An Understanding Heart (1 Kings 3:3-14)

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One of our family’s favourite movies is Disney’s Frozen. Even though it has been five years since its release, it still stands as the highest grossing animated movie of all time and, according to Wikipedia, the twelfth highest grossing movie of all time.

I have to admit, though, that I get uncomfortable whenever I hear Queen Elsa sing the words ‘No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free’ in Let It Go, the most popular song from the movie. These lyrics reflect an increasingly common belief held by people in our society – that there is no such thing as right or wrong, there are no rules, and we are free to be and do whatever we want.

My concern with this view of life is that I have seen where it can often lead. In Frozen, it results in Queen Elsa living in fear, emotionally cold towards others, alone on a mountain. I have seen this same approach to life leaving people I have known over the years with broken relationships, trapped in fear, guilt or shame, relationally isolated, and wondering where life went so wrong.

Compare Queen Elsa’s words with those of King Solomon in 1 Kings 3:3-14. When I think of all the things Solomon could have asked God for, it amazes me that he requests ‘an understanding heart so that (he) can govern (God’s) people well and know the difference between right and wrong’ (v9 NLT). Instead of asking for freedom from rules so he could do whatever he wanted, Solomon asked God to give him what was literally a ‘hearing’ heart so he could tell the difference between what was right and wrong.

Solomon requested this because he knew that living in ways which are right and good lead us into a better life than ways which are wrong or bad. It’s like Jesus said in Matthew 7:13,14 – there is a road which leads to life, while other paths lead to destruction. The road that leads to life is hard to find and difficult to walk, but the ways that lead us to destruction are easy. Solomon was asking that he might be able to find the way that leads to life for himself and for his people by understanding the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.

In a time where we are being told that there is no right or wrong, not just from Frozen’s Elsa but from society in general, how do we discern the difference? A lot of people, including Christians, default to a set of rules. However, Jesus did not come to impose a set of rules for us to follow. John 1:17 tells us Moses did that, but Jesus came to bring us ‘grace and truth’ (NIV) instead.

When people came to Jesus to ask him what the was most important command, Jesus cut through a complicated religious system of rules and taught that it was love for God and love for others (see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31). Love gives followers of Jesus a new way to discern right from wrong. If something we say or do is done in love for God and other people, then we can consider it right. If, however, what we do is not in love for God or others, then it is wrong.

We actually see this in the movie Frozen. I don’t want to give too many spoilers in case some people haven’t seen the movie yet, but a theme in Frozen is that an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart. I remember watching the movie for the first time thinking, along with the Frozen characters, that this would be an act of romantic love, just like in other Disney movies. However, what saves Elsa’s sister Anna, and ultimately Elsa and their entire kingdom as well, turns out to be an act of sacrificial love instead.

I was really surprised, but also very glad, to find the gospel in Frozen. Rather than upholding a romantic view of love, it points us to a sacrificial love where one person gives everything for the sake of another. This love thaws hearts which have been frozen by fear and guilt, breathes new life into people, and brings the warmth of joy and salvation to the world. Sacrificial love gives us a new perspective and understanding of what is right and good.

Ultimately we find this love in Jesus and his death for us on the cross. Just like an act of true and sacrificial love saved Elsa and their kingdom in Frozen, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice of giving his life for us on the cross can warm our hearts so we don’t have live in fear, or rely on rules, or hide in a self-protective palace of ice. The love that God has for us in Jesus becomes the new standard of right and wrong for his followers, but it is also the way in which God warms our hearts so we can love him freely. The gift of God’s love to us in Jesus is the way he sets us free, restores our relationships with him and others, and gives us new life.

To live in this kind of love requires listening hearts. In 1 Kings 3:9, King Solomon literally asked for a ‘listening’ or a ‘hearing’ heart. When our hearts are listening to and hearing the good news of God’s love for us in the sacrifice of Jesus, it breathes new life into us and frees us from fear. It can be hard to know how to love people, to do what is right and good for them, especially people who are hard to love. We need to have hearts that are continually listening to God through his Holy Spirit so we can learn how to love others in a way that helps them encounter the heart-warming, life-saving love of Jesus through us.

