A Giving Culture (Luke 6:27-38)

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What do you think is more important in life – what you give or what you get?

When I posed this question to our congregation last Sunday, people replied in a variety of ways. One person said that while we know the ‘right’ answer is that giving is more important that getting, life isn’t always that simple. When we start thinking about ‘giving’ or ‘getting’ things can get a little complicated and the balance isn’t always easy to find.

This is an important question for me because I tend to hear more talk around the church about what we get than what we give. For example, I hear people asking how we can ‘get’ more people into vacant leadership roles, or ‘get’ people to fill the empty spaces on our rosters, or ‘get’ people to increase their financial giving. I regularly hear parents or grandparents whose children or grandchildren have disconnected from church asking how we can ‘get’ them back to worship. Even when we do talk about giving, it seems that the conversations are largely about what we’re expecting people to give to the church!
There is a big difference between these conversations and the teachings of Jesus. When we listen to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading (Luke 6:27-38) for example, I hear Jesus talking a lot more about giving rather than getting. He teaches us to give:

  • the kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a to people with whom we are in conflict
  • good things to the people who hate us
  • blessings to people who might curse us, or say bad things about us or to us
  • prayers for those who hurt us
  • the other cheek if people slap us across the face
  • our shirt if someone demands our coat
  • to anyone who asks anything of us, and to not try to get back what people take from us

Jesus continues in verses 32-34 by saying that if we love people who love us and only do good to people who do good to us then we are no different from anyone else. Then, in case we missed it the first time, Jesus goes on to teach us to give:

  • love and good things to our enemies (again!)
  • loans without expecting to be repaid
  • compassion and mercy in the same way that God gives us his compassion and mercy
  • freedom from judgement and condemnation
  • forgiveness to those who wrong us

Jesus concludes this part of his teaching by saying that when we give to others, our gift will return to us so that we receive a lot more than we gave out.

If we read these teachings of Jesus through a ‘getting or giving’ filter, Jesus seems to be a lot more concerned with what we give than what we get. Each of these describe an outward flow of grace from the person who is ‘willing to listen’ (v27) to Jesus and live in the way he teaches. Whether the gift we are offering is love, goodness, blessing, prayer, compassion, physical possessions or forgiveness, Jesus is challenging us to see the needs of the people around us and be ready to give to others whatever their need may be.
Adopting this other-focussed, giving attitude does not come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is more towards what we get than what we give. For us to prioritise what we give over what we get is something that God’s Holy Spirit needs to be working in us as we come into relationship with the giving God and receive everything we need from him through faith.

We can see this in Jesus’ teachings in places like verse 35 where he says that when we give without expecting a reward, then we ‘will truly be acting as children of the Most High for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked’ (NLT). Jesus points us to the nature of God who gives generously to all people, whether they deserve it or not. God gives us what we physically need as our Creator. (I know this opens up the question about people around the world who are in need. There are no easy answers to this problem, but I need to ask if problems like poverty are God’s fault or humanity’s for not sharing what God has given us with those in need?) God gives us his life through Jesus as our Redeemer so we can have a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God gives us the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier so we can live in union with God in the life of the crucified and risen Christ. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we can see that God’s nature is to give everything he has and everything he is to us as a pure gift with no strings attached.

What amazes me is that God doesn’t give to us expecting anything in return. Instead, God asks us to live out our identity as his children and give witness to his giving nature by giving what he has given us to others. When we trust that God will give us everything we need for life in this world and the next, and when we believe in the extreme generosity God has shown us especially in the gift of Jesus’ life for us on the cross, then giving to others will just come naturally. Giving to others grows out of the faith that we have a God who gives everything to us and promises to give to us more than we need for the sake of Jesus.

There are times in our church when people talk about ‘getting’ others to do things or things from others when I’ll ask them to rethink that from a ‘giving’ perspective. Some might say that I’m just playing with words, but I believe that the language we use goes a long way in communicating what’s at our heart. If we are to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, it’s important that we use the language of ‘giving’ much more than the language of ‘getting’.

So I wonder, to whom could we be giving this week? I have found it very helpful to read this passage slowly, asking myself who are my enemies to whom I can give love, who hates me to whom I can give good, who might be cursing me that I can bless, or who has hurt me for whom I can give prayers, and so on. When we are connected with the giving nature of God through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, then being giving people, living in mutually giving relationships as a giving community will show in everything we do and say.

A Different Way (Luke 5:1-11)

 

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I wonder how Peter replied to Jesus when he told the fisherman to go out into deeper waters and let his nets down to catch some fish (Luke 5:1-11). Thanks to Luke we have what Peter said, but I wonder about the way in which Peter said them.

Was he full of confidence, sure that if Jesus told him that he would catch some fish, then he would be successful?

Was Peter tired but still hopeful that following Jesus’ instructions would bring a positive result, even though his own efforts had resulted in empty nets?

Was Peter being sceptical and maybe even sarcastic? After all, Peter was an experienced fisherman but Jesus was a carpenter’s son – what would he know about catching fish?

