God’s Nearby Word (Deuteronomy 30:9-14)

Old fashioned vintage book on wooden background

In last week’s message, I left our church with a couple of questions:

  • In what area of your life would you like to know more of God’s peace?
  • With whom can you share God’s peace this week?

I wonder how they went answering or even thinking about these questions. Were they able to identify areas of their lives where they hoped for a greater sense of God’s peace? Were they able to share the peace of God which passes all human understanding (Philippians 4:7) with someone they know who needs it?

A couple of people during the week asked me where they can find the kind of peace that we were talking about. It’s a fair question. Sometimes it can be hard to find peace in the middle of the chaos, craziness and confusion of life with all of its stresses, worries and anxieties. Where do we go to find God’s peace?

It’s a question that can be asked of all the fruits God promises to produce in our lives through the Holy Spirit. Where do we find the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that God promises his Spirit will produce in our lives (Galatians 5:22,23)?

There are lots of courses, seminars, workshops and practices that people offer to help us find this kinds of life. For a lot of people, they can seem out of reach and impossible to find, so we can settle for lives that are a long way from what we hope they could be, and from what God promises they can be.

In Deuteronomy 30:9-14, however, God promises us a better life. Moses was addressing the nation of Israel at the end of their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, just before they were about to cross the Jordan River and take possession of the Promised Land under Joshua. Moses gave the Israelites a choice between ‘life and death, between blessings and curses’ (Deuteronomy 30:19 NLT). Either their future would be a good one, full of the life that God had promised them, or it would be pain and struggle. Moses urged the Israelites to ‘choose life’ so that they and their descendants might live.

Many of us who grew up in the 1980s might remember the t-shirts that were in fashion for a while that featured the slogan ‘Choose Life!’ I wasn’t a fan of the band that made them popular, but it struck me then, as it does now, that our world is looking for the very thing that Moses was promising the Israelites – life! Jesus promised the same thing when he told his followers that he came to give them ‘a rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10 NLT). The New Testament talks a lot about what this life looks like, but I’m going to take as my starting point what Paul says about the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 – that the life Moses and Jesus promise us is immersed in and overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the life God promises us and wants to give us through his Spirit, not just for our benefit but so others can find life in God’s grace through us as well.

What Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is that this life isn’t hard for us to understand and it’s not beyond our reach. It isn’t up in heaven so someone has to get it to bring it down to us, and it isn’t across the oceans so someone has to go to find it. Instead, Moses tells us that we can find the life God promises us in his message to us, in the Word of God, which is very close at hand. In fact, the message contained in God’s Word is already on our lips and in our hearts so we can follow it and find life in it.

We can find the life God has for us in the message of the Bible. We have a tendency to want to over-complicate the Bible’s message, but it is actually very simple. For example, we hear it when an expert in the Law of Moses asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus points him to the two-sided command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10:25-28). Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34. John gives us his version of the way to life when Jesus gives his followers a new command, to love each other in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34). Paul’s version of the way to life can be summarised by what he wrote to the Galatians, that the only thing that counts for those who are in Christ Jesus is faith in a loving a grace-filled God which shows itself in love for others (Galatians 5:6). All of these passages are saying basically the same thing – that the path to life as God intends is by loving the God who loves us enough to sacrifice everything for us, trusting in his perfect and infinite love, and then loving other people in the same way in the freedom that faith brings.

It isn’t a complicated message. It’s something we can call understand. It’s right here, in the words of Scripture, on our lips and in our hearts, so we can obey it by trusting Jesus in all the circumstances of our lives and living like what it promises is true.

This is the way to find real peace in our lives, in our relationships, and in our communities. This is the way to find the life that Jesus died and is risen again to give us. The message of Scripture is the way the Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth of God’s love for us so we can be growing in his love and producing the fruit of faith in our lives. Like the Israelites listening to Moses, God gives us a choice. As people he has adopted and set free, God asks us to choose between life and death, blessings and curses. The way to life to the full which Jesus came to give us can be found by following in the way of faith and love that he teaches. We find this way through the words of the Bible – hearing them explained in worship, discussing them with others in small groups, and listening to God on our own.