I really enjoy Frozen and love the gospel message it gives. However, we also need to recognize the influence of our society’s worldview in it, as well as the influence it can have on our young people. King Solomon asked God to give him ‘an understanding heart’ so he could ‘know the difference between right and wrong’ and lead God’s people well. My prayer continues to be that all God’s people would have listening hearts, so we can tell the difference between what is right and wrong, and find the life to the full which Jesus promises us (John 10:10) through his sacrificial love.


The Way of Love (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

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I have to be careful where I step at the moment.

We have had a lot of rain in Adelaide recently and there is a fair bit of mud around. When I walk from our home to the church, it is easy to walk through some muddy puddles and then carry it on my shoes wherever I go during the day. A few weeks ago when I arrived for worship on Sunday morning I had actually walked in something on my way over to the church. I’m going to assume it was mud, but I really didn’t to smell it to find out for sure. I had to clean the bottom of my shoes before the service started because I didn’t want to leave muddy footprints all around the sanctuary.

That’s the thing with mud – it sticks.

Usually we think of mud sticking as a bad thing. When I was contemplating these words from Paul in Ephesians 5:1,2 though, I started wondering whether we can think about mud sticking in a good way.

The words the NIV translate as ‘walk in the way of love’ and the NLT interpret as ‘live a life filled with love’ are simply ‘walk in love’ in the Greek New Testament. Both the NIV and the NLT translations are good, but I really like the picture of ‘walking in love’ the way that we might walk in mud.

One reason is that if we are going to walk in God’s love, we actually need to get into it like a muddy puddle that’s full of God’s goodness and grace. Last Saturday afternoon, my two young sons and I pulled on our boots and spent some time walking through and jumping around in some mud outside our house. Maybe that’s what Paul is saying God wants us to do with the love he has for us in Jesus. Maybe God’s love isn’t something to theorize or theologize about, but to walk through, jump around in, splashing in its goodness so we’re covered in it. It’s a similar idea to what we looked at a couple of weeks ago from Ephesians 3:18 – that God’s love for us in Jesus is so wide, long, high and deep that we can spend our whole lives exploring its goodness and never reach its limits.

To walk in God’s love starts with having both feet in his love. But it doesn’t stop there.

The next aspect of walking in God’s love is that we carry it with us wherever we go and whatever we do. Just like the mud we were walking through stuck to our shoes and boots, when we walk in God’s love it sticks with us. It covers us and even becomes part of who we are. Paul says we are God’s ‘dearly loved children’ (5:1 NIV). Through Jesus, God has given us new identities as people he has adopted into his family and who he loves. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we go and do as people whom God loves enough to give his Son for us. Like mud that sticks to our shoes or boots, this truth sticks to us our whole lives as we live it out in our relationships with others.

The entire Bible points us to the reality of God’s love so we can walk in it with our relationship with him and with others. In Ephesians 4, Paul gives us some specific ways in which we can walk in God’s love with others:

  • Putting off falsehood (v25) – not just telling lies but living in open, honest and authentic relationships with others
  • Not letting the sun go down on our anger (v26) – whether we take this literally or metaphorically, it means working our issues out with others
  • Doing something useful with our hands so we can give generously to others (v28) – this gives us whole new way to think about our work as a way to love others
  • Using our words to build others up and benefit them (v29), not knock them down
  • Getting rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander and malice (v31) – I wonder why our congregation laughed when I said that these never happen in our church
  • Being kind, compassionate and forgiving to others (v32)

It’s worth spending some time contemplating these and asking God to show us where he wants to challenge us in our lives and in our relationships. Living in a congregation like this would be great, but I don’t think many of us actually live up to the love Paul describes.

When we are challenged by Paul’s words, we need to go back to the muddy puddle of God’s love for us. Too often we try to do better by ourselves and then get frustrated or guilty when we keep doing the same things. Instead, Jesus teaches us to remain in his love (John 15:9). Using the image of God’s love being a muddy puddle, when we’re falling short of being the people and community God wants us to be, we need to go back to the love God has for us in Jesus to walk through and jump around in some more. As we get covered more and more with the sticky mud of God’s love for us in Jesus, it will cling to us and we will naturally carry it with us in our lives.

