A Reluctant Messenger (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

There are a lot of stories in the Bible that people find hard to believe. For example, in the Scriptures we hear about seas and rivers parting so people can walk through them on dry land, food falling from heaven six days a week for forty years, city walls crumbling down at the sound of trumpet blasts, sick people being healed, the dead raised, and a lot of other things that aren’t part of our everyday experiences.

Another example is the story of Jonah. It begins with God telling Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and ‘preach against it’ because of its ‘wickedness’ (Jonah 1:2 NIV). Jonah evaded God’s call by sailing in the opposite direction. After a severe storm threatened the ship he was in, Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish where he remained for three days and three nights (1:17) until he changed his mind and followed God’s instructions to go to Nineveh.

I can understand why a lot of people find it hard to believe that a fish could swallow a grown adult, and that person could survive in the fish’s stomach for three days. While this sounds impossible, what happened next can be even harder to believe. Jonah went to Nineveh and warned them that God was going to destroy the city. In response to his sermon, the whole city of more than 120,000 people (4:11) recognised the error of their ways, repented, and turned back to God.

What do you find more difficult to believe – that a fish would swallow a grown man, or an entire city would turn to God because of a sermon preached by one person?

If we put ourselves in the position of the people of Nineveh, would we listen to someone who claimed to come from God, and called us to change our ways by turning back to God? I suppose that not many of us would think that we are as wicked as the people of Nineveh were supposed to be. But when we look at our own lives, in what ways are we like Jonah? Through Jesus, God calls us to repent (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15), to turn away from our self-centred lives, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. It sounds simple, but this kind of love is focused on God and other people, and not on ourselves. It requires a change in us. In some ways, people who think that Jonah’s story is about going in the opposite direction to the way God wants might have a point. Through Jesus, God calls us to love him and others, but too often we can be like Jonah and head in the opposite direction by focusing more on ourselves.

The first miracle we encounter in Jonah’s story is what God did in Jonah’s heart. While he was in the fish’s stomach, Jonah realised that ‘Salvation comes from the Lord’ (2:9) and he learned to trust in God’s saving love. While some read Jonah as being about obedience and doing what God tells us, I believe it’s actually a lot more about encountering God’s saving love in the dark, lonely, messy parts of our lives. Most of us won’t get stuck in a fish’s stomach for three days and nights, but we all find ourselves in dark, lonely, messy places in our lives in one way or another. Like Jonah, that’s where we can find God’s grace and saving love which sets us on a different path in life. For Jonah, this difference was in trusting God enough to follow his call. For the rest of us, it might be as simple as learning how to trust God and love others like Jesus teaches us.

So Jonah, cleaned the fish guts off himself, headed towards Nineveh, preached his message, and the whole city of Nineveh, from the highest king to the lowest slave, repented and turned back to God. You’d think that Jonah would be celebrating the revival that had come to a foreign city! What happened, though, was that Jonah got angry because, to him, ‘this seemed very wrong’ (4:1 NIV). This is where we find Jonah’s reason for not wanting to go to Nineveh in the first place. He knew that God is ‘gracious and compassionate … slow to anger and abounding in love … who relents from sending calamity’ (4:2 NIV). That upset Jonah! He wanted to see the people of Nineveh get punished and their city destroyed. As a person who encountered God’s saving love in the fish’s belly, the last thing he wanted was for the people of Nineveh to encounter that same saving love because they didn’t deserve it!

This brings us to a better understanding of Jonah than the usual interpretation of doing what God wants before a fish swallows us to teach us a lesson. Jonah’s story is about God’s grace and saving love, not threats and coercion. Jonah encountered God’s goodness in the fish’s stomach. The Ninevites found it in Jonah’s message to them. We can find it in this story as it points us to Jesus. We all struggle with life in one way or another, at one time or another. We all want to live in ways that seem best to us rather than in faith and love as Jesus teaches us, just like Jonah and the people of Nineveh. However, God wants better for us. He wants us to give us life! He gives us this grace when he calls us to turn to him, to trust him, and to love others in the same way he loves us in Jesus. This faith gifts us with the life of Jesus which is stronger than death.

As people who encounter God’s grace and life-changing love in Jesus, we have good news for the people of our city, just like Jonah had good news for the people of Nineveh. I don’t encourage you to go through Tea Tree Plaza calling people to repent the way Jonah did through Nineveh. However, when we know people who are struggling, who might be battling their way through life because of the pandemic or its effects, because of physical or mental illness, because of grief, worry, fear, or any reason, we can encourage them to walk closer with Jesus who is the embodiment of our God who is ‘gracious and compassionate … slow to anger and abounding in love … who relents from sending calamity’ (4:2 NIV).

Jonah’s story is about a person who wanted to go his own way rather than walk with God. He encountered God’s grace and saving love in a dark, lonely, messy place, and it changed his life. He still needed to grow in his faith in God and love for others, but his encounter with God’s saving love set Jonah on a different path as God worked through him to bring the people of Nineveh back to himself. In the same way, God wants us to learn to trust him and follow his ways. When we do, we have good news to bring the people of our city, so they can encounter God’s saving love through us.

More to think about or discuss:

  • Imagine that you lived in Nineveh and heard Jonah’s message. How might you have reacted to his sermon? Give some reasons for your answer.
  • How do you think you might react if Jonah turned up at our church with the same message from God? Why might you react that way…?
  • What do you find more difficult to believe – that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or that an entire city turned back to God after hearing Jonah’s message? Why you think that way?
  • In what ways can we be like Jonah and be reluctant to take the message of God’s saving love to people? Why do you think we can be like that?
  • Who do you know that might be stuck in a dark, lonely, or messy place in life? How can the message of Jesus be good news for them? How might you be able to share that good news with them this week or not the future…?
  • What do you hear this story telling you about what God wants you to do?
  • What do you hear this story telling you about what God has done, is doing, or will do for you? What is good news in this story for you?
  • How will you take the message of this story seriously in your life by living in faith and love?

You can find a video of this message at https://youtu.be/wJS8r9aWbk4

God bless you as you live in the reality of his saving love in Jesus so you can bring that good news to everyone you meet this week…

A Winning Strategy (Matthew 18:15-20)

I’m not a very good chess player. I never learned how to play properly, so when I play chess I make it up as I go and make one move at a time. I’ve been told that good chess players plan many moves ahead and use specific strategies to put themselves in a winning position. If I want to play chess well, I’ll need to learn the strategies that will help me win the game.

Relationships can sometimes seem like a game of chess as each person makes their moves to work their way through situations that come up. The way some people behave in their relationships, it can seem like they are about winning and losing. They don’t want to lose out when it comes to their relationships with others, but to be more in control so they can come out on top, especially when there is conflict.

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus teaches a different way to approach our relationships. Instead of trying to be the ‘winner’ if one person has wronged another, Jesus teaches that we can work towards winning the other person back for the Kingdom of Heaven. The purpose of Jesus’ teaching in verses 15 to 17 is to ‘win’ or ‘gain’ the other person through the gospel so we can live in restored relationships and embody the grace we encounter through Christ.

