More Than Enough (Matthew 14:13-21)

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Imagine you were having a picnic with family or friends. What would you do if you met some people you hadn’t seen for a while, you got to talking and then realised that it was time for lunch? Would you keep talking with them in the hope that they would soon leave so you could eat? Would you subtly tell them that it was lunch and probably time for them to move on? Or would you invite them to stay and share your picnic even though you might not really have enough for everyone?

Would your answer be the same if you were talking with five people? What if there were fifteen? Would you share your lunch with fifty? What if there were five thousand extra people who wanted to join your picnic? Would you share your food with them?

In some ways, this scenario starts to sound silly when we begin thinking about more than five people. However, when we ask ourselves if we would share our picnic with five, fifteen or even fifty people, then we might begin to understand the disciples’ reaction when Jesus told them to feed the five thousand men, plus women and children, in Matthew 14:13-21. Can you seriously imagine sharing your food with more than five thousand other people? The idea sounds ridiculous! It is impossible for us to imagine that five loaves of bread and two fish could feed that many people. However, the disciples trusted Jesus enough to give him what they had, and with his blessing on the food, it not only fed all those people but there were twelve baskets of leftovers!

People usually hear this story telling us that we should share what we have with others. Some people understand it saying that we should literally share our food with people who are hungry. I know of churches that started ministries in response to it, taking left-over bread to people. These ministries are good and can be a meaningful expression of grace from the congregation to those who are in need. However, John’s version of the story in chapter six moves into an extended reflection on who Jesus is as the eternal Bread of Life. This suggests to me that maybe the miraculous feeding of the five thousand isn’t actually about food at all. What if it’s about something much deeper…?

For example, over the last couple of months our congregation has been on a journey with our worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. After being fully online for a couple of months, we started meeting in groups of twenty to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in our hall. Then, as the restrictions eased, we have had services with larger numbers gathering until the people who worship at our early service were able to move back into the church building. This week, our later service will also be moving back into the church for the first time since March. Along the way I have been inviting feedback from people connected with our congregation about what we have been doing and what our possible next steps could be as we resumed our congregation’s various ministries. Generally, as people responded to me, what I heard people telling me was what they wanted, what they liked, or what suited them. I don’t want to sound critical of these responses – I understand them and want to hear what people think – but I wonder if they can also tell us something about our human condition.

How might we have responded if we were the disciples who brought the five loaves and two fish to Jesus, and he instructed us to give them to the five thousand men plus women and children who were with us? Would we have trusted Jesus and shared what we had with the crowds of people who were there? Or would we have preferred to keep the food for ourselves and let someone else look after the others?

An hour or two on Sunday morning isn’t a large amount of time. It is pretty small, like a meal of five loaves and two fish. But one thing I hear in the story of the feeding of the five thousand (plus women and children) is that Jesus receives the little things we give him, blesses them, and is able to make a big difference in the lives of lots of people through them. Jesus promises that however little we might have, when we offer it to him in faith and share it with others in love, Jesus can provide for a lot of people through it.

With our conversations around worship over the last few months in mind, this story leads me to wonder: What might the worship life of our congregation be like if we did the same with our Sunday mornings? What might happen if, instead of coming to worship just with the desire or expectation to be fed, we gave this time to Jesus and asked them to bless it so that others could be fed? If we think about Sunday mornings as the loaves and fishes, I can understand that our default position might be to want to eat first and let others have whatever is left. The faith I see in the disciples who gave their food to Jesus, though, is that they trusted him and gave what they had first so others could be fed. The result was that there was more than enough for everyone, and there were still leftovers! Is it possible, if we offered our Sunday mornings and what we do in worship to Jesus first, we might find that not only we are fed, but others are fed with God’s grace and goodness and there is still enough to provide for us throughout the week?

This isn’t just about worship. I am using Sunday morning worship as an example because it is a question that has been simmering in our congregation for the last few months. We will continue talking about the form of our worship services as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and we look towards the future God intends for our congregation. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (plus women and children) is basically about faith. In every area of our lives, do we believe that when we give even the smallest things to Jesus, he will bless them and provide more than enough for us so we can share God’s goodness and grace with others? Do we trust him to give him what we have, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, so Jesus can bless, provide for, and feed others through what we offer?

I’m not sure what I would do if my family’s picnic was crashed by others. I hope I would share our food with them, but I also know that sometimes our own desires and appetites can get in the way. The story of the feeding of the five thousand tells me that the One who gave everything out of love for us, not just his lunch but his whole life, has the power to take something small, like some loaves and fish, or a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, and do amazing things with them. What might happen if we gave what we have over to him in faith, asked him to bless it, and then shared it with the people around us?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Discuss or reflect on what you would do if five people you hadn’t seen for a while turned up unexpectedly at a picnic you were having. Would you share your food with them? What if it was fifteen, fifty, or five hundred people?
  • How do you honestly think the disciples might have reacted when Jesus told them to share their loaves and fishes with the crowds that day? Do you think they would have responded enthusiastically with unshakable faith? Or do you think they might have had a few doubts? Discuss your reasons for your thoughts.
  • Where do you see the disciples acting in faith in this story? Where do you see them acting in love for others?
  • I have used our congregation’s Sunday morning worship as an example of how we might sometimes think more of ourselves than others first. What are some other areas of life you might have seen people do that?
  • What are some things in your life that you would rather hang on to than give to Jesus so he can share them with others?
  • Why do you think we can find it hard to give what we have over to Jesus?
  • Spend some time discussing or reflecting on what might happen if you gave something over to Jesus, no matter how small it might seem, in the faith that he would bless it and provide for other people through it…
  • What is something you can give to Jesus as an act of faith in him and love for others?

You can also see a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/VrEkBvq7_S8

God bless!

All Things (Romans 8:26-39)

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Usually when I sit down to write my message each week, I look for something in the text that is visible or tangible, something we can touch or see, that I can use to illustrate the Kingdom of God or the way God is at work in the world. Jesus did it in his parables, so, as a student or disciple of Jesus, I believe that I can learn from his teaching methods. For example, last week Jesus talked about wheat paddocks, the previous week the image was rain from Isaiah, and the week before that was a yoke.

This week’s New Testament reading, Romans 8:26-39, is an amazing passage with so much great news for us. The part that really spoke to me was verse 32 where Paul writes,

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (NIV)

However, this text presented a serious challenge: how can I use to illustrate ‘all things’ visually for my message?

This is an incredible thing for Paul to say. His message is that God loves us so much that he gave up the most precious thing he had to redeem and save us: his only Son. Value is determined by what people are willing to part with to make something their own. The first section of Romans 8:32 tells us that God values each of us so much that he willingly parted with his Son whom he loves, so we can be reconciled to him and restored to a new relationship with him as members of his family. God willingly gave up the most treasured thing he has, his own Son, so that we can live in a new relationship with him as his children.

Paul goes on to ask that, since God loved us enough to give up his Son for us, won’t he also give us ‘all things’ in his grace towards us? Paul is saying that if God hasn’t held back what he treasures most, then is there anything he won’t be willing to give us? If there is nothing that is as precious or valuable to God as his Son, and since he has already given him for us as evidence of his love, then ‘won’t he also give us everything else?’ (v32 NLT)
When I read these words, to be honest, my natural reaction is to start putting limits around God’s grace by thinking about what I don’t think God will give me. We can start to remember the things we have wanted in the past, but we didn’t get. Maybe we can think about things or people who have been taken away from us. Or we can think about things we’d like in the future that we don’t think we will ever have.