Ephesians 5:1,2 is one of my most favourite discipleship texts because this is what following Jesus is all about: walking in God’s love for us in Jesus so it sticks to us and we carry it with us into every circumstance of life. Especially as we talk about and plan the future of our ministry to young people, it is good for us to be keeping Paul’s words in mind. Our culture is teaching us and our young people to live in a way that is all about us and what we get, the exact opposite of the way of love Paul points us to. Jesus tells us that if we live this way, our destination is destruction, but if we walk in the way of God’s love, then we find life to the full (Matthew 7:13,14; John 10:10). Where will our young people learn to walk in love if it’s not from us?

So, which way are we walking? Do we walk our own ways, heading in our own directions, trying to find our own way through life? Or are we walking in love, stomping around in God’s infinite and perfect love for us, and carrying it everywhere we go, in everything we do?

Walking in love brought Jesus to life that is stronger than death. This is the path he leads us to as he calls us to follow him. When we get lost along the way, then maybe it’s time to jump in muddy puddles, remembering that when we walk in the love God has for us in Jesus, it really sticks!

A Deeper Hunger (John 6:24-35)

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I chuckle to myself whenever I read the conversation Jesus had with people in the crowd who are following him in John 6:24-35. It reminds me of some discussions I’ve had in the past with friends from Queensland or New South Wales about football. We were using the same words, but we meant very different things. When I said ‘football’ I was thinking of Australian Rules or AFL. When they said ‘football’ they were meaning Rugby League or Union.

We were using the same language, but were talking past each other because we understood the words in different ways.

That’s what seems to be happening throughout John 6. Jesus had just fed 5000 men, plus women and children. The crowds were pursuing Jesus because they wanted him to keep providing them with free bread. Who can blame them? Imagine how much easier life would be if you had an endless supply of free bread appear on your doorstep each morning!

While they are looking for someone to feed their stomachs, Jesus was talking about providing them, and us, with something to satisfy a much deeper hunger. Jesus wanted to give us something that will feed our hungry hearts and souls, not just our stomachs.

We all have hearts that are hungry for something. For example, I have come across a few authors who say that every person is looking for answers to three fundamental questions: Who am I? Where do I fit? What am I here for? These questions of identity, belonging and purpose can be thought of as hungers we have. We can also be hungry for things like acceptance, self-worth, peace, rest, hope, and the list goes on.

When we try to satisfy these deeper hungers in ways that give us short-term relief, do they ever really satisfy? Our consumer culture offers us temporary solutions that help to distract us from our deeper hungers, but never fulfil them. We can do something similar in the church when we try our best to keep busy, or consume a particular style of worship, or engage in other activities that look nice and ‘Christian’ from the outside but which end up distracting us from our hunger rather than really satisfying it.

One thing that always stands out to me when I read John 6 is that when the people asked Jesus what God wanted then to be doing, Jesus replied that ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (v29 NIV). In other words, the one thing God wants us to do is trust that Jesus is the one who can really satisfy our deeper hungers.

Jesus provides whatever our hearts and souls might be hungry for. If we’re hungry for identity, Jesus gives us a new identity as children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. If we’re hungry to belong, Jesus gives it to us by making us members of his body, as brothers and sisters in God’s family, to live out our identity in Christ-centred community. If we’re hungry for purpose, Jesus calls us to participate in God’s mission by being disciples who make disciples and redeeming, restoring and renewing all of creation.

Whatever our deeper hunger might be, Jesus feeds us through the power of his Spirit through the gospel. Jesus accepts us just as we are as a free act of grace. Jesus gives us value by telling us we’re worth dying for by giving his life for us on the cross. Jesus gives us peace as he establishes a new relationship between us, our heavenly Father, and each other. Jesus gives us rest as he carries our burdens for us through prayer and the love we experience in Christian community. The resurrection of Jesus feeds us with hope as he promises that no matter how difficult or dark life might appear, he has given us a life that nothing, not even death, can overcome. No matter what our hearts and souls might be hungry for, Jesus can provide us with what we need.

