The Peace Road (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Talking about peace at Christmas can seem like an oxymoron. All you need to do is to walk to the local shops to see people frantically running around, buying gifts, and doing the things we often think are so important in the attempt to have ‘the best Christmas ever.’ We are not immune in the church, as we set about planning and doing the many things we think are necessary to bring the message of our Saviour’s birth at Bethlehem to the world. All the while, calendars get full, stress levels rise, and the peace we talk about at Christmas seems more and more distant.

Is it possible to find a real sense of peace at Christmas?

Like last week’s text from Isaiah 64:1-9, these words from Isaiah 40:1-11 were written for God’s people in exile after their homeland, their temple and their freedoms had been destroyed by the Babylonians. God tells the Prophet to comfort his people with a message of peace. In order to prepare for this coming peace, the people of God were encouraged to ‘make a straight road through the wasteland’ (v3b NLT). Isaiah is telling God’s people that he wants them to remove everything that might be an obstacle to the peace God was bringing so that when it came, nothing would stand in the way.

As a person who enjoys riding a motorcycle, I understand that some people find straight roads boring and would prefer to take the longer, windy, more scenic route when travelling. We do the same thing in life, especially at Christmas, when we run from this to that, busy with a lot of things that our society, our church culture, or even our families think are so important. However, what they end up doing is getting in the way of the peace God promises. We can be so busy trying to fulfil other people’s, or even our own, expectations that Jesus can get lost and we end up being tightly compressed balls of stress rather than experiencing the peace the Prophet promises and the angels proclaimed.

Sometimes what we need to do is to ‘fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills, straighten the curves and smooth out the rough places’ (v4 NLT). We begin to do that by remembering and focusing on what Christmas is all about, and removing what gets in the way of that focus. It might mean buying less presents, having a simpler Christmas lunch without all the trimmings, not trying to see all of our relatives on the one day, or giving the most valuable thing we have to the people who mean most to us: our time.
Because none of these things are really what Christmas is about. As the church, we should know better, but we still get sucked into the busyness and pressure of Christmas that our society expects. Instead, we should know that the reason we celebrate Christmas is the coming of God’s peace through Jesus and live every day with that as our focus and guide.

What’s significant about these words from the Prophet is that this highway through the wilderness was not for the Jews to return to their homeland. Instead, it was for God to join them in their exile. In verse 9 the Prophet brings the good news that ‘Your God is coming!’ God was coming to people who were exiled, rejected, broken and lost to give them something better. He was coming ‘in power’ to ‘rule with a powerful arm’ (v10 NLT). The Prophet tells us that when comes, God will use his power in this way:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. (v11 NLT)

The Prophet is telling us that God comes he will take care of all our needs in his grace, to hold us close in his love, and to lead us home. This is where we can find peace. In the middle of the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of life, we can find peace in God’s promise to us that he will feed us, protect us, and lead us.

God fulfils this promise in Jesus, which is why the angels sang ‘Peace on earth’ when Jesus was born (Luke 2:14). Jesus comes to us in the craziness, busyness and unpredictability of life to feed us with his promise of forgiveness and mercy, to hold us close to his heart as he becomes one with us and shares in our humanity, and to lead us through life to our heavenly home by his Spirit. No matter what our circumstance might be in life, we can find a deep sense of peace through faith in Jesus and his all-conquering love for us.

Why would we put anything in the way of this peace he offers?

To clear the way and straighten the road so God’s Spirit can bring this peace to us is often easier said than done. We all live with pressures, expectations and stresses in our lives, especially at Christmas. Clearing some of them out of the way so we can find the peace Jesus comes to give us is not always easy. However, that is the challenge the Prophet gives us in this reading.

When I’m teaching my kids to ride a bike, I tell them to look where they’re going because they will go where they are looking. Maybe it’s the same with clearing the way for the peace Jesus brings. When we focus on Jesus and his birth for us at Christmas, we will no longer be distracted by all the different things pulling us in one direction or another. Doing this will help us to straighten the path, clear the way, and prepare for the peace Jesus brings.

More to think about:

  • Do you generally prefer to drive on winding roads or straight? Why do you prefer them?
  • What do you usually find more of at Christmas: peace or stress? If Christmas is a stressful time for you, what are the main sources of stress or worry for you?
  • If Jesus comes to bring us peace, what gets in the way of you experiencing peace at Christmas? In your life generally?
  • What might you be able to do less of in order to clear the way to finding a greater sense of peace this Christmas?
  • What difference might it make in your life if you trusted the words of Isaiah 40:10,11 that God uses his power to feed you, hold you close and lead you through all the circumstances of life, both good and bad?

