Learning to Fish for People (Mark 1:14-20)

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I never learned how to fish.

Some might by surprised or horrified by my confession because often people think that fishing is an essential pastime for a pastor. I have some friends who love fishing and constantly tell me how much they enjoy fishing and all the fish they catch. So when – or if – the time comes when I want to learn how to fish, what will be the best way?

I could buy a book & read all about it, or watch YouTube clips, or maybe even try to work it out on my own. When I put this question to my congregation on Sunday, just about everyone agreed that the best way to learn how to fish is to go fishing with someone who knows what they’re going.

Generally speaking, that’s how we learn: by watching others and following their example.

When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him as his disciples, he called them to learn from him a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom (v15). Jesus taught that God’s Kingdom wasn’t a long way off, either in distance or in time. Instead, Jesus said that it is near. This Kingdom is God’s power, breaking through into our world by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, righting the wrongs of a fallen creation and restoring things to the way God intended from the beginning. Because God does all this in the person of Jesus, God’s Kingdom is wherever Jesus is, as he restores, redeems and renews all things by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples who followed Jesus learned what living in God’s Kingdom is like. They learned it by being with Jesus, hearing his parables, seeing his miracles and witnessing his disputes with the religious leaders of his time. Most of all, though, they learned about the Kingdom of God in their own relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ followers encountered the reality of God’s coming Kingdom through the perfect and infinite love and grace Jesus displayed through his death on the cross. They also encountered the power of God’s coming Kingdom in Jesus’ resurrection. That’s where they saw that God’s love for us in Jesus is stronger than anything we encounter in this world, even death.

We can understand discipleship, then, as Jesus calling us to learn to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love everyday of our lives. In all the situations we face in life, both good and bad, when Jesus call us to follow him, he wants us to learn from him how the grace and love he extends to us through his death and resurrection can shape us, our relationships with each other, and our community of faith. Learning to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom means encountering Jesus’ perfect and infinite love for us each and every day of our lives, and learning the difference it makes. We don’t learn this from a book or YouTube clip. We learn about the transforming power of God’s coming Kingdom by walking side by side with Christian sisters and brothers around us, just like Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other disciples learned it by walking with Jesus to the cross and empty grave.

This is largely what our congregation’s Discipling Plan is about. Last year, as we were discussing our plan for the future of our church, we spent a lot of time learning about discipleship by reading the gospels to see how Jesus discipled others. In the same way that Jesus connected with these four fishermen on the banks of Sea of Galilee, we hope that people will connect with Jesus and with each other as we learn together what it means to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

It is significant to see that when Jesus called these disciples, he already had their destination in mind. Jesus wanted them to learn about the reality of God’s coming Kingdom so they could then teach others. That’s why Jesus said that he was going to show them ‘how to fish for people’ (v17 NLT). In the same way, our Discipling Plan begins with our destination in mind as we aim to send people out to ‘fish for people’ in our lives, too. To achieve this, we are planning to grow in our faith, just as Peter and the other disciples learned to trust Jesus, and to be equipped for the work Jesus is calling us to do, just like someone who goes fishing needs the right equipment. We find everything we need to fulfil Jesus’ calling when we follow him and learn from him to live in the day-to-day reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

This becomes especially important when we are talking about our ministry to young people in our congregation. Whether we like it or not, our children, grandchildren and others who are new to the Christian faith are learning from us – our words, our actions and our relationships – what the Kingdom of God is like. We need to be asking ourselves what they are learning from us? Are our young people learning that the Kingdom of God is about turning up to church? Or are they learning that God’s Kingdom is about going on a roster or a committee? Worshipping together and being organized are important elements of Christian community, but they aren’t the main thing in God’s coming Kingdom. What we learn from Jesus as we follow him to the cross and empty grave is that his grace and love for us is better and stronger than anything else in this world. My hope and prayer for our young people is that they will learn from us that living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom each and every day brings hope and joy and peace, and that they will also learn for themselves how to fish for others.

The best way to learn to fish is to find someone who knows how to fish, and then go fishing with them. Are we willing to learn a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love from Jesus? As we learn from him, then others – and our young people especially – will learn about living in God’s coming Kingdom from us, as Jesus teaches us to fish for people together.