A big question to help us understand this text is what does Paul mean by ‘all things’? Do we take that as literally meaning ‘all things’? Because that’s a lot! Or is Paul talking metaphorically, that God will extend his generosity to some point, but will start to decline our requests when we reach a limit?

One thing we can do to help us understand what words or phrases mean in the Bible is to look at other places those words or phrases are used and what they mean in those passages. I looked up where Paul talks about ‘all things’ and I found that he uses it more than 20 times in his letters. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul writes,

… for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (NIV)

So here ‘all things’ means everything that God has created, which is also the way Ephesians 3:9 and Colossians 1:16 use it. Another place Paul talks about ‘all things’ is in Colossians 1:20 where he says that God reconciled ‘all things’ to himself through Jesus’ blood which was shed on the cross. A third example is 2 Corinthians 9:8 when he writes,

God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (NIV)

This text helps us understand Romans 8:32 better because Paul is also giving us a reason why God would make such an extravagant promise to us. God doesn’t promise to give us ‘all things’ for our own sake, so that we can life safe, comfortable or self-satisfied lives, but so that we can ‘abound in every good work’ and bring the goodness of God into the world.

It is easy for us to hear God’s promise to give us ‘all things’ and think about what we want for ourselves, kind of like children who are looking forward to what they are going to get at their birthday or Christmas. In the faith that God has already given his best for us in the death of Jesus, and for his sake will also give us ‘all things’, God wants us to trust this promise so that we can do good in the world and extend God’s goodness which we find in Jesus to people around us who need his goodness. God doesn’t promise to give us ‘all things’ for our benefit, but for the benefit of others as we follow Jesus in faith and love.

What do we need to do that? Or, more specifically, what do you need from God so that you can ‘abound in every good work’? It might be something to help you with your family or in your work. It could be something with your health or a relationship which might be difficult or challenging. What might happen if we took this promise literally: that God, who gave up his Son for us, will also ‘graciously give us all things’? Sometimes I wonder if we don’t receive good things from God because we don’t trust him enough to ask. If you were to believe what Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, that God will graciously give us ‘all things’ for the sake of Jesus, what would you ask for? What would you hope for from God?

As I sit and write this message, I’m still struggling with what I can use as a visible, tangible example of the ‘all things’ Paul is talking about. This is a massive promise, one that’s hard for us to get our heads around, let alone trust it enough to live like it is true. But that’s what faith is – trusting that God gave up his own Son for us because he loves us that much. If he gave up his most precious Son, then he will also give us ‘all things’ for his sake.

What might that mean for you?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think of when you hear the words ‘all things’? What do you think Paul may have meant when you hear him write about ‘all things’ in Romans 8:32?
  • When you read 1 Corinthians 8:6, how do you understand ‘all things’ in this passage? What do you think it might mean in Colossians 1:20? What about in 2 Corinthians 9:8? How can the way Paul uses the words ‘all things’ in these passages help us understand what Paul means by them in Romans 8:32?
  • What do you find difficult about Paul saying that God will ‘graciously give us all things’ (NIV)? In what ways can this be a hard promise to trust?
  • If you were to take ‘all things’ literally, what are some of the things that might include? How might this promise make a difference in your life or help you in some way?
  • What is something you need most in your life right now? How could God giving you what you need help you to ‘abound in every good work’ (2 Corinthians 9:8)?
  • What are some other ‘all things’ from God you hope for? How might they make a difference in your life and help you ‘abound in every good work’?

If you would like to watch a video version of this message, you can go to https://youtu.be/jhNmgEdKtc0

God bless!

God’s Word Rains Down (Isaiah 55:10-13)

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Just before Christmas last year, a devastating fire started in the Cudlee Creek area in the Adelaide Hills. It burnt out more than 25,000 hectares of property including homes, sheds, vehicles, and other property. I like to ride my motorbike through that part of the Adelaide Hills and when I saw the areas that had been burnt out, I was heartbroken. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who are still struggling to rebuild their lives after the fires.

It wasn’t long after the fires that the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the focus of our nation shifted. As we find our way through the pandemic, please continue to remember and support those who are still trying to recover from losing homes, property, and livestock since the fires in the Adelaide Hills and other parts of Australia earlier this year.

I was able to get up to the Hills a few months after the fires. We had had rain in Adelaide and there was a dramatic difference in the countryside. I could still see clear evidence of the fires in the charred landscape and burnt trees, but it was changing. The rain had brought new life to the fire-damaged areas of the Hills. Green buds were starting to burst through. New life was growing because of the rain that had fallen. Trees and plants that had looked dead were starting to come alive again because of the life-giving rain.

This is the picture Isaiah gives to describe the difference God’s word can make in our lives (Isaiah 55:10-13). The good news of forgiveness in Jesus raises us from death in sin to new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4,5). We hear this promise in the New Testament reading for this Sunday: ‘now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1)! This is good news for all people! When we were dead in sin, just like the trees that had been burned out by the fires in the Adelaide Hills, God sent his word of forgiveness and new life for the sake of Jesus to us like rain, creating something new within us. As the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said, just as God sends rain to bring life to the dry, fire-damaged countryside, he also sends his life-giving word of the gospel to create new life in us.

God’s word also works changes in us when we are struggling with the effects of sin in our lives. We can feel dry, burned-out, or damaged for lots of different reasons. It might be because of something dramatic or tragic that we have experienced, like a bush-fire tearing through our lives. Maybe it is trying to cope with all the uncertainties or changes we have been experiencing which can drain us like a long drought. Life has a way of wearing us down in lots of different ways, and we can feel lost, empty, or lifeless in one way or another.

When we read or listen to the Bible, we discover stories of people who struggled in their own lives for various reasons. I know that they lived a long time ago in cultures that are very different than ours, but the basic human condition hasn’t changed. We all need to find a sense of who we are. We are all looking for a place to belong where we can discover our self-worth and value. We are all searching for purpose in life, a reason to get out of bed, and to find meaning in our lives. People throughout the ages have wrestled with the challenges of life and with finding God in the middle of their struggles and questions just as we do.

As we read their stories and the words they wrote, we can also find God’s promises for us. Just like God provided for them, he can and will also provide for us. As we reflect on the ways in which God was at work in the lives of people long ago, he will also show us how he has been, is currently, and will continue to work in our lives for good. The miracle and mystery of God’s word for me is that, as I read it, I find God speaking into my life right now. Sometimes it takes effort to make the connections, but they are there when we look for them. Whatever is happening in our lives, God’s word speaks God’s promises, the good news of Jesus, to give us life like rain on a dry and burned-out countryside.

This new life shows itself in lots of different ways, just like the new, green shoots are clearly evident on the charred, black branches and stumps of a burnt tree. The prophet Isaiah describes these changes as ‘producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry’ (v10 NLT). The new life that God creates in us through his word isn’t just for our own benefit. It is also for the benefit of others. Just like the seed the rains produce will help the farmer provide more crops for the future, and the hungry can be fed by what the rains produce, so the life God creates in us will help and bless others for years to come.