When God Comes Down (Isaiah 64:1-9)

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The season of Advent is four Sundays before Christmas when Christians focus on the coming of Jesus in his birth at Bethlehem and again at the end of time. There is a strong connection between us waiting for Jesus and God’s Old Testament people waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah. They were also waiting and looking forward to the hope, peace, joy and love that the Messiah would bring. As we wait for the coming of Jesus the Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time, I thought it would be good to listen to the words of the Old Testament prophets for what they might be saying to us, thousands of years later.

These words from Isaiah 64:1-9 were written while the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon. About 587 years before Jesus’ birth, the Babylonians had conquered the Jewish nation, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and had taken the people to Babylon in captivity. This is also about the time when the stories of Daniel and his friends were set. The Jews were a people who had lost everything – their homeland, their worship and their freedom.

The Prophet calls for God to tear heaven open and come down to avenge his people for the wrongs that had been done to them (vv1,2). His hope is that God will execute justice on those who have taken the Jews into exile through a display of his power and might. Just like God did at the Exodus, he wants God to show his awesome deeds and strike terror in the hearts of those who were oppressing his people (v3). Then the mountains will tremble with the presence of God’s might and power like Mount Sinai did when God came down to give Moses the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 19:16-20). The Prophet argues that from the beginning of creation, God has always helped those who wait for him and who live in the way he wants (vv4,5a).

But then there is a dramatic shift in the Prophet’s words. If God ‘works for those who wait for him’ and welcomes ‘those who gladly do good, who follow godly ways’ (vv4b,5a), then the Prophet confesses that his people are not blameless. The Prophet offers a confession on behalf of his people, admitting that they are ‘infected and impure with sin,’ whose ‘righteous deeds’ are ‘nothing but filthy rags’ (v6 NLT). The Prophet recognises that they have failed to call on God’s name or look for his mercy, and this is why they are in exile (v7). Instead of just seeing the wrongs of the world around him, the Prophet recognises the wrongs within him.

This leads him to a new hope. The Prophet is hoping for a new relationship with God as their Father, and idea which is very rare in the Old Testament. His hope is that God would re-form his people like a potter forms the clay, and that God would forgive their sin and make his people right again with him (vv8,9). The new hope the Prophet has is that God would make the wrong things in him right again so that he could live in a new relationship with God as his child.

It is easy for us to see the presence of evil in the world and a lot of things that are wrong. We see people who are suffering from injustice and abuse, both internationally and more personally. Governments seem to be working more for their own benefit than for the benefit of the people who have voted them into office. Many people are living in the fear that we are losing our freedoms. With all of this going on, it would be easy for us to join in the prayer of the Prophet and ask God to tear heaven open, come down and put right the wrongs of the world through a display of power and strength.

What these words from the Prophet challenge us to do, however, is to recognise that we are also guilty of wrongs in our own life. It is easy to see what is wrong outside of us, but much more difficult to recognise the wrongs that exist within us. Like the Prophet, instead of looking for God to tear heaven open to destroy the wrongs ‘out there’, we need to acknowledge and confess the wrongs that live inside each of us.

Because when God opened heaven to come down, God didn’t do it through a display of earthly power and strength, punishing the wicked and destroying evil people. Instead, God came to us from heaven in humility and weakness in the birth of Jesus. If God was to destroy the wrongs of the world through might and power, then he would also need to destroy the wrongs in us in the same way. What can give us hope is that God comes down out of heaven as a person like us who understands our weakness and failures. Jesus joins us in our brokenness to walk with us, to suffer with us, but also to give us the promise of something better. Jesus begins to put what’s wrong in the world right again by beginning with us. He takes our sin on himself and gives us his righteousness through faith in him. Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God whom we can now know as our loving heavenly Dad. Jesus re-forms us and re-shapes us by the power of his Spirit to be people of hope so we can bring his hope to the world. The hope we can find as God opens heaven and comes down to us in the birth of Jesus is that he makes right what is wrong in us so we can live every day as his people in the world.

Part of the Advent message is that God will ‘burst from the heavens and come down’ (v1 NLT) again at the end of time to finally put all the wrongs things in the world right again through Jesus. Until that day we care called to live in the hope that God has already come from heaven to us in Jesus. The hope we have is that Jesus puts the wrong things in us right again. In that hope we can join him in putting the wrongs of this world right again.

