Choices (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

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We all make choices. Each and every day of our lives, we choose things like what to eat, what to wear, where to go, how to get there and almost an infinite number of other things. As Christians living in the developed world, we have more choices than we know what to do with.

For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have discussed the extent and limits of human choice. Some have argued that we have no real choices because every aspect of our lives has been predetermined by fate, destiny or something similar. Others have argued that we have unlimited choices and that we have the power to choose anything we want.

Like most things, I tend to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle – we have choices but those choices have limits. Ultimately, only God is totally free to choose. The rest of us are restricted by our genetic makeup (nature), our upbringing and past experiences (nurture), our physical restrictions and the way in which we perceive the world around us. It all gets pretty complicated, and while I’m not able to fully explore the idea of choice in this message, I’m always happy to discuss it with people more if you’d like.

No matter how we might perceive the extent or limits of human choice, the reading from Deuteronomy 30:15-20 reminds us that we have choices. Moses was addressing the Israelites at the end of their forty-year wandering in the wilderness. He was just about to leave them and hand over to Joshua to lead them into the Promised Land. Earlier in Deuteronomy, Moses had reminded the Israelites that they are the people God has chosen for his own (see 4:37, 7:6, 7:7, 10:15, 14:2). In this part of his address, Moses tells the Israelites that God was placing before them two different ways to move into their future. One way would lead to life with goodness and blessings. The other to death with evil and curses (vv15,19). I really don’t think Moses was threatening them if they make the wrong choice. He was just telling them how it is. One path would lead them to walk with God who creates and sustains all life with his goodness and blessing. The other path would lead them away from God, to the absence of good, along with curses and ultimately death.

In our time and place, with the emphasis our culture places on our freedom and rights to make choices, it is important for us to listen to what God is saying to us through Moses. There are choices we make which lead us down roads that are good or evil because they have consequences for ourselves and for the people around us. These choices either create and grow life in us and in others, or they impede, damage or even end life in us or in the people around us. For a lot of choices that we make, we need to understand and accept that they can result in either life or death, good or evil, blessings or curses, for ourselves and for other people.

Moses helps us to make choices which bring God’s goodness, blessings and life to us and to the people around us by saying that we can choose life by loving the Lord our God, listening to his voice and clinging to him (v20, my translation).

When we are living in the reality of the perfect and infinite love of God for us in Jesus, we can love God for his goodness, grace and love which frees us from sin, death and the power of evil. Trusting in the love of Jesus will help us to naturally make choices that lead to life. Through faith in the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can learn from Jesus how make choices that are based on love, choosing what is good and finding God’s blessings in our lives.

We encounter and grow in Christ’s love by listening to God in the words of Scripture. In my life, the Bible has been the clearest way that I’ve heard God communicate what he wants for us and how he wants us to live as his chosen people. I know that often the Bible doesn’t give us specific instructions on what choices we should make, but as we listen to God’s voice in his Word, the Holy Spirit will shape our hearts and minds in ways that will help us walk in step with God and lead us into the life God has for us in Jesus.

Clinging to God means that holding on to him in all the circumstances of life like we would a life buoy when we’re in deep water. Instead of thinking that we have to make a ‘right’ choice for God to love us, or worrying that God will reject us if we make a ‘wrong’ choice, clinging to God in faith means trusting that God’s love for us in Christ will change never change, no matter what choices we make. God won’t love us any less if we choose wrongly and he can’t love us any more if we choose rightly. When we make choices which are grounded in love by listening to God in his Word, we can find a lot of freedom because in Jesus God loves us unconditionally and can even create good when we get it wrong (Romans 8:28).

As our family faces the choice between staying here at Tea Tree Gully or accepting a call to serve another congregation, Moses’ words from Deuteronomy 30:15-20 aren’t just some abstract theological theory. These are words that give me guidance, comfort and hope in the decision that faces us. As people God has chosen for his own, like the Israelites about to enter into the Promised Land, God gives us freedom to make choices. Do we choose paths that take life away from us and from the people around us, leading us into evil and curses? Or, in the freedom we have through God’s liberating love for us in Jesus, do we choose life by loving God, listening to him, and clinging to him in all the decisions we make?

