Ruth (Ruth 3:1-5,4:13-17)

 

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Promises are an important part of life. We all make promises and others make promises to us. We usually make them with the best of intentions to keep them, but at some stage I suppose that we have all broken promises and have had people break their promises to us. It can leave us pretty suspicious or cynical, even to the point where we don’t think that promises mean anything. Our default position can be to assume that people will break their promises rather than keep them.

But what would it be like to have someone in your life who always kept their promises and followed through with what they said they were going to do?

The story of Ruth from the Old Testament of the Bible centres on the promise a young widow made to her older mother-in-law. Naomi had moved with her husband and two sons from Bethlehem in Israel to the foreign country of Moab. While they were living there, her sons married Moabite women but then, after some time, her husband and sons all died. Naomi was about to travel back home to Bethlehem when Ruth made her this promise:

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” (1:16,17 NLT)

If you have a daughter-in-law, can you imagine her making a promise like this to you? Or if you are married, could you imagine making a promise like this to your mother-in-law?

Ruth didn’t need to make this promise to Naomi, but it shows a level of commitment that exceeds what we usually expect or even hope for from others. The rest of Ruth’s story tells how Ruth kept her promise and was faithful to Naomi. It cost Ruth a lot and she worked hard to support herself and her mother-in-law. The result was that Ruth married Boaz, a close family member of Naomi, they became the great-grandparents of King David, and eventually Jesus was born into their family line (Matthew 1:5).

We can learn a lot from Ruth’s story, but there are two main points I want to explore. The first is that Ruth is a great example of what can happen when we keep the promises we make to each other. Keeping promises can be hard work and can cost us, especially when circumstances change and life gets difficult. Ruth experienced that but still did what she needed to in order to keep the promise she made to Naomi. Because of Ruth’s faithfulness, God was faithful to her and Naomi and provided them with a home, a family and a future.

When we are finding it difficult to keep our promises, Ruth’s story can encourage us to remain faithful. God is faithful to us when we are faithful to each other and will give us what we need so we can keep our promises. Most of the time, he will do this in very ordinary ways. One commentator I looked at pointed out that God isn’t really mentioned in the story of Ruth, but we can see God in the background, putting things in place and setting things up to provide for those who are faithful. When keeping our promises is hard, Ruth’s story can remind us that God will be faithful to us so we can be faithful to others.

I completely understand, though, that there are also times in life when things happen which make it impossible for us to keep the promises we make. We need to acknowledge and confess that without carrying the burden of guilt over it. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and despite our best intentions and efforts, sometimes life just don’t happen the way we hoped or planned. That’s where the second key focus of this story becomes so important to hear.

Ruth’s faithfulness points us to God’s faithfulness when he keeps his promises to us in Jesus. All the way through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, God promises to redeem, restore and renew us and everything that he has created. Throughout Scripture, God promises to forgive sinners, heal the broken, bring peace where there is conflict, and extend grace to those who need it. I firmly believe that an essential part of living as Jesus’ followers is to learn how to hear God’s promises in his Word. The Bible comes alive as the Holy Spirit speaks words of peace, joy and hope into our lives through God’s promises to us. For example, in Ruth’s promise to Naomi we can also hear God promising us that he will be with us every day of our lives. He will go where we go, live where we live, our family will be his family and even at the point of death God will never leave us or forsake us. Hearing this promise becomes vital, especially during those times in life when it seems like we’re on our own and God has forgotten about us.

God keeps all of his promises to us in Jesus. He is with us as he entered our humanity in his birth. Our human family became God’s family as Jesus experienced life as a human with all of its joys, struggles, pain and hope. God kept his promise to forgive and redeem us when Jesus died on the cross, carrying our guilt, shame and broken promises. God began to restore us and all of creation in the resurrection of Jesus, keeping his promise to give new life into the world. Just like Ruth kept her promise to Naomi even though it wasn’t easy and involved hard work, in Jesus God kept all of his promises to us even though it cost him his life. Jesus’ resurrection is the seal of God’s faithfulness to us. If we ever start to doubt that God will keep his promises, we can go back to the empty tomb and see once and for all that God always does what he says he will.