The word Matthew uses when he talks about ‘winning’ the person back is the same word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where he writes about becoming ‘all things to all people so that by all possible means (he) might save some’ (v22 NIV). For Paul, to ‘win’ means people hearing about and experiencing the power of the gospel so they come to faith in Jesus and share in his saving power. Paul also uses this word in Philippians 3:8 when he writes that he considers all things to be ‘garbage’ (NLT, NIV) so that he might ‘gain’ Jesus and ‘become one with him’ (v9 NLT). For Paul, ‘winning’ meant people coming to faith in Jesus through the grace they encountered in their relationships with Christians.

This gives us a very different perspective on Matthew 18: 15-17 from the way many people interpret it. This text is often used when talking about ‘church discipline’ to outline a process of showing someone their sin and bringing them to repentance, so they change their behaviours. In this reading, Jesus’ concluding remarks about treating people ‘as a pagan or corrupt tax collector’ if they don’t make these changes is often interpreted that we should exclude people from our Christian community if they are not doing the ‘right’ thing.

However, if Jesus begins this passage by saying that his goal is ‘winning’ a person to the Kingdom of God through the gospel, and concludes by telling us to treat them ‘as you would a pagan or a tax collector’ (v17 NIV), then we need to ask how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. Jesus was often criticised by the religious authorities of his day for spending time with tax collectors and sharing meals with them, which was a sign of a close relationship with a person (see Matthew 9:10; Mark 2:15,16; Luke 5:29,30). Jesus said that tax collectors were getting into the Kingdom of Heaven before the religious leaders of his day (see Matthew 21:31). He even called a tax collector named Levi, also known as Matthew, the person who gives his name to the gospel in which this text is written, to be his disciple (see Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27).

We can hear Jesus teaching us in verse 17, then, to treat people who won’t recognise their wrong in the same way that he treated tax collectors and other people who were regarded as ‘sinners’. Maybe Jesus wants us to make every effort to show them grace so they can encounter the life-changing reality of the gospel and we can ‘win’ them for God’s Kingdom.

Before it gets to that point, Jesus gives us a simple strategy to try to ‘win’ a person for the family of God. First, we are to go to that person privately to show them what they have done wrong. It is vital that we approach the person one on one first, so we don’t embarrass or shame them, and so we don’t act as though we are better or morally superior in any way. We are to go to each other in faith and love, trusting in God’s grace for all of us and showing the sincere love for each other that Paul talked about last week from Romans 12:9ff. If the other person doesn’t listen to us, our next step is to take one or two others with us, and if the other person still won’t listen, then we involve others. The last resort is to do what we can to be Christ to that person in the hope that the Holy Spirit will work a change in that person through the grace we show them in our relationship with them.

This text is not about being the moral watchdogs of our congregation. Instead, it shows us that sin damages relationships and our public witness to the gospel. God’s will for his church is that we love each other in the way that Jesus loves us (John 13:34) so that we can build each other up in faith and love, doing the good that God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). When we sin or wrong each other, we need to make these things right again. Sometimes we might not even know that something we have said or done has damaged our relationship with a sister or brother in Christ. We can trust that this same Jesus who gave us this teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 died for us on the cross while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8) to restore our relationship with our heavenly Father. This faith gives us the opportunity to grow together in the reality of God’s saving love through the power of the Holy Spirit and to witness to his saving love in our relationships and community.

Jesus’ teaching gives us a new strategy for winning others back to God’s Kingdom. Life isn’t a chess game where we are trying to win against other players. Jesus’ strategy can help us all to win as people with whom God has established a new relationship through Jesus, and who are called to bring God’s goodness into the world by living in the ways Jesus teaches.

The next time you find yourself in conflict with someone else, try following Jesus’ strategy in humility, faith, and love, and see if it makes a difference. If someone comes to you, trying to show you how maybe there is something wrong in your life, listen to what they’re saying and ask if God is pointing out something that he wants to change in you. Together let’s follow Jesus’ strategy to win others for his Kingdom so we can all live in harmony as his body in the world.

More to think about or discuss:

  • What would you do if someone wronged you in some way, or you saw someone doing something wrong? Can you give an example…?
  • How do you feel about following Jesus’ strategy in Matthew 18:15-17? What do you like about it? What do you think might be difficult or hard? Explain why…
  • Why is it important that we go to people privately to talk with them as the first step? Why do you think Jesus asks us to do that?
  • How do you think you would respond if another Christian came to you to talk about something you had been doing that was wrong? Would you listen to what they were saying? Can you explain why you might respond in that way…?
  • What do you think Jesus means when he talks about ‘winning’ a person in verse 15? Why is that important?
  • How have you usually understood what verse 17 says about treating people who won’t listen like ‘pagans and collectors’? How might Jesus’ words in verse 15 about ‘winning’ a person for the Kingdom of God help us to think about this verse in a different way?
  • What do you hear God saying that he wants you to do in this text?
  • What do you hear God saying that he has done, wants to do, or will do in your life through this text?
  • How might your relationships or life be different by taking what this text is saying seriously, and by putting it into practice in faith and love?

Unhypocritical Love (Romans 12:9-21)

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Anyone who is familiar with superheroes will know that a lot of them wear masks. They do that to hide their true identity so that the people they love or care about would be protected from threats of harm by the villains of the stories. The mask conceals who they really are from others.

This practice stretches back to ancient times. For example, in Athens about 500 years before the birth of Jesus, actors in the theatres would use masks to identify them as the characters they were playing. Like our modern superheroes, these actors wanted to hide who they really were so their audience would see the character they were playing instead. This led to these actors being referred to as hypocrites. The term wasn’t used in an insulting or derogatory way. It just meant that they were actors who hid their true identity behind a mask to play a role in the theatre.

When Paul wrote to the early Christians in Rome, he urged them not to be like the actors on the stage who hid their true identity behind a mask. In Romans 12:9, Paul encouraged his readers that their love should be ‘sincere’ (NIV), ‘real’ (ERV), ‘genuine’ (ESV), or ‘without hypocrisy’ (NKJV). This last translation gets closest to the original word which Paul used which is literally un-hypocritical. I can imagine Paul thinking about the actors in the theatre, wearing their masks as they played a role in a play. Instead of God’s people living our lives in the same way, Paul encourages us to take off any ‘masks’ we might wear to hide who we really are in Christ, and to show our true identity as loved children of the Father to the world. Shakespeare said that ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’ (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII), but Paul wants all followers of Jesus to drop any pretense we might have and love each other in a way that is genuine and authentic.

The passage that follow in Romans 12:9-21 can be read as a commentary on how we do this. There is a lot in here for all of us in our relationships with each other and it is impossible for me to cover everything that Paul talks about in one relatively short message. Instead, I want to encourage you to spend time in these verses, listening carefully to what God might be saying to you through them. Identify just one thing that stands out most to you, either because it is an important need in your life at this time or because it seems difficult.

For example, is God calling you to ‘be devoted’ to someone, or to honour someone above yourself (v10)? Is God encouraging you to ‘be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer’ (v12 NIV) as we endure the COVID-19 pandemic? Is he asking you to ‘practice hospitality’ (v13 NIV) by inviting someone for a meal? Does God want you to bless someone who is making life hard for you (v14), or to ‘live in harmony’ with someone you find it hard to get along with them? Listen carefully to the text and ask the Holy Spirit to open your ears and heart so you can hear what God is teaching you through this passage of Scripture.