One of the most important aspects of my work as a pastor is to help connect people’s hungers with what Jesus offers us as the Bread of Life. It begins by honestly asking ourselves what our hearts and souls are hungry for. This can really challenge us and might require some soul-searching because often we’re not too good at admitting our hunger and we can be very good at masking it with superficial attempts at filling the holes. However, when we are able to recognize and admit our deeper hungers, and when we are able to find that Jesus can and will satisfy those hungers, then we are able to share that bread with others.

We become like Jesus’ disciples who received the loaves and fish that Jesus had blessed and distributed them to the 5000 men plus women plus children who had come to hear him speak. When we have fed on the Bread of Life and found his goodness for ourselves, we have something good to share with others – the good news that Jesus offers us life to the full (John 10:10) here and now as we trust in him for everything to satisfy the deeper hungers of our hearts and souls. When we have found this Bread for ourselves, we can distribute it to others who are hungry for the goodness of God in their lives too.

What is your heart hungry for? What might be missing in your life that is keeping you from living the life to the full that Jesus promises? If you’re honest answer is nothing, that your relationship with Jesus is strong and you’re finding everything you need in him, then praise God that you have something good to offer the people around you who have hungry hearts. If, however, you have a hunger that you can’t fill, then let me know and let me help you find how Jesus can satisfy that deeper hunger. Or if you’re not connected with our church, look for a pastor, or a Christian sister or brother, who can help you. Search the Bible together. Listen to what God promises you in his word. Bring your hunger to God in prayer and keep pursuing the goodness of God in Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Because Jesus promises that when we trust in him for what our hearts and souls are hungry for, we’ll never be hungry again.

Jesus’ Vast Love (Ephesians 3:14-21)

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One of my most favourite things to do is travel. When I get the chance, I love to pack a bag, throw it on the back of my motorbike and explore this vast, beautiful country of Australia. Over the years I have been blessed to be able to travel along just about every major highway and a lot of secondary roads as well. It always amazes me how big and how beautiful this nation is. And there are still more roads I’m looking forward to riding in the future…

When I hear Paul’s prayer for God’s people in Ephesians 3:18, I think of exploring God’s love the way I’ve been able to explore Australia. Paul’s hope is that we will be able to grasp with both hands and our whole heart just how enormous God’s love is for us, especially in the person and work of Jesus. Like riding this nation’s highways and back-roads, God’s love is enormous and full of amazing beauty. Even though we might think that we have seen everything, we can turn another corner and be blown away by the majesty and grandeur of what we encounter. With each and every changing circumstance of life, we have the opportunity to gain a deeper and fuller understanding of how vast and truly awesome God’s love for us is in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. As we connect God’s love for us in Jesus with every new situation we face in life, we explore the infinite width, length, height and depth of God’s perfect love for us.

This is important for us because God’s love changes us. I received an email on Friday morning with a link to an article entitled Why sometimes love is the best parenting solution. The author, who isn’t Christian as far as I can tell, wrote:

When you’re having a tough day with your child, one thing that can reduce everyone’s stress and overwhelm is to focus your mind on love…
Before deciding that’s too simple, remember the research on feeling loved being at the foundation of self confidence, happiness and resilience.
Next time your children are driving you mad… Stop thinking, steady your breathing, don’t worry about the next moment and make your next move an expression of LOVE.
Love reconnects. Love forgives. Love renews. Love energises…

How much greater is the possibility for us to be growing in love, to be changed by love, and to extend love to others when we have direct access to the infinite and perfect love of God in Jesus. I agree with the author that in all our relationships, not just between parents and children, the best solution is love. In our relationship with God through Jesus, we have access to love that is so wide, long, deep and high that we can spend our entire lives exploring its beauty and life-changing grandeur, and never reach its limits. Like riding the roads of Australia, we can spend our whole lives discovering it and there will still be more to see.

And I haven’t even started talking about traveling overseas yet!