We have someone in our lives who always keeps his promises to us. Jesus promises to travel with us through life, forgives us for our wrongs, love us unconditionally and be faithful to us, no matter what. The promises we make to others become ways in which they can experience the faithfulness of God through our faithfulness to them. There will always be times when we fail to keep the promises we make, but Ruth’s story tells us that God always keeps his promises to us, no matter what the cost.

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The Bigger Picture (Revelation 7:9-17)

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The Block is a ‘reality’ TV show where contestants move in to and renovate a building over three months. Each week they refurbish one area of the building. People who watch the show get glimpses of what the contestants are doing during the week. Then, on Sunday evening, the results of their hard work and sleepless nights are revealed for all to see.

This is what it means to reveal something: to show or to make known what has been hidden.

We can think of the Revelation of John in a similar way. This book of the Bible is often debated and misunderstood. Essentially, it gives us a glimpse of God’s finished work of salvation through Jesus. That’s what the Greek word apocalypse means: to reveal something that has been hidden. Like the contestants on The Block, there are times when we can catch glimpses of God’s work in the world, but it’s hard to know how it all ties together and what the finished result will look like. We can think of the vision God gave John recorded in Revelation as God’s great reveal. In passages such as Revelation 7:9-17, God pulls back the curtain, removes the veil, or raises the cloche to show us the end result of Jesus’ redemptive work for us in his life, death and resurrection.

Biblical scholars tend to interpret Revelation in two main ways. Some read it as God revealing to us what will happen in the future. A lot of effort can be spent trying to decipher the clues in Revelation as people try to work out when the events in John’s vision will happen in an attempt to predict when Jesus will return and the world as we know it will end. So far none of these predictions have been accurate, so I wonder whether people who try to work out a Revelation timeline for the end of the world have missed the point. If we read Revelation as God revealing the future, maybe what he’s trying to show us is what our eternal future will be, and then to understand our lives now from that perspective.

As John looks at the ‘vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb’ (v9a NLT) he sees people who are clothed in the purity and holiness of Jesus, signified by the white robes, who are waving the palm branches of victory. Most biblical scholars agree that Revelation was written to Christians suffering persecution to encourage and strengthen them in their faith. We can also read it from the point of view of people who are struggling through life, battling challenges of various kinds, who can sometimes feel overwhelmed by what we’re trying to cope with. The message is still the same. If we read Revelation as God showing us the future, we will not be overcome by the trials and tribulations we experience in this world. No matter what we might be facing or struggling with, our eternal destination is to be with this crowd of people that no one can number, praising God for his saving love in Jesus which gives us victory.

The second way biblical scholars interpret Revelation is that God is revealing to us what is happening right now. We can easily focus in our lives on what’s happening to us here and now and lose sight of the bigger picture of God’s saving love. In Revelation, God gives us this bigger-picture perspective on how God is at work around us in ways we can’t always see.

If we read Revelation from this point of view, we can see God’s holy people from every time and place uniting with us in worship. This is the ‘huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith’ (NLT) we read about in Hebrews 12:1 who are cheering us on as we continue our earthly journey towards our heavenly home. They are God’s holy people who have completed their lives on earth and now worship before God’s throne in heaven. We are still connected with them because we are worshiping the same God, the same Lamb John describes is the one who gives us his body and blood to us in the Lord’s Supper, and the same Spirit of God who breathes life eternal into both them and us.

One reason some Christians call the Lord’s Supper Holy Communion is that the gift of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of this meal brings us into communion with both our Holy God and his holy people. The Holy Spirit transcends time and space to unite us with God along with our sisters and brothers in the faith who have passed on before us through faith in Jesus. In John’s vision, God reveals to us that we are part of a much greater reality than our small group which gathers in worship on Sunday mornings. God is showing us that we participate with the whole people of God of every time and place in our worship, and we join with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven in singing God’s praises.