More to think about:

  • When you think about God bursting from the heavens and coming down to earth (v1), what would you normally expect that to look like?
  • What does it say to you about the nature of God that when he comes down from heaven, he does it as a newborn baby rather than through a display of vengeance, power and might?
  • Do you find it easier to identify what’s wrong with the world, or what’s wrong inside you? Why do you think you tend to do that?
  • How does it feel for you to pray verses 5b to 7 as a prayer of confession? How can God’s forgiveness in Jesus give you hope for the future?
  • How can the Prophet’s words about God being our ‘Father’ and our ‘potter’ be good news for us? How can a new relationship with God as our perfect Father and his promise to re-form us as a potter forms the clay give you a sense of hope?
  • If there are people in your life who have wronged you, how might you be able bring hope into their lives by offering them the gift of forgiveness this Christmas?

Return of the Christ Pt 3: The Least of These (Matthew 25:31-46)

Matthew 25v40 the least of these 02

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the last of three parables Matthew 25 which end Jesus’ public teaching in the gospel. Like the previous two, it tells about the end of time when Jesus will return to the earth to complete his work of redemption. Also like the previous two parables, it sends a clear message that there are those who will enter into eternal life with God, and those who will not. However, there are still a couple of surprises in the parable that we can miss if we’re not paying close enough attention.

I am cautious about preaching on this parable because over the years I have heard people misuse and even abuse this story. I have heard this story used to tell me that I should be doing good things, such as giving money to a charity, participating in some sort of program or being part of an organised mission trip to another part of the world, to avoid being numbered with the goats at the end of time, and to ensure that I’ll be counted with the sheep.

I support a number of organisations that ask for our help to make people’s lives better. These groups are able to go places and do things that I can’t, and so I believe that God is clearly at work through them. However, if we think that this parable is just about giving money to professional organisations whose funding is linked to the amount of support they get from donors such as ourselves, then we have missed the point of Jesus’ words.

Ultimately, this parable is about people – people who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, ill or imprisoned. We can hear Jesus’ description of people in need in a literal, physical sense, and meeting people’s physical needs is important for us to give a faithful witness to the love of God we encounter in Jesus. However, we can also hear Jesus’ description of people in need in spiritual or emotional ways. In an affluent culture such as our own, this can be where Jesus’ words hit much closer to home.

For example, there are people who were at worship on Sunday or who might be reading these words who are hungry for hope, thirsty for acceptance or a sense of self-worth, or who feel like they are strangers and need a community where they can belong. Others may be experiencing the shame that comes with having our deepest secrets or sins exposed to the world, or suffering from mental illness, or imprisoned in addiction, fear or guilt. It is easy and a lot more comfortable for us to identify the people Jesus is describing as suffering children overseas, and I don’t want to take away from our efforts to provide relief and care for them in their need. However, neither can we overlook the spiritually or emotionally hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, ill or imprisoned people with whom we go through life every day. It’s easy to donate money to a professional charity, but it’s a whole lot harder to invest our time, our energy, our love, or, as we heard last week, the grace and goodness of God which Christ gives to us, in the lives of the people who are closest to us.

That’s where we find the real surprise in this parable. All three parables from Matthew 25 are about the time between Jesus’ ascension to heaven and his promised return at the end of time. They assume an absent Jesus who has left us and will come back one day. In this parable, however, Jesus comes back ‘in his glory, and all the angels with him, (and) he will sit upon his glorious throne’ (v31 NLT) as the King to judge the entire world. Then he drops the biggest surprise for us all: he was with us all the time! The King was still present with us, but not as a glorious and powerful monarch. Instead, he was with us in those around us who are hungry or thirsty, in the stranger that crosses our path, in the naked, ill and imprisoned. The King walks among us, hiding among those who are in need physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To use the words of the King himself, he is among us in ‘the least of these’ (vv40,45 NLT).

This shifts the focus of the parable from the good works we are supposed to be doing to asking, ‘Where are we looking for the presence of God?’ There is a strong emphasis among some elements of popular Christianity to look for God in his heavenly glory and to want to be raised up to meet our King there in our worship. If we listen carefully to Jesus’ parable, however, it points us to the presence of Jesus in the time between his ascension and return in the least of those around us. The King is present with us in the people that often fly under the radar because we’re too busy looking up for God in his heavenly glory. Jesus is telling us to look around us, to see the people beside us who are in need of any kind, and to recognise the presence of God in them. When we find Jesus in those in need, in the least of these, that’s when we also find the God who reveals himself to us in a vulnerable baby in a manger, and a beaten, bleeding, naked man nailed to a cross. This is how God reveals himself to us, and who is still with us in ‘the least of these.’