It’s not always easy, but God’s promise is that through his liberating love and grace for us in Jesus, we can choose life!

Generous Giving (2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

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I imagine that life would have been risky for farmers in ancient times. Each year they would have harvested a certain amount of grain. Then they would have had to decide how much of the grain they were going to use during the year and how much they were going to sow for the following year’s crop. If they kept a lot to use for the coming twelves months, and planted only a little of it, they might not have a crop large enough to provide for their needs in the following year. However, if they re-planted too much of it, they might not have enough to get them through the year.

Sowing the seed the farmers had harvested was an act of faith. They had to trust God to do two things. Firstly, that God had provided them with enough grain to get them through the year to the next harvest. Secondly, that God would provide a harvest that was large enough to provide them with what they needed for the following year and into the future.

When Paul said to the Christians in Corinth that ‘a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop’ (2 Corinthians 9:6 NLT) he was describing what a life of faith in Christ is like. Every day of our lives, God provides many of us with so much that is good – in fact more than we need. It is good, then, that once a year we set aside a Sunday, traditionally known as Harvest Thanksgiving, to focus on the good that God gives us and to thank God for his goodness to us in all its forms.

As we give thanks to God for his goodness to us, Paul’s words challenge us to consider what we do with the good God gives us. God provides us with more than we need. Paul explains that God does this so that we can share with others who are in need. He writes, ‘you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous’ (v11a NLT). God doesn’t bless us with his goodness so we can be self-indulgent with it. God gives us good things so we can share the good he has given us with others who need what we have been given.

In 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 Paul is talking specifically about money. He is raising funds from the churches in Greece to bring back to the Jerusalem Christians who were in need (see v12). However, he is also talking about God’s grace in all of its forms. We can see that in verses 14 where Paul uses the Greek word for grace (charis). This is the grace God gives to us in Jesus so our sins are forgiven, we are united with Christ through faith by the Holy Spirit and we receive the gift of new life. God gives us every other good thing in our lives because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us. God doesn’t give us good because we somehow deserve it. Instead, he gives us his goodness because he favours us because of what Jesus has done for us and because he lives in us.

The main question this passage challenges us to think about is what are we doing with God’s good gifts to us? We can thank God for his gifts to us, but what happens then? Do we just take our things home and keep them safely locked away? Or do we listen to what Paul is saying and trust God by sowing what he has given to us into the lives of other people?

We need to hear what Paul says in verse 6: that if we only plant a little of what God has given us into the lives of others, then we are only going to see a little result. We can follow that through to the point where if we are sowing nothing of what God has given to us, then we are going to see nothing happen. However, God’s promise to us through Paul is that if we trust God enough to sow generously into the lives of others, then we will see a generous or plentiful result.

We need to remember this when we talk about the ministries of our congregation and the hopes we have for the future of our church. These don’t just happen by themselves. Instead, ministry only happens when people are willing to give of themselves to see those ministries grow and flourish. Our hopes won’t miraculously fall from the sky if we just sit back and wait for them. If we are sowing sparingly, we will only reap sparingly. However, if we are willing to sow our time and energy in relationships with each other, then we will see a generous harvest in our congregation.

This is critical in our ministry with young people. I think just about all of us would like to see more young people in our church. But are we willing to sow into the lives of our young people for that to happen? Maybe one of the reasons we don’t have the young people in our church that we once did is because of what we sowed into their lives. If we are sowing little to nothing into their lives, then we will see little to no result. One way we can understand the Growing Young research is that young people remain connected to congregations that are willing to sow the goodness of God into their lives. This happens when we hand over leadership responsibilities, empathise with young people, take Jesus’ message seriously, fuel a warm, relationally rich community, make our young people a priority in our lives, and be the best neighbours. If we sow nothing of God’s goodness and grace into the lives of our young people, that is exactly what we will see happen – nothing. However, as we listen to Paul’s words, if we sow generously into the lives of our young people by giving them our time, our energy, our listening ears and our supportive, caring relationships, then in time we will see a generous harvest.

