By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16)

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One of the toys our kids are currently collecting are small plastic pencil-top figures called Ooshies. There are two main ways to buy Ooshies. One way is in a multi-pack where you can see what characters you’re buying, except for a mystery Ooshie which is included. You can also buy single packs called ‘blind bags’ where you don’t know what you’re getting. In either case, buying Ooshies can be thought of as an act of faith because we are hoping for something good even though we can’t see exactly what we’re getting.

In some ways, this is the kind of faith the Letter to the Hebrews talks about in chapter 11. The author looks back at Old Testament heroes and shows how their faith meant that they lived their whole lives trusting in God’s promises to them even though they couldn’t see what they were hoping for.

Hebrews 11 teaches us some important things about the nature of Christian faith:

1. Faith is grounded and grows in God’s promises
The faith of the Old Testament people in Hebrews 11 was directed towards God’s promises to them. For example, God promised Abraham a land that his descendants would inherit. To Sarah, God promised a child. As Hebrews 11 looks back at the other Old Testament heroes, in every case their faith was connected a promise God gave them. It’s the same with us. Saving faith is always grounded in and grows from God’s promises to us in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, ‘faith comes from hearing … the Good News about Christ’ (NLT). For us and for our faith, then, hearing God’s promises in the Bible becomes vital to a living, active and saving faith.

2. Faith makes a difference to our lives
In every example that Hebrews gives, people’s lives were changed because of their faith in God’s promises. For Abraham the change was leaving his home and living in tents in the land God had promised him. The difference to Sarah’s life was having a child and becoming a mother at the age of 99. For the rest of the people in Hebrews 11, faith in God’s promises led to some sort of action. This is very different from an understanding of faith I come across sometimes which is more about intellectually agreeing with a church’s teachings or doctrines. Good teaching and doctrine are important in a church, but their purpose is always to point us to faith in God’s promises in the gospel which changes our lives.

3. Faith generates hope
The big difference faith in God’s promises made to all the people mentioned in Hebrews was that it gave them hope. Using the examples of Abraham and Sarah, both of them found hope when they believed what God had promised them. For Abraham, the hope was that his descendants would have a homeland. Sarah’s hope was that her shame would be removed through the birth of a child. For us, too, faith creates and sustains hope in our lives. When so many people in our society are struggling for something to hope in, when we trust in God’s promises and bring that good news to others, faith in those promises will lead to a greater hope in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

4. Faith means trusting in what we can’t see
None of the people of faith in Hebrews 11 actually received what God had promised them. In verse 13 we read, ‘they did not receive what was promised,’ and again verse 39 states, ‘none of them received all that God had promised’ (NLT). This is the most difficult thing about faith – it’s trusting that something is real and living like it’s true even though we can’t see it and don’t fully experience it. This is especially hard in a culture which teaches that ‘seeing is believing’ and that if you can’t prove or have empirical evidence of something, then it doesn’t really exist. The very nature of Christian faith is that we hope for something and live like it’s true even though we can’t see it or prove it. The best we can do is look back at the ways in which God has kept his promises in the past. Based on that evidence, we can continue to hope that God will keep his promises to us in the same way that God kept his promises to all the people of the Old Testament. This is the purpose of Hebrews 11, and in fact all of the stories in the Bible: to encourage us in our faith. As we hear how God kept his promises to the people of the past, we can trust that God will keep his promises to us in the same way.

I have known people who say that living in the way of faith is easy because there are no absolute moral standards to reach and no rules that we have to follow. I disagree. Living by faith is much harder than a rule-based or self-help life because it asks us to trust God’s promises and live like they’re true, even though our experiences in life might indicate something different. Faith means hoping for what God promises, even though we can’t see it.

When I buy an Ooshie for my kids it’s an act of faith. We are hoping for something good, even though we can’t see what we’re getting. God makes us amazing, life-giving promises in Jesus. He asks us to trust him enough to live like what he promises is true, even though we might not be able to see what he promises us. As we read Hebrews 11 and look back at the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, God is showing us that he can be trusted so our faith can grow and we can bring the hope he gives to the people of the world, even when we can’t see it.

