A Changed Heart (Acts 9:1-20)

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Do you believe that people can change?

When I posed this question to our congregation on Sunday I got a range of interesting answers. Some people said that we are always changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. No matter what is going on in our lives, our circumstances are continually shaping us. Another perspective put forward was that in some ways we are who we are and that doesn’t change. I have known some people who were preparing to be married that expected their partners to change. The changes they were hoping for never happened and it placed a lot of pressure on their marriage.

So what do you think – can people really change?

The story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20 gives me hope that God can change us for the better. At the start of the story Saul was an enemy of Jesus. Earlier in Acts we read the story of the death of Steven, a disciple of Jesus who was the first of his followers who was killed for his faith. Acts 8:1 tells us that Saul was there, approving of Steven’s murder. In Acts 9, Saul was intensifying his persecution of Jesus’ followers by going to Damascus to arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.

Something miraculous happens along the way. The risen Jesus appears to Saul and it completely changes his life. Instead of being an enemy of Jesus, his encounter with the risen Christ changes Saul into a follower of Jesus. This change is so dramatic, by the end of the story Saul is going to the Jewish synagogues, not to arrest Jesus’ followers, but to tell other Jewish people that Jesus is in fact the Messiah! Saul, whom we also know as Paul, then spent the rest of his life traveling the known world, telling people about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the way it could change their lives, too. Most of our New Testament was written by Saul to these communities of Jesus’ followers, encouraging them in their faith and helping them to live the new life he had found in Jesus.

As we read Saul/Paul’s writings, we get a picture of the change Jesus worked in him, as well as the kind of changes Jesus wants to be working in us. For example, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 talks about the way Jesus wants to make us more loving people. In Galatians 5:22,23 Paul writes about the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in people who reach maturity of faith. Paul talks about the difference it can make to our lives when we are clothed in Christ in Colossians 3:12-15. Here, as well as in other passages of the Bible, Jesus shows us the kind of people he wants to shape us into as we encounter his grace and grow in his love.

I have recently been coming across the phrase that the Bible is more about transformation than information. While the Scriptures give us information about Jesus and the way God has worked in people’s lives in the past, I agree that sometimes we forget that God wants to transform us into new people who are living the life of the risen Christ. For example, in Romans 12:2 Paul writes, ‘Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). Paul, who knew himself the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus, is encouraging all of us to be transformed into new people through our encounters with Jesus so we can live the new life he gives us through his Spirit.

Saul had a dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’ve never had an encounter with Jesus like that, but we can still learn from Saul’s story about how Jesus meets us to change us into the people he is calling us to be.

Firstly, we meet Jesus when we spend time in his Word. This brings us back to the theme we’ve been running with a lot this year – the importance of listening to Jesus in the words of the Bible. The Apostle John identifies Jesus as the eternal Word of God in the opening verses of his gospel. When we read the Bible and listen to what Jesus is saying to us, our encounters with him are just as real as Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road.

The second thing we can learn is the importance of prayer. When Jesus sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, Saul was praying (v11). I’m curious to know the content of Saul’s prayer, but just that he was praying shows prayer is a vital part of the way God wants to change us. When we are talking with God about what’s happening in our lives, wrestling with how Jesus’ words connect with our lived experiences, and bringing everything that’s happening in our lives to God through prayer, then God will use that to shape us into more faith-filled, loving people.

The third thing we can learn from Saul’s’ story is the significance of Christian community. Jesus didn’t leave Saul to try to work out the changes he was making in his life on his own. Jesus was reaching out to Saul through Ananias, connecting with him and embracing him in a community of faith. We read in verse 19 that ‘Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus’ (NLT) which shows us that right from the start he knew the importance of being connected to a community of believers. Many of Paul’s letters were written to communities of Jesus’ followers to help them live the life of Christ in their relationships with each other and in the context of the surrounding non-believing culture.