So where do we go from here? Do we continue to live our lives as they are, without the hope of anything getting better? Or do we open our Bibles together, listen to what God has to say to us, learn to live in the way of faith and love from Jesus, and find the life God intends for us…?

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Into the Harvest (Luke 10:1-11,16-20)

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I’m always on the lookout for effective evangelism techniques to help the people of our church share the gospel with others. For example, one approach is to do a neighbourhood door-knock to tell the people about Jesus in their homes. When that happens to me, however, I’m usually pretty quick to thank them for their time, close the door and get back to what I was doing. Another evangelism strategy is to warn people about hell and then point them to Jesus as the one who can save them. We have seen that approach used in social media recently in Australia by a prominent rugby union player. The backlash on commercial and social media tells us how successful that tactic usually is.

With these and other evangelism strategies in mind, I am fascinated to read about Jesus’ evangelism strategy in Luke 10:1-20. As far as I can tell, he gave them no formal training other than a few instructions. Jesus then sent these followers out ahead of him in a similar way a farmer would send workers into his fields to gather in a harvest. They went to the villages that Jesus was about to visit with a message of peace and the coming kingdom of God. This looks like Jesus’ main evangelism strategy – send people out to tell others that they could find peace through Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

What if evangelism is that simple? Is it possible that effective evangelism isn’t about programs or campaigns or multi-million dollar extravaganzas, but simply about followers of Jesus sharing a message of peace with the people we come across every day?
There was a time when people saw the mission field across the seas, in different countries where people didn’t know Jesus and needed to hear the message of salvation. That need still exists, but for a few decades now people who study our society have been telling us that worshiping attendance in our own country has been getting less and less. Australia is now identified as a ‘post-Christian’ country. What this means is that most people in Australia don’t attend church or, more importantly, don’t know Jesus. The fields ready for the harvest aren’t just ‘out there’ any more. They are all around us.

What I find significant about the way in which Jesus sent out his disciples in Luke 10 is that he didn’t send them out to bring people into church. Instead, he sent them out with a message of peace through the coming of God’s kingdom. It is important for us to be listening to what Jesus says because so many people in our society don’t know peace in their lives and are looking for a greater sense of peace.

Jesus’ sent his disciples out with the promise that people could find peace through him. Two thousand years later, Jesus is still promising peace through faith in him and the presence of the Kingdom of God to the people of our time and place as well. Jesus gives us good news for the people of our world. Our job is not to try to get people into church. Our job is not to threaten people with hell. Jesus sends us into the world as his followers like workers in God’s harvest field with the job of bringing God’s peace to the people we meet. Jesus’ strategy for people to hear and believe this good news in his time and for ours is simply for us to share the message of God’s peace so others can know the peace of God which passes all human understanding (Philippians 4:7).

Passing on the peace that Jesus gives to others begins with us finding God’s peace in our own lives. We can’t give to others what we don’t have ourselves. One way we can understand our congregation’s discipling plan is for each of us to be connecting with God’s peace through the gospel and growing in that peace through faith in Jesus. As we grow in God’s peace in every area of our lives, God equips us through his Spirit to be able to bring the good news of peace to others. We can share stories of how we have found God’s peace in different ways in our lives. We can tell others about the difference God’s peace makes in our lives. Like the seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out, when we are finding God’s peace in our relationship with Jesus, then we can bring his peace to everyone we meet in the harvest field of our own homes, schools, workplaces and city.

Luke doesn’t tell us what the seventy-two disciples were thinking or feeling when Jesus sent them out to bring his message of peace to the villages. I wonder if they were excited to be part of the mission of God in the world, whether they were afraid, cautious, uneasy or just unsure about what they were getting into. When they came back to Jesus, though, they were full of joy because of the way they had seen the Kingdom of God at work in people’s lives.

Can you imagine finding that same joy as we participate in God’s mission in the world by bringing his message of peace to the people we meet? I understand that most people are uncomfortable with sharing their faith for a whole range of reasons. My hope is that all of us would be growing in our faith, as God equips us with good news to share with others and sends us out into his mission fields as his workers in his harvest.

Whatever might be happening in your life, Jesus promises you peace through a growing faith in him and his love for you. Is there someone in your life who needs a greater sense of peace? Is Jesus sending you to that person to give them his message of peace through faith in him? Jesus has given us the message of peace for people who are trapped in conflict, whether within themselves or in their relationships with others, and sends us out like workers in the harvest to bring this good news to others.