I wonder about this because Peter had been fishing his whole life. In his mind he was probably sure that he knew what he was doing. Then along comes Jesus who, as far as we know, didn’t have any fishing experience. Then he starts to give Peter advice about how to do his job. If you were Peter, what would you do? Would you be open to some new ideas and willing to try something different? Or would you smile politely, thank Jesus for his advice, but keep doing things the way you’ve always done them?

These are important questions for me because I’ve been where Peter was. At times during my years of fulltime ministry in the church I’ve felt tired, discouraged and even a little cynical because what I’ve been doing hasn’t seemed to be producing the results I’d hoped for. I believe strongly in the mission of the church and the difference God can make in people’s lives through the good news of Jesus, but sometimes it has seemed like the nets have been empty and all my work has been for nothing.

So I understand when people are reluctant to try something new in the church. After decades of struggling with mission and ministry, we can all feel like Peter after a night of hard work to some degree. Our church has tried a lot of programs, events, campaigns and other ministry resources to try to be effective in our work for God’s kingdom. However, we are still an aging, declining church. We can easily begin to wonder if the time, effort and money has been worth it when they haven’t seemed to bring about the results we’ve hoped for, and our nets are empty.

There are two reasons why, like Peter, I keep heading out into deeper waters and letting down the nets in ministry. The first is because Jesus calls us to. If we are going to take Jesus’ message seriously, as one of the core commitments from Growing Young encourages us to, then we need to be listening to Jesus’ call to head out into deeper waters and let down our nets. If Jesus is calling us to go fishing for him, then he has what we need to do it effectively and he will provide the catch. All he asks of us is to listen to him and to trust him enough to follow his call.

The second reason I continue to head out into deeper water and let down my nets is that I believe God is giving us a new set of nets to use. In my past experience in the church, we have relied on programs, events and other organizational activities to do the mission and ministry of the church. These worked well for a particular generation and I thank God for the lives he has touched and the people who have found grace through them. However, in recent decades we have found that they are not as effective any more. Instead, what connects people to Jesus is honest, Christ-centred relationships and a community of faith where they can experience the life-changing reality of grace. This is why another of the Growing Young core commitments is to fuel a warm community. We head out into deeper water and let our nets down when we connect with people relationally and embrace them in Christ-centred community. That is where people can encounter the grace of God and the kind of love which Jesus embodies and Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.

On the one hand, this doesn’t sound very complicated. However, moving from an organisationally driven, program based culture to one where relationships are central requires a significantly different way of thinking about mission and ministry. Thankfully there are resources available to help us put our nets down into these waters. I have found Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute to be an invaluable resource in helping us think through how to do mission and ministry in a relational way, especially with young people. Next weekend, we will be very blessed to have Jake Mulder from the Fuller Youth Institute and a co-author of Growing Young with us to help us in learning to fish in a new way. If you are part of our congregation at St John’s, please make yourself available this weekend to learn from him with us.

Last Sunday I distributed a document which outlines Ten Ways to Connect with Children and Teens in your Church. Its advice is relatively simple, but again a significant shift in thinking about how we can be involved in a more relational mission and ministry. What it says is helpful in our relationships with people of all ages, not just children and teens. I encourage everyone in our congregation to identify one person you know, of any age, gender or background, and start putting them into practice. Can you imagine what our congregation could be like if we were all involved in fishing with Jesus like this?

I can understand how Peter felt as he washed his nets at the start of the story because I’ve been there. But I also hear Jesus’ call to head out into deeper water and let our nets down one more time. Just as Peter shouted to the other fishermen for help to bring in the catch, I’m asking the people of our congregation for help in this work for God’s kingdom as well. It can’t be up to one or two people alone. Instead, when we’re all listening to Jesus and following him faithfully, he will teach us how to fish for people.

Are you ready to go fishing?

Loving Like Jesus (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

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Central to the teachings of Jesus is the command to love. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus asking him which was the most important of God’s commandments. Jesus summarises the Old Testament law by replying that God wants us to love him with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). John develops this idea in his gospel when he tells the story of Jesus giving his disciples a new command: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). To make sure his followers get the point, John has Jesus repeating this same command twice more in 15:12 and 15:17.

Every book of the New Testament except one talks about what it means to love each other in the way Jesus taught at some point. The only book that doesn’t explicitly talk about Jesus’ command to love is the Acts of the Apostles. However, Acts has plenty of examples of how the early Christians loved each other in community and brought the message of Jesus’ love to the world. It is possible to read the entire Bible as an epic story of God’s love for people and the love it inspires for others.

While we might talk and read about God’s love for us in Jesus, we can still struggle with how that love looks practically in our lives. There are a lot of different ideas of how to follow Jesus’ teachings on love, and there are many ways we can show his love in our relationships. One of the most helpful passages in Scripture I have found that describes the love Jesus taught is 1 Corinthians 13.