One of the problems we can face as followers of Jesus today is the belief that we can change on our own. When we look at Saul’s conversion story, he was shaped into the person Jesus was calling him to be through an encounter with Jesus, prayer and being part of a community of faith. This story tells me that Jesus wants to work in our lives in a similar way. Jesus wants to meet us in his Word, talk with us in prayer, and shape us through contact with his flesh-and-blood body, a community of believers. By exercising these basic spiritual disciplines, Jesus will be at work in our lives through his Holy Spirit, shaping us into the people he is calling us to be, changing us into people who trust him, love others, and are producing the fruit of his Spirit in our lives.

Jesus changed Saul. He can change us, too.

More to think about:

  • Do you think people can change? Maybe share some stories where you or someone else you know has changed, or stories where you haven’t seen a change you were hoping for.
  • What is your reaction to the story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20? What do you like about the story? What do you not like about it? What questions do you have?
  • When you read Bible passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22,23 or Colossians 3:12-15, do they sound like the life you’re living now? Do they sound like a life you’d like to live? Explain why…
  • Do you tend to read the Bible more as information or for transformation? How might the way you read your Bible change if Jesus wanted to change you by speaking to you through it?
  • Do you make time for talking with God in prayer? How might your approach to prayer be different if you saw prayer as your chance to talk with Jesus about what’s happening in your life?
  • Do you connect regularly with other Christians in some way? Would you be more willing to connect regularly with other Christians if that was a key way that God was going to shape you into a more faith-filled, grace-giving, loving person?
  • Are there things in your life that you would like to be different?
  • Do you believe that Jesus can change you like he changed Saul? Explain why…
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‘Believe and Live!’ (John 20:19-31)

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How do you tell the difference between fake news and what’s real?

There was a time when people would read the newspapers in the good faith that what they were reading was a trustworthy reporting of the facts. With the rise of social media and ‘fake’ news, it is becoming harder and harder to be able to distinguish between what is real and fake news, between what is truth and what isn’t. So, when you read an article or news story online or in the paper, how do you tell if it is real, fake, or merely one person’s perspective of the truth to try to influence the reader’s opinion?

It would be easy for us to read John 20:30,31 and think this is an editorial spin or even fake news. John says that he wrote down the ‘miraculous signs’ of Jesus ‘so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name’ (John 20:31 NLT).

This is an extraordinary promise. John is saying that his reason for writing his gospel wasn’t so he could have a number 1 on the Jerusalem Time bestseller list. Neither did he write his gospel to justify Jesus after he had died a criminal’s death. John’s intention wasn’t to con anyone or use Jesus’ story to fund a multi-million-dollar megachurch. John states clearly that he recorded what Jesus did so that future readers could hear about the signs which pointed to Jesus being the Messiah who had been promised throughout the Old Testament. By hearing about what Jesus did, John’s hope was that his readers would put their faith in Jesus, and through that faith find the life that Jesus came to give us.

It is important to hear the connection John makes between the Word of God, faith in that Word and the life that God gives through that faith. In the opening verses of his gospel, John identified the Word of God with the person Jesus. The words he was writing point us to the eternal Word of God who became human in the person of Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses this Word to create, sustain and grow faith in the people who listen to it. That’s why it’s so important to be connected with God’s Word, as Jesus teaches with the analogy of the vine and the branch in John 15:1-17. We can only trust God’s promises when we are listening to his promises in his Word.

This faith which the Holy Spirit gives and grows through God’s Word results in a new kind of life in us. The New Testament gives us pictures of what this life is like. We might think of it as life which will last forever in heaven, but it is much more than that because it shapes the lives we are living now. It is life lived in full relationship with God, knowing him as our loving heavenly Father. It is a life in which we can know God and be fully known by God. It is a life that is defined by and overflowing with unconditional love. It is a life in which our identity, belonging and purpose are all defined by and lived in Jesus’ grace and love. Yes, this is a life to be lived forever in heaven but it is also a life to the full (John 10:10) which we can live now in faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

All of which might make John’s promise to us of life lived through faith in the Word sound like an editorial exaggeration, or even fake news. So how do we know? How do we know that what John is saying is trustworthy or not?