More to think about:

  • I’ve heard it said that everyone has faith – what’s important is in what you have faith. Would you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
  • What do you have faith in? Why do you have faith in it? What does it promise you? Can it actually deliver what it promises?
  • As you read Hebrews 11, which is your favourite Old Testament character? Why is that person your favourite?
  • I’m suggesting there are four things we can learn about faith from Hebrews 11. What was the promise your favourite character received from God? What difference did it make to his/her life? How did s/he find hope through faith in the promise? Why did s/he never see what was promised?
  • What are some promises God makes you in Jesus?
  • What difference might having faith in those promises make in your life?
  • How might those promises give you a greater sense of hope?
  • How might you be able to live like those promises are true, even if you can’t see them?
  • Who is someone you know whose life might change for the better through faith in God’s promises to them? How might you be able to share a promise form God with them this week?
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What’s the point? (Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14 2:18-23)

Ecclesiastes 07

For about six or seven years when I was younger I collected comics. Every fortnight I would go into the comic shop, buy a few regular titles, read each of them a couple of times, put them in plastic bags and place them in specially-bought comic book boxes. Then, after a couple of weeks, I’d go back into the comic store, buy some more comics and do it all again.

After a few years, I began asking myself ‘Why?’ I had a growing number of comics, but the publishers kept producing more and more which meant that I would never have a complete collection. I began wondering why I was investing so much money in something that didn’t really benefit anyone and was potentially endless.

I started asking myself, what’s the point?

We can get so caught up in the things we do that it can be hard for us to step back and ask ourselves whether they actually have any real purpose. Asking if what we do has any real point can lead us to question the purpose and value of our lives because often we look for meaning in what we do. When we question the meaning of our actions or behaviours, it can lead us to ask if there’s any meaning to our existence. That can be a very hard question for us to ask.

When Solomon, also known as ‘the Teacher’ in the Book of Ecclesiastes, wrote that everything is meaningless, he knew what he was talking about. When he became Israel’s third king after his father David, God had offered to give him anything. Solomon asked for wisdom so he could rule the nation of Israel well (1 Kings 3:3-15). God was so pleased with Solomon’s request that he also promised to give him what he didn’t ask for – ‘riches and fame’ (v13 NLT). Over the course of his life, Solomon accumulated massive amounts of riches, power and wisdom, including 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 2:8, he had everything a man could desire!

When he looked at everything he possessed or accomplished, Solomon came to the conclusion that it was meaningless. He had searched for meaning to his life in wisdom and learning, in pursuing pleasures of every kind, in huge building projects, and in hard work. In all of this, though, he failed to find any meaning because he knew that when his life in this world ended that he would leave everything behind. Solomon had no way of knowing if the people who would inherit everything he’d worked so hard for would be foolish or wise, if they would use it well or squander it. So what was the point of it all?

We can look for meaning in life in exactly the same ways he did – through learning and wisdom, through pleasure and relationships, through our work, the things that we build and the things that we own – but the end result is still the same. If we look for meaning in the things we do or have, then our lives will ultimately be meaningless. Secular philosophers have come to the same conclusion and call it nihilism – that in the end nothing really matters. Maybe that’s why so many people in our society live for the present and to have fun. As long as we look for meaning in the things of this world, everything is meaningless because nothing in this world lasts for ever.

Two other Bible readings from last Sunday point us towards looking for meaning in life in a different direction. The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) ends with Jesus teaching us to ‘have a rich relationship with God’ (v21 NLT). In the same way, Paul tells us to ‘set our sights on the realities of heaven’ where ‘your real life is hidden with God’ (Colossians 3:1-3 NLT). When we look for meaning to life in our relationship with God through Jesus instead of the things of this world, we can find meaning which is stronger than death, which goes beyond the grave and which will last for all of eternity. It is a sense of meaning which doesn’t rely on what we have or what we do but remains standing through all our flaws, failures and storms of life when everything else is falling apart.