A problem we can face as Christians is we can be like people who watch travel shows on TV or go to information events about different tours and think that we’ve seen what we wanted to see. There is a big difference between seeing a TV show about a destination and experiencing its sights, smells, tastes and its beauty for ourselves. Paul’s prayer is that we will ‘experience the love of Christ, even though it is too great to understand fully’ (v19a NLT) for ourselves. It’s not enough to sit on a couch or a pew, listening to someone else who has seen it or been there. Following Jesus is not a spectator sport! The life of faith is about getting off our metaphorical posteriors and exploring ‘how wide, how long, how high and how deep his love is’ for ourselves. It’s only when we are willing to get out of our comfort zones, open God’s word, listen to his promises of love in the Bible, and connect them with the realities of our lives that we start to explore the infinite goodness of God’s love for ourselves.

That is largely what our congregation’s Discipling Plan is about. In particular, when we talk about Growing we mean exploring how wide, long, high and deep God’s love is for us in Jesus so that we can grasp it with both hands and experience it’s life-changing reality for ourselves. Just about everything I do is geared towards this one hope: that by opening God’s word together, listening to his promises of love, praying together and being Christian community together, you might be able to encounter God’s love in a new way and grasp a little more how his love can make a difference in your life.

Paul’s promise is that, as we explore the width, length, height and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit changes us. Paul writes that as we explore the vastness of God’s infinite love for us in Jesus, and as we experience the love of Christ, we ‘will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God’ (v19b). Try to imagine what that could be like: to be made complete with the fullness of God’s life and power. The NIV puts it a slightly different way: ‘that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.’ It boggles my mind to start thinking about the difference being filled with God’s fullness can make to our lives…

In all of life’s joy and challenges, difficulties or stresses, how would you like to be filled with ‘the fullness of God’s life and power’? Paul is saying this is possible when we are exploring how wide and long, how high and deep God’s love is for us in Jesus, and when we are experiencing the reality of that love in his word and in Christian community.

So, what kind of traveller are you? Do you like to watch travel shows in TV that give you a glimpse of a destination through someone else’s eyes? Or do you like to pack a bag and get out on the road to experience all of the joys, the challenges, the beauty and the wonder which come with exploring our country and the world? There is so much to explore within and beyond our borders. But that’s nothing compared to the life-changing beauty of the infinitely wide, long, high and deep love of God for us in Christ Jesus.

Don’t just sit on a pew on Sunday. Open your Bibles, hear what God promises us through Jesus, and come with me as we explore the width, length, height and depth of God’s love, so we can experience the life-changing reality of Jesus’ love for us and be filled with the fullness of God’s life and power together.

Compassion (Mark 6:30-34,53-56)

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I wonder how Jesus was feeling at the start of this story.

Jesus had been experiencing some of the joys and struggles of ministry. He had seen people’s lives changed as they encountered God’s goodness through his teaching, miracles and healings. He had also been rejected by the people of his own village (6:1-6), and when John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and partner in ministry, had been arrested and murdered by King Herod (6:14-29). This happened just after Jesus had sent his disciples out in pairs on their first missionary journey (6:7-13), giving them authority to cast out evil spirits.

Now, at the start of v30, Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples had returned to him and they were about to tell Jesus all about what had happened. However, there were so many people coming and going that they couldn’t even find time to eat, let alone debrief about the events of their missionary tour. So they headed off in a boat to try to find some time alone together. People worked out what was going on and they arrived at their destination ahead of Jesus and his disciples. When they got there, the place was already full of people waiting for Jesus.

If that was you, what would you have done? Would you turn the boat around and look for another quiet place to be alone with your friends? Would you tell the crowds to go away and give you some time for yourself? Or would you lie down in the boat, pull a tarpaulin up over your head and hide until everyone went away?

I am constantly in awe of what Jesus did next. He didn’t run away to find some precious ‘me’ time. He didn’t get angry at the crowds, or hide and hope they would go away. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the huge crowd, ‘he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Then he started teaching them (v34 NLT).

The English word ‘compassion’ doesn’t really do justice to Jesus’ reaction when he saw the crowds on the shore. The Greek word splagchnizomai describes something moving in the inner organs of Jesus’ body. A more modern English equivalent could be that Jesus’ ‘stomach turned’ at the scene in front of him, or it was a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience for him, or possibly even that Jesus’ heart broke (The Message) for the people he saw. However we might try to describe it, when Jesus saw the crowd of people, something moved deep inside him that made him want to help them.