Sometimes, the only way to find out is to give it a try. I’m not talking about using intellectual arguments to try to convince anyone of the historical accuracy of the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Instead, I’m talking about verifying the validity of John’s claims by giving a life of faith a go and seeing if it makes a difference. Jesus didn’t come to just give us new information. He came to lead us into a new way of living, a way that is about trusting him and loving others. One way or another, every New Testament writer points us to this way – loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28), loving one another like Jesus has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12,17), living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6), or showing our faith through our works (James 2:18). It’s all pointing us to the way of Jesus using different language.

Maybe, then, the way of validating what John write is to live like what Jesus said is true and see if it makes a difference to our lives. Psalm 34:8a encourages us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (NLT). When a new product comes out at the supermarket, the only way to find out if it’s any good is to try it. Maybe finding out if John’s promise about finding life through faith in Jesus is fake news or not is to give it a go, to taste it and see if it really is as good as he claims it is. This means committing to reading God’s Word and learning to listen with others to what God is promising us. It means learning to pray to Jesus, trusting him with both the good and bad which is happening in our lives. It means committing to meet with other Christians in public worship around the meal Jesus gave us and in smaller groups where we can wrestle with the bigger questions of faith. It means committing to follow Jesus by trusting him in all the circumstances of life and loving others in the same self-giving, other-centred way that he loves us. Some people have called this a leap of faith. Others call it trying before you buy. It basically means giving the Way of Jesus a fair dinkum crack, embracing a life of faith, trusting what Jesus said enough to live like it’s true, and finding out for ourselves if the way of Jesus really does lead to a better life or not.

In a world of fake news, it’s easy to dismiss what John says for a lot of reasons. But what if it’s true? What if, by being connected with God’s Word, we can find a faith that leads to a better life? Is this something you might hope for? Is this something that maybe Jesus can lead you into? It’s a massive claim, but John wrote his gospel in the full conviction that by writing the stories of Jesus, people for thousands of years would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and through faith in him, would find a life which is full to overflowing of infinite, perfect love and is stronger than death.

More to think about:

  • How do you tell the difference between real and ‘fake news’? How do you work out what can be trusted or not?
  • When you read John 20:31, does this sound like something that can be trusted or fake news? Give some reasons why you think that way.
  • Based on what you know of the Bible and/or the teachings of Jesus, what do you imagine the life that John talks about looks like?
  • Is this the kind of life you’d like to be living? Can you explain why or why not?
  • What might happen if you committed to learning to live in the way of Jesus by reading your Bible and talking with God in prayer every day, as well as meeting with other Christians regularly either in worship or a small group, for a month? What difference might it make to your life?
  • Are you willing to give it a go…?

Easter 2019

 

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Maundy Thursday: ‘As I Have Loved You’ (John 13:1-17,31b-35)

This year’s Maundy Thursday service was held in our hall. The chairs were arranged in the round with a table in the centre on which was placed the bread and wine for Holy Communion. As people entered, they were offered the opportunity to have their feet washed. I always find it interesting to watch people’s reactions to the offer. Some accept and are thankful to have someone wash their feet. Others, however, are not comfortable with it and decline the invitation.

I can understand why they do that. we can be very sensitive about our feet. We often think of them as unattractive, dirty, smelly or something we just don’t like other people seeing or holding. We are can feel shame because of our feet and so don’t like others to be close to them or to see them as they really are.