Each year, ancient farmers faced a decision – how much would they use for themselves and how much would they sow for next year’s crop? Paul didn’t tell his readers how much he wanted them to give because it was up to each of them to decide, depending on their circumstances. I’m not going to tell our congregation how much they need to give to the ministries of this congregation or to our young people either. Instead, like Paul, I want us to remember that if we sow little to nothing of God’s goodness into the lives of the people around us, that’s exactly what we will see in the future. However, in the faith that God gives us every good thing we need, and he gives us more than we need, we can show our thanks to God for his goodness to us by sowing his goodness and grace, love and hope generously into the lives of the people around us. That’s when we will see a generous harvest in our church.

What will you sow into the lives of the people around you?

What God Is Looking For (Micah 6:1-8)

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What do you look for in a good breakfast?

When it comes to the meal that starts the day, which some people consider to be the most important meal of the day, some people look for a breakfast that’s healthy with all the latest superfoods to give their day a balanced start. Others look for a breakfast that tastes good, with all the artificial colours and additives that help to kick the day off with a sugar-fuelled bang. There have been people I’ve known who have looked for a coffee and cigarette to start the day, while others prefer to skip the meal all together.

What we look for can also be thought of as the things that we require. They might be what we have for breakfast, but also for just about anything – for example the possessions we buy, relationships we might hope for, our paid or unpaid work, the church we belong to or attend, and so on. When we are looking for something, we usually have a set of requirements that help us determine whether or not they are what we want or hope for.

What do you think God looks for in us and in our lives? Sometimes when I hear people talk about grace it can almost sound like God doesn’t have any requirements of us at all. If we have our own requirements of something as simple as our breakfast, however, it makes sense that God would also have requirements of what he’s looking for in us and in our lives.

Micah 6:1-8 gives us a good indication of what God is looking for in our lives. Micah reminds his readers of the good God had done for the Jewish people by bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and giving them the Promised Land. As signs of their thanks for what God had given them, Micah explains that God doesn’t want empty religious rituals like sacrifices. Instead, Micah tells us that what God requires of his people and what he is looking for in our lives is ‘to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8b NLT).

How does that sound to you? Does this sound like a good way to live?

On the one hand, having three requirements, three things that God is looking for in our lives, might sound simple. When we start digging into these ideas, though, there is a lot to them.

To begin with, ‘To do what is right’ as the NLT translates it, can also be translated as to ‘act justly’ (NIV). Justice is firstly about making sure that we are doing what is right by other people, not just for ourselves, so it includes a focus on others and their wellbeing. It also includes working for others so they experience justice in their own lives. We can look to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament for how ancient people sought justice. God sent people to liberate those who were being oppressed and to right the wrongs that they were experiencing. Acting justly isn’t just about having a moral compass that helps us to decide what is right or wrong for us. It is doing what we can to make the wrong things in this world right again and helping others find justice when they are wronged in any way.

‘Mercy’ can be understood as showing kindness and goodness to others. To ‘love mercy’ then is to have our hearts set on being kind and doing good for all the people in our lives. What makes mercy even more challenging is that it is reserved for people who don’t deserve it but who still need it. Mercy is often interpreted as ‘undeserved kindness’ and so it’s about treating people better than they deserve, or than we might think they deserve, and doing good for others no matter who they are or what they have done. We can think of ‘mercy’ as indiscriminate kindness to all people, including those who deserve it the least but need it the most.

