have experienced. Strangely it was as though I was reliving it all over again. I was transported back 23 years and I was feeling everything again with the same intensity.

It was during a visit to the children. We had been in Africa for 8 months. And it had been our decision that I would visit them once during each school term. It is hard to describe to you just how difficult that was. It was only about 12 hours driving in total but there was a border crossing from Niger into Nigeria with heavily armoured soldiers and police all the way down who often hadn't been paid for months and who saw every opportunity of getting money by threatening and barring us from moving through the check points. So the 12 hours took much much longer. The roads were literally littered with burnt out cars wrecks and the roads themselves in Nigeria used to disappear into huge potholes with no warning. Obtaining visas to cross the border was always another drama. I was lucky this time as I was able to fly down in the little mission plane which was a dream run in comparison. But going home was going to be more difficult and a young French couple offered Lizanne and me a seat in the cab of their small pickup van. The French woman was nearly 8 months pregnant and was going to travel in the back of the pickup in a deck chair balanced precariously beside a water tank they were transporting back to their station. On reflection it was sheer madness.

I was staying in a little dwelling which was part of the mission run guest house. It was situated beside the mission school and was an oasis in what felt to me a hostile and terrifying country - Nigeria. The children could stay with me and go to school from there, but after the week was up they would then return to the boarding school. The last night we were in the communal dining room, and we were all struggling on the inside and food didn't matter. Finally one of them ran from the room crying and then one by one they all followed. Others saw us flee but no-one followed us. We found our way down to our little cottage and started to pack things ready for the morning. I was 33 at the time and four year old Lizanne went to bed and as the night dragged on the boys Justin 12 and Ben 11 finally gave in and also slept. But 9-year-old Rachel and 7-year-old Tamara were laying either side of me in the double bed sobbing and begging me over and over not to leave them. We had all been crying for hours, and I didn't know what to do. How could I possibly leave them the next morning? How could I physically say good-bye - it was just too much and too hard. God may have shown me without doubt that this was part of our call, but I could not have possibly imagined how painful this was going to be. This was only the 2nd parting of many more to come and they never got any easier.

The next morning, exhausted from pain and tears and little sleep I hugged them but there was no-one waiting with them to even comfort them. I vowed that day that would never happen again. Lizanne and I got in the pickup and Rachel ran down the road beside the car until she fell pleading with us not to leave her. I was left with that image and for the next 10 hours we travelled in silence up to Niger crossing the border late in the day feeling numb with grief.

I stayed in the mission guesthouse at Maradi, and decided to catch a bush taxi for the last 3 hours back to the hospital compound where we lived. David was unaware I was travelling this day. To cut a long story I was left at the "Tasha" or taxi station with trucks and old vehicles and hundreds of Africans in a dust bowl. An old veteran missionary had driven Lizzie and I there not having a clue of the events the day before or the terror in me now. She was fluent in English, French and Hausa and had lived in this country for 40 years. I was none of those, just a terrified novice. I sat on a wooden form running along the side of the truck with Lizzie waiting for it to fill up for the trip in temperatures between 40 and 45. No taxi left unless it was very very loaded up including live chickens etc. There we waited 5 hours and there was not a person in sight who spoke English. These taxis carry jerry cans of fuel and accidents were ghastly. Many victims were brought into the hospital over the years where the fuel exploded with horrific injuries. The effects of the 2 days and the trip ahead began to overwhelm me. I was so frightened I had chest pain. At this stage quite beside myself, I cried out to God that if he didn't in some way show up I wasn't going to make it. I remembered I had put my bible in the small bag at my feet. It was nearly dark and I opened it randomly and could just make out some words. - "Do not be afraid... for your prayer has been heard."

Co-incidence? Maybe. I can't prove anything. But for me that night once again I knew beyond any doubt we were not alone and much more, but I don't have time to tell you. The fear drained out through my feet, the air was cooling a little, I looked around me at the 25 or so of us squashed into the back of the truck, - feeling on the edge of bizarre. I saw faces this time and babies and then it was really dark. The men wore bulky headscarves and they were veiled not the women. We stopped half way for a break and everyone disappeared into the tiny village with its candle lights - it almost looked pretty at night. Ten minutes later the veiled young man sitting beside us came back with his hands cupped with lollies for Lizanne. It was a simple act, but for me profound. The "we" who had sacrificed so much to come and help "them" became "us". When we finally arrived about midnight the hospital compound was asleep and Lizzie and I trudged our way down the long dusty driveway feeling exhausted, wounded, dirty with a mixture of perspiration and Saharan dust and very grateful. I learnt repeatedly that pain and peace don't cancel each other out. I knew in the deepest sense that God was with us, but the personal pain we lived with and faced daily and with the illnesses and hunger of the Nigerians and harshness of this land never faded.

So why had this particular event returned quite out of the blue with such force. The emotions and feelings were partly from memories but I knew that this wasn't all about the past, something was emerging that was about the present, and this had triggered it. As I invited God into this once more and waited, I heard his voice again. I don't have time to go into everything that has happened except to say I became aware of more fear, fear that was about a number of things, but not excluding my children - still. Not just about the past separations, but all the things that have happened then and since. The pain wasn't only for David and me but each child has their own scars with varying consequences, it is still in the present for some of us. I have had so many people tell me "they could never part with their children." I am never sure whether they mean they are not as strong as me, or that they really think underneath that I am neglectful and a bad mother. I want to defend myself, I did it because I know we were all called and it was full of some amazing experiences and it is now part of us and our history. I know I haven't been the perfect mother, but it wasn't any easier for me than anyone else. I never felt strong, I felt weak and wounded and sick and desperate and guilty and I learnt to cling to God. I have learnt to listen for his voice because it felt like my life depended on it.

I believe God speaks to us all, every single human being, we just need a little help to recognize it sometimes. God will ask you to do hard things which you will say you could never do. It's true, you can't - unless you know that this is really God and when your heart fails you with fear you listen for your life. He will come and say at just the right time through some very mundane human experience "Don't be afraid... I have heard your prayer."

I have never regretted taking risks and trusting God. I do know how painful it is to leave my children for the sake of others who needed our help. I don't know the pain and cost of God in shaping Creation and then in sending Jesus to redeem it. That separation is way past my experience, but I do have a glimmer of the heartache. I grow in gratitude at the hospitality and generosity of this vulnerable God. The more I listen the more I discover and the more I trust and the more I receive.

Jesus stood up and read

........"The Spirit of the Lord is working through me,

having picked me out

................to deliver good news to the poor.

........I have been sent to preach a message;

................a message that means freedom for the locked-away,

................a message that will open the eyes of those who can't see.

........I have been sent to set free the used and abused."

This he has done and forfeited his life in the process but he came to me and healed me and set me free with his risen life.

I longed to bring healing to others and see others find freedom and God called me again through these same verses. I felt paralyzed with fear all over again "I can't do this, I'm not adequate, nor eloquent, nor capable. I'm too old." and he said,

"Don't be afraid... I have heard your prayer."