A lot has changed in the world in two thousand years, but the human condition is still pretty much the same. Most people are searching for something in our lives. We have problems or challenges that can make each day difficult. We might be experiencing physical or mental illnesses, relationship breakdowns, or financial difficulties. We might be struggling with questions about who we are, where we belong in the world, or what our purpose in life might be. Most of us have something we’re struggling with in life, and we tend to tell ourselves that we’ll be fine if we just try a bit harder, do a bit more, or work a bit smarter. The great myths of our post-modern culture is that if we could just find our way through the mess, or if we could just be mindful of where we are, then we’ll be OK.

That sounds a lot like sheep without a shepherd to me. We are all doing our own thing, going our own ways, looking for greener grass to somehow make life better, more complete, more peaceful, or more of something than it is right now.

I wonder if Jesus still looks at us, sees us in our existential wandering like sheep without a shepherd, and if his stomach still turns with compassion for us.

What surprises me about this story is what Jesus did to help the people he saw. When people are moved with compassion, we might expect them to make a financial donation to a worthy charity, cook someone a meal, or do something else just as practical. Jesus didn’t do any of these. Instead, moved with compassion towards this crowd of people, he began to teach them.

I would love to know exactly what Jesus said to the crowd that day. All we can really do is guess, based on what Jesus had already been teaching in Mark’s gospel. Maybe he taught them about the Kingdom of God which comes to us in the most unexpected of ways, making the first last and the last first. Maybe Jesus taught about the presence of God, not with the rich or the powerful or the beautiful, but with the humble, the poor, the impoverished and the needy. Maybe he taught them to find grace and peace and rest in his presence with them, instead of the constant pursuit of doing more, doing better, or doing anything. Maybe he taught them that heaven isn’t just a nice place we go when we die, but it is the reality we live in now through faith in a truly present and perfectly loving God. Maybe Jesus taught them that the Kingdom of God isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere, but it’s here, made real in all the flaws and imperfections and struggles and shortcomings of a community of believers who are gathered by the Holy Spirit as the living, breathing body of the living Christ in the world. And maybe he taught them to turn away from trying to work things out for ourselves, and to turn to him, to trust in him, as the One who has everything we need for life in this world and the next…

What if Jesus wants to teach us this new way of life, the way that he taught that crowd all those years ago? Because listening to the teachings of Jesus, and trusting them to the point where we live like they’re true, can really make a difference to our lives.

At the end of a long day or a busy week, it’s easy to see people who want more from us as a nuisance or a bother. Our natural reaction can be to tell people to leave us alone, to look for some ‘me’ time, or to want to hide until it all goes away. What if we were able to see each other as Jesus sees us, as sheep without a shepherd, as people who have good intentions but really no clear idea of where we’re going or what we’re doing, and to find compassion for each other?

Whatever is happening in our lives, this story tells me that Jesus looks at each of us with gut-wrenching compassion, and he teaches us a better way of life. Maybe we need to stop for a bit, recognize that for our best of efforts, we’re all a little lost, and listen with fresh ears to the teachings of Jesus.

Highly Inappropriate! (2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19)

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This is a pretty famous picture in Australia’s history. It is of a man dancing through the streets of Sydney at the end of World War Two. After nearly six years of fighting, the arrival of peace brought this man such joy that he danced through the city. It’s interesting to look at the people’s reactions around him. Some of their faces reflect his joy, while others are confused and a bit surprised at this actions. I wonder if anyone disapproved of what he did.

What motivated King David to start dancing in 2 Samuel 6:1-19 was the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. The Ark had been made almost five hundred years earlier by Moses when the Israelites had left slavery in Egypt and were camped at Mount Sinai. It contained the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, a jar of manna – the food God had provided for the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness – and the staff of Aaron, Moses’ brother (see Hebrews 9:3,4). For the Israelites of the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God. They believed that wherever the Ark was, that was where they could find God to give them blessing and peace.