‘To walk humbly with our God’ means that we are constantly in step with God in every aspect of our lives, reflecting the goodness and character of God in everything we say and do. Sometimes when I hear people talk about God walking with them I wonder if we think that gives us permission to go in any direction in our lives that we want and expect God to follow us. Let’s face it, sometimes we can act like children who run away from their parents, not because we’re being vindictive or spiteful, but just because something has grabbed our attention and it is a lot more important to us than the parent or adult who is with us. ‘To walk humbly with our God’ means to remember who we are in God’s presence, that we get things wrong, that we need him in our lives, and to learn from God a new and different way to live our lives which is faithful to him and in step with who he is (see Galatians 5:25).

When we start exploring these three requirements which Micah gives us, we can see that there is a lot of depth to them. However, we don’t need to feel daunted or overwhelmed by them. One explanation of grace that I’ve come across is that God supplies us with what he requires of us. When we explore God’s grace to us in Jesus, we can find what God is looking for in our relationship with Jesus. God acts justly in our lives as he makes what’s wrong in us right again by forgiving us through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. God loves mercy by treating us better than we deserve, showing us unlimited kindness and goodness for Jesus’ sake even though we don’t deserve it but we desperately need it. God walks in humility with us throughout our lives in Jesus who came to us from his heavenly home to become one of us, take on our humanity, serve us by suffering and dying for us, and to journey with us throughout our lives in all of our joys, successes, difficulties, suffering and uncertainties. In Jesus we encounter our God who does what is right for us, who loves to show us mercy, who walks in humility with us, and who gives us everything he is looking for as a gift through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

How might your week look if you were to commit to live in the ways God is looking for? How might you be able to do what is right, not just for yourself but also for others around you, and to act justly in everything you do? How might you be able to show mercy, undeserved kindness, to people who might not deserve it but who still need it? And how might you be able to walk humbly with your God, not just going your own way and expecting him to keep up, but learning a new way as you walk in step with Jesus as his disciple?

Of One Mind (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

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On the five Sundays since Christmas, our congregation has been gathering for one worship service each Sunday. This is different from our usual practice of having two weekly services: an earlier service with more traditional liturgies and an organ, and a later service with less formal orders and a band.

One of the reasons for having one service on the Sundays after Christmas was the desire some people in our congregation express to have one common service more often. Some have told me that they are concerned that having two services divides the congregation and it would be good for us to worship together at one time and in one place to make us more united.

I understand their point of view and see some merit in it. Over the last month people have told me how much they have enjoyed the services and appreciated the chance to worship with people from our other service. However, if our goal is a deep sense of unity in the congregation, maybe there are other ways to achieve that. Worshiping together in one service can be a visible form of unity, but it needs to reflect a deeper unity we have as the people of God.

The Apostle Paul addresses this deeper unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. He appeals to the Corinthian Christians in the name of and ‘by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other’ (v10a NLT). These words tell us that the unity of the church is not a trivial thing. Unity is something we need to take very seriously. Paul goes on to instruct his readers to ‘be of one mind, united in thought and purpose’ (v10b NLT).
The unity Paul is talking about runs much deeper that simply having a combined worship service. Looking at the Greek words he uses, Paul is talking about being in the same mind and in the same intention. He mentions this ‘mind’ a little later in his letter when he tells his readers that ‘we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16). When the Holy Spirit gifts us with the life of Christ we are also gifted with a new mind, the mind of Jesus.

This ‘mind’ gives us a whole new way to think about God, ourselves, our relationships with other people, the world around us, in fact our whole existence. Paul uses this same word for ‘mind’ in Romans 12:2 when he writes, ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). A key element of the unity God is looking for in our congregation is that we are in the mind of Jesus and we are learning to think in the way of Jesus together.

Another aspect of this unity is that when we are in the mind of Christ together, we will also be in the same purpose or intention. This has to do with why we are here as a congregation, what our reason is for existing, what God is calling us to do and where he is leading us into the future. Paul is urging us to be united in our understanding of who we are, why we are here and where we are going as God’s people in this time and place. This is closely connected to and grows out of being in the mind of Christ and learning to think in the way of Jesus. When we are united in our purpose or intention, we will be looking at our circumstances from Christ’s perspective and not just thinking about what is good for ourselves as individuals, what we like or how we can get our way. Instead, being united in purpose is about finding our purpose in Jesus and then living together in his purpose as his people in the world.