We often think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet before their last meal together (John 13:1-17) as an example of how we should serve each other. I wonder whether there was more to it. As I reflected on how reluctant people often are about others seeing or touching their feet, I thought about the areas of our lives which we don’t like others knowing about. We carry things in our hearts and lives that are unclean, or unacceptable, or shameful. They might be things we’ve done, things that have been done to us, either sins we’ve committed or that have been committed against us. We can try to keep them hidden from others like smelly feet, but they’re still there and we carry them with us everywhere we go.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he was showing that he is able to make the dirtiest, smelliest, most shameful parts of our lives clean and fragrant again. Jesus’ death and resurrection for us removes all our guilt and shame so we are able to live in God’s presence as his holy children. Jesus is able to do this because he knows everything about us – all the things we try to keep secret, we don’t want anyone else knowing, or we are ashamed to admit even to ourselves. We can’t hide anything from him. But he sees who we are, he takes our guilt, our shame, our dirt to the cross and puts it to death. Then he washes us clean in his blood so we can be clean, righteous and good people through faith in him.

Imagine what it would be like to be in a community of people who knew everything about you, even the things that you’d prefer to keep secret, and who still loved you unconditionally. I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when he gave his new command, to love each other like he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). We experience real grace when we reveal our ‘dirty feet’ to each other and still continue to accept, forgive and love each other in the same way that Jesus accepts, forgives and loves us. If we aren’t honest with each other about our flaws, wrongs or wounds, then we won’t experience the full healing and life-giving power of the grace Jesus extends to us in his death and resurrection. To love each other like he loves us means being real about the dirty, smelly, shameful parts of our lives, and then accepting, forgiving and loving others who are really just the same as we are.

That’s when Jesus’ love becomes real for all of us.

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Good Friday: ‘Listening to Jesus from the Cross’ (Luke 22:39-23:56)

On Good Friday morning we gathered in the church to listen to the story of Jesus’ suffering, death and burial from Luke’s gospel. As part of the reading, three people from the congregation shared personal reflections on what they heard when Jesus spoke from the cross. Luke tells us that Jesus said three things as he was being crucified:

  • “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 NLT)
  • “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 NLT)
  • “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” (Luke 23:46 NLT)

When we listen to Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke’s gospel, we can hear him praying for forgiveness, promising Paradise, and trusting God to take care of him. These words amaze me, because so often we don’t do what Jesus did. When people hurt us, how often do we want to do the same or worse to them as they have done to us? When we are suffering or in pain, how often are we critical or judgmental of others? When life is out of our control and going badly, how often do we try to take control ourselves?

Jesus’ words of forgiveness, promise and trust from the cross show me that he was much more than just an ordinary bloke. I don’t think any of us could have done what he did. That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus doesn’t just give us an example of how to live our lives. It would be easy to turn these words into a morality message like, ‘We should all forgive, promise and trust like Jesus did.’ While there’s some truth in that, the reality is that it’s hard, sometimes even impossible, for us to do that. We need to acknowledge that our natural tendencies are to do to others like they do to us, to criticise and condemn, or to try to control those things around us that are making life hard.

We need to listen the words Jesus says as though he was saying them to us. When we are treating others badly because of something they’ve done to us, Jesus prays for us to be forgiven. When we are suffering or have been hurt by others, Jesus promises us a place in Paradise with him. When our lives are out of control or going in directions we don’t want them to go, Jesus entrusts us and everything in our lives in the safe and loving hands of our heavenly Father. Grace means that Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and then gives us the benefit as a free gift. So when he prays for forgiveness, promises paradise and trusts God with his future, we can hear him speaking to us, saying and doing for us what we often can’t say or do ourselves because of our human condition.

When we hear Jesus speaking to us and for us, that’s when we find new and better words to say to others. When we hear Jesus speak words of forgiveness, promise and trust, then we, with Jesus, can pray for forgiveness, promise a better future to others, and entrust everything into the Father’s gracious and loving care.

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Resurrection Sunday: ‘A Strange New Word’ (Luke 24:1-12)

One of the things we can look forward to at Easter is the giving and receiving of chocolate eggs. Christians often use the hollow egg as a symbol of Jesus’ empty tomb. However, for most people, Easter eggs just taste good, especially if we have given up chocolate for Lent.