This is why Revelation 7:9-17 is such a good reading for the Festival of All Saints. Not only is God showing us that are included with his holy people who are clothed in the purity and holiness of Jesus and who carry the palm branches of victory, but also that we are united with all those who have gone before us in the faith. That includes all of our loved ones who have died in faith and are now among that vast crowd before the heavenly throne. They may have gone ahead of us to glory, but because the Holy Spirit unites us all in the life of Jesus, then we are united as God’s holy people and we are one in worship.

One of the reasons I watch The Block is because I’m curious to see how all the work the contestants put in comes together in the reveal. I love the book of Revelation because it shows us how God’s work of salvation in Jesus and the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit come together to unite God’s holy people of every time and place into one worshiping community. As we celebrated the Festival of All Saints, we catch a glimpse of our identity as God’s holy, victorious people, as well as the bigger picture of the communion of saints from every time and place who are united in worshiping our saving God.

Justified! (Romans 3:19-28)

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I suppose all of us have been caught doing something wrong at some stage in our lives. Usually when this happens our natural reaction is to try to justify ourselves and what we’ve done. We can do that by saying it wasn’t us, blaming others or trying to explain our actions. This is basically what it means to justify someone or something – to make what is wrong right again.

Can you imagine what it would be like to never have to justify yourself?

On the last Sunday in October, many churches around the world commemorate the start of the Reformation 500 years ago in Germany. It was a time when there were a lot of wrong things happening in the church. People like Martin Luther wanted to make these wrong things right again so others could encounter and trust in the grace and love of God that we hear about in the Bible and meet in the person of Jesus. At the heart of the Reformation was the message we hear in Romans 3:28 – that ‘we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law’ (NLT).

At this stage of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the early Christian community in Rome, he is pointing out that when we compare our lives to what God wants us to be and do, we all are always going to fall short. Paul writes,

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. (v20 NLT)

Whether we think of God’s law as the Ten Commandments or the law of love that Jesus taught, it will always show us that we have a problem we can’t make right by ourselves. However, a couple of weeks ago we heard that nothing is impossible for God (Mark 10:27). God’s solution to our problem is to give us Jesus who lived the perfect life we should be living, and who died an innocent death in our place. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote,

For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. (v25a NLT)

The good news for us in this is that we don’t have to try to justify ourselves before God for the wrongs we have done because God has justified us through Jesus. God has taken everything about us that is wrong, flawed or broken and put it to death in Jesus’ crucifixion. God has then made us right again by giving us Jesus’ resurrected life which has nothing wrong in it at all. God gives us all this as a free gift, an act of pure grace, which we receive by believing that Jesus did it all for us.

In other words, when God catches us doing wrong (and he always does) Jesus jumps up, takes the blame for us, and frees us from having to try to justify ourselves. This is what it means to be justified – God re-forms us as right people through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for us by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Even though there can be times when we still feel like we need to justify ourselves or our actions in some way, God’s justifying work flows through every aspect of our lives. For example, we might think that we need to justify our identity, or our value, or the purpose of our lives. We can try to find a sense of who we are, that our lives are worth something, or that there is some sort of meaning to our existence. The work we do, both paid or unpaid, the things we own, the way we look, our relationships or even the religious things we do for the church can all be attempts to justify ourselves before other people, or even ourselves. In a whole range of different ways, we can spend our entire lives trying to somehow convince ourselves and others that we’re good people, that we’re worthwhile, or that our lives matter.

These are really just more ways in which we try to justify ourselves through our works. What Paul is saying in this passage, and one of the reasons why I believe there are so many unhappy and discontented people in our society, is that it doesn’t work. We can spend our whole lives trying to find our identity, value and meaning in what we do, but they will always be short-lived and we will have to keep looking for them in something else. And so we sacrifice our lives to our work, we go from relationship to relationship trying to find something that works for us, or we fill our homes with consumer goods we don’t need, only to get rid of them and buy something better when the next thing comes out. Trying to justify who we are, what we’re worth or meaning in our lives will always leave us empty and wanting more because these things don’t last.

