Peace (Luke 1:68-79)

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As a motorcyclist, I tend to want to look for a longer, more interesting way, hopefully with lots of corners, to get from one place to another. There are times, however, when I need to find the quickest, most direct route to my destination. That’s when I go to the app on my smartphone where I can type in my destination, add my starting point, and it will guide me in the most direct way to get to where I need to be.

The final line in the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) basically describes Jesus in a similar way. This is the song Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sung when his son was born. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel who had promised him that his wife, Elizabeth, who was ‘well along in years’ (v18 NLT), was going to have a baby. The consequence was that Zechariah wasn’t able to speak during Elizabeth’s pregnancy. When the child was born, however, and Zechariah told people that the baby’s name would be John, his mouth was opened, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied about his son’s future and the Saviour whose arrival he would announce.

Zechariah describes Jesus as the one who will ‘guide us to the path of peace’ (v79 NLT). The peace which he talks about is very different to the way a lot of people understand peace today. Most of the time it seems like we think of peace as a feeling we experience, or being calm in the middle of the chaos of life. The biblical idea of peace includes this, but means a lot more. Its foundation in is the concept of shalom from the Old Testament. This shalom peace rises out of an end to armed conflict between two tribes or nations. Not only would they stop fighting, but the shalom peace they could find was a new relationship where they were able to work together and live in harmony with each other.

Shalom peace, then, means a restoration to what had previously been broken. It is repairing what had been fractured to the point that it is returned to its original state. If we break something like a cup or a plate, it’s never quite the same again. Relationships can be like that too. Shalom peace returns something to its original condition so that no evidence of brokenness can be detected at all. Shalom peace makes everything new, the way things were meant to be from the beginning.

This is the peace that Zechariah tells us Jesus came to guide us into by the most direct route. The way Jesus does it, according to Zechariah’s inspired words, is by telling us how to find salvation through the forgiveness of sins (v77). When relationships are broken, forgiveness is the only way to establish shalom peace and restore what was broken. Creating this shalom peace by forgiving sin was the reason for Jesus’ birth which we will celebrate in a couple of weeks. Jesus opens the way for us to find shalom peace through forgiveness by joining us in our brokenness as an infant, carrying our wrongs to the cross, and raising us to new life through faith in his resurrection. In his birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus makes it possible for our sins to be forgiven so he can lead us in the path of shalom peace.

We can find shalom peace through the forgiveness Jesus won for us in four main aspects of our lives. Firstly, we can have shalom peace with God as everything which got in the way of a relationship with the Divine is washed away and we are made new through faith in Jesus. Secondly, we can have shalom peace with others as we extend forgiveness to people who wrong us and we receive forgiveness from people we have wronged. As we move towards Christmas, it is worth asking who we can give the gift of forgiveness and shalom peace to because this is really the greatest gift we can offer someone. The third aspect of this shalom peace is within ourselves. I don’t tell people who are struggling with guilt or shame that they need to forgive themselves because you can’t give yourself something you don’t already have. Instead, a better way is to find forgiveness in Jesus, because God has already forgiven us because of what Jesus has done for us. It’s a done deal – all is forgiven! We can find shalom peace within ourselves through this promise. The fourth aspect of shalom peace is in our relationship with creation. We do significant damage to the world around us each and every day, even though we have a responsibility to care for the earth God has given to us. When Jesus comes again to establish his kingdom of shalom peace, then our relationship with the world will also be restored to its original state as God intended.

This idea of shalom peace might sound great but how do we achieve it? At this point, it might be tempting to offer a handful of easy steps to achieve shalom peace in our lives, but life doesn’t often work like that. Instead, Zechariah tells us that Jesus will guide us into the ‘path of peace.’ Zechariah’s words tell us that shalom peace is something we journey into as we follow Jesus in our lives, just like I might follow the directions of my maps application to get to where I’m going. This is discipleship language. It is about learning a new way of living from Jesus, the way an apprentice learns a trade from the master tradesman. The evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke describe this ‘path of peace’ as learning to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). The Apostle John gives us a slightly different version of the path when he gives us Jesus’ new command to love one another with the same self-giving, self-sacrificing love with which he loves us (John 13:34,35;15:9-17). Paul’s letters are all about guiding us in this same path as he explores what it looks like for Christian communities to be following the way of faith and love (Galatians 5:6).