When we live in the reality of God’s promises to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works through God’s word to produce in us the kind of fruit that Paul describes in Galatians 5:22,23 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When the Holy Spirit is producing these kinds of fruits in our lives, they will be seen like new green shoots on a burned black tree. People will see something different in us as God’s word and the good news of Jesus changes us to be more loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. Just like the seed and bread, this gives us good things to offer others as we follow the way of Jesus in faith and love. We can’t make these changes any more than a tree can decide to produce new shoots after a fire. But when God’s word falls on us like rain and we live in the reality of God’s promises and the good news of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will be at work, creating new live within us and making that new live visible in our relationships with others and our community of faith so they can encounter God’s goodness in us.

Some people don’t like standing in the rain. There might be several good reasons for that, but I can also understand our natural human tendency to not want to stand in the words God speaks to us which rain down on us to give us life. If you are growing through a time in your life where you are feeling dry, burned out, empty or maybe just struggling for any reason, and if you live in the Adelaide area, I encourage you to go for a drive in the Hills. Look at the countryside devastated by the fires at the end of last year. See the new life that is bursting out from the charred, blackened trees and vegetation. Remember that it was the rain that gave the countryside new life. In the same way, God gives us new life through his word as it rains down his promises and goodness on our lives.

When we stand in the reality of God’s word through faith in Jesus, it doesn’t only bring new life to us. It produces good for the people around us as well.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Do you like standing or walking in the rain? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever seen fire-damaged countryside after rain has fallen on it? Describe what you saw and your reactions to it.
  • Share your thoughts on Isaiah 55:10-11. What do you like about Isaiah’s words? What do you find difficult or challenging about this text? What is a promise from God that you can hear in these verses?
  • In what ways might you be experiencing the effects of sin in your life? Are you feeling dry, burnt out, damaged, or possibly even lifeless in some way? Explain why…
  • If God can give new life to trees and plants that have been affected by fire through the falling rain, do you believe that he can give you new life through his word? What do you find hard about believing that? What difference might it make to your life if you could believe it?
  • How might God bless people around you by giving you new life? What difference could it make in their lives?
  • How will you stand or walk in God’s word this week so it can rain down on you?

You can watch a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/GSO7ALkwWMU

God bless!

An Easy Yoke (Matt 11:16-19, 25-30)

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When I was in primary school, our church used to have an annual picnic. One of the games we would play every year was the three-legged race. If you’ve never been in a three-legged race, the way it works is that you and a partner have your legs tied together, usually at the ankle, and you need to run together towards the end of the course.

It was hard learning how to move together effectively. We are so used to walking at our own pace and in our own ways that we found it difficult to synchronize our movements and find a rhythm so we could run the race. People who were able to find that rhythm did well and finished the race. Those who couldn’t just pulled against each other and ended up on the ground.

When Jesus talked about taking his yoke in Matthew 11:25-30 he was inviting us to learn to walk with him as his disciples. one way we can think of being yoked with Jesus is that it is kind of like running a three-legged race with him. When I was younger, I thought the yoke Jesus was talking about was something we carried individually, the kind that lay across a person’s shoulders with a bucket on each end. Since then I have learned that the yoke Jesus meant was the sort that two oxen would carry to help them walk and work together. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked with him, like we might have our legs tied together in a three-legged race, so that we can learn from Jesus to walk with him in the way of life he walked.

Being yoked with Jesus doesn’t come naturally to us and is difficult for us to learn. We like to walk our own way, going in the directions we choose, and moving at a pace with which we are most comfortable. Especially in our culture which worships our individual right to do what we want, be who we want, and go where we want, the idea of adapting our walk to fit in with others is virtually abhorrent. Our society’s creed of individualism teaches us that we should have the right to choose where, when, and how we walk in our own lives. The problem with this way of thinking is that if we each want to walk our own way, then, like in a three-legged race, we will fall over and probably get hurt.

When Jesus calls us to take up his yoke, he is inviting us to learn a whole new way of living from him that is radically different than our inward-focused, me-first individualism. Jesus’ call to discipleship means learning a way of living that doesn’t burden us with expectations, demands or rules. The religious people of Jesus’ day were really good at doing that. Jesus wants to teach us a different way that leads to rest for our hearts and souls.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus invite us to be his disciples and learn a different way of living from him that involved taking up our cross in faith and love. In Matthew 11:28-30 he uses the image of taking up his yoke with him. This might seem like a burden, but the beauty of Jesus’ words is that he says that his ‘yoke is easy to bear’ and the burden he gives us is light (v30). This might seem like a contradiction, but Jesus is saying that he wants us to learn from him a way of life that is free from expectations and guilt, and full of his grace.

Eugene Petersen describes the new way of living that Jesus invites us to learn as ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG). As Jesus offers us his yoke, or as he ties his leg to ours for our three-legged race together, he is asking us to learn from him how to live with grace as our foundational reality. This grace isn’t something that we struggle or try harder to do, but in the same way that we can find a rhythm with our partner in a three-legged race, Jesus wants us to walk with him so we can find his rhythm of grace and it can flow naturally, in an unforced way, through our whole lives.

This grace works in two ways. Firstly, it is living in God’s grace for us in Jesus. There are lots of ways we can understand this grace: forgiveness, new life, redemption, salvation, and a home in the kingdom of heaven. We can also think of God’s grace as the way he gift us with a new identity as his children whom he loves, a place to belong in the body of Christ and the community of believers, and a new purpose in living for him and being part of God’s mission in the world. In fact, we can understand God’s grace as every good thing he gives us for life in this world and the next. God gifts us with everything we need because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us which renews our relationship with our Father in heaven and gives us his favour. We can spend our whole lives learning more and more about God’s grace in which we live as we take up Jesus’ yoke and walk with him.

The second way we ‘learn the unforced rhythm of grace’ in our lives is in our relationships with other people. Grace isn’t just something God gives to us. It is also something we give to others. Again, we can think of this grace in many different ways, such as forgiving people who have wronged us, or accepting, loving, welcoming, and building up one another. This grace that we extend to others is having an outward focus on others in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need for Jesus’s sake. The ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ are identical to the way of faith and love that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, which lies at the heart of the New Testament letters to early Christian communities. It is grace which flows from God, through us, and into the lives of everyone we meet.

As I said earlier, this rhythm of grace doesn’t come naturally to us and often isn’t easy for us. We need to be life-long learners, disciples of Jesus who are learning from him what this grace looks like and how it works in all the varied circumstances and different situations of life. Carrying Jesus’ yoke, or being Jesus’ three-legged race partner, isn’t just a one-off decision. It means walking closely with him every day of our lives, listening to his word, watching the way he trusted our Father and treated people, so that we can live in the reality of his grace and we can live out his grace in relationship and community with others.