Imagine waking up on Easter Sunday morning and finding that your largest, most delicious egg was broken. What would you think, though, if you put it away in a cupboard while you ate the rest of your chocolate, then, few days later, you went back to the cupboard and found that the egg had been made whole again? What would your reaction be if what was broken had been made whole again?

Even as I write this, the idea sounds like nonsense. Broken things don’t spontaneously become whole again. It’s not the way the world works! Some things can heal over time, such as broken bones, and the human body has an amazing capacity to mend itself. But most things can’t be restored to their original condition once they have been broken. To suggest they do sounds like nonsense.

One thing I love about Luke’s telling of the resurrection story in Luke 24:1-12 is the amount of confusion. When the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb early on the first day of the week, ‘they stood there puzzled’ (v4) because the body they had expected to be there wasn’t. Then, when they told Jesus’ remaining disciples about his resurrection, ‘the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it’ (v11 NLT). For the women to tell Jesus’ disciples that he was risen from the grave would kind of be like me telling someone that their broken Easter egg had been made whole again. It doesn’t make sense because it’s not part of our regular experience.

How much sense does the message of Jesus’ resurrection make to us? We might connect the story with the promise of eternal life in heaven, but, there is a lot more to it than that for us. For example, Paul writes that through baptism we have been united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, so we ‘should consider (our)selves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ’ (Romans 6:11 NLT). Paul is saying that the resurrection of Jesus makes a difference in our lives now! We have already been raised with Jesus and we live as people whose defining reality is not the brokenness of this world, but the healing and wholeness that Jesus gives through his Spirit in the promise of his resurrection.

An important part of living as Jesus’ followers means making sense of the resurrection in whatever is happening in our lives right now. We all suffer from brokenness – in our bodies, minds or hearts, in our relationships and community, in our world. The burning of Notre Dame in Paris and the bombing attacks in Sri Lanka are recent examples of that. In Jesus’ resurrection, God makes his mission known to us. God’s plan of salvation is to put the broken pieces of this world, our relationships and our lives back together again, restoring all of creation to its original condition. God’s mission to bring healing and wholeness was put into effect with the resurrection of Jesus and will continue until the last day. Then his saving work will be completed as the dead are raised with new, imperishable bodies and creation is returned to the way God intended from the beginning.

Until that day we can participate with God in his mission to bring healing and wholeness to our broken world in two ways. The first is to make sense of the resurrection in our own lives by looking for God to heal us and make us whole from our brokenness. Our wholeness will be completed when Jesus returns, but the healing can start how through Jesus’ resurrection power. The second way we can participate in God’s mission to restore a broken world is by looking for ways to bring his healing and wholeness to others. As I read the Scriptures, it seems to me that the mission of the church is less about converting people to our way of thinking, and more about bringing the life-giving message of Jesus’ resurrection to broken people living in a broken world in all we say and do.

This message might make about as much sense as a broken Easter egg becoming whole again after a few days in the cupboard, but it didn’t make sense to Jesus’ disciples when they first heard it either. The more we make sense of Jesus’ resurrection as the defining reality of our own lives, the more it will make sense to others as they see Jesus’ healing and wholeness in us.

More to think about:

  • Do you think the idea of someone washing your feet? Why? Why not?
  • What do you think it would be like for someone to know everything about you and still love you? How is that like Jesus’ love for you?
  • Who can you show this kind of love to in your life?
  • What do you hear Jesus saying to you when he prays for forgiveness, promises Paradise and entrusts himself into God’s hands?
  • What is it like to think he says these words to & for you?
  • To whom in your life can you speak a word of forgiveness, promise or trust?
  • What doesn’t make sense to you about the resurrection of Jesus?
  • Where do you experience brokenness in your life?
  • How might the resurrection of Jesus bring you healing or wholeness?

A Face Like Stone (Isaiah 50:4-9a)

 

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Over the season of Lent, we have been focusing on listening to the voice of Jesus. It just makes sense that if we are going to follow Jesus as his disciples, we need to learn to hear what Jesus is saying to us.