That is why the Reformation cry to be justified by faith in Jesus is still important for us today. More than being about going to heaven when we die, being justified by Jesus means that we never have to try to justify ourselves to anyone ever again. Our whole lives are now made right through faith in Jesus. We can know who we are as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased because of Jesus’ saving work for us. We can know what we’re worth because of the price Jesus paid to bring us back into relationship with God – his holy and innocent life. We can know that our lives have meaning as we participate in God’s saving mission in the world by doing the good that God has prepared in advance for us to do and being ready to share the good news of Jesus with others. Our identity, value and purpose are all God’s free gifts to us, acts of God’s grace at work in our lives, as Jesus’ life, death and resurrection frees us from the need to try to justify ourselves. When we’re free from having to justify ourselves, then we can help others find who they are, what they’re worth and meaning in their own lives as God’s justified people.

Being justified by faith in Jesus is so much more than just a dusty old historical doctrine. Instead, living as people whose existences are justified through faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for us gives us the possibility of knowing who we are, what we’re worth and what we’re here for. It liberates us to live as God’s people whoever we are and whatever we do, and to help others find their identity, value and meaning in Jesus.

Because the good news of the Reformation is that when we trust in Jesus, we never have to justify ourselves again.

Called (Hebrews 5:1-10)

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In the first week of October this year, delegates from Lutheran congregations across Australia and New Zealand met in Sydney to discuss and decide on proposals made by member churches. The biggest item on the agenda was whether women and men can be ordained as pastors in the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA). We have been wrestling with this question for a long time and people on both sides feel very passionate about what they believe God wants for the LCA. Leading up towards convention, it seemed to me that whichever way the vote went, there would be people who will be hurt, disappointed and unhappy with the result.

A few weeks prior to convention, I was preparing the themes for my messages during October when I came to Hebrews 5:1-10, the Epistle reading for last Sunday. Verse 4 jumped out to me, which says that

no one can become a high priest simply because they want such an honour. They must be called by God for this work, just as Aaron was. (v4 alt)

As far as I understand, this text has played an important part in the Lutheran understanding of the role of pastors since the Reformation. In the Old Testament, people didn’t volunteer to be a high priest. They needed God to call them. Similarly, Jesus didn’t wake up one morning and decide that he wanted to be the saviour of the world. God called him to that (Hebrews 5:5ff). Following the example of Scripture, then, it has been the Lutheran position since the Reformation that ‘no one should teach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless properly called’ (Augsburg Confession Article XIV).

So how does God call people?

One way we can answer this question is to think of a ‘call’ having two elements. The first is an ‘internal’ call, something God places on our hearts that we feel called to do. The second is an ‘external’ call where God works through people and circumstances to open doors and bring us to where he’s leading us. For God to be calling us to something, both need to line up. Sometimes an internal call might come first, or it might be something from outside us that leads us in a certain way. What can be difficult is when an internal call and an external call don’t match up, and either we feel called in a direction where the doors are closed to us, or God opens doors for us that we really don’t want to go through.

I have known people over the years who have really struggled with a disconnect between these internal and external calls. For example, I know people who have felt called to be pastors, both men and women, but for a range of reasons they haven’t been ordained into the public ministry of the church. I have also known people who have had opportunities open to them which they really didn’t want to embrace. Personally, I have had times when I have felt called in certain directions but they didn’t work out, or I have thought that God was leading me in directions I really didn’t want to go. So to a degree I can understand the turmoil and anguish that people can experience when an internal call isn’t in synch with events and circumstances that are happening around us. To be honest, I don’t really have an answer to offer when that happens, other than to keep praying and seeking where God may be calling us.