One way this passage can help us love in the way Jesus taught is to read verses 4-8a with our own names substituted for the word ‘love’. Whenever I do that, it doesn’t take long at all before I start feeling very uncomfortable – usually around the word ‘patient.’ Replacing the word ‘love’ with our names shows us that we fall a long way short of loving people in the way Jesus wants us to. While this can make us uncomfortable, it’s not a bad thing because it shows us that if we are to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers, we need help to do it.

That’s where I read this passage again, but this time inserting ‘God’ for the word ‘love.’ We can do that because the Apostle John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16). God is the source, the embodiment, the fullness of all love. By saying that ‘God is love’ john tells us that God is synonymous with love. When we read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a from this perspective, it tells us a lot about the nature of God:

God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. God does not dishonour others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails. (NIV)

Even when we fail to love others in the way God wants us to, the promise of this text is that God never fails to love us. God is patient with us even when we lose our patience with others. God is kind to us even when we are unkind to each other. God is not envious, boastful or proud, but instead embraces humility to serve us. God does not dishonour us, but gives us the honour of calling us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God is not self-seeking, but seeks what is good for us even though it kills him on a cross. God is not angry with us and keeps no record of our wrongs, but removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. God rejoices in the truth of his grace and peace. God is always protecting us, always trusting us with his goodness and gifts, always hoping for the best for us, always persevering and hanging in there for us. Ultimately, God will never fail us because the story of the Bible shows time and time again that God never fails his people.

God loves us this way because of what Jesus has done for us. God loves us in the way 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a describes because he entered into our broken human existence, taking our humanity on himself in the person of Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we fail to live, loving people in the perfect way God wants us to. Jesus took our flaws, failures and everything we don’t do in 1 Corinthians 13 to the cross, putting our wrongs to death once and for all. Then Jesus rose to new life so we can live new lives united with him through the Holy Spirit. God loves us perfectly even when we fail to love the way he wants us to because his Son Jesus lives in us.

Paul writes that when he was a child, he spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. As he matured, though, he put away childish ways (1 Cor 13:11). This is the spiritual growth that God wants for all of us. The path to spiritual maturity comes through recognising that we fail to love the way God wants us to and finding God’s love for us in Jesus. As we repent of our failure to love by turning towards God who is the source of perfect love in Jesus, and trust in his love for us, the Holy Spirit works in us to mature us as Jesus’ followers. I know from personal experience that when we recognise our failures in loving God and people, and when we turn to God in faith, trusting in his love for us in Jesus, it can change us into people who have a greater capacity to love others on the way 1 Corinthians 13 describes, even people who are hard to love. When we are able to love each other as the Spirit enable us, then people will see that we are followers of Jesus (John 13:35) and God’s love enters the lives of others through us.

Just about everything I do as a pastor is to help people grow in their faith in God’s love for them in Jesus so they can become more loving people towards others. 1 Corinthians 13 has become crucial to my understanding of what the love Jesus taught looks like. In the end, when everything else we think is so important is gone, then these three will remain: faith, hope and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love, because that’s where we find the life-changing goodness of God.

The Joy of the Lord! (Nehemiah 8:1-3,5,6,8-10)

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Nehemiah was a Jew who was born in exile. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and taken most of its people away as slaves about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. More than a century later, Nehemiah served as cupbearer for Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. The book of the Bible which carries Nehemiah’s name tells us that a relative who had come from Jerusalem told him about the walls of the city which were in ruins and had no gates to protect its people from attack. This made him sad, which was noticed by Artaxerxes. When he asked Nehemiah what was wrong, he told the king about Jerusalem. Artaxerxes then gave Nehemiah permission and the support he needed to return to Jerusalem so he could rebuild its walls.

When Nehemiah reached Jerusalem, he directed its people to rebuild sections of the walls which were closest to them. The work started well, but there were a number of attempts to stop the building by people who didn’t want the walls to be restored. This lead Nehemiah to put half the city’s workers on guard duty while the rest built the wall. He even instructed the workers to carry a weapon in one hand while they continued working with the other.

The wall was finished in just 52 days. This is where the story from this week’s reading begins in chapter 8:1-10. To celebrate the completion of the work, all the people of Jerusalem assembled in a public square and listened to Ezra, the leading priest and scribe in Jerusalem, as he read the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, to them. The people responded to hearing God’s word by crying and weeping.

I don’t think the congregation was upset because they were standing in the hot sun or because the service was taking too long. Instead, as we read Nehemiah’s response to them in verse 10, it seems as though hearing God’s Law made them realise how far short they had fallen of doing what God wanted them to do and being who God wanted them to be. Their reaction was to cry, weep and mourn their sin and their failings.

What Nehemiah said next is vitally important. He told the assembled people not to ‘be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!’ (v10)

Nehemiah was telling God’s people then and now that the strength we need to live as God’s people and to bring his goodness to the world is not through mourning or crying or weeping or sadness. Instead, God wants us to find joy in his saving work because this joy will give us the strength we need to keep us safe and to live in ways that are pleasing to him.

