One More Year (Luke 13:6-9)

Luke 13v6-9 looking for figs

In the house where we live there is one part of the yard which was pretty much just dirt and weeds when we moved in. Over the we have lived there, I have been slowly working on the patch to turn it into more of a garden. One plant I put in was doing well to begin with, but a couple of months ago it started losing its leaves and turning brown. I began to ask myself whether this plant was worth saving, or whether I should pull it out and plant something in its place which was going to do better in that spot.

I think most people who have worked in gardens would have been in a similar position to the person in Jesus’ story that we read about in Luke 13:6-9. He comes back time after time to see if his fig tree was producing any fruit, but it never does. In some ways, this is a pretty simple parable to interpret: the owner of the garden is God, and each of us is the fig tree.

This parable starts to get more challenging when we begin to ask what the fruit is that God is looking for in our lives. There are a number of ways in which we could interpret the fruit, but whenever I hear the Bible talk about fruit I think straight away of what Paul says in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (NLT)

The way I’m thinking about the fruit that God comes looking for in our lives, then, is that he is looking to see if our faith is producing:

  • love like Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, especially for people who are hard to love or who don’t love us
  • joy, even in the most tragic or difficult of circumstances
  • peace in the middle of life’s storms, conflicts and uncertainties
  • patience with people who frustrate or annoy us
  • kindness towards those who are unkind to us
  • the goodness of God in everything we think, say and do
  • faithfulness to the promises we have made to others, especially when it’s easier to break our promises, and to God for all of his goodness and grace to us through Jesus
  • gentleness, even with people who may be rough or hostile towards us
  • self-control in situations when it would be easier to let our emotions or feelings get the better of us

This story gives us a way to understand what the Christian life us about. I often talk with people who tell me that being a Christian is about going to church, or bringing other people to church, or getting to heaven when we die. This story says to me, however, that when God looks at our lives, he is looking to see if we are producing these kinds of fruit. This is the purpose and goal of living as Jesus’ disciples – to be growing to maturity so we can produce fruit in our lives and be sowing this kind of fruit into the lives of the people around us.

This is a great text for the New Year because it gives us a chance to look back at the past year and reflect on whether or not our lives have been producing this kind of fruit in our relationships with others. Most of us will probably be able to see times when we have produced fruit like Paul describes. However, there are other times when we have failed to produce these fruit. We are all growing and maturing, like any plant in our gardens. Every living thing is continually growing and maturing. We have times when the fruit is plentiful, but also others when the fruit is more scarce. What is important is that we are growing, because when something’s growing, it means it’s alive.

The good news of this text is that the owner of the garden doesn’t cut the fig tree down or even leave it to do its own thing. Instead, the gardener steps in and offers to care for it by giving it ‘special attention and plenty of fertilizer’ (v8 NLT). This character in the story is Jesus himself who intercedes for us by pleading for us with the Father and then promises to care for us. Jesus is the one who feeds us with his love, nurtures us with his grace, provides for us in his mercy, and grows us as his people. I won’t grow the struggling plant in my garden by telling it to grow stronger. Neither does Jesus grow us by telling us what to do. Instead, by being born and living a human life for us, by dying on the cross and then being raised to new life, Jesus has done everything that we need to grow into healthy, mature people of God so we can produce the fruit that God is looking for in our lives.

Jesus grows us to maturity in his grace through the waters of Baptism and the word of forgiveness. He provides food and drink for us as he gives us his blood and body, his perfect and eternal life, in the wine and bread of Holy Communion. Through our connection with and participation in Christian community, Jesus is there by his Holy Spirit to care for us and provide us with everything we need to grow as his strong, healthy, fruit-producing body of believers. Jesus commits himself to us, just like the gardener in this story, in the hope that as we grow and mature in his grace and love, our lives will produce the fruit of a vibrant and living faith which our heavenly Father is looking for.

I decided not to pull out the plant that wasn’t doing well in my garden. Instead, I committed to take care of it and water more regularly. Now, its leaves are growing back and it’s starting to flower again. This is what God plans for each of us. Through the care his Son gives us and by the power of his Spirit, God wants us to be strong and healthy in our faith so that our lives produce the fruit he is looking for. We can’t do it alone – to be strong, mature people of God we need the grace and love Jesus extends to us through a community of believers. My hope and prayer is that we can all live in the forgiveness, goodness and new life of Jesus this coming year so that our lives produce the fruit our heavenly Father is looking for by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can then sow the seeds of his goodness into the lives of others.