So continue to give to charitable organisations who strive to make the lives of people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, ill or imprisoned. They are doing God’s work in the world. However, don’t forget that ‘the least of these’ also include the people right next to us who are emotionally or spiritually hungry, thirsty, alone, exposed, ill or trapped. Because the message I get from this story is that when Jesus returns, he won’t be asking how much money we gave to charitable organisations. He’ll be looking for how we treated him in ‘the least of these’ people around us.

More to think about:

  • When you read Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46, who do you usually think of when you hear him talk about the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned?
  • How might your understanding of this parable be different if we also include people who are spiritually hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill or imprisoned?
  • Do you tend to look for God in his heavenly glory, or in the person of Jesus who identifies with the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill and imprisoned? How can seeing Jesus in ‘the least of these’ change our understanding of God?
  • This parable can grow a sense of guilt in us because we can easily feel like we don’t do enough for enough people. That is when we can recognise our own spiritual hunger, thirst, loneliness, shame, illness or imprisonment. How can it be good news for us that Jesus identifies with us when we are in need? How does he feed us, give us something to drink, welcome us, clothe us, heal us and set us free through his promise of grace?
  • In the faith that Jesus identifies with us in our need, who is there in your life, one of the ‘least of these,’ who might be in need this week? How might you treat them differently if you saw Jesus in them?

Return of the Christ Pt 2: Faithful (Matthew 25:14-30)

silver coins 02Last week we began looking at three parables of Jesus in Matthew 25 about the end of time and Jesus’ return. Last week’s parable, the Ten Bridesmaids, reminds us to be prepared for Jesus’ return by taking a view of life that goes beyond the here-and-now, and living every day from the point of view of an eternity with him.

There are parts of this second parable, often referred to as the Parable of the Talents, which are easy to understand. The ‘man going on a trip’ (v14) is Jesus, who leaves this world when he ascended into heaven. We are his servants – the people of his church who are left behind in his absence. He has entrusted his ‘money’ (NLT) or his ‘wealth’ (NIV) to us while he is gone, ‘dividing it in proportion to (our) abilities’ (v15 NLT).

Usually what the man ‘entrusts’ (v14 NLT) with his servants are called ‘talents’ and are interpreted as our gifts and abilities. However, Matthew uses the Greek word talanton which was a unit of weight. A footnote in one of my Bibles says a talanton was about 34 kilograms, which another says was worth about 20 years of a day labourer’s wage. These tell us that just one talanton of silver coins was a significant amount of money. Imagine what the reaction might have been from the servant who received five! What would you do with more money than you could earn in two working lifetimes?

Which brings us to the more significant and puzzling question of this parable: if interpreting these bags of money as our abilities or what we can do is a misunderstanding of the text, then what do they represent?

One way I like to approach this parable is to ask what was most valuable thing Jesus left with us when he ascended into heaven? There are a lot of ways we could answer this question and I sincerely think it’s worth thinking about. For me, though, the most valuable thing Jesus has given to us is the good news of his grace. I don’t just think of Jesus’ grace as forgiveness so we can get to heaven, but everything we need for life in this world and the next. To me, the gospel is a multi-faceted diamond where every aspect shines brightly with the goodness of God to us. This means there are a range of ways we can view grace, but it all comes from Jesus.

Like diamonds, grace came at a high price. The value of the gospel, as well as the gifts Jesus left with us when he ascended into heaven, is shown by the price Jesus paid in order to give them to us. Jesus gave his own life for us one the cross to give us forgiveness, love, mercy, hope, and a whole new life from him. These are some of the aspect of his grace that he entrusts to us in the time between his departure and his return on the last day.

Then the master returns to see what his servant had been doing with what he had entrusted to them. It raises the question: what are we doing with the grace Jesus has entrusted to us? Are we putting his forgiveness, love, mercy and hope to work by investing it in others? Or, like the third servant, are we burying it in the dirt?

What’s actually more important about this parable is why we are doing what we do with God’s grace. Jesus doesn’t tell us how the first two servants doubled their master’s money, but he does tell us why the third servant buried what was given to him. He tells his master, ‘I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth’ (v25a NLT). He hid his master’s money because he was afraid of losing it. In contrast, the master praises the first and second servants by calling them ‘good and faithful’ (vv21,23 NLT). They were faithful with what they were given. They were full of faith! As a result of this faith, they took chances with what they were given, doubled the amount, and earned their Master’s praise!