The clearest way Jesus speaks to us is through the Bible. That’s why John calls him ‘the Word of God’ (see John 1:1-14). Jesus speaks to us through the stories of the gospels, the letters of the New Testament, and even the ancient writings of the Old Testament.

For example, we can hear the voice of Jesus in this year’s Old Testament reading for Palm Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a, which was written five or six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. As I listen to them in the context of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I can imagine him reflecting on these words while he waited for his friends to bring him the donkey, thinking about what lay ahead of him, preparing for the events of the coming week.

During his life, Jesus listened to God to learn ‘words of wisdom’ which ‘comfort the weary’ (v4). Jesus learned the will of the Father as God taught it to him ‘morning by morning.’ These words give us a picture of Jesus gradually learning God’s will for him as an on-going process through his life. This is very different from what I thought when I was young. I believed that Jesus just naturally knew what God wanted for him because of his divine nature. However, Isaiah’s words seem to be saying that Jesus grew in his understanding of his Father’s will as he learned to listen to God, just like we do. As God spoke with him, and as Jesus listened and learned, Jesus didn’t rebel or turn away from God’s will, but he embraced what God wanted for him and followed in his way.

Jesus knew that following God’s will would be difficult and hard. Verse 6 tells us that Jesus knew that it would involve being beaten, having his beard pulled out, being mocked and spat on. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the shouts and praises of the crowd, he knew that what lay before him was suffering and death. That’s why he ‘sets his face like a stone’ (v7). Knowing what was ahead of him, Jesus embraced the future he was walking into with a gritty determination to see it through.

We can think of what Jesus did as an act of obedience to his Father. Another way to see it is that he acted out of love for us. He rode into Jerusalem because he knew that the only way to restore our relationship with God and renew us as God’s holy people was to suffer and die for us. Jesus did that because he reckons you are worth it. He chose that path because you matter to him. Jesus did what was necessary because he learned by listening to God that God’s will is that everyone be saved and know the truth (1 Timothy 2:4) of his grace and love. The only way for that to happen was through his suffering and death, so he took the hard road out of love for us and every person who has ever walked this planet.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to suffer and die out of love for us and in the faith that God would help him. If we read this text as Jesus’ words, we can hear him declaring his faith that the Sovereign Lord helps him, he will not be disgraced, he will not be put to shame (v7), God will give him justice in the face of those who unfairly accused him(v8), and the Sovereign Lord was on his side even when people declared him guilty (v9a). Again, when I was young I thought that Jesus knew he was going to be saved from death because of his divine nature, so he had nothing to worry about. Listening to these words and looking at the struggle Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane, I now wonder if the only thing Jesus had when he rode into Jerusalem was faith in the promises of an ancient book. In these verses we can hear God telling his Son through Isaiah that he would not abandon him but would help and vindicate him. I wonder if, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he trusted in his heavenly Father’s saving help because of the words he had read. Jesus set his face like a stone and rode into suffering and death because he trusted that God would declare him innocent, no matter that the priests or crowd or anyone else said, by raising him from the dead.

These words are really important for us to hear. We all have our accusers – voices that come from outside of us or within us which accuse us of the wrongs we have done or the good we haven’t done. Our culture, the media, other people, even our own hearts, can accuse us by telling us that we’re not good enough, that we’re hopeless, that we don’t belong, that we’re too much of one thing or not enough of another. As we follow Jesus into Jerusalem we share in the promises God made to his Son. When we face accusations of any kind, we will not be put to shame because God has declared us innocent for Jesus’ sake. Because we are in Christ, and have been united in his death and resurrection through faith in him (Romans 6:4), God makes us new and calls us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). If this is what God says about us when we are in Jesus, then it really doesn’t matter what anyone else says!