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Following the Baby (Luke 2:16)

jesus in manger 01

This year we have talked a lot about discipleship and what it means for us to live as followers of Jesus. As I prepared for Christmas, I was thinking about how following Jesus connects the good news of his birth with our lives.

One thing that struck me was that the characters in the Christmas story weren’t following Jesus, but were following other things to Jesus. The shepherds followed the angel’s directions. The Magi followed a star. And what they found when they followed in faith was an infant lying in a manger.

At our Christmas Eve service, I talked about looking at our three children when they were born and being amazed at the gift of life I saw in each of them. Another thing that really hit me when I looked at each of them was how utterly powerless they were. They had no control over anything – their environment, what was happening around them, even their own bodies. A newly born infant is completely helpless, totally dependent on others for everything they need.

That was the Messiah the shepherds and the Magi encountered when they looked into the manger and saw the infant Jesus. They witnessed a God who surrenders all of his infinite power to become a helpless baby. Jesus’ birth was an act of faith as he placed his life in the hands of his parents and trusted them to care and provide for him in every way. It was an act of love because the Son of God surrenders all of his power for our sake, as he meets us where we are to give us something better.

There are biblical scholars who believe that when Jesus taught his disciples that they needed to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3) he was referring to a newborn infant. If we accept this interpretation of Jesus’ words, he seems to be saying that if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we need to trust our Father in heaven for everything we need, just like newborn infants trust their parents for everything to survive.

This doesn’t come easy for us. Generally, we like to be in control of ourselves, our circumstances, even the people around us. We tend to hate feeling powerless and want to take control so circumstances, situations and even people’s actions fit in with us and the way we think things should be. The problem with this is that while we are trying to exercise control, we are not trusting in God. There are those who argue that our human tendency to control things comes from our fundamental desire to play god with our own lives and the lives of others.

The good news for us in the helplessness of the infant Jesus is that, when we are powerless in our own lives and we have no control, Jesus meets us there. In those times when our life’s circumstances, our relationships or even our own bodies are out of our control, Jesus is with us. He knows what it is like to be helpless and depend entirely on others because he has been there in his infancy. Jesus knows what it is like to have no control over his environment, over anything that was going on around him, or even his own bodily functions. So when our lives, or even our own bodies, are out of control, God is with us. Whether we think of Jesus’ powerlessness in the manger or on the cross, when we are powerless, God is close to us.

That is where we learn to trust God. One of the reasons God reveals himself to us as our loving heavenly Father is that he wants us to trust him for everything the way newly born infants trust their parents. We learn what faith is all about when we surrender control, or our desire to control, and leave things in the hands of our loving heavenly Dad. We don’t have to fix things, or get our way, or make things a certain way, or get others to do things the way we think they should be done. A big part of following Jesus in faith is to actually let go of our desire to control circumstances, behaviours or people around us, and trust that God will work them for the good of all who love him (Romans 8:28).

As we live in faith, then, we also learn how to be more loving towards the people around us. Jesus surrendered his power out of love for us. In the same way, there are times when he calls us to follow him by giving up our control to show love to other people. Things don’t always have to be the way we want them or the way they have always been done. Love means taking other people’s needs or preferences into account and giving up what we think is important s for their benefit. As we prioritise other people and what is meaningful or important to them, we show them the love of God who surrendered his control and power by being born in a manger. This can happen in our congregations, our homes, or even the way we celebrate Christmas. It’s not about just giving people what they want or being a doormat. Instead, it’s about realising that things don’t always have to be the way we want them to be, and giving others a chance to contribute constructively in ways that are meaningful and important for them.

It continues to amaze me how our children are able to learn, grow and become more self-sufficient in what they can do. As they get older, they will probably rely on their parents less and less. In some ways, that is the way life is meant to be. In our relationship with God, however, our heavenly Father never wants us to stop trusting in him for everything we need. As we follow Jesus to the manger, we encounter a God who surrendered his power and control for us. When life is out of our control and we are helpless, the infant Jesus meets us there. As we gain more control, there are times when Jesus asks us to follow him by giving up our control and trusting him more as we love the people around us.