As I read this passage, I wonder if we are genuinely loving each other in the ways Paul describes? Paul isn’t talking about how we feel about each other, or even if we like each other. As sisters and brothers in God’s family, are committed to loving each other in un-hypocritical ways like God tells us to through Paul? If we are going to take Jesus’ message seriously, growing as his disciples and bringing God goodness into the world, then we need to be listening to what God is saying to us through Paul. Keeping Jesus’ new command to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34) means living out this kind of un-hypocritical love in our relationships with each other.

To be honest, as I read Paul’s words in Romans 12:9-21, I find it hard to live up to the standards that Paul describes. However, it is important that we admit our weaknesses and failures. Doing that is an important part of dropping the masks we wear and being sincere, genuine, and un-hypocritical about our love. We will find it hard because of our natural human condition. We can admit that to ourselves, confessing it to God and to others around us. Because when we do, God’s love can go to work on us…

If we are going to genuinely love each other as Jesus loved us in un-hypocritical ways, then that love needs to come from Jesus. His new command to love isn’t a demand Jesus places on our lives but it comes with the promise that he will give us everything we need to love others through his infinite and perfect love for us. If we are going to love each other in the way Romans 12:9-21 describes, then we need to be looking for that love from Jesus. Through faith in him, the Holy Spirit floods our lives with the love we need to love each other sincerely and without hypocrisy.

Earlier I asked you to listen carefully to this text and identify one thing God might be asking you to do in it. Because the gospel of Jesus is God’s power in our lives (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18), we can trust that God will give us the love need to love others in the way Paul describes and Jesus teaches. We can do that by turning around what God wants us to do and looking for the ways God loves us through Jesus in it.

For example, God loves us sincerely and un-hypocritically by dropping his divine mask and showing us his true identity in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Christ, God is totally devoted to us and honours us above himself by taking our sin and going to the cross. God is joyful in his hope for us, patient with us, and faithful to us for Jesus’ sake. God practices hospitality towards us by inviting us into his house and feeding us with the body and blood of his Son in the Lord’s Supper. God blesses us for Jesus’ sake even when we treat him badly, and God lives in harmony with us as he forgives us and accepts us as we are. Every aspect of genuine love we read about in this text has a parallel with God’s love for us in Jesus. Finding these parallels gives us the un-hypocritical love of God in Christ, which is the power we need to love others in the same, un-hypocritical ways which Paul describes.

Actors in ancient Athens wore masks to hide their identity as they played a role on the stage. Superheroes wear masks to keep their true identity secret. We are God’s children who he loves and with whom he is pleased because of Christ in us. Our Father in heaven doesn’t want us to keep our true identity in Jesus secret or to hide it from others. Instead when we drop our masks, accept that we will find it difficult to love others in the ways Romans 12:9-21 describes, and look for God’s empowering grace in Jesus, we will grow in God’s love through Jesus and be love to others in genuine, sincere, and unhypocritical ways.

More to think about or discuss:

  • Who is your favourite superhero? Does she or he wear a mask? Why or why not? Why do you think a lot of superheroes wear masks?
  • In what ways can people wear masks and hide who we really are from each other? Why do we do that? What do you think might happen if we dropped our masks and lived in genuine, authentic, or un-hypocritical ways?
  • What is your reaction when you read Romans 12:9-21? Does loving others like this sound realistic or even possible to you? Would you find it easy or difficult to love others like it describes? Explain why…
  • Would you like to be loved in the ways this passage describes? Is there anything in this text that speaks to you specifically? Explain why you would like to be loved in that way…
  • What is something you hear God asking you to do in this text?
  • What do you hear God doing or promising to do for you in this text? If you’re finding it difficult to hear some good news, think about what you’re hearing God asking you to do and turn it around – what might it be saying about the way God loves you in Jesus? (please let me know if you’re finding this difficult and I’ll see if I can help…)
  • What is one way you can love someone like Romans 12:9-21 describes this week? (please remember – it is vital that you love others in the faith that this is how God loves you in Jesus; please don’t try to do it on your own, but as an opportunity to show someone your real identity in Christ as a child of God whom he loves)

You can find a video version of this message by following this link.

God bless!

“Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:13-20)

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I imagine that most people in the world know who Donald Trump is. Even before he became the President of the USA, Trump was very well-known through his appearances on reality TV shows and his high-profile lifestyle. I also suppose that most people have an opinion about who Donald Trump is. He is a very polarizing person – some people love him while others really don’t think he is a good person.

Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump might be, have you ever wondered what he might be like when he is at home by himself. Do you think he’s the same person we see on our TV screens? Or, like a lot of people can be, might he be different when he doesn’t have an audience and he is alone with his thoughts, his doubts, his insecurities and his worries?

We are not going to learn who Donald Trump is by watching more news reports, researching magazine articles, or reading books written by various people. We can only get to know who Donald Trump really is by spending time with him, getting to know him personally, and by being in relationship with him.

I love the questions Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew 16:13-20. The first was who people were saying he was (v13). This is like asking people who they think someone like Donald Trump is. Their answers would be based on what they had been hearing about Jesus. The disciples’ answer show that different people had varying opinions about Jesus from what they had seen him do, had heard him say, or what others had said about him. The question assumes that, like our opinions of Donald Trump, these people didn’t really know Jesus but had instead formed an opinion about him based on information about him.

Jesus’ second question changed the conversation from what other people were saying about him to what those who were closest to him thought of him. This question was more about a relationship with Jesus than information about him. It was a much more personal question because it wasn’t about what others thought – it was about the disciples’ personal experience as they walked with Jesus, listened to his words, saw the difference he could make in people’s lives, and experienced his love and grace for themselves. By asking, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Jesus wanted his followers to think about their relationship with him and how their experiences with him shaped their trust in him.

These two questions of Jesus are still important for us today. A lot of people have opinions about Jesus, just like we can have opinions about Donald Trump. It can be good for us at times to respectfully ask others who they think Jesus is, whether they identify as Christian or not, and listen to their responses. The goal is not to get into a debate or argument about Jesus – that doesn’t help anyone. Instead, if we are going to bring the good news of Jesus to people who don’t know him yet, it is helpful for us to understand the context into which we are bringing the gospel by listening to what others think of him. There might be some common ground where we can have an ongoing conversation about Jesus, who he is, and the good he can bring to our lives. If the opinions are so different that there is no common ground, we can still listen to other people’s perspectives. By doing that, we can better understand who people think Jesus is as we love and serve them in faith.

It is also important for us to hear Jesus ask us who we say he is. Our answers will give a good indication of what we believe and what our relationship with Jesus is like. I honestly wonder whether Peter was trying to give the ‘right’ or theologically correct answer. Or did Peter answer the way he did because he believed in who Jesus was because of his experience of Jesus and his relationship with him? Do you think Peter’s answer was based on information he knew about Jesus, or on the way he knew Jesus personally?

I ask these questions because our faith tradition has historically relied very much on what we have known about Jesus and the Bible. In many ways over my life in the church, I have seen people talk more about Jesus to try to have the right information or theology about him. I agree that there is a place for learning about Jesus through doctrine and theological education in the church. However, if that’s all we do, it is kind of like Jesus asking his disciples, ‘What do people say about me?’

Jesus didn’t just ask his disciples for information or a theological statement about who others thought he was. He asked them who they said he was, based on their experience of him and their relationship with him. Jesus asked a personal question because he wants us to know him as a living, breathing person who is actively involved in our lives like he was in the lives of his first disciples. The Christian faith isn’t just knowing about God and the doctrines of the church. A living faith means knowing Jesus personally, trusting him, being in relationship with him, and experiencing the difference he makes in our lives. On Sunday, six young people will be confirming their faith in our congregation and I have asked them to prepare a short statement about who they say Jesus is. I’m looking forward to hearing their answers. It is important for all of us to be asking ourselves this same question, and to have an answer to offer others when they ask us who Jesus is to us (1 Peter 3:15).