It is vital to recognise that unity is not the same thing as conformity. Conformity happens when one person decides that everyone should be like they are and do the same things they do. The church in Corinth wasn’t like that. As we saw last week, for example, there were a wide variety of gifts among the Corinthian Christians. Living with this diversity caused tensions in their community of faith but it was necessary for them to function faithfully as the body of Christ. In the same way, when we look for our unity in our minds and purpose we will be able to embrace diversity in our congregation as we see people who are different from us as people who are also part of and who contribute to the body of Christ as a whole. To try to enforce an external form of unity only leads to conformity as we attempt to get everyone doing the same thing. We’re not the same. Part of the mind and purpose of Christ is accepting that and accepting the people around us with our differences (Romans 15:7). Our differences are vital for the church to be the body of Christ in the world.

With all of our differences, then, it is possible for us to aim for the harmony Paul points us to, being united in the mind of Christ and our purpose as his church. At this point I could go on to describe what I believe that looks like, but I’m not going to. Part of our growth to maturity as Jesus’ followers is to work that out together. As we get to know Jesus more, we learn more about his mind and the Holy Spirit transforms our minds to be like his. As we listen to God’s word in worship, in small groups, in our families and on our own, the Holy Spirit shows us more and more who Jesus is and how he thinks. The Bible is the way in which we meet God through Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses its words, stories, poems and letters to continue to share the mind of Christ with us, transforming our thinking to be like his. As we remain in God’s word together and as we pray together, the Holy Spirit will continue to gift us with the mind of Jesus so we can participate in Christ’s purpose and move closer to the harmony God wants for us.

This unity can be evident when we worship together in one service. It can also be evident if we have multiple services in a number of different places. Worshiping together needs to be the fruit of being united in thought and purpose because trying to achieve these by enforcing things like one worship will only result in external conformity and not the kind of deep unity God is looking for. The unity God wants, the unity Paul is pointing us to and the unity that is possible in our congregation is being united in the mind of Christ, when thinking the way that Jesus thinks is the most natural thing for us, and participating in Jesus’ purpose for his church.

Everything You Need (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

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It can be exciting to open a new Lego set. Whatever we might be building, when we open the box there are bags of little plastic pieces in lots of different shapes, sizes and colours. Everything we need to build the model is there. Piece by piece, we can put them together so that a whole range of diverse pieces form something new. Lego is such a great toy because all of those separate blocks can combine to make something greater than if they remain separate.

Sometimes I think the church is like a Lego kit. I don’t mean the church as a building or institutional organisation, but as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world. Like Lego bricks, the beauty and the frustration of the family of God is that we’re all different. We all have our individual strengths, personalities, shortcomings and abilities. When the Holy Spirit unites us in faith and brings us together into the body of Christ, God assembles us with all our differences into something that’s greater than when we are separate individuals. Together, God forms us into his physical presence in the world.

Like a Lego set, everything we need to live as God’s presence in the world is already here. A couple of weeks ago I was talking with someone whose congregation is looking for a pastor. She was saying that she feels like her congregation is ready to move into the future. All they need is a pastor to lead them. Then I started thinking about what Paul wrote to God’s people in Corinth. He told them that they already had every spiritual gift they needed as they waited for Jesus to return (1 Corinthians 1:7). I wonder whether this is the same for us, too – that we already have everything we need as the Holy Spirit forms us into the body of Christ to be God’s presence in the world.

The first important thing to hear in Paul’s words is that he wasn’t speaking to an individual. When he wrote, ‘you have every spiritual gift you need,’ he wasn’t saying that each individual Christian has every spiritual gift. Instead, he was talking to the congregation as a whole. In the same way that one Lego brick can’t make a whole model, no one Christian possesses every spiritual gift. Instead, God gives various gifts to every Christian so that together we have every gift we need. When the Holy Spirit gathers us with all our different gifts into Christian community, we all have something good to contribute. Following Jesus is not an individual exercise. Like a Lego set, we need each other with all of our differences and diversity in order to fully be the church.