How might you give up your control, trusting in God and showing love to others this Christmas?

The Greatest Gift (Luke 2:9-12)

gift manger 01

On Christmas Eve at our church, our young people presented a play which looked at the birth of Jesus as being the greatest gift ever given to the world.

When we compare the gift of a child to all the other things on our Christmas wish lists, a baby might not look very impressive or important. When each of our three children were born, I remember looking at these little, helpless people and being amazed at what an incredible gift life is. We can’t buy it or earn it in any way. Life can only be given, and that’s what makes it a gift.

Whether we identify as followers of Jesus or not, it is good that we remember that. It is too easy to take our life and the lives of the people around us for granted. But life is so fragile and precious. Christmas is a good time to remember that and appreciate the lives of the people around us. They might frustrate or annoy us, but the people in our lives are a gift to us from a God who loves us and wants good for us. So give thanks for the fragile, precious gift of the people in your life, because they are God’s gift to us.

What is unique about the life of this baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas is that he is the gift of God’s life to us. The Apostle Paul tells us that the fullness of God lives in this little body (Colossians 1:19). Through this child, God overcomes everything that divides a flawed, broken, messed-up humanity from himself and he unites himself with us. God and people are joined together as one in the infant of Jesus. He does that to take everything that is wrong about us and carry it to the cross to put it to death. At the same time, he fills us with everything he is: goodness, purity, righteousness, wholeness, and so much more. He gifts us with his life, from which all life grows. Jesus describes the life he comes to give as ‘life to the full’ (John 10:10). This is life as it was meant to be from the beginning – life lived in perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with creation. His is a life that is stronger than death, and a life that will never end.

We look for life in all sorts of ways and places. Some of them help us discover what life is about. Other places where we look for life actually take life from us. In the end, like all the other gifts we will receive this Christmas, they have a use-by date. They will leave us wanting and looking for more, or better, or newer gifts. The gift of life that God gives to us through the infant Jesus, however, has no use-by date. It is everything we could ever hope for, and so much more.

At Christmas, we don’t just celebrate the birth of a baby a long time ago in a land far, far away. We celebrate the greatest gift God has ever given to us – life in his Son which begins now and will last forever.

The Kingdom of Love (2 Samuel 7:1-11,16)

advent wk4 love 01

I am amazed how often I see stories about the royal family in my news-feed when I open my email homepage. Australians are divided on whether the Queen should be our head of state or not, but that doesn’t stop us having a fascination with the royal family, who they are marrying, or what they are wearing. Occasionally I see people debating who will be the next King of Great Britain – whether it will be Charles or pass straight to William. It reminds me that all monarchs, rulers and governments in this world are temporary. It doesn’t matter whether they get their power from being part of a family or through more democratic means, at some stage every worldly ruler passes on their authority on to someone else.

During the Christmas season, Christians celebrate the birth of the child who has come to reign as our spiritual King and to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. This king was foretold throughout the Old Testament and God’s people waited for centuries for his coming. When Jesus was born, the prophesied king came into our world to establish God’s kingdom and to reign over his people.

There are a number of ways in which the reign of Jesus as our king is very different from the reign of earthly rulers. I would like to look at three ways in which Jesus’ kingdom is different from any other worldly government.

Firstly, as the prophet Nathan told David about a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, this king would reign forever. In 2 Samuel 7:1-16 we read that David wanted to build a physical house made of stone and word in which God could make his home in the world. God turns it around and tells David through the prophet Nathan that instead he would build a spiritual ‘house’ from David’s descendants, meaning a dynasty of kings. One of David’s descendants would reign over an eternal kingdom which would never end. This prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus who began his reign over the kingdom of God during his earthly ministry and who continues to reign over us now through faith. The promise is that Jesus’ kingdom will never end as he will rule over us for all of eternity.

The second big difference is that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t made up of a complicated legal system which only lawyers can understand. As we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent, we remember that Jesus’ kingdom has just one command: the law of love. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength, and to love others like we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). In John’s gospel, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus gave a new commandment to his followers: to love each other in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34). The rest of the New Testament explores how communities of Jesus’ followers were working out how this law looked in their relationships with each other. In the same way, as members of Jesus’ kingdom through faith, we only have one law to live by: to love each other in the same self-giving, self-sacrificing way that Jesus loves us.