Who do you say Jesus is? This isn’t just about what other people, such as you pastor, say about him. Jesus asks us who we say he is. Our answers will be based on our relationship with him and our experience of him in our lives, just like Peter’s answer. If you find it hard to answer, I encourage you to explore more who Jesus is by giving time to your relationship with him, and getting to know him as a real, living, flesh and blood person. As we get to know Jesus more, not only do we find his grace and love more in our lives, but we also find God’s goodness in him which we can share with other people.

I will never know Donald Trump. I will only ever know about him and what I say about him will always be based on what others say about him. It’s different with Jesus. He invites us into a relationship with himself so we can live in the reality of the grace and love, hope and joy he pours into our lives. When we experience the difference Jesus makes in our lives, then with Peter and with all of God’s people of every time and place, we are able to tell others who we say Jesus is.

More to think about or discuss:

  • Who is one person, living or dead, that you would like to know personally? Why would you like to know that person?
  • What is the difference between knowing about someone and knowing them personally?
  • What do people you know say about who Jesus is? If you’re not sure, maybe ask someone this week…
  • If Jesus asked you who you say he is, how would you answer him?
  • Why is this question important for us?
  • What might your answer say about your relationship with and/or your trust in Jesus?
  • If you think about the ways you get to know someone personally, how can we get to know Jesus better as a real, living, flesh and blood person? What difference might that make in our lives?
  • What do you hear God asking us to do in this story?
  • What do you hear God saying he has done or will do for us in this story?

You can find a video of this message at https://youtu.be/NOIx8sTzMZE

God bless you as he makes himself known to you through Jesus!

All Peoples and Nations (Psalm 67)

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I remember being impressed the first time I saw a champagne tower. A champagne tower is when people arrange a number of saucer or coupe champagne glasses in a pyramid, with a lot of glasses on the bottom level and fewer glasses on each level above it, until there is only one glass at the top. Then, they start pouring champagne into the top glass. When it’s full, they keep pouring so the wine flows over the sides of the glass, into the glasses below. As they continue to pour the contents of the bottle (or maybe several bottles) into the top glass, the wine flows from the top into each level of glasses below it until either all the glasses are full, or the champagne runs out.

One of the reasons I like the champagne tower, other than I just think it looks pretty cool, is that it reminds me of how God’s grace and blessing work in our lives. God is the source of every good thing in our lives and so in faith we can come to him and ask for his grace and blessing. As we read in Psalm 67, we can ask God to ‘be gracious to us and bless us’ because we trust that he will always provide us with everything we need for life in this world and the next for Jesus’ sake. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brings us into a new relationship with God so we can boldly and confidently ask him for everything we need, just like little children trust their parents for everything they need in their lives. God’s face lights up as he looks on us with eternal and perfect love and his face shines on us with favour and approval because he sees the life of Christ in us. Whatever is happening in our lives, in our struggles, worries, or problems, as well as our joys and hopes, we can ask God to give us his grace and blessing, and for his face to shine on us with joy and pleasure, because of what Jesus has done for us.

God’s grace and blessing are unlimited and so God has more than we will ever need for this life and the next. God isn’t frugal with his love, but, as we read in Psalm 23:5, when we trust God for every good thing we need, our cups overflow! What happens to the overflow? Does it go to waste, or is there another reason why God fills our lives to overflowing with his grace and blessing?

This is where the image of the champagne tower can help us understand what Psalm 67:1,2 says about the way God’s grace and blessing work in our lives. Like pouring champagne into the top glass of the pyramid, God pours his grace and blessing into our lives, so that it flows into the lives of the people around us. The composer of Psalm 67 prays for God’s grace and blessing and for God’s face to shine on him, not just for his own benefit. He prays that God’s grace and blessing will also flow into the lives of the people around him ‘so that (God’s) ways may be known on earth, (God’s) salvation among all nations’ (NIV). The intended result and consequence of asking God to pour his grace and favour into the psalmist’s life is so that others can know God’s ways and saving love.

We live in what some people refer to as the ‘information age’ where more information is generated and shared each day than we can keep up with. Because of this emphasis on information, we can often think of ‘knowing’ as communicating and retaining information. ‘Knowing’ for our culture, which has largely been shaped by the enlightenment and modernist thinking, is mainly something we do with our brains. It is an intellectual activity in which information is received and passed on about people, events, or other content.

The people of the Old Testament, however, understood ‘knowing’ not just as information about something or someone, but more as an experience of that person or thing. For example, instead of ‘knowing’ what the weather is by checking an app on our phone, ‘knowing’ in an Old Testament sense means going outside and experiencing it for ourselves. When Psalm 67 talks about the nations ‘knowing’ God’s ways and salvation, he isn’t talking about sharing information about what God has done. The writer of Psalm 67 is asking for all peoples and nations to experience God’s ways and saving love for themselves as the direct result of the grace and blessing he pours into the lives of his people as his face shines on us.

These ‘ways’ he talks about lead to life in its fullness rather than destruction and death (John 10:10). We can think of God’s ‘ways’ that Scripture points us to as trusting God for everything we need for life in this world and the next and sharing God’s goodness with others. The Bible uses different language to communicate these ‘ways’ such as trusting the Lord and doing good (Psalm 37:3), loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength and loving others as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40 etc), loving each other as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34), and faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). These ‘ways’ lead to life for us and others, and the Psalmist prays that, as people experience God’s grace and blessing in us, they will learn to live in faith and love and participate in Jesus’ saving power.

As we discussed last week, salvation is more than eternal life in heaven when we die. It is the life ‘to the full’ which Jesus promises in John 10:10. To ‘know’ God’s salvation is to live in the reality of God’s saving love for us in Jesus. This saving love gives us freedom from sin, death, and the power of the devil. It liberates us from fear, guilt, and shame so we can live every day in the reality of hope, peace, joy, and love that is even stronger than death. We can ‘know’ about God’s salvation, but to ‘know’ it means trusting God’s saving love for us in Jesus and the promises he gives us for the future as the foundation of our lives.

The prayer of the person writing this psalm is that God will pour his grace and blessing into our lives as his face shines on us with perfect and infinite love so that it will flow into the lives of the people we connect with every day. Just as the champagne flows from the top glass into others with which it is connected, when we receive God’s grace and blessing through faith, others come into contact with it through us so that it flows into their lives as well.

To ask for God’s grace and blessing for ourselves is good because it shows that we trust God for everything we need to live in this world and the next. God pour his grace and blessing into our lives just for our benefit so others can experience it through us. God’s face shines on us so that we can trust his love for us and others can see the light of God’s goodness in us. As God pours his unlimited grace and blessing into our lives, he wants it to over flow into the lives of everyone around us, so they can know they reality of his grace and blessing, walk in his ways through faith in him, and live in the reality of his saving love through Jesus.