All of these are ways in which Jesus guides us into the way of shalom peace, just like my maps app shows me the way to where I need to go. Our destination is a full experience of God’s shalom peace where everything will be restored to the way God intended in the beginning. Until that day we can still walk the way of shalom peace as we follow Jesus, living in his forgiveness, and growing in restored relationships with God, other people, ourselves and all of creation.

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Hope (Psalm 25:1-10)

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If there is something that you want, are you happy to wait for it? Or would you prefer to get it straight away?

We live in a society that isn’t very good at waiting. Generally speaking, we are constantly being told that we can have what we want right now, without needing to wait for it. We can buy things and pay for them later. We can use an app to order our coffee so it’s ready to collect when we arrive. Dating websites give us the opportunity to find our ‘perfect match’ without wasting time getting to know the other person. In so many ways, a strong message from our society is that we can have whatever we want right now without waiting for it.

Maybe that is one reason why our society also finds it hard to hope. I was surprised to find that in Psalm 25, the Hebrew word which is translated as ‘hope’ in verse 5 of the New Living Translation, as well as verse 3 in the New International Version, is also the word for ‘wait’. This tells us that the people of the Old Testament saw a very close connection between ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’. To wait for something good also meant to hope for it. Maybe if we are going to find hope, we also need to learn to wait.

As he wrote Psalm 25, David was waiting and hoping for someone to save him. He wrote, ‘Do not let me be disgraced, or let my enemies rejoice in my defeat’ (v2 NLT) and ‘Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me’ (v5 NLT). Like other Old Testament people, when David wrote these words he didn’t think that being saved meant going to heaven when he died. Instead, he was waiting and hoping for God to save him from his enemies. These were real people who wanted to take his life. For Old Testament people, salvation was more about here and now than it was about what happens when we die.

If we think about ‘being saved’ in this way, then we all have very real enemies we need God to save us from. I’m not thinking about human, flesh and blood enemies who make life difficult for us. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). Instead, I’m thinking about enemies who want to take life from us such as fear, guilt, physical and mental illnesses, anxiety, depression, shame, and even death itself. If we read Psalm 25 with these ‘enemies’ in mind, then David’s words can take on new meaning for us and can actually give us hope, no matter what our ‘enemies’ might be.

As we celebrate the First Sunday in Advent, this is what we can wait and hope for in the coming of Jesus. One reason for Jesus’ birth is to give us hope in the face of the ‘enemies’ we struggle with as we wait for him to come and save us. Jesus’ saving work began when he entered into our human experience as an infant. This saving miracle is what we celebrate at Christmas. Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus constantly saved the people he had contact with by freeing them from their ‘enemies’ and giving them new life as whole, clean, forgiven people. Jesus then defeated our ‘enemies’ by suffering on the cross and dying in our place. This is where he won his saving victory for us which was made evident when he was raised from death to eternal life at Easter. Jesus’ whole life, from his birth, through his death and resurrection, and still now as he joins his life with ours through his gift of the Holy Spirit, is to save us from our ‘enemies’ which want to take life from us. The time will come when Jesus will return again to complete his saving work by getting rid of all the evil in the world, making everything that is wrong in creation right again.

This is what we wait and hope for as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth in the season of Advent. Jesus came to us as a baby to save us from our enemies. He is coming at the end of time to complete his saving work once and for all. As we wait for that, Jesus is still coming to us as the one who saves us from the ‘enemies’ that want to take life from us. I understand that there are times in life when it doesn’t seem like Jesus is saving us, and it can appear like our enemies have the upper hand. That is because the paradox of hope is that it is waiting for something we don’t have yet. The Apostle Paul put it this way:

We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) (Romans 8:23b-25 NLT)

Like the people of the Old Testament, Paul connects waiting and hoping like two sides of the same coin. He also says that we have been saved, but that we also hope for something that we don’t have yet. As God’s people whom he has saved in Jesus, we wait and hope with patience and confidence for God to complete his saving work in Jesus, even though we don’t fully have it yet. Even though it might not feel like Jesus has saved us from our enemies, we can still wait in hope for his saving work to be made complete in us.

As we wait for Jesus’ coming during this Advent season, we can wait in hope, peace, joy and love. These are God’s gifts to us all in the birth and life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Whatever our ‘enemies’ might be, God gives us the hope of a better tomorrow as Jesus comes to save us from them.