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A Personal Invitation (John 1:43-51)

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At our congregation’s general meeting last November, we adopted the following Discipling Plan as our theme for 2018 and our strategic direction for the future:

Following Jesus and making disciples by connecting, growing, equipping and sending.

As we begin a new year of ministry and mission in Tea Tree Gully, I’m intending to listen to God’s Word through our Discipling Plan when I prepare my messages each week to learn what Jesus might be teaching us about connecting, growing, equipping and sending as his followers in the world.

This story from John 1:43-51 talks a lot about connecting with others in relationships. Jesus connects with Philip by calling him into a discipling relationship with him. Philip then uses an existing connection he has with Nathanael to tell him that he had found the person that Moses and the Old Testament prophets had promised, and that person was Jesus from Nazareth. Philip then invites Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus by asking him to come and see Jesus for himself. The surprise in the story is that, as Nathanael comes to Jesus, he states that he had already seen Nathanael under the fig tree, even before he came to him.

What stands out to me in this story is that Philip didn’t need to be trained or taught how to bring Nathanael to meet Jesus. Neither did he invite him to attend a program or an event, or ask him to join a roster or a committee. Philip didn’t even ask Nathanael to go to church. Philip’s invitation was simple and personal: come and see Jesus for yourself.

We need to hear this because sometimes it seems like the aim of many people in the church is often to try get people to come to church, and we think that once we’ve done that our work is done. We can assume that if people are coming to church regularly, or semi-regularly, or participating in the organization of the congregation by being on a roster or in a committee, then they are connected to Jesus. However, just because we come to church or are part of a church organization, it doesn’t mean that we know Jesus. Over my years of ministry, I have met people who have been very faithful in attending church or active in the organization of the congregation, but their words and actions have made me wonder whether they have actually met Jesus.

This becomes critical as we discuss ministry with our young people. At times I have conversations with parents whose children have disconnected from church and they ask me why their children don’t come to church anymore. Of course, this is a complicated questions and there are many, many reasons why people might stop attending worship. Over recent years, however, as I have reflected on my experiences in the church but also my own family, I have been wondering whether the main problem is that too many of our young people just haven’t met Jesus in our churches. We can be so immersed in the busyness and business of church that maybe our focus has drifted from Jesus and know him through faith.

Maybe we need to be asking more how we can follow Philip’s example by helping our young people and others meet Jesus.

This is largely what our Discipling Plan is about. It adopts a relational understanding of church and emphasises the importance of meeting Jesus and growing in our relationship with him through participation in our community of faith. Our Discipling Plan begins where Jesus begins: by connecting with him in a discipling relationship and connecting with others with Jesus at the centre of our relationships with each other, just like Philip and Nathanael.

When we see church as a community where we can meet Jesus and through which we can help others meet Jesus, a major shift happens in our thinking. We become more of the living, breathing body of Christ in the world where people encounter God’s love for them through our love for each other. When we are living Christ-like lives by preferring each other’s needs over our own, doing what’s good for others even if it comes at a personal cost to ourselves, and being willing to sacrifice for each other rather than just working for what benefits ourselves, then people meet Jesus in us. I regularly hear people in our congregation pray that the Holy Spirit would make us more and more like Jesus. This is a good and vital prayer because when the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ, and this transformation is evident in our words and actions, in our relationships and how we treat each other, then people meet Jesus in us.

It is also important to see that at this stage of his journey as a follower of Jesus, Philip didn’t knock on someone’s door or approach a stranger to tell them about Jesus. Instead, he went to someone with whom he already had a relationship. In the same way, mission begins with the people we already know. God wants to work through the connections we already have to connect with others, including our families, friends, people we work with or with whom we spend our leisure time. When he met Jesus, Philip found us someone he had been waiting for. Then, he naturally wanted to share who he had found with someone he knew. When we find what our hearts are waiting for in Jesus, then inviting others to meet Jesus will be a natural thing to do.