Like the first two servants, Jesus wants us to be ‘faithful’ – full of faith – with what he has given us! He wants us to take chances with his grace, to be risky with his love, maybe even to gamble with his forgiveness by giving it to people who need it the most and deserve it the least. This parable tells me that Jesus wants us to put his grace and love to work in the lives of others by being full of faith in the goodness of the One who entrusts his grace to us and in the value of the gift of grace itself.

Especially as we face an uncertain future as Christians in Australia, now is not the time to bury what God has given us, but to boldly put it to work in the faith that God has already given us so much and that good will come when we invest his grace in the lives of others. I know people who are afraid of what the change of the legal definition of marriage will mean for Christians in Australia. I know others who are afraid of the future because we are a declining and ageing church. If we respond with fear, we are just like the servant who buried his bag of money and lost it all. But if we are full of faith in the message of the gospel and live confidently in the good news of Jesus’ redemption of sinners and love for broken people, then we have something good to offer people around us.

In the end, I believe this parable is about our approach to everything we do as God’s people and servants of Jesus while he is away. Are we hiding away the grace Jesus has given us because of fear? Or are we living each day full of faith in God’s goodness, trusting in his grace and putting his love to work in the lives of the people around us? When Jesus returns, will he find us living in faith or fear? If it is in fear, then the message of this parable is that even what we have will be taken from us. But if we are living in a bold and even risk-taking faith, then we will share in our Master’s happiness for eternity (vv21,23 NLT).

More to think about:

  • If you have come across this parable before, how have you heard the ‘talents’ interpreted? How might it change your understanding of the parable if we think of the ‘talents’ as huge bags of silver coins instead of our gifts and abilities?
  • When Jesus left us to ascend into heaven, what do you think were the most valuable things he left with us? Or, another way to think of it: what did Jesus purchase for you through his death on the cross that he gives to you as a gift?
  • Do you tend to think of the gospel simply as forgiveness so you can go to heaven when you die, or more like a diamond with many different aspects or facets? How might your understanding of God’s grace to us in Jesus be different if you thought of it more as a precious diamond?
  • With the changes going on in our church and in our culture around us, are you more inclined to be afraid or full or faith?  What might a life that is full of faith in Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness, love and grace look like for you?
  • Who do you know that needs Jesus’ grace the most but deserves it the least? How can you invest what Jesus has given you into their lives this week?

Return of the Christ Part 1: Prepared (Matthew 25:1-13)

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Anyone who has gone shopping recently will know that Christmas is just around the corner. Christian churches which follow a liturgical calendar dedicate the four Sundays before Christmas preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a season called Advent. The readings for the Sundays leading up to Advent have a focus on Jesus’ promise to come back at the end of time to complete his work of redeeming the world. When Jesus returns, evil will be overcome once and for all and creation will be restored to the way God intended it in the beginning.

So for the next three weeks we are going to follow Jesus’ teachings about his return from Matthew 25. This chapter is part of a longer section of Matthew’s gospel which began in chapter 24 when his disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world. Jesus concluded his teaching with three parables: the ten bridesmaids or virgins, the three servants, and the final judgement between the sheep and the goats. Today we will begin by looking at Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.

I remember thinking as a child that Jesus must have made a mistake in this parable. I was taught that it’s always good to share, so I figured that the bridesmaids who didn’t share their oil with those who didn’t bring any must not have been good Christians.

However, this parable isn’t about us sharing what we have with others. Instead, one way we can understand this parable is that it is about whether we think short-term or long-term about our salvation.

The five ‘foolish’ bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra oil were thinking short-term. They had received and accepted the invitation to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus here describes as an eternal wedding feast. However, these girls are like people going on a camping trip who don’t take spare batteries for their torches. You never know when your old batteries will run out, so normally you would take spares. These girls weren’t expecting to wait so long for the bridegroom, so when he eventually turned up to take them into the eternal wedding feast, they failed to greet him because they are busy looking for more oil. The end result was that they are locked out of the party.

On the other hand, the five wise girls who took extra oil with them were planning for the future. They were so joyful about being invited to the wedding feast that they would do anything to make sure they got in. They took extra oil with them just in case the bridegroom was late, so they wouldn’t miss out on the party. These girls wanted to be ready for his arrival, so they thought about the future, prepared for what might happen, and were ready when the bridegroom arrived.