With whom can you share the good news of God’s peace in Jesus this week?

More to think about:

  • Imagine you were one of the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out with his message of peace. What do you think your reaction might have been? Do you think you would have been able to do what Jesus sent you to do? Why or why not?
  • What do you think God’s peace is like? Can you describe it?
  • Are there things in your life at the moment that are causing you worry, stress or anxiety? How might you be able to find a greater sense of God’s peace in your own life?
  • How might growing in God’s peace in Jesus help to equip you to share God’s peace with others?
  • Do you have a story to tell of how you encountered God’s peace in your own life?
  • Is there someone you know who needs a greater sense of God’s peace in their own lives? How might you be able to share God’s peace with them this week?

Living Free (Galatians 5:1,13-25)

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I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that every aspect of our lives has rules. We might call them different names, or try to present them in various ways, but in one way or another every part of our lives carry expectations or requirements for what we should or should not do.

I can understand, then, why people see Christianity the same way. It is our natural human tendency to want to know what we can get away with, what we’re allowed or not allowed to do, and then either conform or rebel against them. The main way people from outside the church perceive the Christian message is that if you’re a good person you’ll go to heaven when you die, but if you’re a bad person you’ll go to hell. It’s tragic that I’ve met people inside the church who think something similar: if you keep the rules you’ll go to heaven, but if you break the rules you’ll go to hell.

The beauty and the scandal of the Christian message is that the rules don’t determine our relationship with God or our place in God’s kingdom. If they did, we’d all be in deep trouble because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do (Romans 3:23). Instead, God brings about a new way of living in relationship with him as members of his Kingdom through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28). God loves us and accepts us because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, not because we keep the rules.

What that means is that God can’t love us any more if we keep the rules, and he won’t love us any less if we break the rules!

This faith gives us freedom. This is Paul’s main point in his letter to the Galatian church. There were people there who were making the Christian message and membership in the Kingdom of God conditional on whether or not people kept the rules, in particular the Old Testament rule about circumcision. Paul’s main idea in Galatians is that ‘in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6 NIV). Living as a Christian is not about keeping or breaking the rules. The only thing that counts is trusting that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us a new relationship with God as his children and living out that faith in Christ-like love for other people.

The big danger of this message is that we like using our freedom for our own benefit. Paul recognises this so he writes, ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love’ (v13 NLT). When we use our freedom for our own gain or in selfish ways, we forfeit our freedom because we become slaves to sin again instead of living as God’s free people. The way to exercise our freedom is to use it to trust in Jesus’ love for us and love others in the way that Jesus has loved us.

That is why it is so important to be recognizing the love of Jesus in our lives and remaining in Jesus’ love (see John 15:4). As we grow in his love for us, the Holy Spirit equips us to love others in the same way. We won’t need rules to tell us how to love others because love will flow freely and naturally. Love isn’t something that you can command. It flows from the experience of being loved. As we learn the way of Jesus’ love, the Holy Spirit will guide us in this love so we can extend this love to other people.

That’s why Paul tells us to ‘let the Holy Spirit guide our lives’ (v16a), to be ‘directed by the Spirit’ (v18) and to be ‘living by the Spirit’ as we ‘follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives’ (v25). Living in faith and love doesn’t come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is to trust ourselves more than to trust in Jesus. We tend to want what suits us instead of loving others. So we need the Spirit’s guidance and leading in our lives so we can trust Jesus and love others in every aspect of our lives.

This is different to looking for the Holy Spirit to tell us what to do in life. If being guided by the Spirit means looking for God to tell us to do one thing or not do another, this can easily become another set of rules to live by. The freedom Paul talks about isn’t looking for the Holy Spirit to tells us what to do. It’s looking for the Spirit’s guidance in living in faith and love in all of our life’s circumstances.