I honestly pray that you might find a greater sense of hope this Christmas as you put your trust in Jesus who comes to save you from the enemies you face in your life. Or, if you already have this hope, that you might be able to give the gift of hope to someone else who needs it.

The End Times (John 5:21-29)

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What would you do with your life if you knew you were going to live forever?

Most people I have known over my life, both from within and outside of the Christian church, have told me that they believe the goal of a religious life is to do enough good to get into heaven. The requirements or the standards may be different from person to person, but the one goal remains the same: do enough good and avoid enough bad so that when we move from this life to the next, we can be sure that we qualify for eternal life. So the view is that we spend our whole lives trying to do good in the hope that maybe we’ll be good enough to get eternal life.

But what if that’s actually back-to-front? What if the goal of a life of faith isn’t to try to get eternal life, but to grow into a life that has been given to us which will last for ever?

On Sunday we celebrated the last Sunday of the church year. It is often called the Day of Fulfilment because it looks forward to the end of time when Jesus will return to judge between those who will live for ever with him and those who will miss out on that eternity. It is a reminder that not everyone makes it into eternal life. Jesus teaches us what is needed if we want to spend eternity with God when he says, ‘I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life’ (John 5:24a NLT). The Christian perspective as Jesus teaches it is that all who listen to his word of grace and truth (John 1:17) and trust in God (John 1:12; 6:29) will live for ever.

The best news in from Jesus in John 5:24 is that we don’t even have to wait to get it. Instead of spending our lives trying to do good so that we might have a chance at getting eternal life, Jesus goes on to say that it is already ours! He says that those who hear his message of grace and truth and trust that God will give what he promises ‘will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life’ (NLT). I checked the Greek to make sure that the tenses of the verbs were faithful translations of the Greek test and as far as I can tell there is no mistake here. According to what the Apostle John reports Jesus said, eternal life isn’t something that we work for in the hope that we might somehow be good enough. Through his life, death and resurrection for us, Jesus has already carried us over from death to life and eternal life has already started!

Jesus goes on to say that one day he will return to fulfil all of God’s promises to us, to raise the dead to new life, and to judge between those who will live with him forever and those who won’t. He says that we don’t need to fear that judgement because we are already free from condemnation. This is the same as what Paul says in Romans 8:1, that ‘now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus’ (NLT). We don’t have to be afraid of being judged or condemned by God or anyone else because Christ has already carried us over from death to eternal life, and we already participate in the resurrected life of Jesus now because of the gift of the Holy Spirit in us.

This means that we can understand Discipleship as growing into the eternal life which Jesus has already given to us. God has a new life for us to live which is grounded in and producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control like we read about in Galatians 5:22f. It is a life which is sustained by, flowing out of and expressing itself in the love that God has for us which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a – love that is patient and kind, that is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude, that does not demand its own way, is not irritable, keeps no record of being wronged, does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices when the truth wins out, that never gives us, never loses faith, is always hopeful, endures all circumstances, and lasts forever. This is the love of God which is the source of our lives and which brings life to others.

The goal of the Christian life, then, is not to somehow do enough good to get eternal life. The goal of the Christian life is to grow into the life that Jesus has already breathed into us through the Holy Spirit which is stronger than death and which will last forever. Whatever we decide we want to do with the life Jesus has given us, or whatever we believe God wants us to do with this life, we can constantly be growing into the life that is described by the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians and Paul’s words description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. This is what it can mean to be Jesus’ disciples: following him into the life that will last forever which Jesus has already given us and in which we participate now.

A lot of people are afraid of the end times because they see it as a time of judgment and condemnation. We don’t need to be afraid, but we can look forward to Jesus’ return with confidence and hope. Jesus has already carried us over from death to life, and the life the Holy Spirit breathes into us now through his word of grace and peace will last for ever.

So, what do you want to do with your life, knowing that you’re going to live forever?

Ruth (Ruth 3:1-5,4:13-17)

 

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Promises are an important part of life. We all make promises and others make promises to us. We usually make them with the best of intentions to keep them, but at some stage I suppose that we have all broken promises and have had people break their promises to us. It can leave us pretty suspicious or cynical, even to the point where we don’t think that promises mean anything. Our default position can be to assume that people will break their promises rather than keep them.

But what would it be like to have someone in your life who always kept their promises and followed through with what they said they were going to do?