So this story leaves me with two questions. The first is, how might our congregation be different if our main goal was to introduce people to Jesus? My personal hope and prayer is that by implementing our Discipling Plan, we might all meet Jesus as the real, living person that he is, that we might grow in our relationship with him, equipping us through the power of the Holy Spirit as he sends is into the world to participate in God’s mission of redeeming, restoring and renewing creation.

My second question is, where are you in this story? Do you identify with Philip as a follower of Jesus who has found in him what your heart has been waiting for? Then our Discipling Plan is about equipping you to invite others to meet Jesus. Or are you more like Nathanael, someone who is still waiting to meet Jesus? I hope and pray that through your connection with our congregation this year you might meet the crucified, risen and living Jesus, and grow in your relationship with him to find everything your heart is waiting for.

The good news is that whether you are more of a Philip or a Nathanael, Jesus already sees you, knows you, and is waiting for you.

More to think about:

  • Do you like meeting new people? Can you explain why you like or dislike it?
  • Why do you think Philip was so quick to tell Nathanael about meeting Jesus? What does that tell us about what meeting Jesus can do for us?
  • Do you feel like you have met Jesus in Christian community? What has helped you meet Jesus or has got in the way of you meeting Jesus?
  • Do you agree that we can help people meet Jesus when we love them in the same way that he loves us? Who could you introduce to Jesus today by loving them like Jesus loves you?
  • How might your Christian community or church be different if your main goal was to help people meet Jesus and grow in their relationship with him?

God’s Powerful Word (Genesis 1:1-5)

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Many Christians have spent a lot of time arguing over the meaning of the creation story in Genesis 1. Some believe that God created the world in seven 24-hour days. Others understand the story more as ancient people trying to describe something God did over millions of years. As we hear the opening words from Genesis 1 as the Old Testament reading for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, I’m not really interested in arguing in favour of one interpretation or the other. Instead, Genesis 1 can teach us a lot about God and the way he is at work in our world, no matter how we may interpret it.

One of the most important things we can learn about God from Genesis 1 is that when God speaks, things happen. God’s word is so powerful that it has the ability to do exactly what it says. When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ that was exactly what happened – light came into existence and to give warmth to a dark and cold universe. As each day unfolded, God’s word continued to work its dynamic power, speaking the sky, dry land, trees and plants, and all living things into existence. The pattern is the same throughout the story: God speaks and whatever he says comes into being. This is because when the Holy Spirit is at work through the dynamic word of God, things happen.

We also see this in the ministry of Jesus. The Apostle John reflected the words of Genesis 1 in the opening chapter of his gospel when he wrote,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NIV)

In these words, John points to Jesus as the Word which God spoke at the beginning of time to bring everything into existence. This Word had now entered into creation in the form of a living, breathing person. As the Word-made-flesh, Jesus is the walking, talking Word of God who entered into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit to restore the original goodness of creation.

We can see this dynamic power of God’s word in Jesus as he spoke a new reality into existence through his earthly ministry. For example, at the start of Mark chapter 2, Jesus told a man who could not walk that his sins were forgiven. This was considered blasphemy by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day because they believed that only God could forgive sins. To show them that God had given him the authority to forgive sins, Jesus told the man to stand up, pick up his mat, and go home. To everyone’s amazement, that is exactly what happened! What Jesus said came into existence through God’s powerful word.

In this and every other miracle during Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see Holy Spirit at work through God’s powerful word. When Jesus told blind people to open their eyes, they were able to see. When he told lepers to show themselves to the priests, they are made clean. When he told the dead to come out of their tombs, they were raised to new life. And when Jesus told sinners that they were forgiven, the Holy Spirit worked through the powerful word of God to free them from their guilt, and make them righteous and good.