We don’t know whether David’s dance was premeditated or spontaneous. There is also a bit of disagreement among biblical scholars about what the ‘linen ephod’ (v9 NIV) was that David was wearing. Some argue that is was a garment that priests wore (see Exodus 28:6,7). It would have been extremely controversial for the king to be dressed as a priest. They were two very different roles in Jewish society. If the ‘linen ephod’ meant that the king was dressed in a ‘priestly garment’ (NLT), effectively bringing the two roles together in one person, then this can point us to Jesus, a descendant of David, who functions as both our eternal King and High Priest.

What was most scandalous about David’s dancing was that he was ‘shamelessly exposing himself to the servant girls’ (v20 NLT) while he danced. Michal in particular was upset as she looked down at the spectacle from her window (v16). David’s relationship with Michal was already complicated. She was the daughter of Israel’s first king, Saul, who had given her to David in marriage as part of his reward when David killed Goliath (see 1 Samuel 18:17-29). Saul had then married her to another man when David had fled from Saul’s court (1 Samuel 25:44). David reunited with Michal when he took the throne (see 2 Samuel 3:12-16) but I can imagine that their relationship would have been strained after Saul had died and David took his crown. Their relationship hit an all-time low when Michal watched David dance through the streets of Jerusalem in what many interpret as his underwear, and ‘she was filled with contempt for him’ (v16 NLT).

Where might we find ourselves in this story? Can we picture ourselves in the procession, dancing with David, celebrating the presence of God with us? Or would we be more comfortable upstairs with Michal looking down on something we think is an inappropriate, unacceptable, or even blasphemous expression of worship?

I guess most of us have ideas of what we think are acceptable worship practices. I grew up in a church culture where there were very strict expectations and unwritten rules about what a person did or did not do when we came to services. In my ministry, I have often seen disapproving looks or even outright condemnation because of how people might be dressed (including myself as the pastor!), how they might be behaving, or the amount of noise their children are making (again from personal experience). If we are going to approach worship with a set of rules and expectations, and if we are going to look down on people who do not live up to them, then what makes us any different from Michal, sitting up in her room, looking down with contempt on what she saw happening below her?

When Michal challenged David about his dancing, however, he explained that he was celebrating what God had done for him by making him king (v21). David’s dance wasn’t a choreographed performance for him to look good in front of others or somehow gain their approval. Neither was David dancing because he thought it was fun. David danced because of his joy in God’s goodness to him and to celebrate God’s presence with him. His dance was all about God: it focused on the goodness of God and it celebrated God.

We have even better reasons to celebrate like David. God has made us his ‘royal priests’ and is forming us together into the spiritual temple where God’s presence resides in the world (1 Peter 2:5) through the grace of Christ Jesus. We have not just been given an earthly kingdom like David, but an eternal kingdom through Jesus’ death and resurrection and our adoption into the family of God. We don’t serve at a temporary altar like in the Tabernacle in ancient Jerusalem, but we have access to the throne room of heaven to present our prayers, praises and thanksgivings (see Hebrews 10:19-22). God’s presence isn’t hidden behind a veil, obscured by rituals and religious observances, but we have his presence with us in the nitty-gritty and messiness of life through the Holy Spirit in God’s Word, in the waters of Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and the body of Christ that is the community of believers. David celebrated the presence of God who was still obscured to a large extent. As God’s New Testament people, we celebrate the God who is fully present with us in Jesus through the Holy Spirit!

This doesn’t mean that worship can become a self-indulgent free-for-all or a chaotic exercise in self-gratification. There is still a time and place for reverence, humility and good order in worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:26,40). Maybe what this story can do is broaden our understanding and expressions of worship to include a greater sense of celebration and joy, not at the expense of reverence and good order, but alongside those times when it’s appropriate to be silent before Almighty God and always to build others up in their relationship with our loving Father through Jesus.

Not everyone celebrated the end of the Second World War by dancing in the street. In the same way, not all of God’s people need to celebrate what God has done for us in Jesus by dancing. For some of us, we will celebrate by dancing on the inside. However, if people want to celebrate God’s goodness to them in Jesus by dancing, I’m not going to look down on them like Michal. Instead, we can give thanks that God is at work in each other’s lives through Jesus, making us his royal priests and giving his full presence to us in the Holy Spirit.