More to think about & discuss:

  • What questions do you have of this Bible reading? (please let me know if you have any questions I can help you with)
  • Are you comfortable asking for God’s grace and blessing in your life? Explain why that might be. How can asking God for his grace and blessing show faith in him?
  • What are your thoughts on the image of God’s face ‘shining’ on you? What do you think that means? How can it help shape the way you see yourself?
  • How can asking for God’s grace and blessing in our lives show his goodness and love to others? How might it help people to walk in the ways Jesus teaches? How might it help people find salvation in Jesus?
  • What do you hear these verses saying to you about what God wants you to do?
  • What do you hear God promising or saying he will do for you in this text?
  • In what areas of your life do you need God’s grace, blessing, or face to shine on you? Spend some time asking him for what you need in Jesus’ name…
  • Who is someone you know that can be helped by learning to live in the way Jesus teaches or by receiving Jesus’ saving love? Spend some time asking God to pour out his grace and blessing to them through you…

You can watch a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/oSmz-TOaxc4

God fill your life with his grace and blessing as his face shines on you so that everyone you meet will know his life-giving ways and his saving love for us in Jesus through you…

Sent With Good News (Romans 10:5-15)

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We all love to hear good news. That news might be the birth of a child, achieving a goal we have set ourselves, the release of a movie we are looking forward to, or even a win by our favourite sporting team (hang in there Crows supporters), but when something good happens we like to tell other people. Especially in difficult times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, good news of any kind can lift our spirits and give us hope for the future.

When we receive good news, we often like to share it with other people. There are lots of ways we can do that, such as text messages, emails, posting either an electronic or physical notice, or inviting others to celebrate our good news with us. A lot of times we can share our good news by sending something. We receive the good news, we rejoice in the good news, and then we send that good news to others by whatever way we have available to us. People will rarely keep good news to themselves but will usually send something out so that others can share in the good news with them.

For Christians, the ultimate good news is the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us. Throughout his letters, Paul continually points his readers to this good news, or gospel, and the difference it makes in our lives. Paul used lots of different language and images to help the readers of his letters connect with and identify with the gospel of Jesus so they could share in the blessings God gives through the gospel. For example, in Romans 10:5-13 Paul uses the language of ‘the righteousness that is by faith’ (v6 NIV) to show that all people can be saved, both Jews and Gentiles, and God ‘richly blesses all who call on him’ (v12 NIV). To emphasise his point, Paul quoted Joel 2:32 when he wrote ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (v13 NIV). For Paul, this is good news for all people!

Paul then moves on to ask a series of rhetorical questions which connect calling on God with believing in him, believing with hearing, hearing with preaching, and preaching with being sent. Paul is saying that people don’t just spontaneously call on God to save us. We can only call on God when we believe in him. If we are going to believe in him, we first need to hear about what he has done for us in Jesus because ‘faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ’ (v17 NIV). We can only hear the message of Jesus if someone tells us what it is or preaches it (NIV), and people can only preach if they are sent. In other words, people can only hear about the gospel of Jesus and come to faith in him if people are sent with this good news, just like we might send our good news by text message, email or invitation.

A lot of Christians understand the word Greek word translated as preaching which Paul uses as the sermon or message that is delivered in Sunday worship by a pastor or minister of a congregation. I firmly believe that communities of faith need to call someone who will be responsible for proclaiming the good news of Jesus to God’s people in public worship. However, if we limit the ‘preaching’ that Paul is talking about in Romans 10 to just what a pastor or minister does in public worship on Sunday mornings, then maybe we are missing an important part of what he is saying to us. Paul uses a verb which describes the role of a herald or messenger. In the ancient world, before electronic forms of communication or even mail as we know it, this person would be entrusted with a message, for example some good news, and sent out to share that message with others. Paul uses this verb which means to announce, proclaim, or make known, to show that people need to be sent to announce or proclaim the gospel to others so they can hear, believe, and call out to God to be saved. Just like we might send out text messages, emails or invitations with good news, God sends people out with the gospel of Jesus so others can hear, believe, and call on him.

A major limitation I have as a pastor is that each Sunday, I can only share the gospel of Jesus with a defined number of people. This number is limited by the size of our building, the number of services we can sustain, or the restrictions places on us by the government during the pandemic. Posting my messages online might reach some extra people, but in the end one person can only reach a certain number of people with the good news of Jesus.

Can you imagine what could be possible if every person who is connected with our congregation saw themselves as being the people that God is sending into the world with the good news of Jesus? Instead of reading Romans 10:14-15 as referring to one person who is ‘called and ordained’ to preach to and for us, what might happen if we also saw our pastors and ministers as people God has called ‘to equip his people for works of service’ (Ephesians 4:12 NIV) which includes sharing the good news with others? How many more people could hear the good news of Jesus, believe in him, and call to him if each and every one of us saw ourselves as people God has sent into the world with the gospel of Jesus?

This becomes even more important in our current context. With the COVID-19 pandemic, people are struggling with fear, anxiety, loneliness, and uncertainty about the future. God has given us good news for our communities and world in the message of Jesus because being saved doesn’t just mean going to heaven when we die. It also means being liberated from fear, living in peace, being part of a community of faith, and finding hope for the future. The gospel of Jesus is good news for every person! We can call on him, no matter how bad things might be, just like Peter when he was sinking beneath the waves, in the faith that he will reach out his hand, hold us up above the waves, and bring us to safety with him. No matter what our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic might be, or whatever else might be happening in our lives, the gospel of Jesus can give us peace, hope, and even joy.

How is the gospel of Jesus good news for you? As people who have received the good news of Jesus from others who were sent to us, to whom is God sending us to share the gospel? When we call on God, he freely gives us all things we need for life in this world and the next for Jesus’ sake. This message is good news for all people! And so Paul asks us,

.. how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? (vv 14,15a NIV)

God has blessed you with beautiful feet, because you are his text message, his email, his letter, his invitation, with good news for the people of the world!

More to think about & discuss:

  • What questions do you have of this Bible passage? (please feel free to contact me by text message, email, phone call, Facebook or any other means if you would like to talk more about your questions)
  • When you receive some good news, how do you share it with others?
  • When you hear the word preach what do you think of? How is this similar to tell them (NLT)? How is it different?
  • If someone asked you what the gospel of Jesus is, how would you answer them? How is the message of Jesus good news for you?
  • What do you hear this text saying about what God wants you to do?
  • What do you hear God promising to do for you in this text? How is that good news for you or for others?
  • How can you take what Paul is saying seriously by living it out in faith and love?
  • Who is someone you know who needs to hear some good news at this time? How can the message of Jesus be good news for them?

If you would like to watch a video version of this message, you can find one at https://youtu.be/G4fNJFEom1g

God bless you with beautiful feet as you take the good news of Jesus to everyone you meet!

More Than Enough (Matthew 14:13-21)

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Imagine you were having a picnic with family or friends. What would you do if you met some people you hadn’t seen for a while, you got to talking and then realised that it was time for lunch? Would you keep talking with them in the hope that they would soon leave so you could eat? Would you subtly tell them that it was lunch and probably time for them to move on? Or would you invite them to stay and share your picnic even though you might not really have enough for everyone?

Would your answer be the same if you were talking with five people? What if there were fifteen? Would you share your lunch with fifty? What if there were five thousand extra people who wanted to join your picnic? Would you share your food with them?