This leads us to the third big difference between our worldly rulers and the way Jesus rules over us as our spiritual King. Earthly rulers can make all the rules they want, but they cannot give us the ability to keep them. In Jesus’ kingdom, we have a king who gives us what we need so that we can live in the way he wants us to. Jesus’ new command is based on and flows out of the love he gives us. During his time on earth, Jesus loved others perfectly, not just to set us an example for us to follow, but so that we can know his perfect love for us. We can understand grace as God giving to us what he wants from us. Jesus our king loves us perfectly by being born for us, living for us, dying for us and rising again from the grave to give us new life through faith in him. It would kind of be like Queen Elizabeth II paying the taxes she demands from us so that we can use that money to help and bless other people. Jesus rules as our king to use his power and authority to provide for us in every way, to protect us from all harm, and to keep us strong in his love. Through the experience of being loved by our King Jesus we are then able to love the people around us, not matter how difficult it might be to do that. As we live in the reality of Jesus’ Kingdom of Love, we participate in his love by receiving his love through faith in him and sharing his love in our relationships with others.

Talking about Australia as a constitutional monarchy runs the risk of people arguing over the Queen should be our head of state or not. I don’t want to get into that because, like King David about three thousand years ago, kings and queens come and go, and their kingdoms, constitutions and governments are only temporary. However, we belong to the eternal Kingdom of Love whose king will rule forever. We encounter Jesus’ love when we look into the manger in faith and see our king who is born for us in Bethlehem. This is the king who loves us perfectly in his life, death and resurrection. This is the king who still rules over our hearts with his love. And this is the king whose perfect, infinite grace will keep us in his Kingdom of Love for ever.

Dressed in Joy (Isaiah 6:1-4,8-11)

advent wk3 joy 01

There are a few people I have spoken with over the last month who have told me that they’re not doing Christmas this year.

In a way, I can understand why they don’t what to buy into the ‘festive’ season. These are people who have been doing it tough for most of the year, are suffering in one way or another, or who have experienced serious tragedies. The idea of trying to have the ‘happy’ Christmas that we see in the media is the furthest thing from their minds as they deal with the difficulties they are experiencing.

However, in another way, this is why Christmas is such an important event for us as disciples of Jesus. When Jesus was born, he didn’t enter into a perfect Christmas like the media portrays. Jesus wasn’t born into an ideal family surrounded by all the trappings of an affluent lifestyle. Instead, he was born into brokenness, suffering and pain. He entered into our messy existence in order to give us something much better than a superficial happiness that we can pursue by consuming goods, services or relationships.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and comes into our lives to give us a deeper joy.

There is a big difference between the happiness the media presents and the joy God offers. Being ‘happy’ is kind of like eating a Christmas lolly or sweet – it’s good for the brief time that it lasts, but when it’s gone it leaves us wanting more. So we consume another lolly, and another one, and another one in the vain hope that if we consume enough, we will finally find lasting happiness. Joy, on the other hand, is like a massive gob-stopper that we can enjoy all day. It is there with us wherever we go, through the good times and the bad, providing us with something that is lasting, real and a lot more satisfying.

God’s promise to us in Jesus isn’t a shallow, temporary ‘happy’ feeling, but a deep, lasting, real sense of joy in all the circumstances of life.

We read about the joy Jesus gives in the words of Isaiah 61. Jesus read this passage in the synagogue in Luke 4:14-21 where he said, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (NIV). Jesus fulfils the Prophet’s words as he comes to us to give us joy in his salvation. Isaiah is packed full of good news for us, and each line contains almost a full sermon in itself. Here’s what Jesus brings us:

  • good news to the poor – Jesus brings good news to all who are impoverished or needy in our hearts, minds or spirits; what follows expands on this good news for us
  • to bind up the broken-hearted – Jesus can heal hearts that are broken with the perfect, infinite love which he shows us in his suffering, death and resurrection
  • freedom for the captives – Jesus’ love sets us free from the things in life that trap or bind us, such as sin, death and the devil’s power
  • release from darkness – we all go through dark times, and people I’ve known who suffer depression have described it as a darkness over them, but Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12), comes to free from the darkness
  • the year of the Lord’s favour – in the Old Testament, a Jubilee year was when Jewish society was reset as debts were forgiven, land was returned and slaves set free (see Leviticus 25); now is the year of the Lord’s favour as Jesus puts things back the way they were meant to be
  • to comfort all who mourn – Jesus defeats death through his crucifixion and resurrection so even as we mourn the loss of loved ones, we can still find comfort in the hope that life goes on beyond death for all who die in faith
  • provide for those who grieve – we grieve when we suffer loss; Jesus provides for us when we grieve the losses we suffer; he doesn’t always give us what we want, but always what we need
  • a crown of beauty instead of ashes – another Old Testament reference to grief, mourning and repentance (see Job 2:8, Jonah 3:6 NLT); Jesus replaces ashes with the honour of being children of the King of all Kings
  • joy instead of mourning – in the middle of life’s struggles, challenges and tragedies, we can still find a sense of joy in Jesus’ promises by the power of his Holy Spirit
  • praise instead of a spirit of despair – this joy results in praise as we live in the good news of what God has done, is doing and will do for us in Jesus

One way we can listen to these words from Isaiah is to ask where we are in them – are we in need, broken-hearted, trapped, in a dark place, mourning or grieving a loss? Then we can look at what Jesus brings us through his presence with his by his Spirit – good news, healing, freedom, favour, comfort, as he provides for us in our need and crowns us as his nation of royal priests (1 Peter 2:9). These promises become the source of joy for us who believe, as Jesus becomes one with us in his birth and gives the fullness of God’s goodness to us, no matter what our circumstances might be.

I would love for us as Jesus’ disciples to find a better way of celebrating the birth of Jesus. It seems to me that one of the reasons people don’t want to celebrate Christmas when they are hurting is that, as church, we have bought too much into the world’s idea of a shallow, ‘happy’ Christmas. How could we celebrate the birth of Jesus and with a joy that is deep, lasting and real, while still taking seriously the reality of suffering in people’s lives?

The good news we can celebrate this year and every year is that Jesus is born into our broken, painful, messed up lives where we experience suffering, tragedy and grief. Jesus comes to give us the promise of something much better. The birth of Jesus is good news for us, no matter what our circumstances might be. And this good news can help us find a real and lasting sense of joy which will last for ever.

More to think about:

  • What do you enjoy or not enjoy about the Christmas season? Why is that?
  • Do you think there is a difference between being ‘happy’ and experiencing ‘joy’? Why or why not?
  • How can the birth of Jesus give us joy, even if we are not feeling happy?
  • Read Isaiah 61:1-3. Is there anything that describes what you or someone else may be going through this Christmas? Spend some time explaining why.
  • What does Isaiah promise to people who may be experiencing what you’re going though? Discuss how the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus can bring us joy in these circumstances.
    (If you’re finding that particularly hard, contact me & I’ll see if I can offer some help…)

The Peace Road (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Talking about peace at Christmas can seem like an oxymoron. All you need to do is to walk to the local shops to see people frantically running around, buying gifts, and doing the things we often think are so important in the attempt to have ‘the best Christmas ever.’ We are not immune in the church, as we set about planning and doing the many things we think are necessary to bring the message of our Saviour’s birth at Bethlehem to the world. All the while, calendars get full, stress levels rise, and the peace we talk about at Christmas seems more and more distant.

Is it possible to find a real sense of peace at Christmas?

Like last week’s text from Isaiah 64:1-9, these words from Isaiah 40:1-11 were written for God’s people in exile after their homeland, their temple and their freedoms had been destroyed by the Babylonians. God tells the Prophet to comfort his people with a message of peace. In order to prepare for this coming peace, the people of God were encouraged to ‘make a straight road through the wasteland’ (v3b NLT). Isaiah is telling God’s people that he wants them to remove everything that might be an obstacle to the peace God was bringing so that when it came, nothing would stand in the way.

As a person who enjoys riding a motorcycle, I understand that some people find straight roads boring and would prefer to take the longer, windy, more scenic route when travelling. We do the same thing in life, especially at Christmas, when we run from this to that, busy with a lot of things that our society, our church culture, or even our families think are so important. However, what they end up doing is getting in the way of the peace God promises. We can be so busy trying to fulfil other people’s, or even our own, expectations that Jesus can get lost and we end up being tightly compressed balls of stress rather than experiencing the peace the Prophet promises and the angels proclaimed.