When we read the books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, there are a lot of rules and regulations in them. However, there are also amazing stories of God saving people who were extremely flawed and working through people who were very messed up. The Torah is not just a set of commands, but also stories of grace, mercy, forgiveness and redemption. Nehemiah was urging the people of Jerusalem to hear the stories of the Torah as good news because if God was able to rescue, redeem and restore them, as messed-up as they were, then he was more than able to do the same for the people of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah encourages us to read the stories of the Bible in the same way – as good news! I understand that there are times in the Christian life for reverence, contrition and repentance, but Nehemiah’s words help us understand that what will give us strength as God’s people is the joy of God’s saving work. When we read about or hear the ways in which God has worked in the past, the way he has been with those who suffer, healed the sick, released the captives and given life to the dead, God is also promising us that he can and will do the same for us. When we encounter God’s grace, peace and redemption in the words of the Bible, they carry with them the promise that God is also at work in our lives to bring us grace, peace, redemption and all of his goodness.

We see that in this week’s gospel reading from Luke 4:14-21 as Jesus read the words of Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come.’
(vv 18,19 NLT)

Jesus then went on to say, ‘The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!’ (v21 NLT)

In Jesus, God fulfils his saving work for us. When we read the stories of Jesus, as with all the stories of the Bible, and hear them as good news for us, we can find a deep and lasting sense of joy that will be our strength. Especially when life is hard, when we suffer in any way or we experience tragedy, the stories and words of the Bible can give us a joy that the world can’t give. As we encounter the goodness of God in the gospel of Jesus, we can find joy which gives us strength to keep on living, to keep on loving, to keep on trusting God and hoping for a better tomorrow. Nehemiah tells us that we don’t find this strength in weeping or crying or feeling bad about ourselves or what we’ve done. We find God’s strength in his word, in the stories of his saving work for the people of the Old and New Testaments, and the joy this good news creates in our hearts.

As we begin a new year of ministry at St John’s it is my hope, my prayer and my goal to bring you the good news of Jesus so we can all grow in the joy that will give us strength in every circumstance of life. When we gather together to hear God’s word like the people in the Nehemiah story, I don’t want it to be a burden or a chore. I hope we can do it in eager expectation that through his good news, God will give us joy because of his saving work for us in Jesus, and that joy will give us strength, no matter what life might throw at us.

A New Year’s Resolution (1 Peter 1:22-25)

 

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As we begin a new calendar year, many people will be making New Year’s resolutions. These are things they want to change about themselves or their behaviours in the next twelve months. Some can be realistic, while other New Year’s resolutions can seem utterly impossible.

I find it fascination to see how long New Year’s resolutions will last. While we can make these resolutions with the best of intentions, we can easily fall back into the same habits and patterns of behaviour. Nothing really changes. If we are to fulfil whatever New Year’s resolution we might make, we need sustained, intentional focus on what we want to change.

As we read 1 Peter 1:22-25, the New Testament reading for New Year’s Eve, we hear the Apostle Peter encouraging God’s people and followers of Jesus to ‘love each other deeply from the heart’ (v22 NLT). Anyone who is familiar with the teachings of Jesus will know that Peter is relaying Jesus’ message that the greatest command is to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength and to love others like we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). The new command Jesus gave his followers was like it: to love one another like he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). Peter passes on this same message by encouraging his readers to grow in their love for each other beyond shallow expressions of love into deep, heart-felt, sincere love.

I talk a lot about practicing Christ-like love because I believe that learning to love like Jesus is at the heart of his call to follow him as his disciples. Too often our attempts to love are tainted with a degree of self-interest. We tend to consider how things will benefit us, what will we get out of them, or what they will cost us. Instead of a worldly kind of love which prioritizes what we get or how we feel, the love of Christ which Peter is talking about focusses on the other. Its orientation is towards others and what we can give to them, not ourselves and what we get from them. This kind of love is willing to do what is in the best interests of the other, no matter what it might cost us. It is willing to sacrifice everything for the other so they can know what Christ-like love is all about.

This is the love that God extends to us in Jesus. God’s love is seen in the gift of his Son to us at Christmas, which we continue to celebrate as we end one calendar year and start another. We see God’s love in the way Jesus welcomed the outsiders, healed the sick, restored broken people and forgave sinners. Ultimately, we encounter the perfect and infinite love of God in the death of Jesus. Jesus points us towards this love when he says, ‘There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13 NLT). The Apostle John says the same thing when he writes, ‘We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us’ (1 John 3:16). Jesus then shows us that the love God has for us is stronger than death as he is raised to new life in his resurrection. The love God has for us in Jesus is so different from worldly versions of love. It is deep and strong and it lasts for ever.

Can you imagine how life might be different this year if we resolved to listen to what Peter is saying to us, and to ‘love one another deeply, from the heart’ (v22 NLT)? Instead of thinking about what we want for ourselves, or what suits us, how might our lives be different if we resolved together to prioritise others, no matter what the cost? How might our congregation operate differently if we thought more about what we could give to each other rather than what we can get from each other, if the needs of others outweighed our own, if we looked more towards what would help others encounter Jesus’ love in us rather than what is convenient or comfortable for us?