As a parent, I am always telling my young children what to do or not do. However, I don’t want to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do for the rest of their lives. As they grow and mature, I hope that they will do what is right and good on their own because they love me and they what to do what is right and good. This is living in freedom – not doing good because they have to or because I tell them to, but just because they can. Living in the freedom that Jesus gives is the same. I hear Paul saying that our loving heavenly Father wants to free us from having to be told what to do. God wants us to trust him and his love for us in Jesus so we live in love for others. This is what we call becoming mature followers of Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Jesus promising to send us the Spirit of truth to guide us into truth. One way we can understand God’s truth into which the Holy Spirit wants to lead us is that God wants us to live as his free, mature children. This freedom and maturity don’t mean living by a set of rules or being told what to do. The freedom Jesus wants us to live in is faith and love – trusting that his life, death and resurrection brings us into a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves, and loving other people in the same way Jesus loves us.

Keeping the rules won’t make God love you any more. Breaking the rules can’t make God love you any less. All that matters now is trusting that good news, and expressing that faith in Christ-like love for others.

More to think about:

  • How do you understand the idea of ‘freedom’? What does it look like in your life?
  • From what you know of the Christian message, do you think of it more about following rules or living in freedom? Can you explain why?
  • what do you think Paul means when he writes, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1 NIV)? What do you think the ‘freedom’ is that he is talking about?
  • How is the ‘freedom’ Paul writes about similar or different to how you usually think about freedom?
  • What is your reaction to the statement that ‘Keeping the rules can’t make God love you any more and breaking the rules won’t make God love you any less’? Would you agree or disagree with it? Explain why…
  • How is living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6b) different from living by a set of rules? Which way would you prefer to live? Why?
  • How might your life look different if your starting point in any decision was to ask  the Holy Spirit to lead you in the way of faith and love by trusting Jesus and loving others? How might your relationships be different? How might your church be different?

Saved and Sent (Luke 8:26-39)

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The story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Luke 8:26-39 begins a bit like a horror movie. Jesus and his disciples get out of their boat after going through a severe storm on Lake Galilee. There they are confronted by a man possessed by so many demons that they identify themselves as ‘Legion’ which means ‘many’. This man had been driven from his home, was living among the dead in a cemetery, had broken chains that had been used to try to restrain him with superhuman strength, was naked and shouting at Jesus as he approached him.

We might not feel a strong connection with this story because it can sound very different from the reality of our lives. For most of us, our experience of the demonic is probably more from watching movies than day to day life. So when Jesus cast the demons into the pigs and then sent the man home to tell them how much God had done for him, we might think it’s a nice story but not really get anything out of it for ourselves.

However, if we look closer at the story, we can find that by casting the demons out of the man, Jesus did much more for him than we might initially see. Jesus freed him from the demons that were tormenting him. Jesus covered his nakedness, which is often associated with shame in the Bible, so that when the people found him at the end of the story, he was clothed (v35) showing that Jesus had covered his shame. Luke also tells us that the man was ‘in his right mind’ (v35), which means that his mental health was restored and he had control of his rational faculties again. Through his encounter with Jesus, the man no longer had to live in the tombs and the cemetery but was restored to the world of the living to resume his life again. In doing this, Jesus reconnected him in his relationships with his family and his community.

When we start to think about what Jesus did for this man in these terms, then it becomes easier to see ourselves in this story and to find God’s goodness in Jesus for ourselves. God is able to do all these things for us as well through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. God can free us from our demons. These might be literal demons, or they might be other things which torment us. They might have names like Guilt, Fear, Regret, Addiction, Anxiety, Insecurity, and so on. God covers our shame by entering into our shame through the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and freeing us from shame by covering us with the clothes of Jesus’ righteousness and purity. God gives us the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit so we can find a healthier state of mind and more control over our thoughts and mental faculties, which Paul says is a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Jesus lifts us out from living among the dead as he gifts us with new and eternal life through his resurrection. Death does not define us through Jesus, but the new life of the Spirit of God which is given to us through faith in Jesus. This new life overcomes our solitude and loneliness as God brings us into new relationship with himself and incorporates us in the community of faith, the family of God, the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, also known as the church.

When we encounter Jesus like this and we find God’s goodness at work in us through the Holy Spirit, then we have good news to bring to the world. In the same way that Jesus told the man to return to his home and tell how much God had done for him (v39), Jesus also tells us to go into the world to tell people how much good he has done for us.