The story of Ruth from the Old Testament of the Bible centres on the promise a young widow made to her older mother-in-law. Naomi had moved with her husband and two sons from Bethlehem in Israel to the foreign country of Moab. While they were living there, her sons married Moabite women but then, after some time, her husband and sons all died. Naomi was about to travel back home to Bethlehem when Ruth made her this promise:

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” (1:16,17 NLT)

If you have a daughter-in-law, can you imagine her making a promise like this to you? Or if you are married, could you imagine making a promise like this to your mother-in-law?

Ruth didn’t need to make this promise to Naomi, but it shows a level of commitment that exceeds what we usually expect or even hope for from others. The rest of Ruth’s story tells how Ruth kept her promise and was faithful to Naomi. It cost Ruth a lot and she worked hard to support herself and her mother-in-law. The result was that Ruth married Boaz, a close family member of Naomi, they became the great-grandparents of King David, and eventually Jesus was born into their family line (Matthew 1:5).

We can learn a lot from Ruth’s story, but there are two main points I want to explore. The first is that Ruth is a great example of what can happen when we keep the promises we make to each other. Keeping promises can be hard work and can cost us, especially when circumstances change and life gets difficult. Ruth experienced that but still did what she needed to in order to keep the promise she made to Naomi. Because of Ruth’s faithfulness, God was faithful to her and Naomi and provided them with a home, a family and a future.

When we are finding it difficult to keep our promises, Ruth’s story can encourage us to remain faithful. God is faithful to us when we are faithful to each other and will give us what we need so we can keep our promises. Most of the time, he will do this in very ordinary ways. One commentator I looked at pointed out that God isn’t really mentioned in the story of Ruth, but we can see God in the background, putting things in place and setting things up to provide for those who are faithful. When keeping our promises is hard, Ruth’s story can remind us that God will be faithful to us so we can be faithful to others.

I completely understand, though, that there are also times in life when things happen which make it impossible for us to keep the promises we make. We need to acknowledge and confess that without carrying the burden of guilt over it. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and despite our best intentions and efforts, sometimes life just don’t happen the way we hoped or planned. That’s where the second key focus of this story becomes so important to hear.

Ruth’s faithfulness points us to God’s faithfulness when he keeps his promises to us in Jesus. All the way through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, God promises to redeem, restore and renew us and everything that he has created. Throughout Scripture, God promises to forgive sinners, heal the broken, bring peace where there is conflict, and extend grace to those who need it. I firmly believe that an essential part of living as Jesus’ followers is to learn how to hear God’s promises in his Word. The Bible comes alive as the Holy Spirit speaks words of peace, joy and hope into our lives through God’s promises to us. For example, in Ruth’s promise to Naomi we can also hear God promising us that he will be with us every day of our lives. He will go where we go, live where we live, our family will be his family and even at the point of death God will never leave us or forsake us. Hearing this promise becomes vital, especially during those times in life when it seems like we’re on our own and God has forgotten about us.

God keeps all of his promises to us in Jesus. He is with us as he entered our humanity in his birth. Our human family became God’s family as Jesus experienced life as a human with all of its joys, struggles, pain and hope. God kept his promise to forgive and redeem us when Jesus died on the cross, carrying our guilt, shame and broken promises. God began to restore us and all of creation in the resurrection of Jesus, keeping his promise to give new life into the world. Just like Ruth kept her promise to Naomi even though it wasn’t easy and involved hard work, in Jesus God kept all of his promises to us even though it cost him his life. Jesus’ resurrection is the seal of God’s faithfulness to us. If we ever start to doubt that God will keep his promises, we can go back to the empty tomb and see once and for all that God always does what he says he will.

We have someone in our lives who always keeps his promises to us. Jesus promises to travel with us through life, forgives us for our wrongs, love us unconditionally and be faithful to us, no matter what. The promises we make to others become ways in which they can experience the faithfulness of God through our faithfulness to them. There will always be times when we fail to keep the promises we make, but Ruth’s story tells us that God always keeps his promises to us, no matter what the cost.

The Bigger Picture (Revelation 7:9-17)

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The Block is a ‘reality’ TV show where contestants move in to and renovate a building over three months. Each week they refurbish one area of the building. People who watch the show get glimpses of what the contestants are doing during the week. Then, on Sunday evening, the results of their hard work and sleepless nights are revealed for all to see.

This is what it means to reveal something: to show or to make known what has been hidden.

