Looking Past What We See (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

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Most of us have heard the saying to never judge a book by its cover. There are always dangers with coming to conclusions about people, circumstances and other things by taking a superficial view of them and not taking the time and effort to find out what’s going on under the surface.

So why do we do it so often?

We live in a very superficial culture where appearance is everything. The media emphasizes looking good, wearing the right clothes, having the right body shape, and so on. Marketing often makes the packaging more important than what the product. Social media dictates that people’s perceptions of us are based on our profile pictures, so we can be constantly taking selfies or paying for professional photographers to find a picture which will help the world decide that we are acceptable or worthwhile.

The way something looks is often more important in our society than what it is.

In the church, we have also fallen into the trap of making conclusions about people or situations based on appearance. We can be judged by people in the church by the clothes we wear to worship, how we wear our hair, whether we have tattoos or piercings, or other ways in which we might present ourselves. Our actions and behaviours are often judged by others, especially if we don’t come up to expectations of what is acceptable behaviour – just ask any parent of young children who are noisy during worship. When we make decisions in our congregations about changes or new directions in ministry, people can be critical without knowing the full story. We tend to make decisions and judgements in the church based on what things look like rather than what they really are.

But God doesn’t work that way.

I love this story of Samuel anointing David to be the new king of Israel in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 because God tells Samuel that he doesn’t look at outward appearances. God looks at the heart (v7). God looks beyond the superficial things that we are usually preoccupied with. He looks beneath the surface to see what’s really going on in our hearts.

For God, who we are is much more important that how we look.

In the Hebrew way of thinking, a person’s heart isn’t just an organ in our chest that pumps blood around our bodies. A person’s heart is what lies at our core, at the centre of our being. During my student days I worked in a supermarket and used to put cans of artichoke hearts on the shelves. I was surprised to learn that artichokes are a vegetable, not a small, furry animal. An artichoke’s heart is what is at its centre. In the same way, when the Bible talks about our hearts, it is referring to what lies at the centre of who we are. What lies at the centre will shape who we are and what we do.

We aren’t told in 1 Samuel 16 why David’s heart was different from his brothers, so we can only guess, based on the stories we have of David in the Old Testament. As we get to know David, we find a person who made mistakes and did some pretty horrible things. But what seems different about David is that he had a heart that was open to God and was turned towards God. The centre of David’s being was oriented towards God’s goodness as he relied on God’s grace and love.

Maybe, in the same way, God is looking for us to have hearts that are turned towards him and are open to his goodness. God looks past our appearance, how we look and even what we do, to see if our hearts are turned towards him. Whatever our hearts are turned towards becomes our god, so God looks to see whether our hearts are turned towards him or away from him. He is looking to see if our hearts are open to his grace or closed to the goodness he wants to pour into them by the power of his Holy Spirit. It’s not up to us to try to work that out for other people because we can’t see into people’s hearts. But God is looking to see what lies at the centre of our being and whether or not God has a place there.

Because God wants to give us new hearts that are orientated towards him and open to his goodness. Everything that lies on our hearts which would be an obstacle to or disqualify us from a relationship with God has been taken by Jesus and put to death on the cross. The message of forgiveness is that Jesus removes everything which lies in our hearts that is wrong or bad or unclean. He has carried it to the cross and put it to death once and for all. In its place, Jesus fills our hearts with goodness and love and purity and peace. He mends our broken hearts with his grace and gives our hearts new life as he gifts us with his Holy Spirit and restores us to being the people he created us to be. This love re-orients our hearts and turns them towards God who fills us with his grace.

That is why Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:16,17 not to evaluate others form a worldly point of view which only looks at superficial externals. Paul wants us to see each other from God’s perspective, as he looks into our hearts and sees Jesus. Everything about us that is old, broken and wrong is gone. In its place, God gives us the life of Christ which is new and full of shining goodness and purity. This is how God wants us to see each other, as well as ourselves: as people whom Jesus loves, for whom he died, and who are made new through the gift of his Spirit. When Jesus lives in our hearts, at our core and the centre of our being through faith, then we are a new creation and his life has begun in us.

Whether we are talking about or ourselves or others, it’s good to never judge books by their covers. God never just looks at the external appearance, so why should we? Instead, God looks at our hearts and sees Jesus who fills our whole being with his goodness, grace and love. The challenge is to see each other in the same way.