One message that comes through in all three parables in this chapter is that not everyone makes it into the party. I know a lot of people who think that a loving and forgiving God would never exclude anyone from an eternity with him. The good news of Jesus tells us that everyone is welcome to be part of God’s Kingdom, but these parables, as well as other teachings of Jesus, tell us that not everyone makes it. Remember, all ten of these girls were invited to the wedding reception. The five who eventually made it into the feast were those who were prepared and ready when the bridegroom arrived. Those who weren’t ready for him missed out, not through the bridegroom’s fault, but because they weren’t prepared. The message Jesus is giving us is that everyone’s welcome, but if we’re not ready for him when he returns, then we are the ones who are responsible.

So how do we prepare for Jesus’ return? We start just be thinking beyond the here-and-now and getting ready for Jesus’ return now. It is easy for us to get caught up in everyday concerns, pressures and problems. However, in this parable we can hear Jesus telling us to lift our attention beyond the here-and-now and keep in mind that he will return one day.

In one way, that means working out our salvation now. We can get so focused on the here-and-now that our spiritual lives can slip. The busyness, pressures and demands of life can mean that we don’t prioritise spiritual disciplines like worshipping with our Christian family, listening to God in his word and talking with him in prayer. One way we prepare for the coming of Jesus is to remain constant in worship, in reading our Bibles, in prayer, and in meeting with other Christians. When we practice these disciples, the Holy Spirit keeps our spiritual tanks full so our lights can burn brightly in faith and in love.

The other way we can prepare for the return of Jesus is to view our lives now through the lens of what is to come. Life as we know it will not last forever, even thought it might seem like there is no way through the struggles, pains or difficulties that we experience in this world. In this parable Jesus is reminding us that we have something far, far better to look forward to: an eternal wedding reception with ‘the best of meats and the finest of wines’ (Isaiah 25:6 NIV) in perfect fellowship with God and his people. We prepare for Jesus’ return by living in the faith that this is our future, our eternal destiny. We will still have struggles, difficulties and suffering in this life, but when we see them from an eternal perspective, we can also find the hope and joy we need to get us through.

Are we living as wise or foolish people? Are we so concerned about the here-and-now that we forget about Jesus’ return and the blessings he will bring? Or are we looking ahead to when Jesus will come back and open the way for us to enter into the eternal wedding reception he promises? As we hear and reflect on these parables from Matthew 25, God wants to prepare us for what is to come, because when Jesus returns, he wants us to be part of what he will bring with him.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to be a person who plans for the future? Or do you tend to focus more on things that are happening in the short-term? What are some advantages of each perspective? What are some problems with each?
  • If you were one of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, do you think you would have taken extra oil with you or not? Explain why you might have done that?
  • Why do you think Jesus calls the girls who took extra oil ‘wise’? Why do you think he calls those who didn’t ‘foolish’? Would you agree with him? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might today look different to you if you looked at it from the point of view that one day Jesus will return? How could that help you find hope or joy for today?
  • What can you be doing now to help keep your spiritual ‘tank’ full of faith in Jesus & love for other people?

Blessed are the Persecuted? (Matthew 5:1-12)

Matthew 5v10 blessed are the persecuted

A couple of weeks ago I was at a breakfast for local Christian ministers and pastors. Two guest speakers were also there to talk to us about their efforts to stop the change of marriage legislation in Australia. The language they used, which reflected a lot of the language I have heard coming from the conservative Christian right during this campaign, was very war-like. They talked about battles, winning, trenches, fighting, control, and so on. They also shared stories from countries who have allowed same-sex marriage, and warned us that religious freedom of Australian Christians will be lost if this legislation is changed.

Over the last few months, as I have listened to Christian brothers and sisters who are opposing the change of our legal definition of marriage, I have become increasingly concerned that their campaign has been about generating fear. My concern was reinforced as I listened to the guest speakers warn us that if same-sex marriage is allowed in Australia, our religious freedom will be lost, pastors’ messages will be censored, our children will be corrupted and Christians in Australia will become a persecuted minority.

Christians have enjoyed a privileged position in European society since Emperor Constantine made practising Christianity legal in the Roman Empire in about AD313. Before that, Christianity was an underground movement. Jesus’ followers sometimes even worshipping secretly in catacombs where the Romans buried their dead. Early Christians regularly suffered persecution as their worship of Jesus as Lord brought them into conflict with the decree of some Roman Emperors that their subjects were to worship them as gods.