Jesus knew the meaninglessness of human existence. In particular, his crucifixion seems like a meaningless death. For three years Jesus had taught the crowds that followed him, healed the sick, set people free from guilt and fear, and even raised the dead. After all the good he had done, for Jesus to die a criminal’s death on a cross makes his life look meaningless. However, the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection shows that God can bring meaning out of something that looks meaningless. When Jesus was raised to new life, he showed that meaning in life is not found in the things of this world, but in a rich and solid relationship with God through him.

When we look for and find meaning in our lives through Jesus, then we have a new perspective though which we can see everything we have as a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 5:19) and enjoy them without relying on them to provide meaning for us. When we don’t rely on wisdom or learning, fun and pleasure, work or building things, or money and possessions for our sense of meaning, but find it in Jesus, then we can enjoy all the good things God gives us because he loves us and wants the best for us.

One of the reasons I stopped collecting comics was because it was ultimately meaningless. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong or bad. The problem comes when we look for meaning in life in them or other things like them. That’s when life can appear meaningless. In Jesus, though, we can find meaning that goes beyond everything else in this world.

More to think about:

  • What is the most pointless thing you do in your life? Why do you keep doing it?
  • What do you think about what Solomon’s opinion that everything is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 1:2 etc)? Would you agree or disagree with him? Can you explain why you think that way…?
  • What do you look to for meaning in your life – learning and knowledge? fun and pleasure? work or making things? money and possessions? something else?
  • What would happen if you lost them or if they were taken away? How would that change your sense of meaning in life?
  • I know people who tell me that following Jesus is just as meaningless as everything else in life. Would you agree with them? Can you explain why?
  • How might the meaning Jesus gives to our lives be different from the meaning we look for in other things? How can Jesus’ death and resurrection give us a deeper, more lasting sense of meaning?
  • As people who find our meaning in Jesus, how can that shape the way we see the other things in our lives? If we find our meaning in Jesus instead of the things of this world, how might that help us view them differently?

Complete in Christ (Colossians 2:6-15)

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Every now and then I sit down to do a jigsaw puzzle with my kids. A lot of the time, these puzzles are pictures of their favourite cartoon characters, animated heroes or movie princesses. There have been times when we have been doing a puzzle and some pieces have been missing. Even though we’d done as much of the puzzle as we could, the image of the person in the picture was left incomplete.

To complete the picture, we could try to use other things to fill the gaps. We could attempt to make our own pieces and substitute them. Or we could use pieces from other puzzles to try to complete the image. In the end, only pieces that really fit will be able to complete the picture.

In the creation story from Genesis 1, we read that God created humanity in his image (verses 26,27). There are a number of ways in which people understand what is meant by the ‘image of God.’ For example, it could mean having a spirituality unlike anything else in creation, being created for a special relationship with God, having the ability to think rationally, or even being able to make things. One thing it doesn’t mean is that God physically looks like us with a head, body, two arms and two legs. The image of God in us is much deeper than our physical appearance. Humanity carries something in us which resembles the nature and character of God.

However, when sin entered the world, the image of God within us became distorted and corrupted. We still have it, but it isn’t the way God originally intended it to be. One way in which people describe this distorted image of God in us is like looking at ourselves in a broken mirror – we can still see ourselves but not as we really are. Another way we can think of this distorted image is like a jigsaw puzzle of a portrait which is missing some key pieces. We can still work out who it is, but we can’t see the person’s image in the way they really are. Because of sin in the world and in us, we can be aware of God’s image in us and in each other, but that image isn’t what it was meant to be.

There’s something in us that realises that something is missing in our lives, just like in my jigsaw puzzle, so we try lots of different things to fill those holes. We can try things like relationships, paid or unpaid work, sport, family, school, all sorts of things. Especially in our consumer culture, we are taught that buying more stuff can fill the gaps in our lives. There was an ad om TV a while ago which showed people with holes in them that matched products they could buy. The message of the ad, and the idea behind a lot of what happens in our society, is that we can fill in the gaps of our lives and find a sense of being ‘complete’ through the things we buy.