So, this week, who could you look at in a new way from God’s perspective? Is there a person or situation where you’ve only seen the external appearance? How might your perception of other people be different if you looked at them with God’s eyes and saw them as people for whom Christ died?

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Looking Past What We See (2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1)

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One question in particular nagged me as I prepared my message on this text last week:

How do we ‘fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen’?

It doesn’t seem to make sense. If we cannot see something, it is out of our sight. So how are we supposed to ‘fix our eyes’ (NIV) on something when our eyes can’t perceive it in the first place?

I understand the theory behind what Paul is saying. He suffered a lot for bringing the gospel to people. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 Paul describes what he went through for the sake of Jesus – beatings, shipwrecks, various other dangers, hunger, thirst, nakedness and more. However, through it all Paul kept his focus on the glory of eternal life God promised him through the gospel. Paul didn’t go through all of these hardships to gain eternal life. Instead, he endured them because he considered the life he had been given through faith in Jesus to be so valuable that we wanted others to share in this life. He figured that if his suffering meant life for others (v15), then it was worth it.

So he kept his focus on what he had to look forward to and it gave him perspective on what he was suffering. He believed that his difficulties and hardships would one day come to an end. When they did, and he entered into the eternal life Jesus promised him, then the life that would never end would make his suffering seem very small and light in comparison.

So I think I understand the idea. I still wonder, though, how do we keep our eyes fixed on this eternity which we cannot see?

Most of the time, our sense of reality is based on and determined by what we see. One of the basic ideas of a scientific worldview which is foundational to our culture is that for something to exist, you have to be able to see it. If you can’t see it, then you can’t be sure it exists. Which, in the world of science, I understand. However, when what we see in our lives is darkness, pain, regret, disappointment, or suffering of any kind, then that becomes our reality. Sometimes it is impossible for us to see beyond our hardships or suffering. This becomes all that is real to us, and we can’t see anything else. To a small degree, I can understand what it is like to see nothing but the problems we face. At those times, it looks like there is no way out, no future, or no hope. Life can just look dark.

It is good to remember that scientists are continually looking at things they cannot normally see. They use instruments like microscopes to look at things that are too small for the eye to detect, or telescopes that are far beyond what we can perceive with the naked eye. Even from a scientific perspective, it is possible to gaze at things we cannot see if we are using the right lenses.

Maybe the key to what understanding Paul’s words about keeping our gaze fixed on what we can’t see, then, is to view our lives or our suffering through the right lens.

For Paul, that lens was Jesus.

When he looked at his life through the lens of Jesus, Paul saw that God was with him in his suffering through his suffering Son. He also saw that God had overcome and defeated his suffering through Jesus’ resurrection. In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection we can see that God enters into our reality of suffering but also carries us through it to a better future. Like Paul, God gives us the promise of an eternal life with him where ‘will wipe every tear from (our) eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever’ (Revelation 21:4 NLT). All we will experience will be love, joy and peace. This is God’s gift to us because of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection for us. This is the good news that Paul dedicated his life to bring to others. This is the gospel for which Paul suffered. This is God’s promise to all who need hope.

Just like scientists look through a microscope or a telescope to gaze at what they cannot see, so Paul is encouraging us to look at our suffering, our hardships, our pain, grief, regrets or loneliness through the lens of Jesus. This doesn’t mean we dismiss or ignore the darker realities of life in this world. Instead it means we recognize that our suffering or hardships had a beginning and they will have an end. They are finite and temporary, but what God promises us in Jesus is infinite and eternal. Keeping our gaze on the glory that is ahead of us helps us to keep what we are going through now in perspective. It gives us the confidence to face each day in the hope that what we endure will not overcome us. It does not define us. It will not defeat us because Jesus has overcome the suffering of this life in his death and resurrection. He gives us an eternal future which will be good in every way, where what we suffer now will be a distant memory which pales in comparison to the glory of life with God for ever.