During this time, Christians didn’t talk about fighting for their rights, or winning battles to influence their society, or controlling the government. Instead, their language reflected the language of Jesus, such as in the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. Here Jesus talks about being humble, thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, being pure-hearted, and working for peace. The language of Jesus and the language of the gospel is not about winning battles or controlling political processes. Instead the language of Christ and of the gospel is peace, humility, grace, love, and sacrifice.

Jesus warns us that when we live faithfully to him and to the gospel, we will encounter persecution. In verses 10 to 12, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be mocked, persecuted, lied about and have evil things said about us for his sake. Throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament we are told that following Christ will bring us into conflict with the world, and we will suffer as the result.

Most of the New Testament was actually written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The authors of the New Testament were writing to encourage Christians who were suffering for their faith in Jesus, sharing the good news with them that in Jesus they had a Messiah who suffered for them, and who was suffering with them, but who has overcome suffering and death through his resurrection.

It should be no surprise, then, that we could face the reality of persecution of one sort or another in our own country when we follow Jesus faithfully in what is becoming an increasingly post-Christian culture. When we suffer for Christ’s sake and for the gospel, we are united in the suffering of Jesus who was insulted, harmed physically and abused, whose freedom was taken from him as he was arrested and crucified, and who was crucified because of who he is.

However, we do not just believe in a God who suffers with those who are persecuted for his name, but a God who has triumphed over the persecution by rising again from the dead and defeating the forces of evil. Throughout history, God’s people have suffered persecution without compromising their faith because they have believed that death is not the end for the people of God, but we have a life to look forward to that will be free from suffering and evil. When the Apostle John saw the multitude worshipping before the heavenly throne in Revelation, he was told that ‘these are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white’ (v14b NLT). For followers of Jesus, persecution does not end in defeat, but a victory that goes beyond what we imagine, a victory that is far greater than any postal vote or political process. This victory is ours because Jesus was victorious on the cross and through the empty grave. Jesus gives this victory to us through faith in him, and it is a victory which will last for all eternity.

It is vital, however, to listen to Jesus’ words that if we suffer, we need to suffer because we are Jesus’ followers. There are people campaigning in this postal vote who are saying that they are being persecuted who are actually fighting a worldly, political battle with worldly, political weapons. This is not suffering for Jesus’ sake. To suffer as a follower of Jesus means that we are living as citizens of his kingdom which is not of this world (John 18:36). The weapons God has given us to use are qualities like grace, compassion, humility, forgiveness and Christ-like love. As followers of Jesus, we are not to use fear or threats or intimidation to achieve our goal. Instead, we are called to return threats with prayer, insults with blessing, conflict with peace, and hatred with self-sacrificing love.

don’t know how the issue of same-sex marriage will play out in Australia. I don’t know if our religious freedoms will be eroded or if we will start suffering persecution for our faith. I don’t know what the future holds for us or for our children. But I do know that we don’t need to be afraid. I believe that Christ suffers with all and for all, and he calls his followers to be ready to suffer for his sake. I believe that when we are mocked or persecuted or lied about or evil things are said about us, not because we are arrogant or hardhearted, but because we love Jesus, then we can be glad because we have a great reward waiting for us in heaven.

Because ultimately, I believe that Jesus’ love is stronger than hate, God’s acceptance is stronger than political tolerance, and the life Jesus gives us will never end.

More to think about:

  • Would you consider Australia (or your own nation) a ‘Christian’ country? What do you think makes a country ‘Christian’ or not?
  • In the Beatitudes, Jesus says that those who are humble (v5), who hunger and thirst for justice (v6), who are merciful (v7) and who work for peace (v9) will be blessed. Whatever your views on same-sex marriage might be, how can you display these qualities when discussing the issue with others who hold a different view to you?
  • Jesus makes it clear that if we are to suffer, it needs to be for his sake (see v11). How is this different from suffering because we are harsh, condemning, or hostile in our language or actions?
  • There are some who talk about the postal survey being a battle that Christians need to win. How can the victory that Jesus gives us through faith in him help us approach this issue in a way that can build people up in faith and love?
  • If we lost our religious freedom in Australia and Christian start to suffer persecution, what do you think might happen to your faith? To the health of the church? How can we approach this possibility in faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13)?

Christ Alone (Romans 3:19-28)

All-focusOver the last 5 weeks we have been looking at some of the key teachings of the Reformation to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. So far we’ve looked at the church continually being re-formed, becoming like the picture of the church God gives us in Scripture Alone, as we live by God’s Grace Alone which we receive through Faith Alone.