Which way are we walking in our lives? Are we being discipled by our individualistic culture, which tells us to walk where we want, how we want, when we want? If we are, how is that working out for us? Are we walking well, or are we stumbling or falling along the way? Are we ready to learn a new way of living, walking closely with Jesus and learning a new way of living from him as his disciples? Are we willing to pick up his yoke? Will we trust him enough to tie our leg to his and learn how to walk in his way, and not our own? Are we ready to learn the unforced rhythm of grace from Jesus?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even been in a three-legged race? How did you find it – was it easy or hard for you? Why was that?
  • What makes it difficult to walk with someone in a three-legged race? What can help us walk together?
  • How might taking up Jesus’ yoke be like partnering with him in a three-legged race? Do you think the analogy works? Explain why/why not…
  • What do you think it might mean to take up Jesus’ yoke? How can we find rest in it? In what ways can it be ‘easy’ and ‘light’?
  • What do you think of Eugene Petersen’s description of taking up Jesus’ yoke as ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’? What do you think that looks like?
  • Would you say that you are ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus? Or are you walking in your own way at your own pace? Give reasons for your answers…
  • What might your life be like if you were learning the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus by taking up his yoke as his student? How might your life be the same? How might it be different?
  • If Jesus is asking each of us to take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him, then we can think of our congregation as a Christ-centred community of faith where we are all learning this new way of life in our relationships with each other. What is your reaction to thinking about ‘church’ in this way?
  • What will you do this week to walk with Jesus, take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/JNDH_rD9qQE

God bless!

Who Do We Serve? (Romans 6:12-23)

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What do you think would be the best job in the world?

Sometimes I like to ask younger people what they want to do when they grow up or leave school. They sometimes give answers like a police officer, ballet dancer, secret agent, footballer, or a whole range of other things. I wonder, though, no matter how old we are, what your ideal job would be. What do you reckon would be the best job in the world?

I am also curious what you think the worst job in the world might be. There used to be a television show called Dirty Jobs where the show’s presenter would talk to people who had some of the most disgusting work you could imagine, and then gave that job a try. Some of the worst jobs he looked at included a sewer inspector, a cow inseminator, a concrete chipper, and a snake researcher who would squeeze out the contents of a snake’s stomach to examine their diet. What is the worst job you can think of?

Now, imagine your life if this was your job. Every day you would get out of bed to go to the worst work you can think of. What would that be like for you? Would you continue doing that job because that is all you know? What if someone offered you the best job you can think of? Would you decide that the job offer must be too good to be true? Would you not want to risk giving up your old job in case it didn’t work out? Would you continue to go back, day after day, to the same dirty, gross work? Or would you take the opportunity and accept the job that had been offered to you?

We can react negatively to Paul’s use of the word slave in Romans 6:12-23, but we need to remember that Paul was writing in a different social context. We reject slavery because it abuses people’s fundamental human rights. We condemn it because it exploits and devalues people who have been made in God’s image and for whom Jesus gave his life. When Paul refers to slavery in the New Testament, I do not believe he is arguing that slavery is an acceptable practice. In Paul’s time it was part of their culture. Today, thankfully, we know better. As we read Romans 6:12-23, we can still learn something from what Paul wrote because, as he explains in verse 19, he uses the practice of slavery as an illustration to teach us something about what it means to live in the reality of God’s grace.

One important difference between slavery in Paul’s time and the way we work today is that slaves didn’t have regular working hours. They weren’t casual, part-time or even full-time employees who could go home at the end of their working day. Slaves were in their situation all day, every day, often for their entire lives. When Paul writes about slavery, he is referring to something that impacted people’s entire existence and defined their identity, belonging and purpose. He wasn’t just talking about a job – he was referring to a way of life.

Paul draws a sharp contrast between two ways of living which is even more dramatic that the contrast between the best and worst jobs we can imagine. On the one hand is a life that is dominated and controlled by sin. Paul doesn’t just think of ‘sin’ as doing something wrong, the way we sometimes do. Instead, he uses words like ‘impurity’ and ‘lawlessness’ (v19 NLT), ‘ashamed’ and ‘death’ (v21 NIV). This gives us a broader understanding of sin as those things in our lives that make us unclean or dirty, that bring shame on us and ultimately take life from us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically.

In sharp contrast Paul also describes what it means to be a slave to righteousness (v18). This sounds like a contradiction, because when Paul writes about being set free from slavery to sin (vv18,22 NLT) we would assume that people who have been liberated are no longer slaves. This is where we need to remember that Paul seems to be thinking of something that is part of our lives every hour of every day, not just a casual or part-time job. When we become ‘slaves to righteous living’ (v18 NLT), this righteousness becomes part of our being in which we constantly live. ‘Righteous living’ isn’t just about our behaviours or actions. It is who we are as people who have been made right through faith in Jesus.

In the same way that I asked you if you would accept the best job in the world if you had been working in the worst job in the world, Paul is asking his readers if they want to give themselves to righteousness if they had up to that point been working in sin’s household. As we have seen, Paul connects sin with shame, being unclean or dirty, and death. He then describes the qualities of righteous living as holiness and eternal life (vv19,22). This holiness is a big concept and carries with it a range of different meanings. It means to be pure, clean, uncontaminated, set apart for God, or sanctified. It means receiving God’s holiness as a gift and growing to be more like God because one of God’s essential characteristics is holiness. Becoming slaves to righteous living isn’t about following a set of rules or trying harder to be a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person. Righteous living that leads to holiness is more like having all the filth washed off us when we have spent our working lives as a sewer inspector, and being made clean from all the shame and dirt we used to live in as slaves to sin. The righteousness that leads to holiness is, in Paul’s thinking, living our entire lives in the goodness of God which is reflected through our lives in everything we do and say.

We can live in this righteousness because Jesus has set us free from sin. When Paul writes, ‘now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you’ (v17 NLT) he is talking about faith in the gospel of Jesus (see Romans 1:5). We are only able to ‘choose to obey God’ (v16 NLT) or ‘offer’ ourselves to the ‘obedience’ of faith (v16 NIV) because Jesus has liberated us from slavery to sin through his life, death and resurrection for us. Slaves had no choice about who they served. They were bought and sold like cattle. As people who have been set free from slavery to sin when Jesus redeemed us or bought us back by giving his life for us on the cross, now we are free to give ourselves and our lives to either sin or righteousness.

We were trapped in shame, dirt, and death because of the debt of our sin. Jesus paid our debt in full by his death on the cross, so now we are free to choose. Do we want to go back to the worst job in the world? Or do we want to step in faith into our most ideal job? Will we go back to slavery to sin with the shame, dirt, and death that it brings? Or will we walk in the obedience of faith into a new reality which gives us holiness and a life that is stronger than death?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think would be the best job in the world? Why do you think it would be so good?
  • What do you think would be the worst job in the world? Why do you think it would be so bad?
  • If you were working in the worst job in the world and someone offered you the best job in the world, would you accept it? Explain why you would do that…
  • Why do you think Paul used the illustration of ‘slavery’ for living in either sin or righteous living? What might be some of the problems with this illustration in our cultural context? What might be another way that Paul could illustrate the same idea to people of our time?
  • Paul contrasts a life of sin with shame, dirt, and death, with righteous living that brings holiness and eternal life. Which sounds better to you? Do you think it might be easier to live in one or the other? Can you explain why you think that…?
  • Why might people find it hard to leave a bad job for a better one? What does that tell us about why some people might find it hard to leave a life of sin for a life of righteousness?
  • What do you imagine a life of righteous living might look like?
  • We are able to live in either sin or righteousness because Jesus has redeemed and liberated us through his life, death and resurrection for us. Why do you think this message of freedom can be such an important part of the gospel of Jesus?
  • As a community of faith, how can we help each other live in righteousness that leads to holiness and eternal life? How might you be able to help someone do that this week?