I understand it can hard to hear that when we’re trapped in our suffering or difficulties because we just can’t see it. We might be able to understand the theory of what Paul is saying, but living it out can seem impossible. That’s when we need the Holy Spirit to be working in our lives to give us this focus. As we remain in God’s word, the Holy Spirit can work through God’s promises and the stories of people God brought through hard times to give us faith. As we remain connected with Christian community, the body of Christ can walk with us, support us, and even carry us to give us a glimpse of what is coming. As we hear the stories of how Jesus brought God’s eternal realities into people’s lives, and when we bring the reality of God’s love, grace and hope into each other’s lives, the Spirit of the living God can lift our eyes from the hardships and difficulties we experience every day and give us a glimpse of what God has for us in the future.

So, how can we help each other fix our gaze on the goodness of God in Jesus, even when it’s really hard to see?

Law Breakers (Mark 2:23-3:6)

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When we hear the story of Jesus’ disciples eating grain they had picked on the Sabbath day of rest in Mark 2:23-28, we might wonder what the Pharisees were so upset about. The disciples weren’t hurting anybody and I’m sure that the people who owned the field wouldn’t have missed a few stalks. So what’s the problem?

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in Exodus 20, God said explicitly that his people were not to do any work on the seventh day of the week (vv8-11). What was called the Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest. In order to define what was ‘work’ so the Jewish people could keep this commandment, a complicated set of rules developed which defined what a person was and was not allowed to do. From this perspective, picking grain from a paddock was considered ‘work’ and so the disciples were breaking God’s command.

The Pharisees’ reactions might appear to be a bit extreme, but do we sometimes react in a similar way? Most Christians have our own ideas about how we should observe our own day of rest. We might not have them written down, but most people I’ve known in the church have their own set of rules about what and how we should do what we do. I’m meaning things like what songs or hymns we should or shouldn’t sing, what liturgies we should or shouldn’t use, when we should sit and when we should stand, how people should dress, how children should behave, and the list could go on. It might be uncomfortable to admit, but most of us have a set of rules that we think people should follow in the church. Then, if people don’t do what we think they should, we can start to be critical of them, kind of like the Pharisees were of Jesus’ disciples.

What is ironic is that Christians are breaking the Sabbath law just by worshiping on Sunday. Biblically, the Sabbath day of rest is Saturday – just ask someone from the Jewish community or a member of a Seventh Day Adventist church. There are two main reasons I’m aware of why Christian changed it to Sunday. The first is that the early followers of Jesus met together on the first day of the week to remember and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The second reason was because they wanted to send a clear message that we are no longer under the law but under grace. As people whose relationship with God and eternal futures are not based on whether or not we keep the law, we are free to meet together and worship whenever is good for the community of faith.

That is why Jesus replies to the Pharisees’ criticism by saying that ‘the Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath’ (v27 NLT). Jesus teaches us that people were not created to be slaves of the law along with its rules and expectations. Instead, God gave us the law to serve us. Rules are meant to be a blessing, not a burden, especially in Christian community. If our rules are no longer serving God’s people, or if they are becoming a burden to God’s people, then we need to ask whether they are fulfilling God’s purpose. If that is the case, then maybe it is time to set those rules aside in the freedom the gospel gives us.

What seems to matter most to Jesus, not just in this story but all the way through the gospels, is people. If the rules get in the way of people finding grace or healing, love or forgiveness, then Jesus breaks the rules to give them what they need. This is what made the Pharisees so angry with Jesus, and even here, at the start of the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ time are already starting to wonder how to get rid of him. They begin planning to kill him because Jesus prioritizes people over their rules. For Jesus, people are much more important that religious rules and laws.

What would our communities of faith be like if we took the same approach? I understand that we all have our preferences about when and how we worship, the style of music and liturgy (or lack of it), how people should dress and behave when they come to church. But how might our churches be different if we were willing to put our preferences and expectations aside and made people our priority?

In our congregation we have two worship services each Sunday: an earlier service with a more formal liturgy and hymns played on an organ, and a later service with less structured liturgy and a band playing more modern songs. I put the challenge out on Sunday for people to think about what things might be like if we prioritized the people of the other service – the young, the elderly, and everyone in between – over and above our own set of rules about what worship should or shouldn’t be. If we took Jesus’ words seriously about God giving us a Sabbath day of rest for our good with people being what matters most, how could we show others how important they are to Jesus by prioritizing them?