In some ways, this scenario starts to sound silly when we begin thinking about more than five people. However, when we ask ourselves if we would share our picnic with five, fifteen or even fifty people, then we might begin to understand the disciples’ reaction when Jesus told them to feed the five thousand men, plus women and children, in Matthew 14:13-21. Can you seriously imagine sharing your food with more than five thousand other people? The idea sounds ridiculous! It is impossible for us to imagine that five loaves of bread and two fish could feed that many people. However, the disciples trusted Jesus enough to give him what they had, and with his blessing on the food, it not only fed all those people but there were twelve baskets of leftovers!

People usually hear this story telling us that we should share what we have with others. Some people understand it saying that we should literally share our food with people who are hungry. I know of churches that started ministries in response to it, taking left-over bread to people. These ministries are good and can be a meaningful expression of grace from the congregation to those who are in need. However, John’s version of the story in chapter six moves into an extended reflection on who Jesus is as the eternal Bread of Life. This suggests to me that maybe the miraculous feeding of the five thousand isn’t actually about food at all. What if it’s about something much deeper…?

For example, over the last couple of months our congregation has been on a journey with our worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. After being fully online for a couple of months, we started meeting in groups of twenty to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in our hall. Then, as the restrictions eased, we have had services with larger numbers gathering until the people who worship at our early service were able to move back into the church building. This week, our later service will also be moving back into the church for the first time since March. Along the way I have been inviting feedback from people connected with our congregation about what we have been doing and what our possible next steps could be as we resumed our congregation’s various ministries. Generally, as people responded to me, what I heard people telling me was what they wanted, what they liked, or what suited them. I don’t want to sound critical of these responses – I understand them and want to hear what people think – but I wonder if they can also tell us something about our human condition.

How might we have responded if we were the disciples who brought the five loaves and two fish to Jesus, and he instructed us to give them to the five thousand men plus women and children who were with us? Would we have trusted Jesus and shared what we had with the crowds of people who were there? Or would we have preferred to keep the food for ourselves and let someone else look after the others?

An hour or two on Sunday morning isn’t a large amount of time. It is pretty small, like a meal of five loaves and two fish. But one thing I hear in the story of the feeding of the five thousand (plus women and children) is that Jesus receives the little things we give him, blesses them, and is able to make a big difference in the lives of lots of people through them. Jesus promises that however little we might have, when we offer it to him in faith and share it with others in love, Jesus can provide for a lot of people through it.

With our conversations around worship over the last few months in mind, this story leads me to wonder: What might the worship life of our congregation be like if we did the same with our Sunday mornings? What might happen if, instead of coming to worship just with the desire or expectation to be fed, we gave this time to Jesus and asked them to bless it so that others could be fed? If we think about Sunday mornings as the loaves and fishes, I can understand that our default position might be to want to eat first and let others have whatever is left. The faith I see in the disciples who gave their food to Jesus, though, is that they trusted him and gave what they had first so others could be fed. The result was that there was more than enough for everyone, and there were still leftovers! Is it possible, if we offered our Sunday mornings and what we do in worship to Jesus first, we might find that not only we are fed, but others are fed with God’s grace and goodness and there is still enough to provide for us throughout the week?

This isn’t just about worship. I am using Sunday morning worship as an example because it is a question that has been simmering in our congregation for the last few months. We will continue talking about the form of our worship services as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and we look towards the future God intends for our congregation. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (plus women and children) is basically about faith. In every area of our lives, do we believe that when we give even the smallest things to Jesus, he will bless them and provide more than enough for us so we can share God’s goodness and grace with others? Do we trust him to give him what we have, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, so Jesus can bless, provide for, and feed others through what we offer?

I’m not sure what I would do if my family’s picnic was crashed by others. I hope I would share our food with them, but I also know that sometimes our own desires and appetites can get in the way. The story of the feeding of the five thousand tells me that the One who gave everything out of love for us, not just his lunch but his whole life, has the power to take something small, like some loaves and fish, or a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, and do amazing things with them. What might happen if we gave what we have over to him in faith, asked him to bless it, and then shared it with the people around us?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Discuss or reflect on what you would do if five people you hadn’t seen for a while turned up unexpectedly at a picnic you were having. Would you share your food with them? What if it was fifteen, fifty, or five hundred people?
  • How do you honestly think the disciples might have reacted when Jesus told them to share their loaves and fishes with the crowds that day? Do you think they would have responded enthusiastically with unshakable faith? Or do you think they might have had a few doubts? Discuss your reasons for your thoughts.
  • Where do you see the disciples acting in faith in this story? Where do you see them acting in love for others?
  • I have used our congregation’s Sunday morning worship as an example of how we might sometimes think more of ourselves than others first. What are some other areas of life you might have seen people do that?
  • What are some things in your life that you would rather hang on to than give to Jesus so he can share them with others?
  • Why do you think we can find it hard to give what we have over to Jesus?
  • Spend some time discussing or reflecting on what might happen if you gave something over to Jesus, no matter how small it might seem, in the faith that he would bless it and provide for other people through it…
  • What is something you can give to Jesus as an act of faith in him and love for others?

You can also see a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/VrEkBvq7_S8

God bless!

All Things (Romans 8:26-39)

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Usually when I sit down to write my message each week, I look for something in the text that is visible or tangible, something we can touch or see, that I can use to illustrate the Kingdom of God or the way God is at work in the world. Jesus did it in his parables, so, as a student or disciple of Jesus, I believe that I can learn from his teaching methods. For example, last week Jesus talked about wheat paddocks, the previous week the image was rain from Isaiah, and the week before that was a yoke.

This week’s New Testament reading, Romans 8:26-39, is an amazing passage with so much great news for us. The part that really spoke to me was verse 32 where Paul writes,

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (NIV)

However, this text presented a serious challenge: how can I use to illustrate ‘all things’ visually for my message?

This is an incredible thing for Paul to say. His message is that God loves us so much that he gave up the most precious thing he had to redeem and save us: his only Son. Value is determined by what people are willing to part with to make something their own. The first section of Romans 8:32 tells us that God values each of us so much that he willingly parted with his Son whom he loves, so we can be reconciled to him and restored to a new relationship with him as members of his family. God willingly gave up the most treasured thing he has, his own Son, so that we can live in a new relationship with him as his children.

Paul goes on to ask that, since God loved us enough to give up his Son for us, won’t he also give us ‘all things’ in his grace towards us? Paul is saying that if God hasn’t held back what he treasures most, then is there anything he won’t be willing to give us? If there is nothing that is as precious or valuable to God as his Son, and since he has already given him for us as evidence of his love, then ‘won’t he also give us everything else?’ (v32 NLT)
When I read these words, to be honest, my natural reaction is to start putting limits around God’s grace by thinking about what I don’t think God will give me. We can start to remember the things we have wanted in the past, but we didn’t get. Maybe we can think about things or people who have been taken away from us. Or we can think about things we’d like in the future that we don’t think we will ever have.

A big question to help us understand this text is what does Paul mean by ‘all things’? Do we take that as literally meaning ‘all things’? Because that’s a lot! Or is Paul talking metaphorically, that God will extend his generosity to some point, but will start to decline our requests when we reach a limit?