If we were to resolve to do this, we could only keep this resolution by relying on God’s grace for everything we need. Attempts to keep New Year’s resolutions often fail because it’s easy to revert back to what is comfortable, convenient or familiar. To be able to keep our resolution to ‘love one another deeply, from the heart’ would mean that we will need to rely totally on God doing this in us through his Holy Spirit. Any attempts to love others in a Christ-like way will fail when we rely on ourselves. When we are connected with God’s grace and love to us in Jesus, we will grow in his love which gives us the capacity and ability to love others in the same way. It will continue to grow in us as God plants, nourishes and feeds his word of grace and love in us through the Scriptures. As we remain in Christ and as Jesus remains in us, then God’s love will grow in us to produce the fruit he is looking for (John 15:1-17). Any resolution to love others in a Christ-like way will come from God’s love for us in Jesus, will grow from his sacrificial love for us, and will be sustained by that same love.

Can you imagine how this year might look differently if our one resolution was to ‘love each other deeply, from the heart’? How might that look? What changes might that bring about? In the busyness of congregational life, what might need to change and what changes might it bring if this was our one resolution?

There will be countless opportunities this year for us to ‘love one another deeply, from the heart.’ I hope and pray that as we enter 2019 that God’s Holy Spirit will be at work in us and among us, growing our faith in the deep and enduring love of God for us in Jesus, and he will graciously give us everything we need to love one another deeply, from the heart.

Love Over-All (Colossians 3:12-17)

 

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How do you decide what to wear each day?

Some people are very careful when they choose their clothes each day. They might take into account the weather, what they will be doing, who they will be with, and possibly even what’s in fashion to decide what they will put on in the morning. Others don’t give it much thought and might just grab whatever is on top of their drawers or in their wardrobe.

No matter how we decide what clothes we are going to wear, we all have one thing in common – we all wear something.

In Colossians 3:12-17, the Apostle Paul uses the fact that we all wear clothes of some kind to encourage followers of Jesus to put on certain qualities each day with the same consistency and intentionality with which we put on our clothes.

The qualities he includes are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. He then encourages Jesus’ followers to put up with each other when differences arose and problems came up in their relationships, extending the same forgiveness to each other that God extends to us through Jesus. Paul then tells his readers to put on love over all of these virtues, binding them, as well as God’s people, in perfect unity and harmony (vv12-14).

In our congregation’s work with Growing Young, we have been challenged to be taking Jesus’ message seriously (core commitment #3). As we listen to the words of Scripture, we can hear what Paul is saying as coming from Jesus. God wants us to be compassionate towards others, which means to suffer together with others. This doesn’t just mean people who are in desperate need, but with anyone we know who is suffering. God wants us to be kind to the people around us, even if or when they might not treat us well. God wants us to be humble in our relationships with each other, not trying to be more important than others or wanting to get our own way, but making ourselves lower than others in the pecking order, willing to serve others. God wants us to be gentle in our dealings with each other, not rough or abrasive in what we say or what we do. God wants us to be patient with each other, even when others can frustrate us. God wants us to ‘make allowances for each other’s faults’ (NLT) and forgive others freely who might wrong us in any way. Over all of these, God wants us to love each other as we look and work towards what is in the best interest of others, no matter what the cost to us personally.

Have you ever tried living like this? If we are honest, we will probably find that living in this way is not easy. At times it’s just impossible. If you don’t believe me, here’s your challenge for the week: write these out as a list – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love – and put the list somewhere you will see it as you get dressed or undressed. Then, at the start and end of each day ask yourself how you’ve gone. During the day have you been compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient with others, forgiving those who have wronged you, and loving the people God has brought into your life? Or have you fallen short of living the life God has called you to?

Because, if you’re anything like me, living up to this standard is impossible on our own.
I think about this text a lot in my own life. I actually own a t-shirt with ‘compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience’ written on it to remind me that this is how God wants me to live. To be honest, most days living up to the lifestyle God has called us to is out of my reach. I know this is how God wants me to be living, but it’s hard, and sometimes the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience I’m supposed to be putting on just aren’t there.

So where do we go to find these clothes Paul is describing?

We’re not going to find them in a shopping centre or online store. We can’t just buy them from a shop like normal clothes. Instead, we can find them in relationship with God who provides for us what he wants from us through Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This is one of the main ways I think about grace: God giving to us what he wants from us. In this text, then, God has everything we need to be able to grow in and extend to others the attributes Paul talks about.

When we are lacking compassion for others, God is always compassionate towards us. When we are unkind towards others, God never stops showing kindness towards us. When we try to get the upper hand in our relationships with others or to get our own way, God is humble towards us, becoming our servant to provide us with everything he wants from us. When we are rough and abrasive towards others, God is always gentle with us in return. While we lose our patience with others, God is infinitely patient with us. When we find it hard to forgive others, God is always forgiving us. When we are unable to love the people around us, God continues to love us with perfect and unlimited love. All this he does for us for the sake of Jesus who gave everything for us on the cross and continues to give the Holy Spirit to us so we can live each and every day in God’s compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Earlier I challenged you to keep the qualities Paul describes in front of you to see how you live up to them. If you’re looking for them but can’t find them within yourself, keep the list where you can see it. Each morning, as you get dressed, ask God to clothe you with them through the Holy Spirit. Find what you need in Jesus’ relationship with you.