However, there was something else in Sunday’s readings that I think can help us understand the nature of God’s call a little better. In Mark 10:43,44 Jesus says,

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. (NLT)

Pastors are called to be servants, not to exercise power or control. We don’t decide to be pastors to find a sense of importance or value or identity. God calls people to serve communities of faith by shepherding them, watching over them, caring for them, and feeding them with the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection for them. It’s not up to me to walk into a congregation as a new pastor and start telling people how things will or will not be done. Instead, pastors are called to be the servants of God’s people so they will encounter the love and grace of Jesus in us. That doesn’t mean always doing what the congregation wants, because sometimes what we want isn’t good for us. However, it might mean giving up our own rights, our preferences and sometimes even our opinions in order to serve the people God has placed in our care, in order to build them up in faith and love, and equip them to do the good God has planned for all of us to do.

One of the greatest legacies of the Reformation is the idea that God doesn’t just call people to serve him in overtly religious ways. Instead, God calls us to a variety of vocations so that we can serve each other, and so his goodness can grace can flow through us to the people around us. God might call us to be parents, children, grandparents or grandchildren. He might call us to be husbands, wives, or possibly even to serve him and others as a single person. The work we do in our places of employment, our homes, our churches or community organizations, both paid and unpaid, are all callings God places on our lives so we can be his salt and light in the world, and so other people can meet Jesus in us.

Paul’s discussion of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 reminds us that every part is needed for the whole body to function properly. One part isn’t more important or less important than any other. In the same way, the call to be a pastor is no more or less important to the body of Christ than a fulltime, stay at home parent, or the people on the toilet cleaning roster. We’re all vital parts of the body of Christ because we are all called to contribute to the mission of God in the world in different ways.

I honestly don’t know where the LCA will go from here as we continue to struggle with who we believe God is calling to be pastors in our church. I continue to pray that the Spirit of God will pour wisdom into the hearts and minds of our bishops and other leaders as they keep wrestling with this question.

What I do know, though, is what it’s like to struggle with where God may be calling us in our lives. Whatever we think God may be calling us to, and whether the doors are opening for us to follow those calls or not, we need to be listening to each other, praying for each other, and walking together with each other as the body of Christ. No matter where God might be calling us to serve him in our lives, one thing we all have in common is that God calls us his children whom he loves.

Priorities (Mark 10:17-31)

 

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A couple of times in my life I have really wrestled with Jesus’ words in the story of the rich man in Mark 10:17-31. I was looking for God’s direction in my life and wondering if following a particular path would mean selling everything I had. That was hard to contemplate because I like my stuff – my books, musical instruments and motorbike – and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sell them in order to follow where God might be leading me.

So I can identify with the rich young man of the story and sympathise with him as he walks away sad. He couldn’t give away his possessions, and I’m not sure if I could either.

But maybe that’s the point of the story.

There are two main dangers we can face when we try to unravel this story. The first is taking Jesus’ words about selling everything we have too literally, and thinking that we have to do it to enter into eternal life. Monks and nuns have been doing that for centuries, but I’m not sure how many of them got closer to God by doing it. The second danger is not taking Jesus’ words seriously enough and ignoring what he’s trying to teach us. We can get lost collecting more and more stuff in a meaningless consumerism and miss out on the grace Jesus has for us in this story.

The third strategy of the Growing Young research from the Fuller Youth Institute is to take Jesus’ message seriously. As Christians who want to follow Jesus faithfully, taking Jesus’ message seriously might sound kind of obvious. But when it comes to stories like this with the rich young ruler, how do we do that?

Maybe taking Jesus’ message in this story might mean looking carefully at our priorities in life. When Jesus challenged the man to sell all he had, and when I was challenged with the possibility of selling everything I owned to follow God’s call, it challenged us ask to think about what matters in life. Is Jesus the most important thing to us? Or are the things we own more important? Do we love Jesus enough to be willing to give everything we have up for him? Do we trust him to provide for us each day? Or do we want to hang on to our possessions because we find a sense of who we are, what we’re worth and some sort of meaning for life in them?