As we listen to Jesus in the words of Isaiah 50:4-9a, we hear the words of someone who listened to God and who learned what God wanted from what he heard. We hear the words of someone who knew that God’s will involved taking the hard road which would lead to suffering and death, but who took that road because of his love for us, because we matter to him, and because he reckons we’re worth it. We hear the words of someone who did all that, trusting that God would help him, would not let him be put to shame, and would give him justice in the face of those who accused him. These are the words of Jesus who rode into Jerusalem, who suffered and died for us, who trusted in his Father who raised him to life, who brings us a word to comfort us when we are weary, and who teaches us words of comfort and hope which we can bring to others.

More to think about:

  • Do you generally prefer to take the easy way or the more difficult way? In what circumstances would you prefer to take the more difficult way? What does that say about what’s more important to you or what you value?
  • How does reading Isaiah 50:4-9a from Jesus’ perspective shape the way you understand these words? How does reading them from Jesus’ perspective shape your understanding of Jesus?
  • Do you think Jesus rode into Jerusalem more knowing what was going to happen or trusting in the saving work of his Father? What is the difference? How can the difference help us when we are struggling with our futures?
  • Do you hear voices accusing you in your life? How can the trust Jesus had in our heavenly Father give you confidence & hope when you face accusations from either inside or outside of yourself?
  • As we travel towards Easter, how can these words from Isaiah 50:4-9a give you a greater insight or appreciation for what Jesus was about to go through? Do they help you walk with Jesus? Do they help you trust that Jesus is walking with you? Discuss why…

Extravagant Love (John 12:1-8)

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There are a lot of different ways in which one person can express their love for another. For example, we can buy gifts such as chocolates, flowers, jewellery or perfume.

Could you imagine buying super-expensive perfume for the person you love, pouring it over that person’s feet and then wiping your loved one’s feet with your hair?

When I read John 12:1-8, I have to ask why Mary would do that? Why would someone take a bottle of perfume which is worth a year’s wages, pour it over someone’s feet and then wipe them with her hair?

In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, we read that Jesus had raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from death sometime before this event. As Mary approached Jesus with her bottle of expensive perfume, we can imagine that her heart was overflowing with gratitude and love for the gift Jesus had given her – the life of her brother. It’s impossible to put a price tag on a gift like that. Even though it might have been her most prized possession, I imagine that Mary would have seen the value of that bottle of perfume as pretty insignificant compared to the life Jesus had restored to her. So Mary approached Jesus, opened the precious bottle, emptied its connects over the feet of the man who had given life to her brother, and wiped them with her hair. John tells us that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the love Mary showed Jesus in that act.

Can you imagine loving Jesus that much? If we put ourselves in Mary’s place, what would be the thing you value most in your life? Would you be able to lay it at Jesus feet and give it all over to him? I ask that because we can easily read this story without gully grasping the full extent of Mary’s love for Jesus. Seeing the story from her perspective, asking ourselves if we could do the same thing, is a way to uncover and explore the enormous magnitude of her love for Jesus because of the gift with which he blessed her.

I wonder if we sometimes lose sight of this love which lies at the heart of the Christian faith. For example, I believe there are good reasons for our congregation adopting our Discipling Plan and moving towards a more intergenerational model of ministry. However, we can get so focussed on the business and busyness of church that we can miss what’s really important. This story challenges us to ask if we love Jesus as much as Mary. Everything else we do as church is fine and good, but if we’re not doing it out of love for Jesus, then are we missing the point?

What would it be like to love Jesus so much that we’d be ready and willing to pour out the most valuable thing we have at his feet? In our Lutheran tradition we have tended to have a more intellectual approach to the faith, and we are usually pretty wary of expressions of the faith that are overly emotional. But if we believe that Jesus saved our whole selves, then that salvation also includes our emotions and feelings. So how can we talk about loving God and loving others without our feelings and emotions being involved? If we are going to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, then our emotions and feelings will be part of that love as well.