Being compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving and loving towards others doesn’t come naturally for us. When we’re looking for them, we won’t find them in a store or online. We find them in our relationship with God and his grace to us in Jesus. As we grow in our faith in God’s compassion, kindness, humility, gentles, patience, forgiveness and love in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit will produce them more and more in our lives.

Grace and Truth (John 1:1-14)

 

baby jesus in manger 01

There are times in life when it can be really hard to ask for help. Many of us have been taught from childhood that we need to be able to stand on our own two feet, not to rely on others, to be self-sufficient, and to learn how to handle any situation. There are many self-help plans and personal improvement programs what work on this same idea – that we should, although sometimes maybe with a little bit of help, be able to handle anything that life throws our way.

What happens, however, when we find that we just can’t do what we think we should be able to do? Where do we go when it all gets to be too hard and we can’t cope? When life gets too difficult and the stresses, demands or difficulties are too much for us, what happens then?

There are a range of ways in which theologians understand the idea of grace that we read about in the Bible, for example in texts such as John 1:14. It’s a word that Christians can use a lot. There have been a few times in my life when I’ve had to stop and really ask what we mean when we talk about grace.

After a lot of thought and contemplation, one of the ways I understand God’s grace at this point of my life is that God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and then gives us the benefits of what he has done so they become our own.

We read in John 1:14, and again in verse 17, that when Jesus was born into our world, he came to us ‘full of grace and truth’ (NIV). The way we can understand grace here is that Jesus came into the world to do for us what we are not able to do for ourselves. In Jesus, God entered into human existence to accomplish for us what we are unable to achieve because of our flawed and broken humanity.

For example, I often hear people say that we need to be able to love ourselves before we can love others. I understand what they’re saying, and it’s not a bad thought, but what happens if, for some reason, a person just isn’t able to love themselves? The good news of God’s grace to us in Jesus is that he does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. God loves us in Jesus enough to be born into the world, go to the cross and die for us. Whether we are able to love ourselves or not, this love remains true. In the grace of God who loves us even when we can’t love ourselves, then, we can find a love that makes us lovable, and then gives us the capacity to love others in the same way.

Another example is forgiveness. Again, I hear people say that we need to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others. I also understand this idea, but sometimes I’ve known people for whom this has been impossible. For a range of reasons, they can’t find within themselves the ability to forgive, either themselves or others. That’s when the grace of God in Jesus becomes so powerful as God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Because of Jesus’ birth and life, his death and resurrection, God forgives us. Jesus has carried everything that needs to be forgiven to the cross and nailed it there so we are free from it. By pointing people to the grace of God who forgives us even when we can’t forgive ourselves, we can find the freedom that comes through the forgiveness he gives us in Jesus, as well as the ability to then forgive others.

There are many ways in which God continues to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves as acts of grace for us in Jesus. God is patient with us when we lose our patience with ourselves or others. God is kind towards us when we find it impossible to be kind to ourselves or others. God is compassionate towards us when we are unable to be compassionate. God is gentle with us even when we are rough on ourselves or others. God sets us free, even when we can’t liberate ourselves from those things in our lives that bind and control us. Whatever we need, whatever our lives are lacking, God’s grace means that in Jesus he does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and then he gives what he has done to us as a free gift so they become ours.

This grace gives us the freedom to find truth. We don’t need to pretend to be anything we’re not. We don’t have to aspire to be anything different than what we are or maintain a façade of perfection or flawlessness. We can be truthful and honest with ourselves, with God and with others about our struggles and our weaknesses, our flaws and our mistakes, because we know that whatever we’re done, whatever we might be struggling with, whatever might be weighing us down, God gives us grace in the person of Jesus. As the body of Christ, then, we have the opportunity to bring God’s grace to each other as we forgive each other, as we love each other, as we are kind, compassionate and gentle with each other. We can extend God’s grace to each other in Jesus, just like he extended grace to us when we needed it.

When Jesus was born, he didn’t enter the world to give us a new set of rules to live by. He didn’t come as a self-help guru to show us a multi-point plan to achieving everything we hoped for. Jesus was born to show us grace, to do for us in his life, death and resurrection what we can’t do for ourselves, and then to give us the benefits of what he’s done through his Holy Spirit. Jesus was born to gives us grace and truth, so we don’t have to pretend any more, but we can rely on him and trust in the grace he gives.

Welcoming Jesus (Luke 2:1-7)

 

Christmas Eve 04

Over the next few days, most of us will be celebrating Christmas by either travelling to homes of family or friends, or welcoming people into our homes. There are a lot of ways we can welcome people: a handshake or a hug, giving something to eat or drink, exchanging gifts or just sitting, talking and catching up.

Could you imagine what it would be like to turn up somewhere and not be welcomed? How would you react if you arrived somewhere and was told that there’s no room for you, you’re not welcome, and you have to go somewhere else?