Jesus is challenging us to reorganise our priorities around him, our love for him and our trust in him, rather than in the things of this world. There may be times when that might mean giving everything away, but it could also mean that we look for a sense of who we are, what we’re worth and what gives our lives meaning in our relationship with Jesus rather than the accumulation of material possessions.

This challenge from Jesus also teaches us something about ourselves. We all like to think that we’re good people. However, if Jesus’ standard of ‘good’ means giving everything away to help others and totally trusting in him to provide for us on a day-to-day basis, then who of us can live up to that? Remember that the man’s question at the start is what he did he have to do ‘to inherit eternal life’ (v17). He was thinking that he could somehow work his way into eternity. However, Jesus showed him, and us, that if we want to work our way in to eternal life, then it will cost us everything.

Can we do that? If we’re trying to work our way into eternal life as ‘good’ people, are we able to be so ‘good’ that we give away everything we have to others to provide for them in their poverty, and rely on God giving us what we need from one day to the next? Like the person in the story, I think this would probably be the point that most of us would walk away too.

But, as I’ve said already, maybe that’s the point.

The disciples were perplexed by what they witnessed as well, so they asked Jesus, ‘Then who in the world can be saved?’ (v26). And Jesus gives us the good news when he said, ‘Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God’ (v27).

Jesus is telling us that it is impossible for us to work our way into eternal life. However, what is impossible for us is possible with God. Only God has the power to give us a life that is stronger that death which will last literally for ever.

This is one way we can understand ‘grace’: that it is God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It is impossible for us to work our way into eternal life, so God does the impossible for us by doing what’s needed and then giving it to us as a free gift.

This is the good news of the story: that Jesus came to do the work of salvation for us. While it was impossible for us to sell all we have and give it away, and when we recognize that it is impossible for us to live up to Jesus’ standard of being a ‘good’ person, then God did the impossible by sacrificing everything for us in the person of Jesus to save us and give us eternal life as the ultimate act of grace. We can find it hard to give up our stuff, but Jesus gave up his place in heaven, the thing every religious person in the history of the world is trying to gain. Jesus gave up all of his heavenly glory to be born as a humble and helpless baby in a manger. He gave up all his possessions to live homeless and unemployed. Jesus did the impossible when he gave up everything, including his life, and went to the cross to die in our place. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God did the impossible make it possible for us to live forever as his children in perfect relationship with him and with each other.

As people to whom God has gifted the eternal life of Jesus, we are left with the question of how to take this teaching of Jesus seriously. I’m going to leave that up to you to work out with Jesus. It might mean selling what we have to follow God’s call on our life. It might mean reprioritising our lives so we find who we are, what we’re worth and the meaning of our lives in our relationship with Jesus instead of our material possessions. It might mean seeing what we have as the way God wants us to serve others, such as our families, friends or church community. It might even mean accepting that we’re not as good as we think we are and trusting the goodness of God’s grace to us in Jesus.

No matter how we might interpret this story, one way we can all take this teaching of Jesus seriously is to live every day in the faith that with God, nothing is impossible.

Confession (James 5:13-20)

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Some words in the English language can be very hard to say. For example, it took a long time for my children to say ‘animal’ instead of ‘aminal’ – and sometimes they still get it wrong. Our family always has a giggle every time characters in Finding Nemo try to say ‘anemone.’ I had to practice how to say ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ when I was younger so I could impress my university friends with what I’ve been told is one of the longest words in the English dictionary.

But it seems like one of the hardest words in the English language to say is ‘sorry.’

It is easy to read the word ‘sorry’, but if you think saying it is easy, try going to someone you have wronged in the past and telling them you’re sorry for what you did. We can find it difficult to do that for a range of reasons. Maybe we don’t think we have anything to apologise for because whatever happened was their fault. Maybe we are so ashamed of what has happened that we would prefer not to face it. Or maybe we just don’t want to take responsibility for what we have done. No matter what our reasons might be, saying ‘sorry’ to someone we have wronged can be very hard to do.