This dynamic word of God through which the Holy Spirit works is still with us today. It is so important for us to be listening to God through his word in the Bible because that is the main way the Holy Spirit operates in our lives. Just like the Holy Spirit worked through God’s word at the beginning of time to bring creation into existence, and just like the Holy Spirit worked through the words of Jesus to heal the sick, raise the dead and forgive sinners, so the Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives through God’s word. When we read the Bible and hear God’s promises to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in us to bring into existence exactly what we read. When the Word of God promises us we are the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27, that is who the Spirit makes us. When the Word of God promises us that we are a holy nation and a kingdom of priests in 1 Peter 2:9, that is who the Holy Spirit is making us. When the Word of God promises us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that we are a new creation in Christ, that the old has gone and the new is here, the Spirit of God is continuing the work of creation by doing exactly what it says – making us new creations in Christ Jesus.

This Word of God is not just a written word that we read. It is also a word that we speak to each other and hear from each other. We do this each and every week when our pastor says to us that we are forgiven in Jesus’ name. Through the authority of Jesus which he has given to his church, when our pastor speaks God’s forgiveness, grace and love to us, that is exactly what God works in us – his forgiveness, grace and love.

This is not just something God gives to pastors. As members of God’s nation of royal priests, we are all able to speak the dynamic Word of God to each other in the Holy Spirit’s power. When we speak words of peace to each other, the same Spirit of God that was at work at the beginning of creation works through our words to create peace in the hearts and minds of those who receive our words. When we speak words of grace to each other, the Holy Spirit uses our words to extend God’s grace through us to the people we are speaking to. When we speak words of forgiveness to each other, the Spirit of God frees people from the wrongs they have done and gives them new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way that God brought everything into existence at the start of creation through his powerful word, when we speak God’s grace, love and blessing to others, God’s powerful word is at work through us and in us to create light, beauty and life in other people.

There are times when it can seem like words are empty and without meaning. When we read the story of creation in Genesis 1, however, we see that God’s word is powerful enough to do exactly what it says. God’s powerful word is still at work bringing light to dark places, giving warmth to cold hearts, and life where there is nothing at all. As we read God’s word, hearing his promises of grace and love, and when we speak God’s words of forgiveness and new life to each other, the Holy Spirit is still working in us and through us to do exactly what God says.

One More Year (Luke 13:6-9)

Luke 13v6-9 looking for figs

In the house where we live there is one part of the yard which was pretty much just dirt and weeds when we moved in. Over the we have lived there, I have been slowly working on the patch to turn it into more of a garden. One plant I put in was doing well to begin with, but a couple of months ago it started losing its leaves and turning brown. I began to ask myself whether this plant was worth saving, or whether I should pull it out and plant something in its place which was going to do better in that spot.

I think most people who have worked in gardens would have been in a similar position to the person in Jesus’ story that we read about in Luke 13:6-9. He comes back time after time to see if his fig tree was producing any fruit, but it never does. In some ways, this is a pretty simple parable to interpret: the owner of the garden is God, and each of us is the fig tree.

This parable starts to get more challenging when we begin to ask what the fruit is that God is looking for in our lives. There are a number of ways in which we could interpret the fruit, but whenever I hear the Bible talk about fruit I think straight away of what Paul says in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (NLT)

The way I’m thinking about the fruit that God comes looking for in our lives, then, is that he is looking to see if our faith is producing:

  • love like Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, especially for people who are hard to love or who don’t love us
  • joy, even in the most tragic or difficult of circumstances
  • peace in the middle of life’s storms, conflicts and uncertainties
  • patience with people who frustrate or annoy us
  • kindness towards those who are unkind to us
  • the goodness of God in everything we think, say and do
  • faithfulness to the promises we have made to others, especially when it’s easier to break our promises, and to God for all of his goodness and grace to us through Jesus
  • gentleness, even with people who may be rough or hostile towards us
  • self-control in situations when it would be easier to let our emotions or feelings get the better of us

This story gives us a way to understand what the Christian life us about. I often talk with people who tell me that being a Christian is about going to church, or bringing other people to church, or getting to heaven when we die. This story says to me, however, that when God looks at our lives, he is looking to see if we are producing these kinds of fruit. This is the purpose and goal of living as Jesus’ disciples – to be growing to maturity so we can produce fruit in our lives and be sowing this kind of fruit into the lives of the people around us.