One of the ironies of the Christmas story is that when God entered the world as a flesh-and-blood person in the baby Jesus, most people missed the chance to welcome him. We read in Luke 2:1-7 that there was no lodging available for his parents when they arrived at Bethlehem and so their baby had to be placed in a manger, a feed trough for animals. Then, instead of being welcomed to earth by dignitaries, world leaders and important people, the Son of God is welcomed by shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), people who were of doubtful reputation and often shunned by the respectable folk of their culture, and foreigners who had followed the star from the East (Matthew 2:1-12).

God entered the world in a little baby, and most of the world failed to welcome him.
The Apostle John tells us, however, that those who did receive Jesus we able to become children of God (John 1:10-12).

The miracle of the Christmas story is that God didn’t just enter our world as a real, flesh-and-blood person in the baby Jesus all those years ago in Bethlehem. Jesus teaches us that God is still entering the world, and entering our lives, as real, flesh-and-blood people right now.

It amazes me that, after being a pastor for more than twenty years, the Bible is still teaching me new things about God. This year I was preparing a message on Mark 9:36, 37 which reads:

Then (Jesus) put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “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)

I had never noticed before that Jesus teaches us that we welcome God when we welcome the children around us. God comes to us in a special way in our children and grandchildren, just like he came to the world all those years ago in Bethlehem. Maybe God identifies with children because they are trusting. Maybe God chooses to come to us in them because they know what it is like to need to rely on the grace and love of others for the necessities of life. Maybe God makes himself known to us in our children because they still believe in things that, as adults, we have forgotten.

I don’t fully understand why God would choose to make himself known to us in our children, but then again I still don’t fully know why he entered the world as a helpless baby. But that’s the good news we find in Jesus – that God comes to us and makes himself known to us in weakness, in need, in rejection and in helplessness.

This Christmas, as we welcome people into our homes and are welcomed into the homes of others, give thanks for the welcomes we can extend to and receive from others. But please also keep in mind those who don’t find a welcome with others. In particular, remember that as we welcome our little ones, our children and our grandchildren, we also welcome God into our presence, who enters our world and our lives as a child.

Love (Hebrews 10:5-10)

candle of love 01

To select the texts for my messages during the season of Advent this year, I went to each Sunday’s readings and looked for each week’s theme in them. The text in which I found the word for the day became the basis of my message.

I found Hope in Psalm 25:5 – ‘Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.’

The word Peace was in Luke 1:78,79 – ‘Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.’

There was Joy in Isaiah 12:3 – ‘With joy you will drink deeply from the fountain of salvation!’

The theme for the Fourth Sunday in Advent is Love. However, when I read through the readings for this week, the word Love isn’t actually mentioned. I thought about using a different reading which actually mentioned Love, but that seemed like taking the easy way out. So I decided to look for where the kind of love that God has for us in Jesus is talked about in the readings for the day and base my message around that.

Most of the time when I listen to people talk about love, I hear them describe love as a feeling. We can talk about love for our spouse or partner, our family, possessions or even chocolate as the way we feel about them or the way they make us feel.

When the Bible talks about love, however, it doesn’t usually talk about a feeling. Instead, a biblical perspective of love can be understood as what someone is willing to sacrifice for the one they love.

We find this kind of love in Hebrews 10:5-10, especially in verse 10 which says,

God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. (NLT)

We can find God’s love for us in this verse in a number of ways. The first is in what God the Father was willing to sacrifice for us. God the Father gave up his child when Jesus left the safety of heaven and entered our world as an infant. I can only imagine what it will be like for my children to leave home and go out into the world on their own. It must have been a whole lot harder for our heavenly Father when his Son left heaven to enter our world because God knew the suffering and pain that he would go through in his earthly life. Out of love for us, however, our heavenly Father was willing to make that sacrifice for us.

It would be hard enough when our children leave home, but to lose a child must be one of the hardest things in the world to endure. I’ve known a number of people who have experienced this tragedy, and I have seen the grief and pain it causes. When we look at the life and death of Jesus from this perspective, then we can see the depth of God’s love for each of us. God’s love for us is so great that he sacrificed his Son in order to open a new way for us to become his children. Every one of us is so important and precious to our heavenly Father that he willingly gave up his Son so that we can be restored in relationship with him as his holy people.

The second way we can encounter the love of God in Jesus’ sacrifice is by seeing it from the perspective of the Son of God. Jesus knew that the offerings which were sacrificed in the Temple during ancient times couldn’t bring us back into relationship with God. Jesus knew that the only way to overcome what kept us apart from our heavenly Father was for him to offer his life as a sacrifice for us on the cross. We encounter the love of God in Jesus when he sacrificed what he wanted for himself and followed the will of the Father. He did this by entering into our humanity, going to the cross and dying in our place so we can be made holy, washed clean and made right again through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ love for us is so great that our relationship with our Father in heaven is more important to him than his own life. I don’t think this kind of love made Jesus feel particularly good. It wasn’t a love that was based on feelings. Instead, the love of God we encounter in Jesus is defined by and expressed in what he was willing to sacrifice for us in his birth and life, in his suffering and death for us.