When James encourages us to confess our sins to each other in 5:16, he is reminding us that confession is more than turning up to church and saying ‘sorry’ to God. One reason why it’s important to have time in worship where we confess our sin to God and God speaks his word of forgiveness to us is that there is a strong tendency in our humanistic culture to think that we’re good people who don’t need to be forgiven. However, when I look at my life, I know that I fail to love God with all my heart, mind soul and strength, and that I fail to love others in the same way that God loves me through Jesus. Hearing God’s words of forgiveness helps me to remember that my identity is found in his forgiveness, not in my failures. Hearing a word of forgiveness helps us grow into the people God is making us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased.

When we are sorry for the wrongs we have done, then we will also be willing to go to the people we have wronged and tell them that we are sorry. This isn’t something that we have to do in order to get God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we can have a very mechanical understanding of God’s grace where we think that we have to say we are sorry before God will forgive us. There is a much more dynamic relationship that exists between our confession and God’s forgiveness. As a church that practices infant baptism, we believe and teach that God forgiveness us even before we are able to confess our sin. Because God forgives us on account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, we are free to go to each other and confess that we have wronged each other. We can trust that God’s final word to us in Jesus will always be a word of grace and forgiveness. If God has vowed to forgive us and make us clean through the gift of his Holy Spirit, then why wouldn’t we ask to receive that forgiveness from and extend that same forgiveness to each other?

The promise God gives us through James’ words about confessing sin and forgiving each other is that we will find healing. We might think about physical healing, and there is no reason why almighty God can’t heal those he chooses to. However, healing can also take other forms. When we wrong others, our hearts can be wounded as we carry the burden of guilt and shame. This can effect our emotional and sometimes even our physical wellbeing. I have known people who had been suffering mentally and even physically because of a wrong they had committed in the past, but they hadn’t connected what they were experiencing with what they’d done. When we identified the connection, and the wrong was confessed and forgiven, then their wellbeing improved. This isn’t the case with every illness, and Jesus warned us not to assume a direct connection between illnesses or disabilities and a particular sin (John 9:1-3). However, in some cases I have seen how confessing and forgiving sin can help to heal people’s hearts and even their body.

Another way to understand the healing that James talks about is in our relationships. Sin and doing wrong damages relationships, but when we confess our wrongs to each other and forgive each other in Jesus’ name, these relationships can be healed. We can be reconciled to each other in the same way that God reconciles with us in Jesus and heals our broken relationship with him. This can be really difficult to do for a whole range of reasons, but the promise of God that we hear through the words of James is that our relationships can be healed and restored when we admit when we are wrong and ask the people we have wronged to forgive us. The healing of the relationship we have through the forgiveness God gives us in Jesus can flow through into the other damaged relationships we have in our lives so they can be healed as well. This isn’t easy to do. It requires a lot of humility, courage and faith. However, James tells us, and I have seen in my own life, that when we confess our wrongs to the people we have wronged and ask them to forgive us, not only can our relationship be healed, but we can find healing and wholeness in ourselves as well.

To whom might we need to confess our wrongs, either to restore our relationship with them or just to find healing and peace for ourselves? If there is something in your life that you’re carrying, don’t be afraid to go to someone you might have wronged, or to another sister or brother in Christ, and confess what you might have done. Find healing and freedom through the grace of God working in the words of forgiveness they speak to you. Because that’s what God wants for us – to live each day as God’s forgiven and healed children.

Embracing Children Embracing God (Mark 9:30-37)

mark 9v37 welcoming children 01

Just about every church I go past has a sign out the front telling people that they are welcome. Almost anyone who is involved in a church will be able to tell you that it is important that we are welcoming communities. We want people who connect with us in one way or another to feel welcomed and accepted when they come through our doors, or participate in one of our events or programs. Welcoming is so important to us that we have an entire roster dedicated to making sure that when people come to worship on a Sunday morning, they are met with a warm smile, a hearty handshake and a friendly ‘Good morning.’