This is a great text for the New Year because it gives us a chance to look back at the past year and reflect on whether or not our lives have been producing this kind of fruit in our relationships with others. Most of us will probably be able to see times when we have produced fruit like Paul describes. However, there are other times when we have failed to produce these fruit. We are all growing and maturing, like any plant in our gardens. Every living thing is continually growing and maturing. We have times when the fruit is plentiful, but also others when the fruit is more scarce. What is important is that we are growing, because when something’s growing, it means it’s alive.

The good news of this text is that the owner of the garden doesn’t cut the fig tree down or even leave it to do its own thing. Instead, the gardener steps in and offers to care for it by giving it ‘special attention and plenty of fertilizer’ (v8 NLT). This character in the story is Jesus himself who intercedes for us by pleading for us with the Father and then promises to care for us. Jesus is the one who feeds us with his love, nurtures us with his grace, provides for us in his mercy, and grows us as his people. I won’t grow the struggling plant in my garden by telling it to grow stronger. Neither does Jesus grow us by telling us what to do. Instead, by being born and living a human life for us, by dying on the cross and then being raised to new life, Jesus has done everything that we need to grow into healthy, mature people of God so we can produce the fruit that God is looking for in our lives.

Jesus grows us to maturity in his grace through the waters of Baptism and the word of forgiveness. He provides food and drink for us as he gives us his blood and body, his perfect and eternal life, in the wine and bread of Holy Communion. Through our connection with and participation in Christian community, Jesus is there by his Holy Spirit to care for us and provide us with everything we need to grow as his strong, healthy, fruit-producing body of believers. Jesus commits himself to us, just like the gardener in this story, in the hope that as we grow and mature in his grace and love, our lives will produce the fruit of a vibrant and living faith which our heavenly Father is looking for.

I decided not to pull out the plant that wasn’t doing well in my garden. Instead, I committed to take care of it and water more regularly. Now, its leaves are growing back and it’s starting to flower again. This is what God plans for each of us. Through the care his Son gives us and by the power of his Spirit, God wants us to be strong and healthy in our faith so that our lives produce the fruit he is looking for. We can’t do it alone – to be strong, mature people of God we need the grace and love Jesus extends to us through a community of believers. My hope and prayer is that we can all live in the forgiveness, goodness and new life of Jesus this coming year so that our lives produce the fruit our heavenly Father is looking for by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can then sow the seeds of his goodness into the lives of others.

Following the Baby (Luke 2:16)

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This year we have talked a lot about discipleship and what it means for us to live as followers of Jesus. As I prepared for Christmas, I was thinking about how following Jesus connects the good news of his birth with our lives.

One thing that struck me was that the characters in the Christmas story weren’t following Jesus, but were following other things to Jesus. The shepherds followed the angel’s directions. The Magi followed a star. And what they found when they followed in faith was an infant lying in a manger.

At our Christmas Eve service, I talked about looking at our three children when they were born and being amazed at the gift of life I saw in each of them. Another thing that really hit me when I looked at each of them was how utterly powerless they were. They had no control over anything – their environment, what was happening around them, even their own bodies. A newly born infant is completely helpless, totally dependent on others for everything they need.

That was the Messiah the shepherds and the Magi encountered when they looked into the manger and saw the infant Jesus. They witnessed a God who surrenders all of his infinite power to become a helpless baby. Jesus’ birth was an act of faith as he placed his life in the hands of his parents and trusted them to care and provide for him in every way. It was an act of love because the Son of God surrenders all of his power for our sake, as he meets us where we are to give us something better.

There are biblical scholars who believe that when Jesus taught his disciples that they needed to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3) he was referring to a newborn infant. If we accept this interpretation of Jesus’ words, he seems to be saying that if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we need to trust our Father in heaven for everything we need, just like newborn infants trust their parents for everything to survive.

This doesn’t come easy for us. Generally, we like to be in control of ourselves, our circumstances, even the people around us. We tend to hate feeling powerless and want to take control so circumstances, situations and even people’s actions fit in with us and the way we think things should be. The problem with this is that while we are trying to exercise control, we are not trusting in God. There are those who argue that our human tendency to control things comes from our fundamental desire to play god with our own lives and the lives of others.