We need to remember that Jesus prioritizes each and every one of us by giving his life for us. We extend and communicate grace and love to each other when we prioritize each other and are willing to make others in our community of faith more important to us than our rules, laws and expectations. When we understand that Jesus prioritized people over rules, no matter what their age, background or gender might be, then we begin to embrace them in God’s grace and love as we follow him and do the same.

I have been serving this congregation now for almost three years. There are people in our church who think I am changing too many things too fast. There are others who think I’m not changing things quickly enough. This is the life of a pastor – it is impossible to keep everyone happy. However, the change I’m really working towards and hope to see is not about service times or styles of music or liturgy. The change I hope for is in our hearts. I would like us to recognize that rules were made for people, not people for rules, and that Jesus prioritized people over rules.

As followers of Jesus, then, I hope that we will make people our number one priority, even if it means breaking some rules to do it.

Dancing with the Divine (Romans 8:12-17)

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One of the more creative ways I have come across to illustrate the Trinity is three distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all dancing together in perfect unity. This isn’t a ‘do you own thing’ style of dancing that you might see at a night club or rock concert. Instead, we can illustrate the relationship that exists within the Triune God as three distinct persons who are in perfect harmony with each other as they gracefully sweep across a dance floor in flawless unison.

Older Australian Lutherans might remember a time when more conservative elements of the church disapproved of any kind of dancing, so I can understand why some people might not relate to this picture of the Trinity, or even think it is biblical. However, I think it paints a captivating image of the Three-in-One God. It can be hard enough to move in step with one other person in this style of dancing, but when it works, the dancers share in the rhythm of the dance. In the same way, we can think of the Triune God as moving together in such perfect harmony with each other that they move as one, even though they are three distinct persons. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in every way, and so they move together throughout time and eternity in perfect unity and community.

What amazes me about the grace of God is that the Trinity then invites us to participate with them in this divine dance. Jesus gives us his Spirit to bring us back into relationship with the Father through faith in him. The Trinity extends their perfect community with each other to us by inviting us to participate in community with them through faith in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith isn’t just understanding that Jesus died and is risen again for us. It is taking the outreached hand of the Triune God and being welcomed into their grace-filled dance as the Trinity embraces us in love and sweeps us into a new way of being.

This is hard for us because we like to march to the beat of our own drum and dance in ways that we choose. Our lives often resemble a chaotic dance floor where everyone is doing their own thing. We value this independence in our culture and react against any thought or notion of conformity. However, the Trinity does not invite us in to relationship to impose a conformity or mindless obedience on us. Instead, the Triune God wants us to find grace, joy and peace in an eternal dance full of faith, hope and love.

This gives the idea of being led by the Spirit (v14) a very different perspective. Sometimes we can think of being led by the Spirit in a linear way – we are here, God wants us to go in that direction, so the Spirit leads us to a certain place in life. If we think of being led by the Spirit in the sense of a dance, then life becomes less about moving in a particular direction and more about entering into the flow of grace and love which involves our whole lives. When the Spirit of God is leading us like a dance partner, then everything we do will be caught up in the rhythm of grace and peace which comes from God and which gently manoeuvres us through everything we do.

I’ve never been much of a dancer, so the idea of the Trinity being three persons moving in perfect unity took me a while to get my head around. The more I think about it, though, the more I like it. The picture of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit dancing together in perfect relationship with each other and as ideal community in flawless unity is a creative way to think about a dynamic relationship which is beyond what we can understand. It might be an unorthodox way of thinking about God who is Three-in-One, but it helps the Trinity become less of a theological point to argue and more of a relationship in which we participate. And that’s what faith is – participating in the dance of the divine as our lives are caught up in the eternal rhythm of God’s grace, peace and love

Equipped (Acts 2:1-21)

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I love the story of the Apostle Peter. He began life named Simon and worked as a fisherman, an ordinary working man, until Jesus called him to be his disciple. As Simon followed Jesus for the next three years, he saw Jesus perform amazing miracles, witnessed his heavenly glory in the Transfiguration, and listened to Jesus teach about love, forgiveness and the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter often acted impulsively, literally jumping into deep water, and promised to stand by Jesus even if it cost him his life. Jesus gave Simon the named Peter, which means ‘Rock,’ when he confessed his faith that Jesus was God’s chosen Messiah.

When Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter denied him three times. Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter returned his old ways and went fishing. Jesus met him there, cooked him breakfast, and re-established his relationship with him. In John’s gospel, Peter was among the disciples who were gathered together behind locked doors because they were afraid of the people who had killed Jesus. At the end of Luke’s gospel, Peter was one of the disciples who went back to Jerusalem to wait for power from heaven. I wonder whether Peter was still afraid and uncertain as they waited for Jesus to keep his promise and send them the Holy Spirit.

Then came the day of Pentecost when Jesus sent his Spirit to his disciples with the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire. Many people focus on the Holy Spirit giving the disciples the ability to speak in tongues in the Pentecost story. I wonder if there is another miracle here which can be overlooked. That miracle was the way the Holy Spirit transformed Peter.

On the day of Pentecost, Simon Peter changed from being afraid and uncertain, to witnessing publicly to Jesus’ saving work. The power of the Holy Spirit equipped Peter with everything he needed to speak about Jesus, telling people about the wonderful things God has done in him, and bringing the gospel to the people of Jerusalem. Because of the way the Holy Spirit equipped Peter and the other disciples, about three thousand people came to faith and were baptised on that day (Acts 2:41).

One of the key ways the Holy Spirit equipped Peter to witness to Jesus was through the grace he experienced. The picture we get of Peter in the gospels is of a person who had good intentions, but who got things wrong along the way. Jesus never abandoned Peter or gave up on him. Jesus stuck with him, held him up above the waves, sometimes rebuked him, but forgave him, reconciled with him and restored him. Peter was able to witness to the grace and love of God through Jesus because he had experienced it for himself.

In the same way, when we experience God’s forgiveness, grace and love in Jesus, the Holy Spirit is equipping us to be his witnesses. Like Peter, God knows that we often have the best of intentions, but we get things wrong too. We mess things up, make mistakes, and damage relationships. But Jesus never abandons us. Through Jesus, God stays with us, keeps our heads above the waves, sometime rebukes us, but always restores our relationship with him through the forgiveness and grace he extends to us in Jesus. Through all of our mistakes and shortcomings, the Holy Spirit keeps us in God’s grace and love, equipping us to be witnesses of the good news of Jesus in our lives.

This witness doesn’t have to be like the witness Peter and the other disciples gave at Pentecost. We are not all called or gifted to preach publicly about Jesus. In Peter’s first letter, he gives advice to Jesus’ followers who are living in a culture that can be hostile to the faith on how to witness to what God has done for us in Jesus. Peter writes:

… even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. (1 Peter 3:14-16a NLT)

Peter’s way of witnessing to Jesus starts with living in a way that is consistent with who God has made us. As the Holy Spirit lives in us and makes us God’s holy children, we witness to what God does for us by living holy lives. As we receive God’s perfect and infinite love for us in Jesus, we witness to God’s saving love by loving others around us. As people who are made righteous through faith, we witness to God’s goodness by trusting him in all things and doing what is good and right. According to Peter’s letter, our witness begins with how we live, the ways in which we talk to and about others, and how we treat others in our relationships. Then, when people ask us why there is something different about us, we are in a position to share the hope we have in Jesus who changes us by the power of his Spirit.

To witness like this, we need to be equipped by the power of the Holy Spirit, just Simon Peter. We hope and pray that all of God’s people would be equipped to be effective witnesses to Jesus in our lives. That is why we included Equipping as the third aspect of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. We want to see all of God’s people given the tools to be able to witness to what God is doing in our lives through Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power. In time our congregation will be offering courses, studies and other programs to help equip us all as Jesus’ witnesses. In the end, though, we will need the Holy Spirit to be equipping us so that, like Peter, we can change from being afraid or uncertain of where God is leading us to being effective witnesses for Jesus.

Imagine what our church could be like if all of us were equipped by the Holy Spirit’s power to witness boldly and confidently to God’s saving work in our lives through Jesus, just like Peter and the other disciples. What could be possible if we witnessed the goodness of God in everything we said and did, in all of our relationships and interactions with other people, in every aspect of our lives? Not all of us are called to preach publicly like Peter did on that first Pentecost Day. However, as Peter writes in his letter, when the Holy Spirit equips us to live holy lives, doing what is right and good, and to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have to all who ask us, we will be Jesus’ witnesses in our communities, in our nation, and to the ends of the earth.