When Jesus talked about welcoming, he wasn’t talking about a sign out the front of our church or a roster of people to say ‘Good morning.’ The Greek word which Jesus used and is often translated as ‘welcome’ is more about receiving a person who knocks on our door, for example. To welcome or receive them means inviting them in, spending time with them, getting to know them and being in relationship with them. That’s why this word can also be translated as ‘accepted’ or ‘embraced.’ To welcome someone means to invite them into our lives and embrace them, possibly physically like a hug, but definitely in relationship.

One thing about that really hits me about Jesus’ words in Mark 9:37 is who Jesus encourages us to welcome or embrace in relationship with us. Jesus says,

‘Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.’ (NLT)

We might be familiar with the times Jesus points to the children and tells his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to people like them (see Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). However, Jesus’ message here is different. He is saying that when we welcome little children, we actually welcome him, and we welcome God with them. Jesus is saying that as we embrace our children as a community, and as we establish and foster relationships with them as our younger brothers and sisters in the faith, we are also embracing Jesus in those relationships.

Think about that the next time you give a child a hug or hold a baby. If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we are embracing him in our relationship with that child. Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to hug God? Maybe Jesus is pointing us to a way of doing that.

Another thing that strikes me about Jesus’ words is that I couldn’t find him saying this about anyone else in the New Testament. Jesus talked about people welcoming him through the disciples he sent out as missionaries (Matthew 10:40 NIV; John 13:20 NLT) but I couldn’t find Jesus saying that we welcome him through any people other than children. It’s significant that Matthew (18:5), Mark and Luke (9:48) all report Jesus saying the same thing. I tend to think that if one gospel writer includes something Jesus said, then it must be important. If two writers both have it, then it’s even more important. If three or more gospel writers record Jesus saying the same thing, then we’d better be listening. Because Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain these words about embracing Jesus and our heavenly Father as we embrace our children, we had better be paying very close attention to what Jesus is saying to us here.

This is why our work with Growing Young is so vital for our church. It gives us 6 strategies through which we can be welcoming and embracing children in our congregation, and welcoming and embracing Jesus in them. We welcome and embrace children and young people when we:

  • Hand over leadership positions and responsibilities
  • Empathise with them
  • Take Jesus’ message seriously
  • Fuel a relationally warm community
  • Prioritize young people and their families everywhere in the congregation
  • Are the best neighbours towards others, both locally and globally

One reason why Growing Young is so important for us is because it encourages us to recognize the presence of Jesus in, with and through the children and young people of our community. If what Jesus said is true, then we need to ask if Jesus would feel welcomed by our congregation. It is too easy for us to prioritize what we want for ourselves rather than what will embrace young people. I hope for a congregation where children and young people are surrounded by more mature sisters and brothers in the faith who will care for them, walk with them through the joys and struggles of life, and will apprentice them into living in the way of Jesus so they can grow into the faith, hope and love that come with being his followers. Growing Young is about growing as a congregation which recognises Jesus in our children and young people, which welcomes and embraces them as the presence of Jesus with us, and through whom we might find the grace and peace of Jesus.

There is something very different about what Jesus says in this text. Nowhere else in the gospels do I hear Jesus saying that we welcome him through other people in the same way that we welcome him in our children. Maybe he wants us to give them special attention, special care, to receive and embrace them in the same way we would receive and embrace him.

Our family is very thankful for the ways in which this congregation has welcomed and embraced us over the three years we have been here. In particular, we are very thankful for the way you have welcomed and embraced our children. I hope and pray that every child and young person who has a connection with our congregation would experience that same kind of welcome and acceptance. As we welcome and embrace the children and young people God gives us, we also welcome and embrace Jesus, and we welcome God.

Because God comes to us in a special way through our kids.