We can think of the Revelation of John in a similar way. This book of the Bible is often debated and misunderstood. Essentially, it gives us a glimpse of God’s finished work of salvation through Jesus. That’s what the Greek word apocalypse means: to reveal something that has been hidden. Like the contestants on The Block, there are times when we can catch glimpses of God’s work in the world, but it’s hard to know how it all ties together and what the finished result will look like. We can think of the vision God gave John recorded in Revelation as God’s great reveal. In passages such as Revelation 7:9-17, God pulls back the curtain, removes the veil, or raises the cloche to show us the end result of Jesus’ redemptive work for us in his life, death and resurrection.

Biblical scholars tend to interpret Revelation in two main ways. Some read it as God revealing to us what will happen in the future. A lot of effort can be spent trying to decipher the clues in Revelation as people try to work out when the events in John’s vision will happen in an attempt to predict when Jesus will return and the world as we know it will end. So far none of these predictions have been accurate, so I wonder whether people who try to work out a Revelation timeline for the end of the world have missed the point. If we read Revelation as God revealing the future, maybe what he’s trying to show us is what our eternal future will be, and then to understand our lives now from that perspective.

As John looks at the ‘vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb’ (v9a NLT) he sees people who are clothed in the purity and holiness of Jesus, signified by the white robes, who are waving the palm branches of victory. Most biblical scholars agree that Revelation was written to Christians suffering persecution to encourage and strengthen them in their faith. We can also read it from the point of view of people who are struggling through life, battling challenges of various kinds, who can sometimes feel overwhelmed by what we’re trying to cope with. The message is still the same. If we read Revelation as God showing us the future, we will not be overcome by the trials and tribulations we experience in this world. No matter what we might be facing or struggling with, our eternal destination is to be with this crowd of people that no one can number, praising God for his saving love in Jesus which gives us victory.

The second way biblical scholars interpret Revelation is that God is revealing to us what is happening right now. We can easily focus in our lives on what’s happening to us here and now and lose sight of the bigger picture of God’s saving love. In Revelation, God gives us this bigger-picture perspective on how God is at work around us in ways we can’t always see.

If we read Revelation from this point of view, we can see God’s holy people from every time and place uniting with us in worship. This is the ‘huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith’ (NLT) we read about in Hebrews 12:1 who are cheering us on as we continue our earthly journey towards our heavenly home. They are God’s holy people who have completed their lives on earth and now worship before God’s throne in heaven. We are still connected with them because we are worshiping the same God, the same Lamb John describes is the one who gives us his body and blood to us in the Lord’s Supper, and the same Spirit of God who breathes life eternal into both them and us.

One reason some Christians call the Lord’s Supper Holy Communion is that the gift of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of this meal brings us into communion with both our Holy God and his holy people. The Holy Spirit transcends time and space to unite us with God along with our sisters and brothers in the faith who have passed on before us through faith in Jesus. In John’s vision, God reveals to us that we are part of a much greater reality than our small group which gathers in worship on Sunday mornings. God is showing us that we participate with the whole people of God of every time and place in our worship, and we join with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven in singing God’s praises.

This is why Revelation 7:9-17 is such a good reading for the Festival of All Saints. Not only is God showing us that are included with his holy people who are clothed in the purity and holiness of Jesus and who carry the palm branches of victory, but also that we are united with all those who have gone before us in the faith. That includes all of our loved ones who have died in faith and are now among that vast crowd before the heavenly throne. They may have gone ahead of us to glory, but because the Holy Spirit unites us all in the life of Jesus, then we are united as God’s holy people and we are one in worship.

One of the reasons I watch The Block is because I’m curious to see how all the work the contestants put in comes together in the reveal. I love the book of Revelation because it shows us how God’s work of salvation in Jesus and the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit come together to unite God’s holy people of every time and place into one worshiping community. As we celebrated the Festival of All Saints, we catch a glimpse of our identity as God’s holy, victorious people, as well as the bigger picture of the communion of saints from every time and place who are united in worshiping our saving God.

Justified! (Romans 3:19-28)

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I suppose all of us have been caught doing something wrong at some stage in our lives. Usually when this happens our natural reaction is to try to justify ourselves and what we’ve done. We can do that by saying it wasn’t us, blaming others or trying to explain our actions. This is basically what it means to justify someone or something – to make what is wrong right again.