We also need to hear what Paul means when he writes about ‘spiritual gifts’. The word Paul uses, which is translated as ‘spiritual gifts’ in 1 Corinthians 1:7, is charisma. It is the same word Paul uses in Romans 6:23 when he writes, ‘the free gift (charisma) of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord’ (NLT). We can therefore understand God’s gift to us in a broader sense of the whole life of Christ. The first and most important gift of the Holy Spirit to us is Jesus’ resurrected life and everything that goes along that such as salvation, forgiveness, righteousness, love, joy peace, hope, and so much more, which we receive through faith.

Paul not only uses charisma in a broader sense, but he also uses is to talk about more specific gifts. For example, in Romans 12:6-8 Paul writes, ‘In his grace (charis), God has given us different gifts (charismata) for doing certain things well’ (NLT). He then goes on to highlight the gifts of prophecy, serving, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership and showing kindness. This isn’t an exhaustive list and it’s not meant to be prescriptive of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to God’s people. Instead, Paul is teaching us that the Holy Spirit gifts us in diverse ways so that we use these gifts to God’s glory and the good of those around us.

Peter says something similar when he writes, ‘God has given each of you a gift (charisma) from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another’ (1 Peter 4:10 NLT). The Holy Spirit gifts us in a variety of ways so that we can use those gifts to serve each other in faith and in love. As we use our gifts faithfully, the Holy Spirit builds up the body of Christ and strengthens us as we become God’s life-giving presence to each other and to the world.

Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 1:7 that the Holy Spirit has already gifted us with everything we need to live as the body of Christ in the world as we wait for his return. I don’t believe people who try to tell me that they don’t have a spiritual gift. The Holy Spirit has gifted each of us in one way or another. Whether it’s speaking in worship, playing an instrument in the music team, serving morning tea, cleaning the church, or a whole range of other things, God has gifted all of us in some way to serve each other. I don’t always think it’s necessary to do a course to discover our spiritual gifts because we will naturally be drawn towards serving in those ways that are in tune with the way the Holy Spirit has gifted us. What’s important is that we are aware of the needs in our communities of faith and how we are available to contribute.

As we start a new year of ministry in our church, it is encouraging to hear Paul tell us that the Holy Spirit has already given us every spiritual gift we need to faithfully serve our Lord and be part of his mission in the world. Like a Lego set, we already have everything we need. Maybe a question for us to think about is whether we’re happy being our individual little piece, or whether we would like to use what God has already gifted to us to serve, bless and build his people up in this community of faith.

How might you use God’s gift to you to contribute to your community of faith this year?

Organic Faith (Luke 13:6-9)

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Comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant might sound like a stupid thing to do. There are a lot of things that are obviously different about them. For example, an eggbeater is a machine. You turn the handle, which moves cogs which, in turn, rotate the beaters. It’s a simple machine, but it still involves a mechanical process which is predictable, controlled and results in a particular outcome.

A pot plant, however, is organic and not mechanical. It is alive which means it is less controllable than a machine and can grow in ways which aren’t always predictable. I can leave my eggbeater in the utensil draw of our kitchen and it will still work when I go looking for it. However, my pot plant requires constant care and nurture if it is going to stay alive, continue to grow and produce flowers, especially in hot and dry weather.
My reason for comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant is to ask whether faith is more like an eggbeater or a pot plant? Is faith more mechanical or organic?

It seems to me that we can at times taken a more mechanical view of faith in the church. We have tried to construct processes in the church which we expect people to move through and assume that they will result in spiritual maturity. When I listen to some church leaders, spiritual growth almost sounds like a production line which begins with baptism, moves through Sunday School or another form of children’s ministry, through to First Communion, Confirmation, and youth group into adult Bible studies or other programs that the church might offer. We can approach the Christian life like an eggbeater with a simple cause and effect relationship, thinking that if we do this event or run that program, then people will come out the end as mature Christians.