Sometimes what we need to do is to ‘fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills, straighten the curves and smooth out the rough places’ (v4 NLT). We begin to do that by remembering and focusing on what Christmas is all about, and removing what gets in the way of that focus. It might mean buying less presents, having a simpler Christmas lunch without all the trimmings, not trying to see all of our relatives on the one day, or giving the most valuable thing we have to the people who mean most to us: our time.
Because none of these things are really what Christmas is about. As the church, we should know better, but we still get sucked into the busyness and pressure of Christmas that our society expects. Instead, we should know that the reason we celebrate Christmas is the coming of God’s peace through Jesus and live every day with that as our focus and guide.

What’s significant about these words from the Prophet is that this highway through the wilderness was not for the Jews to return to their homeland. Instead, it was for God to join them in their exile. In verse 9 the Prophet brings the good news that ‘Your God is coming!’ God was coming to people who were exiled, rejected, broken and lost to give them something better. He was coming ‘in power’ to ‘rule with a powerful arm’ (v10 NLT). The Prophet tells us that when comes, God will use his power in this way:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. (v11 NLT)

The Prophet is telling us that God comes he will take care of all our needs in his grace, to hold us close in his love, and to lead us home. This is where we can find peace. In the middle of the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of life, we can find peace in God’s promise to us that he will feed us, protect us, and lead us.

God fulfils this promise in Jesus, which is why the angels sang ‘Peace on earth’ when Jesus was born (Luke 2:14). Jesus comes to us in the craziness, busyness and unpredictability of life to feed us with his promise of forgiveness and mercy, to hold us close to his heart as he becomes one with us and shares in our humanity, and to lead us through life to our heavenly home by his Spirit. No matter what our circumstance might be in life, we can find a deep sense of peace through faith in Jesus and his all-conquering love for us.

Why would we put anything in the way of this peace he offers?

To clear the way and straighten the road so God’s Spirit can bring this peace to us is often easier said than done. We all live with pressures, expectations and stresses in our lives, especially at Christmas. Clearing some of them out of the way so we can find the peace Jesus comes to give us is not always easy. However, that is the challenge the Prophet gives us in this reading.

When I’m teaching my kids to ride a bike, I tell them to look where they’re going because they will go where they are looking. Maybe it’s the same with clearing the way for the peace Jesus brings. When we focus on Jesus and his birth for us at Christmas, we will no longer be distracted by all the different things pulling us in one direction or another. Doing this will help us to straighten the path, clear the way, and prepare for the peace Jesus brings.

More to think about:

  • Do you generally prefer to drive on winding roads or straight? Why do you prefer them?
  • What do you usually find more of at Christmas: peace or stress? If Christmas is a stressful time for you, what are the main sources of stress or worry for you?
  • If Jesus comes to bring us peace, what gets in the way of you experiencing peace at Christmas? In your life generally?
  • What might you be able to do less of in order to clear the way to finding a greater sense of peace this Christmas?
  • What difference might it make in your life if you trusted the words of Isaiah 40:10,11 that God uses his power to feed you, hold you close and lead you through all the circumstances of life, both good and bad?

When God Comes Down (Isaiah 64:1-9)

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The season of Advent is four Sundays before Christmas when Christians focus on the coming of Jesus in his birth at Bethlehem and again at the end of time. There is a strong connection between us waiting for Jesus and God’s Old Testament people waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah. They were also waiting and looking forward to the hope, peace, joy and love that the Messiah would bring. As we wait for the coming of Jesus the Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time, I thought it would be good to listen to the words of the Old Testament prophets for what they might be saying to us, thousands of years later.

These words from Isaiah 64:1-9 were written while the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon. About 587 years before Jesus’ birth, the Babylonians had conquered the Jewish nation, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and had taken the people to Babylon in captivity. This is also about the time when the stories of Daniel and his friends were set. The Jews were a people who had lost everything – their homeland, their worship and their freedom.