The way in which God fills our emptiness and makes us complete is through the person of Jesus. Paul shows us how God does that in Colossians 2:6-15. He writes that ‘in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body’ (v9 NLT). Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus, we see the clearest picture we can of who God is and what God is like. Jesus shows us what humanity created in the image of God should look like. Jesus is exactly how God intended humanity to be from the beginning of creation. When we look at Jesus and get to know him, we can see and discover who God wants us to be as people who carry his image in us.

Jesus isn’t just an example of how God wants us to be. Paul says God actually makes us complete by filling us with the fullness of Jesus, who is himself the fullness of God in bodily form, when we are united with Christ through faith. It would be like placing my incomplete puzzle on the picture on the box, and then the two becoming one as the complete picture fills the missing pieces and completes it. This is what Jesus does for us as we are united with him through faith – Jesus fills our gaps, makes us complete and restores the original image of God in us so we can be the way God intended us from the beginning of creation.

Paul explains that the way to be made complete in Jesus is by living as his disciples. He writes about ‘accepting Jesus Christ as … Lord’, which means embracing Jesus and the gospel through faith, trusting it as good news for us. This faith leads us to follow Jesus as we learn to live in the way of faith and love from him. This new life in Christ involves ‘putting our roots down into him’ so that the good news of Jesus becomes the source of goodness for our lives and what keeps us strong when the storms of life come our way. God completes us as his new creation when we build or lives on him through faith and love, just like someone builds a house on solid foundations (Matthew 7:24-27). We can find our complete selves in Jesus when we live as his disciples, following him, drawing strength and life from him, and building our lives on his grace and love.

We can then bring this completeness into every aspect of our lives. Instead of looking to be made complete through our relationships or family, work or school, possessions or anything else, we can embrace them and go into them as people who have been made complete through Jesus, and be part of God’s plan to make all of creation complete in him. This new perspective on life begins with finding who we are as people who have been made complete in Christ through faith in him and living as his disciples.

I get frustrated when I’m putting a jigsaw puzzle together and there are missing pieces. It feels like something’s missing when I can’t complete it. When we realise that we’re incomplete and there are pieces missing in our lives, we don’t have to try to fill the gaps with things that don’t really fit. We can go to Jesus, who makes us complete by filling us with the fullness of God.

More to think about:

  • Do you know what it’s like to start a jigsaw puzzle but not complete it, either because you don’t have the time or there are missing pieces? What is that like for you?
  • Do you every feel like there’s something missing in your life? If you do, can you put your finger on what it might be?
  • How do you try to fill any holes that might exist in your life? How do you try to find a sense of being complete or fulfilled?
  • Is that working for you? Or are you still looking? Explain why…
  • What do you think of what Paul says about Jesus completing us? Do you think it’s possible to find a sense of being complete or fulfilled in Jesus?
  • The good news of Jesus can speak into every aspect of our lives, no matter what we feel might be missing. How might Jesus be able to complete you and what you feel might be missing in your life? (if you don’t know how to answer that, I’m happy to try to help if I can; just let me know…)
  • How might you be able to see different aspects of your life in a new way as a person who is complete in Christ? How might going into them as a complete person instead of looking for them to make you complete change our approach to them for the better?

First-Fruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

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The people Moses was speaking to in Deuteronomy were not the same that he had led out of Egypt to receive God’s commands at Mount Sinai. That generation had died in the wilderness after failing to trust that God could do what he said he would do. Now, a new generation was about to inherit God’s promises and enter into the Promised Land. Before he handed the leadership of Israel over to Joshua, Moses addressed God’s people to prepare them for their entry into the Promised Land. The Book of Deuteronomy gives us Moses’ last address to the Israelites.

One of the instructions Moses gave to the Israelites was to bring the first produce of the land God was giving them to the place of worship and offer them to him (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). Often referred to as a ‘first-fruits’ offering, this was the way in which the Israelites were to thank God for the gift of the land. Thanking someone with words is good, but God wanted his people to show their thanks by offering to him the first and the best of what God had first given them.

We can hear these words of Moses as a rule or command to follow, but we can also understand the first-fruits offering as an act of faith. Through Moses’ words, we can hear God calling us to trust him enough to give him the first and best of what he has given us. Offering to God the first and best of what he has already given us is an act of faith for three reasons.