The good news for us in the helplessness of the infant Jesus is that, when we are powerless in our own lives and we have no control, Jesus meets us there. In those times when our life’s circumstances, our relationships or even our own bodies are out of our control, Jesus is with us. He knows what it is like to be helpless and depend entirely on others because he has been there in his infancy. Jesus knows what it is like to have no control over his environment, over anything that was going on around him, or even his own bodily functions. So when our lives, or even our own bodies, are out of control, God is with us. Whether we think of Jesus’ powerlessness in the manger or on the cross, when we are powerless, God is close to us.

That is where we learn to trust God. One of the reasons God reveals himself to us as our loving heavenly Father is that he wants us to trust him for everything the way newly born infants trust their parents. We learn what faith is all about when we surrender control, or our desire to control, and leave things in the hands of our loving heavenly Dad. We don’t have to fix things, or get our way, or make things a certain way, or get others to do things the way we think they should be done. A big part of following Jesus in faith is to actually let go of our desire to control circumstances, behaviours or people around us, and trust that God will work them for the good of all who love him (Romans 8:28).

As we live in faith, then, we also learn how to be more loving towards the people around us. Jesus surrendered his power out of love for us. In the same way, there are times when he calls us to follow him by giving up our control to show love to other people. Things don’t always have to be the way we want them or the way they have always been done. Love means taking other people’s needs or preferences into account and giving up what we think is important s for their benefit. As we prioritise other people and what is meaningful or important to them, we show them the love of God who surrendered his control and power by being born in a manger. This can happen in our congregations, our homes, or even the way we celebrate Christmas. It’s not about just giving people what they want or being a doormat. Instead, it’s about realising that things don’t always have to be the way we want them to be, and giving others a chance to contribute constructively in ways that are meaningful and important for them.

It continues to amaze me how our children are able to learn, grow and become more self-sufficient in what they can do. As they get older, they will probably rely on their parents less and less. In some ways, that is the way life is meant to be. In our relationship with God, however, our heavenly Father never wants us to stop trusting in him for everything we need. As we follow Jesus to the manger, we encounter a God who surrendered his power and control for us. When life is out of our control and we are helpless, the infant Jesus meets us there. As we gain more control, there are times when Jesus asks us to follow him by giving up our control and trusting him more as we love the people around us.

How might you give up your control, trusting in God and showing love to others this Christmas?

The Greatest Gift (Luke 2:9-12)

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On Christmas Eve at our church, our young people presented a play which looked at the birth of Jesus as being the greatest gift ever given to the world.

When we compare the gift of a child to all the other things on our Christmas wish lists, a baby might not look very impressive or important. When each of our three children were born, I remember looking at these little, helpless people and being amazed at what an incredible gift life is. We can’t buy it or earn it in any way. Life can only be given, and that’s what makes it a gift.

Whether we identify as followers of Jesus or not, it is good that we remember that. It is too easy to take our life and the lives of the people around us for granted. But life is so fragile and precious. Christmas is a good time to remember that and appreciate the lives of the people around us. They might frustrate or annoy us, but the people in our lives are a gift to us from a God who loves us and wants good for us. So give thanks for the fragile, precious gift of the people in your life, because they are God’s gift to us.

What is unique about the life of this baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas is that he is the gift of God’s life to us. The Apostle Paul tells us that the fullness of God lives in this little body (Colossians 1:19). Through this child, God overcomes everything that divides a flawed, broken, messed-up humanity from himself and he unites himself with us. God and people are joined together as one in the infant of Jesus. He does that to take everything that is wrong about us and carry it to the cross to put it to death. At the same time, he fills us with everything he is: goodness, purity, righteousness, wholeness, and so much more. He gifts us with his life, from which all life grows. Jesus describes the life he comes to give as ‘life to the full’ (John 10:10). This is life as it was meant to be from the beginning – life lived in perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with creation. His is a life that is stronger than death, and a life that will never end.

We look for life in all sorts of ways and places. Some of them help us discover what life is about. Other places where we look for life actually take life from us. In the end, like all the other gifts we will receive this Christmas, they have a use-by date. They will leave us wanting and looking for more, or better, or newer gifts. The gift of life that God gives to us through the infant Jesus, however, has no use-by date. It is everything we could ever hope for, and so much more.