Can you imagine what it would be like to never have to justify yourself?

On the last Sunday in October, many churches around the world commemorate the start of the Reformation 500 years ago in Germany. It was a time when there were a lot of wrong things happening in the church. People like Martin Luther wanted to make these wrong things right again so others could encounter and trust in the grace and love of God that we hear about in the Bible and meet in the person of Jesus. At the heart of the Reformation was the message we hear in Romans 3:28 – that ‘we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law’ (NLT).

At this stage of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the early Christian community in Rome, he is pointing out that when we compare our lives to what God wants us to be and do, we all are always going to fall short. Paul writes,

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. (v20 NLT)

Whether we think of God’s law as the Ten Commandments or the law of love that Jesus taught, it will always show us that we have a problem we can’t make right by ourselves. However, a couple of weeks ago we heard that nothing is impossible for God (Mark 10:27). God’s solution to our problem is to give us Jesus who lived the perfect life we should be living, and who died an innocent death in our place. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote,

For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. (v25a NLT)

The good news for us in this is that we don’t have to try to justify ourselves before God for the wrongs we have done because God has justified us through Jesus. God has taken everything about us that is wrong, flawed or broken and put it to death in Jesus’ crucifixion. God has then made us right again by giving us Jesus’ resurrected life which has nothing wrong in it at all. God gives us all this as a free gift, an act of pure grace, which we receive by believing that Jesus did it all for us.

In other words, when God catches us doing wrong (and he always does) Jesus jumps up, takes the blame for us, and frees us from having to try to justify ourselves. This is what it means to be justified – God re-forms us as right people through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for us by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Even though there can be times when we still feel like we need to justify ourselves or our actions in some way, God’s justifying work flows through every aspect of our lives. For example, we might think that we need to justify our identity, or our value, or the purpose of our lives. We can try to find a sense of who we are, that our lives are worth something, or that there is some sort of meaning to our existence. The work we do, both paid or unpaid, the things we own, the way we look, our relationships or even the religious things we do for the church can all be attempts to justify ourselves before other people, or even ourselves. In a whole range of different ways, we can spend our entire lives trying to somehow convince ourselves and others that we’re good people, that we’re worthwhile, or that our lives matter.

These are really just more ways in which we try to justify ourselves through our works. What Paul is saying in this passage, and one of the reasons why I believe there are so many unhappy and discontented people in our society, is that it doesn’t work. We can spend our whole lives trying to find our identity, value and meaning in what we do, but they will always be short-lived and we will have to keep looking for them in something else. And so we sacrifice our lives to our work, we go from relationship to relationship trying to find something that works for us, or we fill our homes with consumer goods we don’t need, only to get rid of them and buy something better when the next thing comes out. Trying to justify who we are, what we’re worth or meaning in our lives will always leave us empty and wanting more because these things don’t last.

That is why the Reformation cry to be justified by faith in Jesus is still important for us today. More than being about going to heaven when we die, being justified by Jesus means that we never have to try to justify ourselves to anyone ever again. Our whole lives are now made right through faith in Jesus. We can know who we are as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased because of Jesus’ saving work for us. We can know what we’re worth because of the price Jesus paid to bring us back into relationship with God – his holy and innocent life. We can know that our lives have meaning as we participate in God’s saving mission in the world by doing the good that God has prepared in advance for us to do and being ready to share the good news of Jesus with others. Our identity, value and purpose are all God’s free gifts to us, acts of God’s grace at work in our lives, as Jesus’ life, death and resurrection frees us from the need to try to justify ourselves. When we’re free from having to justify ourselves, then we can help others find who they are, what they’re worth and meaning in their own lives as God’s justified people.

Being justified by faith in Jesus is so much more than just a dusty old historical doctrine. Instead, living as people whose existences are justified through faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for us gives us the possibility of knowing who we are, what we’re worth and what we’re here for. It liberates us to live as God’s people whoever we are and whatever we do, and to help others find their identity, value and meaning in Jesus.

Because the good news of the Reformation is that when we trust in Jesus, we never have to justify ourselves again.

Called (Hebrews 5:1-10)

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In the first week of October this year, delegates from Lutheran congregations across Australia and New Zealand met in Sydney to discuss and decide on proposals made by member churches. The biggest item on the agenda was whether women and men can be ordained as pastors in the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA). We have been wrestling with this question for a long time and people on both sides feel very passionate about what they believe God wants for the LCA. Leading up towards convention, it seemed to me that whichever way the vote went, there would be people who will be hurt, disappointed and unhappy with the result.