One significant thing about Jesus’s instructions is that he tells the man to go back to his home. The mission of God begins in our homes as we pass on to those closest to us how much God does for us by setting us free, covering our shame, renewing our minds, giving us new lives to live, and restoring us in our relationships and in community. God’s mission doesn’t stop there obviously, but it starts in our homes and families as we share with them what God has already done for us, as well as the promise of what God can also do for them in Christ Jesus through the power of his Spirit.

Jesus tells us to share with others what God has already done in our lives through Jesus. I wonder sometimes whether we have been told to go out and witness to others about our faith before we have encountered the goodness and power of God in our own lives. In this story, Jesus gives the man something good to share with others. The good news the man had to share was his story, the way God had been at work in his life. Before we start telling others to go out and tell others about Jesus, maybe some of us need to be finding the life-changing goodness of God in our own lives through a deeper relationship with Jesus. When we find his goodness for ourselves, then we have a story to tell that can bring good news to others.

It would be easy to finish this message by repeating Jesus’ last words to the man he had set free from Legion, and telling you to go out and tell how much God has done for you. I want to ask you a question first: if someone asked you what God has done for you, what would you say? Some people in our church have stories of what God has done for them in Jesus and are happy to share that story with others. God bless you as you bring good news to others. If you don’t have a story yet, or don’t know what your story is, I hope and pray that over time, God will give you a story to tell as he works in your life to set you free, cover your shame, renew your mind, give you a new life to live, and restore your relationships and community.

Then you’ll be able to tell others how much God has done for you through Jesus.

More to think about:

  • What questions do you have about this story? What doesn’t make sense to you or are you not sure about?
  • Do you find it easy or more difficult to talk about your faith to others? Why is that?
  • If you were the man in the story, would you have told others about what Jesus had done for you? Explain why…
  • I’m suggesting that when we look closer at the story, we can see that Jesus frees this man from what is tormenting him, covers his shame, renews his mind, gives him a new life to live, and restores him in his relationships and community with others. Is there something like any of these that Jesus has done for you in your life? Is there one in particular that you need Jesus to do for you? Or is there something else you need Jesus to do for you?
  • Do you believe it’s possible that a growing relationship with Jesus can help you find what you’re looking for? Share some thoughts about how that might happen… (please let me know if there’s any way I can help)
  • If someone asked you about what Jesus had done for you, what would you say?
  • Who is one person you can tell about what Jesus has done for you this week?

Our Guide Into Truth (John 16:12-15)

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There was time when truth was simple. We were taught certain things at home, in school and at church that were pretty much consistent with each other and provided us with a degree of certainty about life. In our post-modern times, however, that has all changed. We are surrounded by a wide range of different ideas about who we are, our place in the world and what life is all about. This isn’t a bad thing because it can open us up to a much fuller and richer life in a lot of ways. However, working out what is true or not becomes a lot more complicated when a wide assortment of ideas and worldviews present us with conflicting messages.

One of the tools people use to work out what is truth for them is what they experience. When different voices give different messages about what is true, then people can rely on their personal experience to help them decide which can be trusted. For example, if an advertisement for a particular type of drink is telling me that one product tastes better, but another ad is telling me that their product has more flavour, then the best way to work out who is telling the truth is to try each of them. Our experience of those products will help us decide which is truth.

John talks a lot about truth in his gospel. If you’re wrestling with questions about truth, it’s worth reading John’s gospel and listening for the times when John refers to truth or raises questions about truth. It tells us that people were struggling with what was true in Jesus’ day as well as our own. Throughout his gospel, John points to Jesus as embodying God’s truth for us. then, in John 16:12-15, Jesus promises to send the Spirit of truth who will guide his followers ‘into all truth’ (v13a NLT).

It’s important to recognise that there are different kinds of truth, so we need to understand what sort of truth Jesus was talking about. For example, mathematical truths such as 2+2=4 are different from historical truths, such as Captain James Cook discovered Australia (which was what I was taught as a child, but which we know now isn’t the whole truth). Philosophical, religious and spiritual truths are different again, so we can’t just use ‘truth’ as a blanket term for every kind of truth.

When Jesus promised that the Spirit of truth will guide us into ‘all truth’, he was talking about the truth about God, our relationship with God, and how that relationship can shape the way in which we understand ourselves, others, our world and our place in it. One of the reasons why the Bible is such a large book is because this truth can be understood in a variety of ways and from a number of different perspectives. However, the basic truth of the Bible into which the Spirit of truth guides us is the good news of Jesus.