Growing (Ephesians 1:15-23)

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I’m not the world’s most dedicated or skillful gardener. However, I like to have plants around our home that are healthy and look good. At times, some plants don’t seem to be doing as well as I had hoped, so I’m faced with a question: is this plant still alive or is it time to take it out and put something else in its place?

My way of trying to work out if a plant is still living is to look for signs of growth. If it is growing, I will continue to look after it and try to help it grow. If it isn’t growing, however, then it’s time to take it out so something else can grow in its place.

It’s a simple idea: growth is a sign of life.

Maybe that’s why the Apostle Paul prays that the early Christians is Ephesus ‘might grow in (their) knowledge of God’ (v17 NLT). Just like the plants in my garden, growth is a sign of life. He prays for them, and as we hear these words also for us, because when we are growing in our ‘knowledge of God’ then something is alive in us that is producing that growth.

It’s important to understand, though, that when Paul talks about ‘knowledge’ he isn’t talking about something that is primarily intellectual or academic. In this information age, we usually understand ‘knowledge’ as facts, figures or data about any given person or topic.

For pre-modern people, however, ‘knowledge’ was much more relational. It is the difference between knowing a whole lot of information about a person and actually having a relationship with them. For example, I can know everything there is to know about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but that won’t get me an invitation to their wedding. For that to happen, I would need to know them and be in relationship with them. This is how the Bible understands ‘knowledge.’ It is much more a relationship with people than just information about them.

What Paul is praying for, then, is that we are growing in relationship with God. Essentially, the Christian faith is relational. God welcomes us into relationship with him as his children and he asks us to call him ‘Father.’ Jesus, the Son of the Father, became one with us, died and is risen from the dead to restore the broken relationship with God. Jesus’ command to love others in the same way he has loved us is at its heart relational – we can only love God or other people when we are in relationship with them.

My relationship with my wife, children, other family members and friends will grow and change over time as we go through life’s challenges and joys together. In the same way, Paul is praying that our relationship with God will continue to grow as we journey through life in relationship with him. As we go through the ups and downs of life with God, giving thanks for the good times and looking for his grace in the tough times, we will be growing in our relationship with him as we learn to trust him in all circumstances of life.

Paul continues his prayer by asking that this growing knowledge of God would show itself in the lives of God’s people in two ways. The first is hope (v18). In a world where people are struggling for a lot of different reasons, we could all benefit from a greater sense of hope. Paul’s prayer is that we might grow in hope through a growing relationship with God.

The second is understanding ‘the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him’ (v19 NLT). Paul describes this as the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and raised him up to share in God’s authority in his ascension. This is the power of God to bring light into dark places, to lift us up when we are at our lowest points, to bring us out of isolation into restored relationships with others, and to give us life when everything around us is trying to rob life from us. This power of God can show itself in lots of different ways, depending on what’s happening in our lives. It makes me wonder how God might display this power in your life…

We grow in our relationship with God the same way that we grow in any other relationship. We grow in our knowledge of God by making time for him in our busy lives, as we listen to his words of promise and grace in the Bible, as we talk honestly with him in prayer, and as we grow in our relationships with other Christians in community and especially in worship together. As we exercise these and other spiritual disciplines, and as we learn to love brothers and sisters in the faith and be loved by them, our relationship with God will grow as we participate in the body of Christ, which is the church (Ephesians 1:23), and journey through life together.

Our growth in knowing God is vital to our life as his people, so we included it as the second element of our congregation’s discipling plan. Because growing is a sign of life, we want to help people grow in their relationship with God. I pray, along with the Apostle Paul, that the members and friends of our community of faith, along with all who read these words, would be growing in their knowledge of and relationship with God, so that together we might also understand more and more the hope to which he has called us, and the incredible greatness of his power for us who trust him.
So, how can we help you grow?

Laying Life Down (John 10:11-18)

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While I was a full-time student, I worked a few jobs in retail. During our training for each of these positions, we were told that if we were ever to be held up, we were not to argue with the person robbing us but we were to open the cash register and give the money over. Each time the reason was the same: our lives were much more valuable than the money. The cash could be replaced, but our lives can’t.

Given the choice between putting our lives on the line to protect what was in our care and letting it be taken by someone who was threatening us, it makes sense to save our lives and let go of what we are looking after.