A few weeks prior to convention, I was preparing the themes for my messages during October when I came to Hebrews 5:1-10, the Epistle reading for last Sunday. Verse 4 jumped out to me, which says that

no one can become a high priest simply because they want such an honour. They must be called by God for this work, just as Aaron was. (v4 alt)

As far as I understand, this text has played an important part in the Lutheran understanding of the role of pastors since the Reformation. In the Old Testament, people didn’t volunteer to be a high priest. They needed God to call them. Similarly, Jesus didn’t wake up one morning and decide that he wanted to be the saviour of the world. God called him to that (Hebrews 5:5ff). Following the example of Scripture, then, it has been the Lutheran position since the Reformation that ‘no one should teach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless properly called’ (Augsburg Confession Article XIV).

So how does God call people?

One way we can answer this question is to think of a ‘call’ having two elements. The first is an ‘internal’ call, something God places on our hearts that we feel called to do. The second is an ‘external’ call where God works through people and circumstances to open doors and bring us to where he’s leading us. For God to be calling us to something, both need to line up. Sometimes an internal call might come first, or it might be something from outside us that leads us in a certain way. What can be difficult is when an internal call and an external call don’t match up, and either we feel called in a direction where the doors are closed to us, or God opens doors for us that we really don’t want to go through.

I have known people over the years who have really struggled with a disconnect between these internal and external calls. For example, I know people who have felt called to be pastors, both men and women, but for a range of reasons they haven’t been ordained into the public ministry of the church. I have also known people who have had opportunities open to them which they really didn’t want to embrace. Personally, I have had times when I have felt called in certain directions but they didn’t work out, or I have thought that God was leading me in directions I really didn’t want to go. So to a degree I can understand the turmoil and anguish that people can experience when an internal call isn’t in synch with events and circumstances that are happening around us. To be honest, I don’t really have an answer to offer when that happens, other than to keep praying and seeking where God may be calling us.

However, there was something else in Sunday’s readings that I think can help us understand the nature of God’s call a little better. In Mark 10:43,44 Jesus says,

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. (NLT)

Pastors are called to be servants, not to exercise power or control. We don’t decide to be pastors to find a sense of importance or value or identity. God calls people to serve communities of faith by shepherding them, watching over them, caring for them, and feeding them with the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection for them. It’s not up to me to walk into a congregation as a new pastor and start telling people how things will or will not be done. Instead, pastors are called to be the servants of God’s people so they will encounter the love and grace of Jesus in us. That doesn’t mean always doing what the congregation wants, because sometimes what we want isn’t good for us. However, it might mean giving up our own rights, our preferences and sometimes even our opinions in order to serve the people God has placed in our care, in order to build them up in faith and love, and equip them to do the good God has planned for all of us to do.

One of the greatest legacies of the Reformation is the idea that God doesn’t just call people to serve him in overtly religious ways. Instead, God calls us to a variety of vocations so that we can serve each other, and so his goodness can grace can flow through us to the people around us. God might call us to be parents, children, grandparents or grandchildren. He might call us to be husbands, wives, or possibly even to serve him and others as a single person. The work we do in our places of employment, our homes, our churches or community organizations, both paid and unpaid, are all callings God places on our lives so we can be his salt and light in the world, and so other people can meet Jesus in us.

Paul’s discussion of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 reminds us that every part is needed for the whole body to function properly. One part isn’t more important or less important than any other. In the same way, the call to be a pastor is no more or less important to the body of Christ than a fulltime, stay at home parent, or the people on the toilet cleaning roster. We’re all vital parts of the body of Christ because we are all called to contribute to the mission of God in the world in different ways.

I honestly don’t know where the LCA will go from here as we continue to struggle with who we believe God is calling to be pastors in our church. I continue to pray that the Spirit of God will pour wisdom into the hearts and minds of our bishops and other leaders as they keep wrestling with this question.

What I do know, though, is what it’s like to struggle with where God may be calling us in our lives. Whatever we think God may be calling us to, and whether the doors are opening for us to follow those calls or not, we need to be listening to each other, praying for each other, and walking together with each other as the body of Christ. No matter where God might be calling us to serve him in our lives, one thing we all have in common is that God calls us his children whom he loves.