One way this truth can be expressed is what Paul writes in Romans 5:1 – ‘since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us’ (NLT). Through Paul’s words, the Spirit of truth guides us into the truth that we have been made right, or justified, by Jesus through faith in him. What this means is that everything that was wrong or broken about us has been put right through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. Because we are made right again through faith in Jesus, we now have peace with God. God is not angry, disappointed or unhappy with us. God isn’t ignoring us or is apathetic towards us. Instead, because of what Jesus has done for us, we are in a new relationship with our Creator who accepts us, loves us, values us and cares for us as we are. As I said, the Bible communicates this truth in lots of different ways, but it is the good news of God’s unconditional love and grace for us in Jesus which is the truth the Holy Spirit guides us into.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into this truth because faith in the gospel doesn’t come naturally with us. There are people I know who have been part of the church their whole lives who still live with a deep sense of guilt or fear. We all need the Spirit of truth to be guiding us into the truth of God’s grace and love so we can live free from guilt, fear, shame or regret, and find the joy, peace, love and hope that Jesus gives us through the Holy Spirit.

As the Spirit of truth guides us into the truth of the gospel, then he also begins to guide others into the truth of God’s grace through us. Earlier I talked about how our experiences help to shape our understanding of truth. As the Holy Spirit guides us in the truth of the gospel, it shapes our relationships and faith communities so people can experience the reality of grace and Christ-like love in us. Through our relationships with each other, the words we speak to and about each other, and a culture of grace in our churches, the Holy Spirit can guide people into the truth of God’s grace by giving them the experience of grace. However good my messages, the church’s worship or our programs may or may not be, if people don’t experience the reality of the gospel in their relationship with us, then it won’t be true for them. However, when people are experiencing grace in relationship and community with us, then the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of God’s grace through us.

This becomes especially important in our ministry with the younger people of our congregation. What the Growing Young conversation essentially is about is how we can give others, especially our younger people, an experience of the truth of God’s grace in their relationship with us and our congregation so the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of the gospel. In a world where our young people come into contact with so many different ideas which claim to be true, when they experience the truth of God’s grace and love in relationship with us, then the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of the gospel and it will become true for them in a life-changing way.

Talking about truth is hard because there are any different kinds of truths and everyone thinks their version of the truth is the right one. I’m really thankful that Jesus promised to send his Spirit of truth to us to guide us into the truth of God’s grace and love for us in Jesus. As the Holy Spirit guides us into the truth of the gospel, the Spirit of truth will also grow and equip us so that he can guide other people, our young people especially, into the truth of the gospel.

More to think about:

  • How do you generally understand ‘truth’? Do you see truth in a simple way or as a more complex idea? Can you give an example of that?
  • To what degree do your experiences shape your understanding of truth? Are there times when your understanding of truth has depended on something you experienced? Have you ever believed that something was true even though your experiences gave you a different message?
  • In what ways have your experiences in the church or in life shaped your views on the truth of the Bible? In what ways have they been good or helpful? How might they have not been good or helpful?
  • How do you understand ‘the truth of the Bible’? What does that mean to you?
  • What is your view on thinking about the ‘truth of the Bible’ as specifically the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us? Is that too narrow? How can it help you understand the rest of the story of the Bible?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe in the good news of Jesus? Can you explain why?
  • Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to guide you into God’s truth? If you have, what happened? If you haven’t, would you be willing to try it?
  • How can you help someone experience the truth of God’s grace and love by showing them grace and Christ-like love today?

Babel Undone (Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21)

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Do you know what it’s like when you try to say something to someone but they completely misunderstand what you’ve said?

For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have thanked me for a message I’ve given in worship, and then told me something they heard which I didn’t think I’d said. I don’t read from a manuscript when I preach so it is possible that I said something I didn’t intend to. However, it is also possible that they heard something I didn’t actually say.

There is a branch of philosophy which looks at human language and why messages we try to give aren’t always the same messages which are received. There are a lot of factors which shape meaning which is why messages can be misinterpreted and communication is often confused. I think all of us would have experienced it in one way or another. Either we intend to communicate an idea which is understood in a different way, or we hear people say things they didn’t mean.