The Prophet calls for God to tear heaven open and come down to avenge his people for the wrongs that had been done to them (vv1,2). His hope is that God will execute justice on those who have taken the Jews into exile through a display of his power and might. Just like God did at the Exodus, he wants God to show his awesome deeds and strike terror in the hearts of those who were oppressing his people (v3). Then the mountains will tremble with the presence of God’s might and power like Mount Sinai did when God came down to give Moses the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 19:16-20). The Prophet argues that from the beginning of creation, God has always helped those who wait for him and who live in the way he wants (vv4,5a).

But then there is a dramatic shift in the Prophet’s words. If God ‘works for those who wait for him’ and welcomes ‘those who gladly do good, who follow godly ways’ (vv4b,5a), then the Prophet confesses that his people are not blameless. The Prophet offers a confession on behalf of his people, admitting that they are ‘infected and impure with sin,’ whose ‘righteous deeds’ are ‘nothing but filthy rags’ (v6 NLT). The Prophet recognises that they have failed to call on God’s name or look for his mercy, and this is why they are in exile (v7). Instead of just seeing the wrongs of the world around him, the Prophet recognises the wrongs within him.

This leads him to a new hope. The Prophet is hoping for a new relationship with God as their Father, and idea which is very rare in the Old Testament. His hope is that God would re-form his people like a potter forms the clay, and that God would forgive their sin and make his people right again with him (vv8,9). The new hope the Prophet has is that God would make the wrong things in him right again so that he could live in a new relationship with God as his child.

It is easy for us to see the presence of evil in the world and a lot of things that are wrong. We see people who are suffering from injustice and abuse, both internationally and more personally. Governments seem to be working more for their own benefit than for the benefit of the people who have voted them into office. Many people are living in the fear that we are losing our freedoms. With all of this going on, it would be easy for us to join in the prayer of the Prophet and ask God to tear heaven open, come down and put right the wrongs of the world through a display of power and strength.

What these words from the Prophet challenge us to do, however, is to recognise that we are also guilty of wrongs in our own life. It is easy to see what is wrong outside of us, but much more difficult to recognise the wrongs that exist within us. Like the Prophet, instead of looking for God to tear heaven open to destroy the wrongs ‘out there’, we need to acknowledge and confess the wrongs that live inside each of us.

Because when God opened heaven to come down, God didn’t do it through a display of earthly power and strength, punishing the wicked and destroying evil people. Instead, God came to us from heaven in humility and weakness in the birth of Jesus. If God was to destroy the wrongs of the world through might and power, then he would also need to destroy the wrongs in us in the same way. What can give us hope is that God comes down out of heaven as a person like us who understands our weakness and failures. Jesus joins us in our brokenness to walk with us, to suffer with us, but also to give us the promise of something better. Jesus begins to put what’s wrong in the world right again by beginning with us. He takes our sin on himself and gives us his righteousness through faith in him. Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God whom we can now know as our loving heavenly Dad. Jesus re-forms us and re-shapes us by the power of his Spirit to be people of hope so we can bring his hope to the world. The hope we can find as God opens heaven and comes down to us in the birth of Jesus is that he makes right what is wrong in us so we can live every day as his people in the world.

Part of the Advent message is that God will ‘burst from the heavens and come down’ (v1 NLT) again at the end of time to finally put all the wrongs things in the world right again through Jesus. Until that day we care called to live in the hope that God has already come from heaven to us in Jesus. The hope we have is that Jesus puts the wrong things in us right again. In that hope we can join him in putting the wrongs of this world right again.

More to think about:

  • When you think about God bursting from the heavens and coming down to earth (v1), what would you normally expect that to look like?
  • What does it say to you about the nature of God that when he comes down from heaven, he does it as a newborn baby rather than through a display of vengeance, power and might?
  • Do you find it easier to identify what’s wrong with the world, or what’s wrong inside you? Why do you think you tend to do that?
  • How does it feel for you to pray verses 5b to 7 as a prayer of confession? How can God’s forgiveness in Jesus give you hope for the future?
  • How can the Prophet’s words about God being our ‘Father’ and our ‘potter’ be good news for us? How can a new relationship with God as our perfect Father and his promise to re-form us as a potter forms the clay give you a sense of hope?
  • If there are people in your life who have wronged you, how might you be able bring hope into their lives by offering them the gift of forgiveness this Christmas?