You can also find a video version of this message by following this link: https://youtu.be/wclr5JQBBc0

God bless!

Taking Up Our Cross (Matthew 10:24-39)

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In a lot of workplaces, employees need to complete manual handling training. These courses basically teach people how to lift things safely. When I worked as a supermarket casual during my student years, I first thought that doing a course to learn how to lift things was a waste of time. I had been lifting things my while life, so why did I need training in it? However, then I started meeting people with serious back problems because they didn’t lift properly. My mind was changed – maybe we need to learn how to lift so we don’t injure ourselves and we can enjoy the life we have been given.

Have you ever thought about Jesus as a manual handling trainer? Towards the end of Matthew 10:24-39, the Gospel Reading for this week, Jesus calls us to do some heavy lifting in our lives. He says, ‘If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine’ (v38 NLT). Here, as in other places in the gospel, Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples by taking up our cross (see also Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

People interpret what it means it take up a cross in different ways. In the most literal sense, however, Jesus took up his cross when he suffered and died for us. Jesus knew that the only way that we could live as God’s children in this world and the next was for him to literally pick up a heavy wooden cross and carry it to Calvary where he would suffer and die. He walked this path trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and the promises he received through the Scriptures. Jesus walked this path in love for us, knowing that his death would mean life for us as it gives us forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and new life. Jesus lifted the heavy weight of the cross and walked the path of suffering and death in faith and love.

Jesus wants us to learn to live like this as well. He calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the path of faith and love. The word used in Matthew 10: 24 as ‘student’ in both the NIV and NLT is translated in other passages of the New Testament as ‘disciple’. Disciples are students who are learning a new way of living from their teacher. Jesus calls us to follow him as his students. He wants to teach us a new way of living by learning from the way he lived his life. This new way of life involves picking up our crosses and following Jesus in the path of faith and love.

This is where the illustration of Jesus as a manual handling trainer might help us understand more about being his disciples or students. Following Jesus is not an easy road to walk. In this reading from Matthew 10:24-39 Jesus is warning us that there will be a cost in following him. Jesus did not pick up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives convenient, safe, easy, or comfortable. Instead, he calls us to follow him so we can find what life is all about and then share the life Jesus gives us with others.

The life of faith and love to which Jesus calls us and that he models for us is not an easy one. It is a complete reorientation of our lives away from ourselves towards God and other people. When Jesus took up his cross to suffer and die, he was trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and extending that love to us. Jesus’ life was oriented away from himself towards God and us. The way of faith and love which Jesus teaches us follows the same orientation. It turns our focus away from ourselves towards him and others. It is a life lived in faith as we trust God to give us everything we need for life in this world and the next because of what Jesus did for us. This faith frees us from having to worry about ourselves so we can focus on the people around us and how we can serve them, just like Jesus serves us.

This kind of life involves some heavy lifting. It will cost us, in the same way it cost Jesus, as we prioritize others by serving, blessing and extending grace to them, just as Jesus serves, blesses and shows infinite, perfect grace to us. Jesus wants us to live this life in a way that is healthy and good for us, so he teaches us how to do it in a life-giving way. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants to teach us how to lift our crosses in ways that won’t hurt or injure us but will give us life so we can pass his life on to others. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn how to lift our crosses well so we can continue to live for him and for others in faith and love.

It is really important for us to hear this at this time. For a while now people have been telling me how much they are enjoying worshiping at home because we can do it when we like, how they we, and with people we like. Worship at home is safe, comfortable, convenient, and easy. I understand why we have needed to worship at home over the last few months, however, this is not the life to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ teaching to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34,35 etc) only makes sense when it is practised in community with people who are different to us. It’s easy to love people who we like and who agree with us. It is much harder to love people who have different opinions, who look different, who behave different, who have different worship preferences, or who think in different ways to us. To love in the way that Jesus teaches means loving people who we find hard to love, just like Jesus loves me.

Jesus calls us to follow him as his student disciples so we can learn his new way of loving and living from him. This way of life doesn’t come naturally to us, so we need Jesus to teach us how to lift our crosses, how to trust the love of our Father in heaven, and how to love other people in the same way he does. This will cost us, and in a world that teaches us that my life should be oriented around me and what I want, it will bring us into conflict with the world and culture in which we live. However, Jesus promises us in Matthew 10:39 that when we learn this way of living from him, and when we re-orient our lives by trusting Jesus and loving other people, we will find greater meaning in a life which is stronger than death.

There was a time when manual handling training didn’t make sense to me. Then I learned how important it is to lift correctly so we can stay fit and enjoy the life that God has given us. As our manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn from him how to lift our cross in faith and love so we can enter into the life God has for us. Jesus didn’t take up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives safe, convenient, or comfortable. When we follow him, our lives won’t be either. However, when we trust Jesus and follow in his way of faith and love, not only do we find the life to the full that he promises (John 10:10), we can also pass his life on to others.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you or someone you know ever done any manual handling training or been taught how to lift things safely? What did you or they think of it? How has it helped you or them?
  • How have you understood Jesus’ teaching to take up our cross in the past? What has it meant to you?
  • Have you ever considered yourself a student of Jesus? What do you think being Jesus’ student might mean?
  • What is your reaction to the idea of Jesus wanting us to learn from him how to take up our cross and live in faith and love? What do you like about it? What is hard to understand about it?
  • Does this way of life sound easy or difficult to you? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might your life look different if you re-oriented it around faith in Jesus and love for other people? How might Jesus be able to help you learn how to do that in ways that are healthy and life-giving?
  • What are some practical ways that can you take this teaching of Jesus seriously in the coming week?

If you would like to watch a video form of this message, you can find it at https://youtu.be/MhGfjV2abvI

God bless!

Standing in Grace (Romans 5:1-8)

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I love the story in Luke 13:18-21 when Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?’ (NIV). I can picture Jesus sitting with his disciples, looking at what was happening and what people were doing around him, as he searched for examples that would help his followers grow in their understanding of the way God was at work in the world. Jesus went on to use two very ordinary, every-day objects to illustrate the mystery of the kingdom of God in the world – a mustard seed and yeast.

As a disciple of Jesus who is continually learning from him, this is how I approach my message preparation each week. I listen to God’s Word for the good news he is speaking into our lives, and then I look for an ordinary, every-day item that will help to illustrate the ways in which God is at work in our lives. Some weeks they come easily. Other weeks, however, it can be more of a challenge…

This week was one of the harder ones. We have these amazing words from Paul in Romans 5:1-8 about being justified through faith which gives us peace with God (v1). What really caught my attention was what Paul wrote about standing in God’s grace. With all the upheaval and uncertainty that we are experiencing with the rest of the world at this time, there is something reassuring about being able to stand in something we can be sure of while it seems like a lot of other things are falling down around us.

Then came the hard part as I asked myself the same questions as Jesus: What is it like to stand in God’s grace? To what shall I compare it?

I had a few ideas, none of which were really working, so I asked my children what they stand in. Their answers were classic! One said that they like to stand in the rain. Another answered that they stand in lines. Another suggestion was that they stand in muddy puddles. Then one of our children said that they stand on the trampoline…

This answer got my imagination firing. Can we compare standing in God’s grace to standing in a trampoline? How might standing in God’s grace be like standing in a trampoline?