At Christmas, we don’t just celebrate the birth of a baby a long time ago in a land far, far away. We celebrate the greatest gift God has ever given to us – life in his Son which begins now and will last forever.

The Kingdom of Love (2 Samuel 7:1-11,16)

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I am amazed how often I see stories about the royal family in my news-feed when I open my email homepage. Australians are divided on whether the Queen should be our head of state or not, but that doesn’t stop us having a fascination with the royal family, who they are marrying, or what they are wearing. Occasionally I see people debating who will be the next King of Great Britain – whether it will be Charles or pass straight to William. It reminds me that all monarchs, rulers and governments in this world are temporary. It doesn’t matter whether they get their power from being part of a family or through more democratic means, at some stage every worldly ruler passes on their authority on to someone else.

During the Christmas season, Christians celebrate the birth of the child who has come to reign as our spiritual King and to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. This king was foretold throughout the Old Testament and God’s people waited for centuries for his coming. When Jesus was born, the prophesied king came into our world to establish God’s kingdom and to reign over his people.

There are a number of ways in which the reign of Jesus as our king is very different from the reign of earthly rulers. I would like to look at three ways in which Jesus’ kingdom is different from any other worldly government.

Firstly, as the prophet Nathan told David about a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, this king would reign forever. In 2 Samuel 7:1-16 we read that David wanted to build a physical house made of stone and word in which God could make his home in the world. God turns it around and tells David through the prophet Nathan that instead he would build a spiritual ‘house’ from David’s descendants, meaning a dynasty of kings. One of David’s descendants would reign over an eternal kingdom which would never end. This prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus who began his reign over the kingdom of God during his earthly ministry and who continues to reign over us now through faith. The promise is that Jesus’ kingdom will never end as he will rule over us for all of eternity.

The second big difference is that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t made up of a complicated legal system which only lawyers can understand. As we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent, we remember that Jesus’ kingdom has just one command: the law of love. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength, and to love others like we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). In John’s gospel, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus gave a new commandment to his followers: to love each other in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34). The rest of the New Testament explores how communities of Jesus’ followers were working out how this law looked in their relationships with each other. In the same way, as members of Jesus’ kingdom through faith, we only have one law to live by: to love each other in the same self-giving, self-sacrificing way that Jesus loves us.

This leads us to the third big difference between our worldly rulers and the way Jesus rules over us as our spiritual King. Earthly rulers can make all the rules they want, but they cannot give us the ability to keep them. In Jesus’ kingdom, we have a king who gives us what we need so that we can live in the way he wants us to. Jesus’ new command is based on and flows out of the love he gives us. During his time on earth, Jesus loved others perfectly, not just to set us an example for us to follow, but so that we can know his perfect love for us. We can understand grace as God giving to us what he wants from us. Jesus our king loves us perfectly by being born for us, living for us, dying for us and rising again from the grave to give us new life through faith in him. It would kind of be like Queen Elizabeth II paying the taxes she demands from us so that we can use that money to help and bless other people. Jesus rules as our king to use his power and authority to provide for us in every way, to protect us from all harm, and to keep us strong in his love. Through the experience of being loved by our King Jesus we are then able to love the people around us, not matter how difficult it might be to do that. As we live in the reality of Jesus’ Kingdom of Love, we participate in his love by receiving his love through faith in him and sharing his love in our relationships with others.

Talking about Australia as a constitutional monarchy runs the risk of people arguing over the Queen should be our head of state or not. I don’t want to get into that because, like King David about three thousand years ago, kings and queens come and go, and their kingdoms, constitutions and governments are only temporary. However, we belong to the eternal Kingdom of Love whose king will rule forever. We encounter Jesus’ love when we look into the manger in faith and see our king who is born for us in Bethlehem. This is the king who loves us perfectly in his life, death and resurrection. This is the king who still rules over our hearts with his love. And this is the king whose perfect, infinite grace will keep us in his Kingdom of Love for ever.