Firstly, when the Israelites gave back to God the first-fruits of each year’s crops, they showed that they believed that the land was a gift from God. He wanted his people to remember that he had given them the land and that every good thing the Israelites had was a gift from him. God didn’t give the land to them because they deserved it or had somehow earned it. Instead, God’s gift of the land to the people he had chosen was an act of grace, a gift given purely out of his love for his people.

In the same way, God asks us to give back to him the first and best of what he has given us to show that we recognize that every good thing comes from him. It is easy for us to have a sense of entitlement with the things we have. Whether we are talking about our time, energy, abilities, finances or other possessions, we can tend to think that they belong to us and we have the right to do whatever we like with them because we have earned them. God reminds us that all good things come from him, and he asks us to recognize him as the giver of everything in our lives by giving the first and best of what we have back to him.

Secondly, giving their first-fruits to God was an act of faith that God would give them enough to last for the coming year. In an agricultural society where people relied on what the land produced in order to survive, giving the first produce of the land back to God would have been risky because there was no guarantee that the subsequent produce would have been enough to last for the rest of the year. Giving the first produce, instead of hanging on to it until they were sure they had enough for the coming twelve months, was an act of faith that God would provide what they needed.

In the same way, we can often use what we think we need first and then give what’s left over to God. Whether we are talking time, energy, finances or abilities, we are more inclined to do what we think needs to get done first and then give what remains to God. The first-fruits offering challenges us to consider what we can give to God first in the faith that God will provide us with what we need for everything else. This is particularly true with our time. When we have a lot to do and the pressure’s on, we can easily ignore spending time with God by reading his Word, praying to him or worshiping with other believers in our faith community. However, as the source of every good thing we have, God asks us to trust him enough to put him first, to make spending time with him our first priority, in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need to do what he has called us to do.

Our third reason why giving God our first and best is one that the ancient Israelites didn’t have – God has already given his best for us and to us. When our relationship with God was broken because of sin, God gave his first and best for us in the person of Jesus. The Son of God prioritized us and the need to reconcile us with God so highly that he gave everything for us on the cross. Jesus didn’t spend his life thinking about himself and the things that would make him happy before giving whatever was left over for us. Jesus had the cross in his view right from the start of his ministry and willingly sacrificed everything out of love for us. In Jesus, God literally gave everything for us and to us so we can live in a new relationship with him as his children. Because God has already given his first and his best for us and to us, he asks us to trust him enough to do the same.

Giving the first and best of everything we have to God can mean making some significant changes in our lives. We might need to completely reorganize our priorities as we reorient ourselves towards God and trusting in his grace. Doing that isn’t easy and requires a deep and secure faith that God will provide us with every good thing we need for this life and the next through Jesus.

I wonder, though, what might our lives look like if we were able to make that change through God’s grace and goodness? How might our relationships look different if we prioritized what we could give to others over what we want to get from them? How might our communities, especially our churches, look different if we gave our first and best back to God, trusting in God’s grace-filled love for us? Would it be possible that people might encounter the goodness of God in us and find a God they could trust? If we could trust God enough to give him our first and our best, maybe others might encounter our God who gives everything, even his own life, to us and for us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think is more important in life – what you give to others or what you get from them? Explain why you think that way…
  • In your relationships with people, do you tend to think more about what you can get from them or what you can give to them? Why do you think you do that?
  • What do you think about viewing giving to God as an act of faith? What do you like or not like about the idea?
  • How might you see different aspects of your life differently if you viewed every good think you have, even those things you complain about, as a gift from our God who loves you?
  • How might your life be different if you could be 100% sure that God was always going to provide you with what you needed? Would you live differently? Explain why…
  • What is your reaction to the idea that Jesus gave everything for you on the cross because he loves you that much? Might that help you see yourself differently? Might it help you see your life differently? Explain why…
  • What is one way you can give God your first or best this week: Spending time with him first thing each morning in prayer or reading your Bible? Making worship a higher priority? Giving of yourself to a ministry of your church? Commit to it for a week or two and see what happens…

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…?

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)

Galatians 5v1 freedom 01

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?