What ties all this together and lives at the heart of all we have been looking at this month is the person of Jesus. He is central to the story of the Bible as the Old Testament points forward to his coming, and the New Testament proclaims his coming and this difference this good news makes. It is only because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that God shows us grace by giving us all we need for this life and the next. As we read in Romans, it is through faith in Jesus that God’s gifts of forgiveness, freedom and new life become ours and we receive the benefits of what Jesus has done for us through the Holy Spirit. It is through faith in Christ Alone, the last of the principles we are looking at, that God gives us his grace.

I don’t think anyone who identifies as Christian would disagree with keeping our focus on Christ Alone. However, there is a big difference between seeing Jesus as an example for us to follow, or as a gift that is given to us.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said that he was setting an example for us (John 13:15). It is important that, as Jesus’ followers, we are following the example he set for us. However, if that is all Jesus is, then he is no different from any other moral teacher who sets us a good example to live by, but who can’t help us when we fail. We might believe that Jesus died and is risen again for us, and that he will come again at the end of time, but if he is only an example for us, then right here and now he isn’t able to help us.

It’s like going for a swim at the beach, getting caught in a rip, and being dragged away from shore. If we are caught in a situation like that, with the waves crashing on top of us and the rip pulling us farther from the beach, do we need someone to tell us what we need to do to save ourselves? Or do we need someone who is going to plunge into the water, meet us where we are, and carry us back to shore? Do we need someone to tell us what to do, or someone to save us?

That is why the Bible points to Jesus as God’s gift to us, not just as an example. God plunges into the realities of human existence as Jesus is called ‘Immanuel’ – ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). Jesus makes his home with us through the word of God and his promises in it (John 1:14). Jesus unites himself with us through baptism so that he lives in us, we live in him, and we are one with him in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). When Jesus said, ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19,20; 1 Cor 11:23-25) he was promising to be with us in every situation of life, in the middle of the waves and rips, giving himself to us in love, and giving us the fullness of God’s goodness (Colossians 1:19). This view of Jesus as gift makes Paul’s talk about the church being the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-31) much more than just a nice metaphor. Instead, the faith that Jesus is gift means that we are the living, breathing presence of Jesus in the world as we re-present him to those around us, and as others experience God’s grace in and through us.

When we trust in Christ Alone as gift to us and not just as an example, we find everything we need to live in freedom, peace, hope and love as God’s people. Through faith in Jesus as God’s grace-filled gift to us, we find a God who is with us in every situation and who gives us what we need most in those circumstances. When we are trapped in guilt, the presence of the crucified Jesus gives us the freedom of forgiveness and new beginnings. When we are lost in darkness, the gift of the presence of Jesus who overcame death gives us the light of hope. When we feel abandoned or rejected, the gift of the presence of Jesus who suffered abandonment and rejection means we are never alone. When we trust in Jesus as gift we can find our identity, belonging and purpose in relationship with him. He gives us an identity as children of God (Galatians 3:26), he gives us belonging as members of his body (1 Cor 12:27), and he gives us purpose as he ends us into the world to be the salt and light of God’s goodness in all we say and do (Matt 5:13-16).

Luther city church altarpiece

In a lot of ways this was the focus of Luther’s Reformation 500 years ago, and still needs to be our focus today. When you go into the city church in Wittenberg, the church where Luther did most of his preaching, there is a piece of art showing Luther in the pulpit on one side, pointing people on the other side of the painting to Jesus in the centre. This is what we, as God’s people in the world and as church, are called to do: to point each other to Christ Alone as God’s gift for each of us. Through faith in him, we can find grace, love, freedom, peace and hope and everything we need for this life and the next. Five hundred years from Luther’s Reformation, as we enter what is being referred to as a post-Christian culture, we still need to be pointed back to Jesus so we can give a faith-filled witness to the world.

Because for people in our time and place, the message of Jesus as gift for us is still good news.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to think more of Jesus as an example or a gift? Why do you think of him that way?
  • If you were caught in a rip at the beach which was pulling you out to sea, would you want a surf lifesaver to give you instructions from the beach, or to jump in to the water to rescue you? How is Jesus like a lifesaver who swims out to rescue you?
  • How does that make Jesus different from every other moral or religious teacher?
  • A Lutheran perspective of Christianity stresses that in Jesus God is with us in all our circumstances through his Word, as well as the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Instead of just being doctrines to be debated, how can this teaching give us comfort, peace, hope and joy?
  • In your experience of church, do we focus on Christ Alone or do we get distracted by other things? How might church be different if we just focused on the good news of Christ Alone?