When I listen to the teachings of Jesus, however, I hear a much more organic approach to faith. Jesus tells lots of stories that use plants, trees and other living organisms to illustrate faith and the Kingdom of God. For example, in Luke 13:6-9, the gospel reading for New Year’s Eve, Jesus talks about a fig tree that wasn’t producing any fruit. Instead of applying a mechanical process to the fig tree, the gardener’s approach is understandably organic as he talks about digging around the tree and fertilizing it. The goal of both the owner of the vineyard and the gardener are the same: they both want the fig tree to produce fruit. The gardener understands that if that is going to happen, then he needs to nurture the tree, care for it and feed it. He does that with no guarantee of success. This isn’t a mechanical process where the production is controlled and the outcome is predetermined. Instead, the gardener takes a chance on the tree by investing time and resources into the tree hoping that it will grow into a strong, mature tree which will produces the fruit they are looking for.

How do we approach spiritual growth in our church? Do we try to put people through programs which are intended to produce predictable outcomes? Or do we take a more organic approach to faith, looking to nurture and grow faith in people? What might happen if we saw faith less as a process and more a longer-term growth? In our own lives, do we expect faith to happen as we go through the motions of a religious life? Or do we look to God to grow us by feeding and watering us so we can produce the fruit of faith in our lives? Are we then willing to be like the gardener from Jesus’ story in the lives of others, nurturing their faith so that it grows and produces fruit? Or do we rely on processes the church has in place to produce faith in people’s lives?

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When our congregation adopted our Discipling Plan of Connecting, Growing, Equipping and Sending, we deliberately chose an image with a young plant in it. We understood from the teachings of Jesus that maturity in faith doesn’t come through a process, but through organic growth. We want to be connecting people with the gospel in the same way that we plant a seed in fertile soil. We want to be growing people in their faith in the same way the gardener from the story wanted to grow the fig tree to maturity. We want to be equipping people to serve others in faith, producing the good fruit that God wants to see on his mature children. And we want to be sending people into the world, into God’s garden, to continue his work and to work with him in cultivating faith in the people we meet every day.

As people who live in a culture that has a modernist, mechanical mindset, it is easy for us to think that faith happens through processes and programs. We do need good processes and procedures for the sake of good order in the church, but real, sustainable, vibrant spiritual growth is a lot more like my pot plant than my eggbeater. My eggbeater is much more simple than my pot plant because it is easily maintained, produces a predictable result and I can leave it on its own for months and it will still work. Plants are much more difficult. They are unpredictable. They require more maintenance and care, especially when the heat is on. And there’s no guarantee that the effort we put in will produce any visible results.

Maybe that’s why Jesus talked about plants instead of machines. He understands that our faith is a living thing, that it’s fragile and needs constant care. But maybe Jesus also knew that the results are worth the effort. Jesus knew the beauty that is produced by a living faith, whether it is a fig we can eat or a flower whose beauty we can admire. As we end this calendar year, we can thank God for the ways he has continued to care for and nurture the faith within us and our loved ones over the past twelve months. As we begin a new year, it is good for us to remember that faith is organic. It is a living thing, and so needs to be cared for, looked after, nurtured, fed and watered.

This year, we will have the responsibility to take an organic approach to our own faith, making sure it is kept healthy and growing to maturity, as well as opportunities to care for the faith of others, nurturing them through the grace God gives and the love he shares in the gospel of Jesus.

Our Brother Jesus (Hebrews 2:10-18)

Jesus our brother 02

What do you think it would be like to grow up with Jesus as your brother?

When I asked this question in worship on Sunday, people gave a range of answers. One was that it would be hard living up to his standards in things like behaviour or achievement at school. Another idea was that it would be great to grow up with him because Jesus would bring a lot of peace and joy to the family. Someone else thought that it would be frustrating because your parents might always be saying, ‘Why can’t you just be more like Jesus?’