Firstly, there is a way in. When I climb into our trampoline there is a small entrance where the netting around the trampoline overlaps. It was designed for children because it’s not easy for a person my age to climb through it. Paul wrote that we have access or entry into God’s grace by faith in Jesus (v2). I have heard some people say that the Christian religion is too easy because all you have to do is believe and you’re in. But is faith really a simple and easy way to access the grace of God?

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus described the entrance that leads to life as a narrow and small gate. Maybe the way to access God’s grace isn’t as easy as some people might think. If we think of faith as trusting God’s promises to us in Jesus, sometimes that isn’t easy for us. We can find it hard enough to trust people that we can see, so it can be even harder to trust in the promises of God who we can’t see. That’s why Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as ‘confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’ (NIV). There will always be a degree of uncertainty in faith that will make it difficult. However, when we hear God’s promises to us in Jesus and trust them enough to live like what they say is true, we crawl through that narrow and small entry into the perfect and infinite grace of God.

When we gain access to God’s grace in Jesus through faith, we can find some similarities between standing in this grace and in a trampoline. Firstly, it surrounds us and protects us. Modern trampolines have nets around them, so people don’t fall off and hurt themselves. There are lots of things in life that would hurt us and rob us of the life God has given to us in physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual ways. However, when we stand in God’s grace for us in Jesus, God protects us like a net around a trampoline. We can be sure of who we are, what we’re worth, where we belong, and what our purpose is in life because God gifts us with all these in Jesus. When we stand in God’s grace, nothing can harm us because we know who we are, whose we are, what we’re worth and where we’re going.

Standing in God’s grace can be like a trampoline because it helps us to see things differently. The first time I climbed into our trampoline I was surprised by all the different things I could see. It gave me a different perspective of our backyard and the properties around us. Standing in God’s grace through Jesus gives us a different perspective on life as well. We can see things in a different way when we trust that God loves us enough to give everything for us in Jesus, and who has literally gone to hell and back for us. Standing in God’s grace helps us to see that every good thing we have in life is a gift from our Father in heaven who loves us. Standing in God’s grace opens our eyes to see that life itself is a gift that we can cherish and pass on to others by extending God’s grace to them as well.

Standing in God’s grace can be like a trampoline because it brings us joy! Bouncing on a trampoline gets pretty tiring for an older bloke like me and I can’t do it as long as my kids, but it’s still fun! Living in the reality of God’s grace gives us joy as we trust that Jesus’ love is stronger that death and the brokenness of this world. It will bring us through every struggle, difficulty, hardship, or uncertainty we might encounter in this life. This joy is different to the fun I might have on the trampoline because it runs much deeper, lasts much longer, and is more enduring through life’s problems. The fun I have on the trampoline depends on my stamina and my own ability to keep bouncing. The joy we find when we stand in God’s grace doesn’t depend on us but is a gift from God which grows out of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives through the gospel as God justifies us, gives us peace and fills us with hope.

Jesus looked for every-day things to illustrate the mystery of the kingdom of God to help people encounter God’s goodness and stand in the reality of his grace. Just like I can crawl onto the trampoline and stand on it, I hope and pray that we will all enter into the grace of God through Jesus by trusting in God’s promises to us, and that we will stand in the reality of God’s grace as it keeps us safe, gives us a new way of seeing ourselves and the world around us, and gives us joy.

Maybe you might like to bounce on a trampoline for a while as you contemplate God’s grace for you in Jesus, in which you now stand.

More to think about & discuss:

  • What are some things that you stand in?
  • How might they illustrate what it means to stand in God’s grace for you or for others?
  • What does the language of ‘standing in’ mean to you? Does it sound strong, messy, resolute, something different…?
  • What does it mean for you to stand in God’s grace?
  • Do you find faith easy or difficult? Why is that? Why do you think Paul describes faith as the way to gain access to God’s grace?
  • Paul connects faith and grace with peace and hope in the opening verses of Romans 5. Where do you need God’s peace in your life? How might standing in God’s grace through faith help you to find the peace you need?
  • Where do you need hope in your life? How might standing in God’s grace through faith help you to find the hope you need?
  • Is there someone in your life who needs peace or hope? How can you stand with them in grace through faith in Jesus to help them find the peace or hope they need?

You can also find a video version of this message here: https://youtu.be/R33HN9sPoeE

God bless!

The Trinity at Work (Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

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Since the beginning of time, people have looked at the world around them and wondered where it all came from. Every culture has had its own story or myth to try to explain the origin of the world and everything in it. Even in our own time, our culture is trying to explain the origin of the universe in scientific terms to understand where it all began and what its purpose or future might be.

I’m going to ask that you don’t discuss how long the Genesis 1 Creation Story took in your conversation about this message. Please take the advice of the Apostle Paul who warns God’s people ‘against quarrelling about words’ because ‘it is of no value and only ruins those who listen’ (2 Timothy 2:14). I believe that too much time and energy has been lost in arguments about how long a ‘day’ was in Jewish thinking. Because of those disagreements, we have often missed much of the good news that Genesis 1 can speak into our lives.

One thing we can miss about the Genesis 1 Creation Story is the way the Trinity is at work. It is true that the word Trinity never appears in the Bible. An early church leader named Tertullian began using it about two hundred years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to try to communicate the mystery of the one God who makes himself known to us as three distinct but still unified persons. While the Bible doesn’t use the word Trinity, we can still see plenty of evidence of the One-God-In-Three-Persons throughout Scripture.

One passage where we see evidence for the Trinity is in Genesis 1. We read that God created everything in the story simply by speaking. For example, in verse 3 ‘God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light’ (NIV). God spoke and his Word did what it said.
We can see the Trinity at work in Creation if we look a little closer at the story. Firstly, there is the Speaker who proclaims the Word that is spoken. Secondly, we have the Word itself which brings what is spoken into existence. Thirdly, the Breath of the Speaker carries the Word to do what is said. Whenever we speak, our breath carries our words to those who hear them. Genesis 1:2 has already introduced the Spirit of God to us. The biblical languages use the same word for breath, wind and spirit, so the Spirit of God is involved in Creation as the Speaker’s Breath which carries the Word to create what has been spoken.

This story continues to unfold when we read it through the eyes of the New Testament. The Apostle John identified Jesus as the Word which was spoken at creation who entered the world as a flesh and blood person (John 1:1-17). Jesus gave his followers a new relational way of understanding God by calling him ‘Father’ (John 5:18). Jesus also talked about sending his Spirit to his followers (John 14:15-17,26, etc) to be ‘with’ them and ‘in’ them (v17 NIV). Jesus expanded people’s understanding of God from the ancient Hebrew confession of ‘the Lord is One’ (Deuteronomy 6:4), to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being the Three-In-One and One-In-Three God which we know as the Trinity.

From this point of view, we can see the Triune God at work in the Genesis 1 Creation Story. The Father is the Speaker of the Word who brings everything into existence. The Word proclaimed by the Father is the Son, Jesus, through whom all things were made and without whom nothing was made that has been made (John 1:3). The Holy Spirit carries the Word from the Father to do what the Father intends and what the Word itself says. When God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was at work creating light where there was darkness, peace where there was chaos, and life where there was emptiness.