One thing we can do to help us understand what words or phrases mean in the Bible is to look at other places those words or phrases are used and what they mean in those passages. I looked up where Paul talks about ‘all things’ and I found that he uses it more than 20 times in his letters. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul writes,

… for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (NIV)

So here ‘all things’ means everything that God has created, which is also the way Ephesians 3:9 and Colossians 1:16 use it. Another place Paul talks about ‘all things’ is in Colossians 1:20 where he says that God reconciled ‘all things’ to himself through Jesus’ blood which was shed on the cross. A third example is 2 Corinthians 9:8 when he writes,

God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (NIV)

This text helps us understand Romans 8:32 better because Paul is also giving us a reason why God would make such an extravagant promise to us. God doesn’t promise to give us ‘all things’ for our own sake, so that we can life safe, comfortable or self-satisfied lives, but so that we can ‘abound in every good work’ and bring the goodness of God into the world.

It is easy for us to hear God’s promise to give us ‘all things’ and think about what we want for ourselves, kind of like children who are looking forward to what they are going to get at their birthday or Christmas. In the faith that God has already given his best for us in the death of Jesus, and for his sake will also give us ‘all things’, God wants us to trust this promise so that we can do good in the world and extend God’s goodness which we find in Jesus to people around us who need his goodness. God doesn’t promise to give us ‘all things’ for our benefit, but for the benefit of others as we follow Jesus in faith and love.

What do we need to do that? Or, more specifically, what do you need from God so that you can ‘abound in every good work’? It might be something to help you with your family or in your work. It could be something with your health or a relationship which might be difficult or challenging. What might happen if we took this promise literally: that God, who gave up his Son for us, will also ‘graciously give us all things’? Sometimes I wonder if we don’t receive good things from God because we don’t trust him enough to ask. If you were to believe what Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, that God will graciously give us ‘all things’ for the sake of Jesus, what would you ask for? What would you hope for from God?

As I sit and write this message, I’m still struggling with what I can use as a visible, tangible example of the ‘all things’ Paul is talking about. This is a massive promise, one that’s hard for us to get our heads around, let alone trust it enough to live like it is true. But that’s what faith is – trusting that God gave up his own Son for us because he loves us that much. If he gave up his most precious Son, then he will also give us ‘all things’ for his sake.

What might that mean for you?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think of when you hear the words ‘all things’? What do you think Paul may have meant when you hear him write about ‘all things’ in Romans 8:32?
  • When you read 1 Corinthians 8:6, how do you understand ‘all things’ in this passage? What do you think it might mean in Colossians 1:20? What about in 2 Corinthians 9:8? How can the way Paul uses the words ‘all things’ in these passages help us understand what Paul means by them in Romans 8:32?
  • What do you find difficult about Paul saying that God will ‘graciously give us all things’ (NIV)? In what ways can this be a hard promise to trust?
  • If you were to take ‘all things’ literally, what are some of the things that might include? How might this promise make a difference in your life or help you in some way?
  • What is something you need most in your life right now? How could God giving you what you need help you to ‘abound in every good work’ (2 Corinthians 9:8)?
  • What are some other ‘all things’ from God you hope for? How might they make a difference in your life and help you ‘abound in every good work’?

If you would like to watch a video version of this message, you can go to https://youtu.be/jhNmgEdKtc0

God bless!

God’s Word Rains Down (Isaiah 55:10-13)

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Just before Christmas last year, a devastating fire started in the Cudlee Creek area in the Adelaide Hills. It burnt out more than 25,000 hectares of property including homes, sheds, vehicles, and other property. I like to ride my motorbike through that part of the Adelaide Hills and when I saw the areas that had been burnt out, I was heartbroken. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who are still struggling to rebuild their lives after the fires.

It wasn’t long after the fires that the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the focus of our nation shifted. As we find our way through the pandemic, please continue to remember and support those who are still trying to recover from losing homes, property, and livestock since the fires in the Adelaide Hills and other parts of Australia earlier this year.

I was able to get up to the Hills a few months after the fires. We had had rain in Adelaide and there was a dramatic difference in the countryside. I could still see clear evidence of the fires in the charred landscape and burnt trees, but it was changing. The rain had brought new life to the fire-damaged areas of the Hills. Green buds were starting to burst through. New life was growing because of the rain that had fallen. Trees and plants that had looked dead were starting to come alive again because of the life-giving rain.

This is the picture Isaiah gives to describe the difference God’s word can make in our lives (Isaiah 55:10-13). The good news of forgiveness in Jesus raises us from death in sin to new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4,5). We hear this promise in the New Testament reading for this Sunday: ‘now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1)! This is good news for all people! When we were dead in sin, just like the trees that had been burned out by the fires in the Adelaide Hills, God sent his word of forgiveness and new life for the sake of Jesus to us like rain, creating something new within us. As the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said, just as God sends rain to bring life to the dry, fire-damaged countryside, he also sends his life-giving word of the gospel to create new life in us.

God’s word also works changes in us when we are struggling with the effects of sin in our lives. We can feel dry, burned-out, or damaged for lots of different reasons. It might be because of something dramatic or tragic that we have experienced, like a bush-fire tearing through our lives. Maybe it is trying to cope with all the uncertainties or changes we have been experiencing which can drain us like a long drought. Life has a way of wearing us down in lots of different ways, and we can feel lost, empty, or lifeless in one way or another.

When we read or listen to the Bible, we discover stories of people who struggled in their own lives for various reasons. I know that they lived a long time ago in cultures that are very different than ours, but the basic human condition hasn’t changed. We all need to find a sense of who we are. We are all looking for a place to belong where we can discover our self-worth and value. We are all searching for purpose in life, a reason to get out of bed, and to find meaning in our lives. People throughout the ages have wrestled with the challenges of life and with finding God in the middle of their struggles and questions just as we do.

As we read their stories and the words they wrote, we can also find God’s promises for us. Just like God provided for them, he can and will also provide for us. As we reflect on the ways in which God was at work in the lives of people long ago, he will also show us how he has been, is currently, and will continue to work in our lives for good. The miracle and mystery of God’s word for me is that, as I read it, I find God speaking into my life right now. Sometimes it takes effort to make the connections, but they are there when we look for them. Whatever is happening in our lives, God’s word speaks God’s promises, the good news of Jesus, to give us life like rain on a dry and burned-out countryside.

This new life shows itself in lots of different ways, just like the new, green shoots are clearly evident on the charred, black branches and stumps of a burnt tree. The prophet Isaiah describes these changes as ‘producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry’ (v10 NLT). The new life that God creates in us through his word isn’t just for our own benefit. It is also for the benefit of others. Just like the seed the rains produce will help the farmer provide more crops for the future, and the hungry can be fed by what the rains produce, so the life God creates in us will help and bless others for years to come.

When we live in the reality of God’s promises to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works through God’s word to produce in us the kind of fruit that Paul describes in Galatians 5:22,23 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When the Holy Spirit is producing these kinds of fruits in our lives, they will be seen like new green shoots on a burned black tree. People will see something different in us as God’s word and the good news of Jesus changes us to be more loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. Just like the seed and bread, this gives us good things to offer others as we follow the way of Jesus in faith and love. We can’t make these changes any more than a tree can decide to produce new shoots after a fire. But when God’s word falls on us like rain and we live in the reality of God’s promises and the good news of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will be at work, creating new live within us and making that new live visible in our relationships with others and our community of faith so they can encounter God’s goodness in us.