I found it pretty hard to find background graphics for Sunday’s worship PowerPoint. I like to use a picture connected to the theme. When I searched for pictures about Jesus as our brother, however, there wasn’t a lot to choose from online. It’s usually easy to find pictures about Jesus as Lord or King or Saviour or other big, impressive titles, but there wasn’t a lot about Jesus being our brother. This surprised me because one of the most important aspects of the good news of the birth of Jesus was that he became human to relate to us as our brother.

Hebrews 2:10-18 puts this vital but sometimes neglected aspect of the Incarnation well when it says that ‘both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family’ (v11a). The writer to the Hebrews is pointing to Jesus as ‘the one who makes people holy.’ Jesus doesn’t just come into the world to be a perfect example of who we should be and what we should do. He isn’t the perfect older brother with whom our heavenly Dad is always comparing us, asking why we can’t be more like him. Jesus was born into the world to make us holy. He unites the holiness of God with humanity in order to give us the holiness of God to humanity as a gift. Jesus, in uniting himself with us, takes everything about us that is unholy, carries it to the cross and puts it to death so we can be holy people. Jesus, the one who makes us holy, gives us the holiness he possesses as God’s eternal Son as a free gift.

This changes who we are. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to talk about ‘those who are made holy.’ These are all the people who live in relationship with God through faith. By being connected with Jesus through faith, he makes us into holy people through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The first and most important work of the Holy Spirit in us is to gift us with the holiness of God as the Spirit creates saving faith in Jesus within us. This fundamentally changes our nature. I regularly hear people say to me, ‘But pastor, I’m just a sinner’ when taking about the lives we lead. I understand and believe the doctrine that believers are simul justus et peccator (at the same time sinner and saint). However, we can also use or old nature as an excuse to justify behaviours that aren’t consistent with our new nature in Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul lists a range of people who do wrong and will ‘not inherit the Kingdom of God’ (v9) but he then writes, ‘that is what some of you were.’ In other words, our identity as sinful people is in the past tense. It is history because of the redeeming love of Jesus. Paul goes on to state that, ‘you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6:11 NIV). When Paul says that we were ‘sanctified’ he is saying that we were made holy, just as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says. Our new identity is in Christ so while we might fall back into our old, sinful ways, our identity is not defined by them. We are made holy through faith in Jesus by the power of his Spirit. We are now the holy children of God!

That is why ‘Jesus is not ashamed to call (us) brothers and sisters’ (Hebrews 2:11b NIV). One of the more difficult things about family is that our sisters or brothers can often know things about us that we might be ashamed of. Sometimes we can also be ashamed to admit that people are members of our family because of things they’ve done or who they are. Jesus never does that. As the eternal Son of God Jesus knows everything, so he knows everything about us – even those things we are most ashamed of. As a flesh and blood human person, he is also our brother. Jesus is never ashamed of us or of what we have done. Instead, he uncovers our sin and our shame, brings it to the cross, dies with it once and for all so we can be forgiven for our sin and freed from our shame as he calls us ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’

I understand that sometimes our sense of sin and shame can be overwhelming, but Jesus is stronger and better. He died for our sin and covers our shame with his holiness. Even if the voices around us or within us want to make us feel dirty and unholy, the voice of God in the gospel of Jesus tells us that our brother Jesus is not ashamed of us. He makes us holy people so that we can live as God’s holy children in the world. When we find our identity in him and cling to who we are as God’s holy children, no matter what the world or even our own hearts might say about us, we can find such a strong sense of our identity and value that we can live guilt- and shame-free in the world, bringing that same sense of identity and freedom to others who are still struggling to find who they are and where they belong.

I wonder what it would be like to grow up with Jesus as my brother. In some ways, the letter to the Hebrews helps me answer this question. As our brother, Jesus makes us holy, gives us a new identity as God’s holy children, and is never ashamed of us or what we have done. Jesus gives this grace to us all so we can find a strong sense of who we are in him, we can find a place to belong in the family of God, and we can live a holy life to honour and praise our divine brother.