Sufficient Grace (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

2 Cor 12v9 03

I gained a new appreciation for this text one day a number of years ago when I was working in my garden. I was trying to prune some roses without wearing gloves and a thorn got lodged in one of my fingers. It was such a small thing but it constantly irritated me for days. I couldn’t get it out because it was so small, but it was consistently painful no matter what I did. I was amazed that such a small thing could hurt so much and for so long.

Biblical scholars have a lot of theories about what Paul’s ‘thorn’ was. Over the years, I’ve read people arguing that it might have been poor eyesight, a physical disability, mental illness, struggles with his sexuality, or demonic oppression. I like that Paul doesn’t tell us what his ‘thorn’ was. It means that we can hear what Paul is saying from the perspective of our own ‘thorns’.

Just about all of us have something that makes life hard or causes us to suffer. If you’re not, then please stop to thank God for his blessings to you. However, if you’re hearing Paul’s words about his ‘thorn’ and can identify with his struggle, then it might be disappointing to hear God’s reply that his grace is all you need.

When we are suffering from thorns, it’s fair and right to ask God to take them away, just like Paul did. It makes sense to think that because God loves us, he wants us to be happy. We can also assume that because God is all-powerful, he can take away any thorn. When he doesn’t take the thorn away, no matter what the thorn may be, we can start to doubt the love and goodness of God. We can begin to question if he cares, or if he is able to do what he promises, or even if God exists at all. When God fails to take away our thorns, we can start to feel like God has failed us.

When God says that his grace is all we need, he’s asking us to look for him beyond our immediate experiences. Rather than focus on our own subjective understanding of God and what he can do, God wants us to look to the most complete expression of his grace – the person of Jesus. When we contemplate Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, we can encounter the grace of God in three main ways:

  1. God is with us with our thorns because Jesus suffered from his crown of thorns, the metal ‘thorns’ of the nails that held his hands and feet to the cross, as well as the spiritual thorn of being abandoned by his Father. No matter how isolated we might feel, we are never alone because Jesus has shared our thorns and still carries their scars in his flesh.
  2. Jesus trusted his heavenly Father even while he was enduring his thorns. He never gave up on God and so, as ‘the champion who initiates and perfects our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2 NLT), Jesus will carry us through the times when we find it hard to trust in God’s goodness and love because of the thorns we are enduring.
  3. Because Jesus is risen from the dead, we can look forward to the time when our thorns are removed and we are free from their infliction. As we heard a couple of weeks ago from 2 Corinthians 4:18, what we endure now will pass away, but the life we have to look forward to through the resurrection of Jesus will last forever. That life will be thorn-free!

It would be poor pastoral care to say to someone who is suffering their own particular thorns not to worry about them because God’s grace should be enough. It can trivialize both the thorns they are enduring as well as the grace of God. However, I do believe that whatever our thorns may be, God’s grace in Jesus has everything we need to not only endure the thorns we may be experiencing, but for God to work good through them in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. Paul’s thorn was given to him so he would rely on God’s grace rather than his own experience. What if it is the same for us – that God allows us to carry our own thorns so that we would learn to rely on his grace, grow in that grace, and become more grace-giving to the people around us?

The challenge for us, then, especially when we are carrying thorns in our lives, is to dive deeper into the grace of God for us in Christ Jesus. We talk about Growing as the second stage in our congregation’s Discipling Plan. One way we can understand that is growing in our understanding of God’s grace to us in Jesus and how it has all we need for our lives with all their thorns. As we grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s grace to us in Jesus, God also equips us to bring his grace to others who are also carrying their thorns.

Over the last decade or so in the church I have witnessed a desire for ‘more.’ I’m not really sure what people want ‘more’ of. If people are looking for ‘more’ of God’s grace in Jesus, then I’m all for it! Paul believed, with his own particular thorn, that all he needed was God’s grace to get him through. What if that is true for us, too? What if, no matter what our personal thorns might be, all we need is the grace of God in the person of Jesus. Then maybe, the more we find God’s grace in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, the more we’ll find that his grace has everything we need with the thorns we carry.