It is important, then, that when we hear the Bible talk about love as sacrifice. For example, when Jesus teaches that the greatest command is to love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, and to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28), he isn’t just talking about how we feel about God and others, but what we are willing to sacrifice for them. Another example is in John’s gospel when Jesus gives his followers the new command to love each other in the same, self-sacrificing way that he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). He even says that people will know we are his followers when we practice self-sacrificing love for each other (v35). Paul’s letters are full of practical examples of what this self-sacrificing love looks like as the early followers of Jesus practiced it in community with each other. In the end, the way of Jesus is about following him in being willing to extend God’s love to others by sacrificing for them.
In everything we do as the people of God, whether as individuals or as a congregation, being part of God’s mission in the world means extending his self-sacrificing love to others. We do this by practicing a form of love that looks to what’s best for others, no matter what it might cost us. That’s not an easy road to walk, but Jesus knows that because he has walked it ahead of us.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, it’s important to remember that what’s at the heart of our festivities is a love that cost God everything. As we encounter this love in the birth of Jesus, and as we remain in this love through faith in him, his love will shape us into people who are willing and able to love others in the same way.

Joy (Isaiah 12:2-6)

candle of joy 01

Can you imagine, every morning when you wake up, having to gather empty jars from your house, carrying them some distance to the village well, filling them with water, and them carrying them home again just so you can have water to wash and cook with during the day? And then doing that again tomorrow, and the next day, and every day for the rest of your life?

Having hot and cold running water in our homes is such an amazing blessing when we stoop to think about it. However, in the ancient world, and in many places still today, the journey to the village well has been a daily routine just so people can wash and cook their food.

I don’t imagine that this daily chore would be a joy-filled experience. Which is why Isaiah 6:3 strikes me as a little strange. The prophet writes, ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.’ I’m using the New International Version here because, firstly, it is closer to the original Hebrew wording. However, this verse also points us to the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:1-42. That was where Jesus said, ‘whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will becomes in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (v14 NIV). Here, Jesus is talking about himself as the water in the well of salvation in whom we can find a deep, lasting joy.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about how, for Old Testament people, salvation meant so much more than going to heaven when we die. For ancient Hebrew people like Isaiah, salvation was more about life here and now. This is the same life ‘to the full’ (NIV) or the ‘rich and satisfying life’ (NLT) which Jesus offers us in John 10:10. Isaiah talks about this life being found in trusting God and finding freedom from all sorts of fear. We can find deep and lasting joy by trusting God who gives us strength and victory when the challenges and difficulties of this world seem to be too much or too hard for us to handle (Isaiah 12:2). The joy Isaiah describes comes through the promises of the gospel of Jesus: that God is with us, that God is for us, that God loves us enough to give his Son for us on the cross, and his love is stronger than anything in this world, even death itself. The source of biblical joy is Jesus, and the place where we find this joy is in the good news of his birth, life, death and resurrection for us.

Which brings me to a question that has bothered me this week as I’ve prepared this message: how do I help you find this joy? It’s one thing to come to church, hear a message and sing some songs about joy. But finding a deep, lasting joy in Jesus can be something very different.

I wonder if this is where the old saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink becomes applicable? I can point people towards the well of salvation. I can try to give you taste of this life-giving water. But how do I help you find the joy that the Holy Spirit gives through faith in the good news of Jesus?

This image from Isaiah of drawing water from the wells of salvation with joy can actually challenge us to re-think a lot of how we understand ‘church’. For many people I have known, ‘church’ can be a place that is associated with a lot of expectations, obligations and demands, with a not-so-healthy dose of guilt thrown in to make sure we’re doing the ‘right’ thing. This can end up robbing us of joy instead of helping us find joy.

What if, instead, we thought of ‘church’ as a community of believers with whom we are drawing life-giving water from the wells of salvation so that we can find greater joy together in the salvation Jesus has won for us? What if our goal as church was just to find joy in Jesus’ saving work, so we can draw more on the deep, enduring joy of Jesus, we can then share out this life-giving water to others, and they can be finding joy in Jesus as well?

This is another way we can understand discipleship: learning together to throw our buckets into the life-giving water of Jesus, so we can find greater joy in him, no matter what’s going on in our lives. Next year we will be talking more about small groups in our congregation. My hope is that every person who is connected with our congregation will be part of a small group so that together we can be drawing on the life-giving water of Jesus from the well of the gospel and finding greater joy in the life of Jesus.

Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) which means it can’t be manufactured, manipulated or faked. Isaiah tells us that we can find this deep, long-lasting joy in the well of salvation, the good news of Jesus. His saving work is the source of biblical joy in his birth, life, death and resurrection for us . This joy is deeper than feeling happy. It lasts longer than having fun. It sustains us in all the circumstances of life and outlasts everything else that might try to take it away from us.

I really don’t want to talk just about this joy. I want each of us to find deep, lasting joy in the life-giving water of Jesus.