There is much more to this reading of Genesis than just a theological analysis. Because of the reality of sin in our world, we continue to see and experience the darkness, chaos and emptiness that was present in the beginning before the Trinity’s creative work. For example, we can see the darkness of racism, hatred and injustice in our world which caused the death of George Floyd in the USA last week, and has been highlighted by protests in that nation and around the world, including Australia. We have all seen how the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged our world into chaos and confusion as nations have tried to prevent the spread of the virus and keep their people safe. We can see darkness and chaos on a global scale, but we can also experience it personally. In lots of different ways, we can also struggle with darkness, chaos or confusion, or emptiness in our own lives.

When we acknowledge the darkness, chaos or emptiness in our own lives, the Genesis 1 Creation Story can speak so much good news to us. It tells us that the Trinity is still at work in the world and in our lives. The same Speaker continues to proclaim the Word which is carried by the Breath into our darkness, chaos, and emptiness to create light, peace, and life in us, just as the Triune God did in the beginning. The Trinity continues to be at work in our lives as the Father proclaims the Son who is carried by the Holy Spirit into our lives and into our hearts to create light, peace and life within us! When we believe that the Trinity was working in this way at the start of Creation, we can also believe that the Trinity is still at work in us and through us, bringing the light of perfect love into dark places, peace into our confusion and chaos, and life where everything seems empty.

The Word of God continues to speak the Trinity’s creative Word to us. It is the message of Jesus which proclaims love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and every good thing that our hearts, our lives, our world needs in these dark, chaotic and empty times. We find this Word in the message of Jesus, the stories of the Bible, the letters of the early Christians who were living in this light, peace and life, sharing what they had found with other believers and helping them to live in the reality of the work of the Trinity in their own dark times. The Bible isn’t just old bedtime stories or information about God. It is the creative Word of God, proclaimed by the Speaker and carried by the Breath into our lives to create light in the darkness, peace in the chaos, and life in the emptiness.

What might it be like for the Trinity to be at work in you, creating light in the darkness you might be experiencing, peace in the chaos or confusion that might be going on within or around you, or life in any emptiness you might be struggling with? I don’t argue about how much time it took God to create the world, or how long a Jewish ‘day’ is anymore because we can miss the main point of the Genesis 1 story. This Creation account tells us that we have a God who speaks a Word of grace, peace and hope into our lives, and whose Breath carries this Word into our hearts, our lives and our world to create light and peace and life, just like in the beginning.

More to think about & discuss:

  • What is your favourite thing about Creation? For example, sunsets or sunrises, autumn leaves, newborn babies, the beach, or something else? Spend some time discussing or reflecting on why you like them so much…
  • Do you ever wonder where everything came from? What does the Genesis 1 Creation Story say to you about God who created it all? (again, please don’t start discussing how long God took or what a Hebrew ‘day’ might mean; you can talk about that another day…)
  • What are your thoughts about finding the Trinity in Genesis 1 as Speaker, Word and Breath? Does it make sense to you? Is there anything about it you’re not sure about?
  • Before God started the work of creation, there was darkness, chaos and emptiness. Where can we still see these in our times? In the global situation? In our own lives personally?
  • In Genesis 1 the Triune God creates light from darkness, peace from chaos, and life from emptiness. Discuss or reflect on the idea that God is still doing the same today. Is that easy or more difficult for you to trust? Why or why not?
  • Where are you experiencing darkness, chaos or confusion, or emptiness in your own life? What might god be saying to you through his Word to create light, peace, or life in you? In someone else’s life?
  • At some stage, go for a walk outside. Look at and listen to creation. Wonder where it all came from as you reflect on the Genesis 1 story. If God can create all this beauty and wonder from darkness, chaos and emptiness, what might God’s Word and Breath be able to create into you?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/dSTlQc50vGo

God bless!

 

On All People (Acts 2:1-21)

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I think a lot of people in our communities rejoiced a few weeks ago when local council libraries opened again. They had been closed for a while because of the COVID-19 restrictions which meant that many people’s access to books, videos and CDs was cut off during a time when not much else was available to them. The re-opening of our libraries has meant that we are now able to return to them, explore lots of different resources, and borrow them again.

I spent a fair bit of time in libraries when I was younger but only visited our local library a few years ago with our children. I was surprised and amazed at the wide variety of good things I could borrow! There were so many books, graphic novels, CDs, videos, and other items we could take home, not just for the kids but for adults as well. Of course, the problem with libraries is that we don’t get to keep the good things that we find. We can only have what we borrow for a limited amount of time, and then at some stage it needs to go back to the library.

What do you think it would be like to be able to go to the world’s greatest library, to find the best books, videos or CDs, and to be able to take it home to keep, absolutely free of charge? Would you go to that library to find what you were looking for? What if this wasn’t just available to you, but to every person in the world?

God’s gift of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament worked something like a public library. God gave the Holy Spirit, often referred to as ‘the Spirit of the Lord’, to certain people for a limited time to do something specific or to achieve a particular purpose. For example, we read in Numbers 11:24-30 that God gave the Holy Spirit to seventy elders of the nation of Israel. The story continues that ‘when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But this never happened again’ (v25b NLT). Here and in other Old Testament stories God ‘loaned’ the Holy Spirit to certain people to help them do something, but then the Holy Spirit returned to God when that task was completed.

Then, about five or six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Joel made an amazing claim. He wrote,

‘Then, after doing all those things, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on servants – men and women alike.’ (Joel 2:28,29 NLT)

This was radical for a few reasons. Firstly, Joel deliberately included women this prophecy. There had been a few women in the Old Testament who had received the Holy Spirit but here Joel was saying that what had previously been the exception would become the norm. Also, God would pour out the Holy Spirit on all people, not just a select few for a limited time. Instead of being like a public library where the books that have been borrowed would need to be returned, now all people could receive the Holy Spirit who would remain with them permanently.

Joel’s words were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter specifically referred to Joel’s prophecy to show that God was fulfilling his message by giving the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus fifty days after his resurrection and ten days after his ascension. Pentecost was a spiritual game-changer as God poured out his Holy Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, giving them what they needed to witness to Jesus and participate in God’s mission to the world. God wasn’t just loaning them his Spirit. God was giving his Spirit to them as a gift to go with them everywhere they went and to give them the power to be the living presence of the resurrected and ascended Jesus in the world.

Pentecost started a whole new way in which God was at work in the world. We continue to celebrate Pentecost because it reminds us that God began something new on that day in Jerusalem which he continues to do in us and through us. As Jesus’ disciples in our time and place, God pours his Holy Spirit into us so that we can have the power we need to be the physical presence of the risen Jesus in the world as well.

Over the last few weeks, we have talked about being Jesus’ witnesses in the world, being ready to explain the hope we have in Jesus, standing between God and the world to bring them together as holy and royal priests, and being a community of faith dedicated to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. All of these are only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our relationships, and our community of faith. If we try to be all these things on our own, we will struggle and probably fail. However, God gives us the dynamic power to be his people in community with him and with each other, and to bring his goodness to the world by pouring the Holy Spirit into our lives and gifting us with everything we need to participate with God in his saving work in the world.