However, sometimes it’s not that simple. For example, a few months ago there was a shooting in a school in the USA. A security guard at the school was heavily criticised afterwards for remaining outside the building when he could hear gunshots inside the classrooms. I don’t know why he didn’t go in to confront the shooters, but I wonder if he was possibly following the instructions I received in my retail training – that you don’t put your life at risk because you can’t get it back.

We all have an inbuilt desire for self-preservation. What my retail trainers were telling me and what the security guard at the school in the USA shows is that our natural tendency is to want to save our lives, even if it comes at the expense of others. My intention is not to be critical or condemning, and I do not want to make anyone feel guilty for making a choice like this. Instead, I want to show that there is a stark contrast between our natural human tendency and Jesus, who willingly laid down his life for us.

Jesus makes this contrast in John 10:11-18 when he describes the difference between a hired hand who is employed to look after a flock of sheep and himself as the Good Shepherd. The hired hand follows my retail training by leaving the sheep when they are threatened by a wolf. The Good Shepherd, however, knows the sheep and values each sheep so much that he willingly lays his life down for the sheep.

When you stop to think about it, this is a pretty disturbing image. Jesus isn’t saying that the shepherd he scares the wolf away or fights it off. Instead, the Good Shepherd places himself between the sheep in his care and the wolf that is threatening them. He willingly lets the wolf kill him and, assuming the wolf is looking for something to eat, feast on his carcass so that the sheep can escape to safety. This is not exactly a child-friendly image. But Jesus is wanting to show us the lengths that he will go to for those in his care because he values each of his sheep so much. That is the way he values each of us…

This idea of sacrifice for others is deeply embedded in our Australian culture. Each year on April 25th we pause as a nation to remember the men and women of our defence forces who have died for our country in war. ANZAC Day is an opportunity for us to stop and reflect on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us so we can live in peace and freedom. It is an important part of our culture as a nation and vitally important that we honour those who have given their lives to protect us.

Even though we live in relative freedom in Australia, we still face threats which want to rob us of life. In the verses preceding Jesus’ words about being the Good Shepherd, he talked about thieves who come to ‘steal and kill and destroy’ the ‘rich and satisfying life’ (v10 NLT) that Jesus gives us. We all face wolves in our lives who want to rob us of life. Sometimes those wolves might be fear, guilt, anger or hopelessness. At other times they might take other forms, but their intention is still the same – to rob life from us.

That’s when the Good Shepherd steps in. He knows what threatens to rob life from us and he places himself between us and the wolves that threaten us so we can find safety and freedom through his sacrifice for us. When we are threatened by fear, Jesus our Good Shepherd takes the worst of this world’s evils on himself in his suffering and death so we can find comfort in his presence with us. When we are threatened by guilt, Jesus takes all of our guilt on himself and dies with it on the cross so we can find forgiveness in him. When we are threatened by anger or hatred, Jesus takes the full force of this world’s anger and hated on the cross, as well as our Father’s wrath, so we can find peace. When hopelessness approaches, our Good Shepherd who died for us comes to us as the One who is risen from the grave to give us his love and life which are stronger than anything we will face in this world. No matter what may threaten to rob us of life, Jesus our Good Shepherd steps up for us, and takes the full force of the threat so we can live in his protection, freedom, peace and hope.

He does all of this because each one of us is so valuable to him. Matthew ends his version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep with Jesus saying, ‘it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish’ (18:12-14 NLT). Each and every sheep in the flock is precious to the Good Shepherd. It can be easy for us to understand that Jesus would give his life for others, but often it can be more difficult to trust that he did that for me, or for you. This is the heart of faith: trusting that each of us is so precious, so valuable, so essential to our Good Shepherd that he would lay down his life for us so we can live.

It would be easy to go on at this point to how we should also give our lives for others, but I’m not going to do that. We know we should be willing to lay down our lives for others, but we still have this thing within us that asks what’s in it for me, or what do I get out of it, or what is it going to cost me? It is part of our natural human condition. That’s why Jesus’ love still amazes me. He knows us well enough to know that it’s not in our nature to be willing to give our lives for others unconditionally, but he still does that for us. For me. For you. That’s why he’s the Good Shepherd.

And that’s why I reckon he can be trusted and why he’s worth following…