Some people don’t like standing in the rain. There might be several good reasons for that, but I can also understand our natural human tendency to not want to stand in the words God speaks to us which rain down on us to give us life. If you are growing through a time in your life where you are feeling dry, burned out, empty or maybe just struggling for any reason, and if you live in the Adelaide area, I encourage you to go for a drive in the Hills. Look at the countryside devastated by the fires at the end of last year. See the new life that is bursting out from the charred, blackened trees and vegetation. Remember that it was the rain that gave the countryside new life. In the same way, God gives us new life through his word as it rains down his promises and goodness on our lives.

When we stand in the reality of God’s word through faith in Jesus, it doesn’t only bring new life to us. It produces good for the people around us as well.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Do you like standing or walking in the rain? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever seen fire-damaged countryside after rain has fallen on it? Describe what you saw and your reactions to it.
  • Share your thoughts on Isaiah 55:10-11. What do you like about Isaiah’s words? What do you find difficult or challenging about this text? What is a promise from God that you can hear in these verses?
  • In what ways might you be experiencing the effects of sin in your life? Are you feeling dry, burnt out, damaged, or possibly even lifeless in some way? Explain why…
  • If God can give new life to trees and plants that have been affected by fire through the falling rain, do you believe that he can give you new life through his word? What do you find hard about believing that? What difference might it make to your life if you could believe it?
  • How might God bless people around you by giving you new life? What difference could it make in their lives?
  • How will you stand or walk in God’s word this week so it can rain down on you?

You can watch a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/GSO7ALkwWMU

God bless!

An Easy Yoke (Matt 11:16-19, 25-30)

Matthew 11v28 rest 04

When I was in primary school, our church used to have an annual picnic. One of the games we would play every year was the three-legged race. If you’ve never been in a three-legged race, the way it works is that you and a partner have your legs tied together, usually at the ankle, and you need to run together towards the end of the course.

It was hard learning how to move together effectively. We are so used to walking at our own pace and in our own ways that we found it difficult to synchronize our movements and find a rhythm so we could run the race. People who were able to find that rhythm did well and finished the race. Those who couldn’t just pulled against each other and ended up on the ground.

When Jesus talked about taking his yoke in Matthew 11:25-30 he was inviting us to learn to walk with him as his disciples. one way we can think of being yoked with Jesus is that it is kind of like running a three-legged race with him. When I was younger, I thought the yoke Jesus was talking about was something we carried individually, the kind that lay across a person’s shoulders with a bucket on each end. Since then I have learned that the yoke Jesus meant was the sort that two oxen would carry to help them walk and work together. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked with him, like we might have our legs tied together in a three-legged race, so that we can learn from Jesus to walk with him in the way of life he walked.

Being yoked with Jesus doesn’t come naturally to us and is difficult for us to learn. We like to walk our own way, going in the directions we choose, and moving at a pace with which we are most comfortable. Especially in our culture which worships our individual right to do what we want, be who we want, and go where we want, the idea of adapting our walk to fit in with others is virtually abhorrent. Our society’s creed of individualism teaches us that we should have the right to choose where, when, and how we walk in our own lives. The problem with this way of thinking is that if we each want to walk our own way, then, like in a three-legged race, we will fall over and probably get hurt.

When Jesus calls us to take up his yoke, he is inviting us to learn a whole new way of living from him that is radically different than our inward-focused, me-first individualism. Jesus’ call to discipleship means learning a way of living that doesn’t burden us with expectations, demands or rules. The religious people of Jesus’ day were really good at doing that. Jesus wants to teach us a different way that leads to rest for our hearts and souls.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus invite us to be his disciples and learn a different way of living from him that involved taking up our cross in faith and love. In Matthew 11:28-30 he uses the image of taking up his yoke with him. This might seem like a burden, but the beauty of Jesus’ words is that he says that his ‘yoke is easy to bear’ and the burden he gives us is light (v30). This might seem like a contradiction, but Jesus is saying that he wants us to learn from him a way of life that is free from expectations and guilt, and full of his grace.

Eugene Petersen describes the new way of living that Jesus invites us to learn as ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG). As Jesus offers us his yoke, or as he ties his leg to ours for our three-legged race together, he is asking us to learn from him how to live with grace as our foundational reality. This grace isn’t something that we struggle or try harder to do, but in the same way that we can find a rhythm with our partner in a three-legged race, Jesus wants us to walk with him so we can find his rhythm of grace and it can flow naturally, in an unforced way, through our whole lives.

This grace works in two ways. Firstly, it is living in God’s grace for us in Jesus. There are lots of ways we can understand this grace: forgiveness, new life, redemption, salvation, and a home in the kingdom of heaven. We can also think of God’s grace as the way he gift us with a new identity as his children whom he loves, a place to belong in the body of Christ and the community of believers, and a new purpose in living for him and being part of God’s mission in the world. In fact, we can understand God’s grace as every good thing he gives us for life in this world and the next. God gifts us with everything we need because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us which renews our relationship with our Father in heaven and gives us his favour. We can spend our whole lives learning more and more about God’s grace in which we live as we take up Jesus’ yoke and walk with him.

The second way we ‘learn the unforced rhythm of grace’ in our lives is in our relationships with other people. Grace isn’t just something God gives to us. It is also something we give to others. Again, we can think of this grace in many different ways, such as forgiving people who have wronged us, or accepting, loving, welcoming, and building up one another. This grace that we extend to others is having an outward focus on others in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need for Jesus’s sake. The ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ are identical to the way of faith and love that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, which lies at the heart of the New Testament letters to early Christian communities. It is grace which flows from God, through us, and into the lives of everyone we meet.

As I said earlier, this rhythm of grace doesn’t come naturally to us and often isn’t easy for us. We need to be life-long learners, disciples of Jesus who are learning from him what this grace looks like and how it works in all the varied circumstances and different situations of life. Carrying Jesus’ yoke, or being Jesus’ three-legged race partner, isn’t just a one-off decision. It means walking closely with him every day of our lives, listening to his word, watching the way he trusted our Father and treated people, so that we can live in the reality of his grace and we can live out his grace in relationship and community with others.

Which way are we walking in our lives? Are we being discipled by our individualistic culture, which tells us to walk where we want, how we want, when we want? If we are, how is that working out for us? Are we walking well, or are we stumbling or falling along the way? Are we ready to learn a new way of living, walking closely with Jesus and learning a new way of living from him as his disciples? Are we willing to pick up his yoke? Will we trust him enough to tie our leg to his and learn how to walk in his way, and not our own? Are we ready to learn the unforced rhythm of grace from Jesus?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even been in a three-legged race? How did you find it – was it easy or hard for you? Why was that?
  • What makes it difficult to walk with someone in a three-legged race? What can help us walk together?
  • How might taking up Jesus’ yoke be like partnering with him in a three-legged race? Do you think the analogy works? Explain why/why not…
  • What do you think it might mean to take up Jesus’ yoke? How can we find rest in it? In what ways can it be ‘easy’ and ‘light’?
  • What do you think of Eugene Petersen’s description of taking up Jesus’ yoke as ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’? What do you think that looks like?
  • Would you say that you are ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus? Or are you walking in your own way at your own pace? Give reasons for your answers…
  • What might your life be like if you were learning the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus by taking up his yoke as his student? How might your life be the same? How might it be different?
  • If Jesus is asking each of us to take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him, then we can think of our congregation as a Christ-centred community of faith where we are all learning this new way of life in our relationships with each other. What is your reaction to thinking about ‘church’ in this way?
  • What will you do this week to walk with Jesus, take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/JNDH_rD9qQE

God bless!