We can go to God like we go to the local library, looking for everything we need to live as his people and be part of God’s mission to redeem and restore the world, and the Holy Spirit will gift us with what we need. What the Holy Spirit has to offer us, though, is much better than books, CDs, and videos. The Holy Spirit gifts us with the faith we need to trust in the life-giving love of God for us in Jesus no matter what we might be going through in life. The Holy Spirit gifts us with the grace and goodness of God so we can produce fruit such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22,23) in our lives. The Holy Spirit gifts us with everything we need to live together in Christ-centred community, to serve God and each other as his holy and royal priests, to be ready to explain to others the hope we have in Jesus, and to witness to the life-changing love of Jesus in our whole lives, in both our words and actions.

We can find everything we need to live as God’s people and followers of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Unlike a library, God won’t want us to return the Holy Spirit. The miracle of Pentecost is that God gifts the Holy Spirit to all of his people, men and women, young and old, to give us the power we need to be the people he is calling us to be, to do what he is calling us to do, and to be the physical presence of the risen and ascended Jesus in the world. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, with no return date, so we can be united with Jesus in faith and we can bring the goodness of God we encounter in Jesus to the world.

More to think about & discuss:

  • When was the last time you were in a library? What were some of the good things you found there? How did you feel about having to return them?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to live as a child of God and a follower of Jesus? What would help you trust Jesus in every part of your life and live in the way he taught?
  • What is your reaction to Joel’s prophecy that God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all people? Have you ever thought of yourself as included in ‘all people’? Give some reasons for your answer…
  • Have you considered asking the Holy Spirit for what you need to trust Jesus and love others in the way he teaches? What might happen if you looked for what you need in your relationship with God, sort of like you might look for a book or video in a library?
  • The Holy Spirit can act in ‘supernatural’ or ‘miraculous’ ways, but also in ways that look more everyday and ordinary. Where can you see the Holy Spirit at work in your life?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/j6xK2NV2gYo

God bless!

Dispersed Disciples (Luke 24:44-53)

Luke 24v44-53 seed spreader

When we moved into the manse after accepting the call to the congregation we serve, almost half of the backyard was dirt and nothing was growing in it. After some discussions about what we were going to do with the area, we decided to sow grass in it so our children could run around and play in the space.

I had never sown a lawn before, but I knew that I couldn’t just dump all the seed in a pile in the corner of the yard and expect the grass to spread across the dirt patch. Instead, I needed to spread the lawn seed over the whole area. To do that, I bought a seed spreader. This device has a small bucket which holds the seed and drops it into a spinner that spreads it around when its handle is turned. The purpose of this seed spreader is to disperse the seed evenly over the area so the grass can cover the whole patch of earth.

When Jesus ascended into heaven (Luke 24:44-53) he told his disciples that they were going to be his witnesses to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. The way they were going to witness to him was by spreading the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection wherever they went. They were going to act like seed spreaders, bringing the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to people who needed the life Jesus was offering them. They weren’t going to just spread this good news over a patch in their back yard. Instead, they were going to spread it to all the people of the world in the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit. This led to the second thing Jesus told them: to remain in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As we read the sequel to Luke’s gospel, the Book of Acts, we start to see how the disciples were able to spread the good news of Jesus beyond their own backyard. There were some individual evangelists such as Paul who played a significant part in spreading the gospel. Another way the gospel was spread was by the people from ‘every nation’ (Acts 2:5 NLT) who heard Peter’s Pentecost message and came to faith. When they returned to their homes from Jerusalem, they took the good news of Jesus with them and spread it in their hometowns as they shared it with others. A third way the disciples spread the gospel was when the early followers of Jesus were dispersed because of the persecution that happened after Steven was killed. In Acts 8:1 we read,

A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (NLT)

In his creative power, God even used the persecution of his people to spread the good news of Jesus beyond Jerusalem so others could hear the gospel and find life through faith in him.

As we live with the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 virus, I can imagine that there might be some people who might focus on Jesus’ instructions in this reading to wait. Most of us are probably waiting for life to return to something like normal when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. We can also be waiting for church to return to what we were used to, for the doors of our church buildings to reopen, services to resume, and programs to begin again, pretty much like they were before the restrictions started.
I can understand why people are waiting for these things, but I also wonder if, in hearing Jesus tell his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, we are missing something important in the words Jesus spoke to his disciples.

Jesus told them to wait because they were going to receive the power of the Holy Spirit which they would need to spread the gospel to all nations. When we celebrate Pentecost next week, we can remember that we have already received the Holy Spirit. The words of Jesus at his ascension that we can be hearing, then, is not so much to wait, but to witness.

We saw in Acts 8:1 that God can even use a crisis like persecution to spread the good news of Jesus to people who need to hear it. Ever since the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, I have been wondering if God is giving us an opportunity to spread the gospel of Jesus to a hurting, fearful and broken world. With our doors closed, our programs stopped and the regular activity of the church put on hold for a period of time that could go on for months, suddenly many of us have much more time on our hands. Can we be using this time to have deeper conversations with family, friends, loved ones and others in person, online or by other means? Is God presenting us with opportunities to care for each other in Christ-like love and give witness to our faith in the life-giving power of the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Jesus never intended the gospel to be confined to buildings or religious observances held within four walls. Instead, as we listen to the words Jesus spoke to his disciples at his ascension, he commissions us to spread his good news wherever life takes us. As Jesus’ twenty-first century disciples, Jesus wants us to be his witnesses outside of our church buildings and empowers us to give a witness to his life-giving grace and love in our lives and in our relationships through the Holy Spirit. If we are just waiting for the doors of our buildings to re-open and services to resume, then we might miss what is really important in Jesus’ words. He calls and empowers us to be his witnesses by spreading the gospel beyond our backyard like seed spreaders, starting with our families, friends, and other people that we know. The gospel of Jesus is good news for all people! Our ascended King Jesus commissions us to spread his good news wherever we go in the world, to whomever we meet along the way.

Of course, gathering together as the family of God is important for our new life in Christ. We read that in Acts 2:42-47 and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. Is it possible that God wants to use this time to remind us that the place where we live out our faith is not just in our buildings, programs or other activities, but in our lives, relationships and communities outside of the church buildings? It is vitally important that we are not just waiting for the doors of our buildings to reopen or services to resume, but that we are witnesses to the love and life of Jesus everywhere we go.

Let’s use this time and the opportunities it presents us to spread the good news of Jesus wherever the Holy Spirit leads us, so the new life Jesus gives us through the gospel can cover the world.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you ever used a seed spreader? Why is it helpful or important? What might happen if you didn’t use one?
  • What is your reaction to Jesus’ disciples being like seed spreaders? Does the analogy work for you? How might you be like a seed spreader for Jesus in your life?
  • As we live with the COVID-19 restrictions, are you waiting for the doors of our buildings to reopen, programs to begin again or services to resume? Or are you looking for opportunities God might present to spread his grace, love and goodness into the lives of others? Maybe a bit of both? Explain why you answered that way…
  • Have you ever pictured yourself as a witness for Jesus? What is your reaction to thinking of yourself as a witness for Jesus?
  • Witnesses usually tell others about something they have experienced themselves. How have you witnessed the goodness, grace or love of Jesus in your life? Who is someone with whom you might be able to share your story?
  • What opportunities might God be giving you this week to be Jesus’ witness by trusting him and showing Christ-like love to someone else…?

You can find a video version of this message here.

God bless!