When this happens, I go back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. This story gives us the ancient Hebrew understanding of why different languages exist and how people were dispersed to different parts of the world after the Great Flood. It also tells us why it can be hard to communicate clearly and why we often misunderstand each other. Not only was human language confused, but people of the same language group can also find it hard to understand and cooperate with each other.

This story is often connected with the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 in which God gave his Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. We read that when they received the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages so that people from different parts of the Roman Empire could understand what they were saying. The disciples were able to tell people about the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, calling them to repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, in languages they could understand. The result was that about 3,000 people were baptised (Acts 2:41).

One way in which we can understand the story of Pentecost is that the confusion of Babel was overcome as people heard the gospel in their own language and were brought together into a new community of one people in Christ. The divisions and confusion between language groups of Babel are undone as the Holy Spirit did two main things. Firstly, the Spirit miraculously gave Jesus’ followers the ability to speak the gospel in languages that people from other nations could understand. Secondly, the Spirit also gave the hearers of their message the ability to understand what they were saying and to believe the good news. All of this – the message of the gospel itself, as well as the ability to speak, hear, understand and trust the message – all come from the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost.

I pray that God would pour out his Spirit on the church today just like he did at Pentecost. In so many ways, God’s church is confused and divided because of our inability to hear and understand each other. in our own congregation, we have been working towards having a much more intentional discipling focus through connecting, growing, equipping and sending God’s people to participate in his mission in the world. We have also been looking at how we faithfully and effectively pass the faith on to our young people. Both of these emphases involve cultural change in our congregation. However, every now and then someone will ask me how my outreach or youth program is going. So I sigh, say a little prayer, and then begin trying to explain again that we’re looking at growing a church culture in which everyone is involved, not running a program for a just few people.

It’s obvious sometimes that the messages I’m trying to communicate are not the messages people are receiving. Maybe I’m not communicating them effectively. Maybe people aren’t ready or able to hear what I’m saying. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Whatever the case may be, the Tower of Babel still casts its shadow over our church as there is confusion of language and divided opinions.

At the heart of both our discipling plan and our ministry with young people is the gospel of Jesus. They both grow out of and are oriented towards communicating the good news of Jesus. Our discipling plan is about connecting people with the gospel, growing together in faith, being equipped for ministry and sending out to live as the presence of the living Christ in the world. Our work with young people is about embracing them in the grace of Jesus through our church community so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose in him and grow to maturity as children of the living God. All of this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new life in Jesus, words of grace and truth to speak to each other, the ability to hear and understand the gospel, and trust in the good news of Jesus through a living and active faith. We can put all the plans, strategies, programs and processes in our church that we like, but in the end we rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the gospel to speak in ways that others can hear and understand, and create the faith we need to receive and trust in the good news of Jesus.

When I gave this message on Sunday I wondered what messages people would take from what I said. That’s the problem with language which began at Babel – the messages we intend to give are not always the messages people receive. I’m so thankful for the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to speak the gospel of Jesus in ways that people can understand, and gives us the ability to hear it, understand it and receive it in faith.

More to think about:

  • Has there been a time when someone has misunderstood something you’ve said? Explain what happened…
  • Has there been a time when you have misunderstood something someone else has been saying? Describe what happened…
  • How can the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 help us understand why we can find it hard to understand each other?
  • How do you see God undoing the confusion of Babel when he gave the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers at Pentecost (Acts 2)?
  • Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to help you hear the good news of Jesus in a way that you can understand and believe? What might happen if you did?
  • When was the last time you asked the Holy Spirit to help you speak the good news of Jesus to someone? Who do you know who needs to hear the gospel in their life?
  • What do you think might happen if we asked the Holy Spirit to help us understand other people better, especially our sisters and brothers in the church?

Dynamic Faith (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

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The Apostle Luke gives us two versions of the story of Jesus’ ascension. One thing Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11 have in common is that both of them have Jesus promising his disciples that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit. Christians celebrate the ascension of Jesus because he returned to the presence of his Father in order to be with his followers around the world and throughout time, and to give us power through his Spirit.

We can understand the word ‘power’ in a few different ways. Coming from Adelaide, a lot of people immediately think of one of our local Australian Football League teams, Port Adelaide Power. When many people of my generation and younger hear the word ‘power’ we often think of governments or other authority figures who use their ‘power’ for their own benefit or to control others. However, when the Bible talks about ‘power’ it means something different.

The New Testament word for ‘power’ is the same word from which we get our English words ‘dynamic’, ‘dynamo’ and ‘dynamite’. It means strength or an active force which makes things happen. When Jesus promised his followers that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit, he was telling them that he would send them his Spirit to give them the ability or strength they would need in order to do the work he was sending them to do.

There is a lot we could discuss about the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, but right now I want to focus on the task Jesus gave to his disciples at his ascension. In both Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit was to give them what they needed to witness to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and to bring the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people.

It is significant that Paul also uses the word for ‘power’ when he talks about what the gospel of Jesus can do in a person’s life. In Romans 1:16 he writes that the good news of Jesus is ‘the power of God at work’ (NLT). In the same way, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes that the message of the cross is ‘the very power of God’ (NLT) for all who are being saved. These passages tell us that the Holy Spirit uses the good news of Jesus to work the power of God in us so we can be Jesus’ witnesses to the world.

The idea of witnessing to Jesus can be scary for a lot of Christians for a range of reasons. There have been a lot of programs and campaigns developed to try to help churches be more effective in our witnessing. I’m wondering, though, based on what Jesus says in the ascension stories, whether being his witnesses might be a lot simpler that we might think it is.

If the gospel is the way God gives us the Holy Spirit’s power, then it seems to me that living in the good news of Jesus would give us Holy Spirit power to witness to what Jesus has done for us. For example, Jesus says in Luke’s gospel that we will bring the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to receive this forgiveness through faith, then the Spirit would also give us the power to forgive others in the same way. Witnessing to Jesus, then, means forgiving people who have wronged us in the Holy Spirit’s power just like God has forgiven us.

We can witness to Jesus in other ways, too. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to believe that God loves us for Jesus’s sake, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to love others in the way Jesus teaches. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s grace for us in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to extend that same grace to others. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done for us, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to accept others in the same way. I could go on and on, going through each of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) or Paul’s definition of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a) to show how the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s goodness and the power to display his goodness in our lives and in our relationships.

The ways in which we live our lives and treat other people are much more authentic and effective ways to witness to Jesus than preaching on a street corner or knocking on doors. There will be times when we will be asked to explain why we live in ways that are different to other people (see 1 Peter 3:15) but even then Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say (see Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11). We really don’t need to stress about being Jesus’ witnesses because the Holy Spirit will give us the power we need in whatever opportunities God might give to us.

I would encourage anyone who is intimidated by the possibility of witnessing to others to start with the gospel. Where do we need God’s grace in our lives? Are we looking for forgiveness or healing? Are we lacking love, acceptance, hope or something else in our lives? When we find what we need in Jesus, in his suffering and death for us, or in his resurrection from the dead, God encounters us through the gospel, giving us his Holy Spirit and the power we need to witness to Jesus, not as a theological idea but as our lived reality.

Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said about the power of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, but that’s for other times. As we celebrate the ascension of Jesus, it is good for us to remember that we are witnesses to his grace and love in the world. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to both believe in his grace and to live out his grace in all our relationships.

That can be a powerful witness.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘power’? Does it usually mean something good for you or not? Explain why…
  • What comes to mind when you hear people talk about the ‘power of the Holy Spirit’? In what ways have people told you the Holy Spirit’s power is shown?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to witness to Jesus? Why is that?
  • What do you think about the idea that the way we live our lives can be a powerful witness to Jesus? Would you agree or disagree? Explain why…
  • Believing in the gospel does not come naturally for people, but we need the Holy Spirit’s power to believe. Would you agree or disagree? Give reasons for your thoughts.
  • Sometimes the most effective witness to Jesus we can give is how we treat people and by forgiving, loving, accepting and showing grace to them just like Jesus does to us. Do you agree that we need the Holy Spirit’s power to do that? Explain why…
  • To whom can you witness to Jesus by forgiving, loving, accepting or showing grace in some form to this week? Don’t forget to ask for the Holy Spirit’s power if/when it gets difficult…