As a pastor, I wonder how can I help people love Jesus like Mary loved him. She did this in response to the gift Jesus had given her – the life of her brother – and Jesus uses it to point forward to his own death. We are in a different position to Mary because we don’t just witness the resurrection of one man, we are witnesses to the resurrection of the Son of Man who gives life to all who believe in him. We have been given a greater gift than Mary because Jesus gives us his life to us through faith in him. This is life lived in a new relationship with almighty God as our loving heavenly Father. This is a life in which we can find our identity, belonging and purpose. Jesus’ life is stronger than death, full of grace and peace, love and joy, which will last for all of eternity. Mary loved Jesus for the gift of life he gave her. How much more can we love Jesus for the gift of his life that he gives us through the Holy Spirit?

Another way to see the love of Jesus for us in this story is in what Mary poured out for him. The value of her gift shows how much she valued Jesus. Jesus shows us how much he values us through what he poured out for us. Mary poured perfume worth a year’s salary over Jesus’ smelly feet. Jesus poured out his life-blood on the cross to make us clean and acceptable to God. He did this because we are so precious to him. Mary gave her greatest treasure out of love for Jesus. Jesus gave the most valuable thing he had, his life, because of his great love for each of us. We can look at Mary and think we could never do that. However, we can also place ourselves in Jesus’ seat at the table, and see him coming to us in Mary with the most valuable thing he has. Jesus pours his blood over us to clean us from the dirt and stink of sin. Our lives are now overflowing with the sweet fragrance of Jesus’ love and grace to us, so that our whole lives can be filled with its sweet smell, just like the fragrance of Mary’s perfume filled the whole house.

There are a lot of different ways in which one person can express their love for another. What’s important is the love which motivates them. Mary showed her love for Jesus when she poured out her expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. We can discover this kind of love in Jesus who poured out his blood for us, so we can find our sense of value and significance in what he gave for us. When we live every day in this gift, the sweet smell of Jesus’ love can fill our whole lives for everyone to experience.

Isaiah 50:4-9a Discussion / Reflection Questions

Here are some questions I have on Isaiah 50:4-9a, the Old Testament reading for Palm Sunday, 14 April, 2019:

  • What questions do you have of this text?
  • This text talks twice about God’s will in verses 4 & 7. What can you learn about what God’s will might be from the words of this text?
  • What kind of situation does it sound like this person is walking into – something good, dangerous or something else?
  • From what you read in verses 7-9a, why can this person go into that situation? What gives this person the courage to do that?
  • Who do you think this text is talking about? What gives you that impression?
  • Why do you think this text is has been selected for the reading on Palm Sunday?
  • If you read this text from the point of view of Jesus, what might it say to you about him? How does it fit with the beginning of the week before Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection?
  • if you read this text from your own point of view, what might you hear it saying to you?
  • What good news can you hear in this text? What is God promising to do for you? How might that make a difference in your life?

Let me know if you have any additional thoughts or question on the text in the comments below. I’m always interested in your perspectives on the text…

Bless ya!

Christ’s Ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

2 Cor 5v20 ambassadors 03b

Being an ambassador is an important job.

When monarchs, governments or people in positions of authority send ambassadors to a foreign country, those ambassadors go with the full authority of the person or people who sent them. Ambassadors are given a message for those to whom they are sent. When they deliver that message, it is received as though the people who sent the ambassadors were speaking themselves. So ambassadors have a critical role to play in the relationships between nations, especially when the they might be tense or they are in conflict with each other. Ambassadors need to be faithful to the message they have been given if the message is going to be communicated, good relations between nations preserved and peace achieved.

When Paul says, ‘We are Christ’s ambassadors’ (2 Corinthians 5:20), he is saying that God gives people the important work of bringing his message to the world. The message he entrusts to his ambassadors is the good news of reconciliation. This message is about the end of hostilities as two parties which had been in conflict with each other are brought together in peace. The message of reconciliation is about acknowledging the wrongs of the past, wanting to make things right again, and bringing healing to past wounds. The message God has entrusted to his ambassadors is a message of peace and restored relationships.

One question I have about this text is who does Paul mean when he talks about ‘us’ and ‘we’? On the one hand, Paul could be referring to himself as the writer of this letter, along with Timothy and others who might have been traveling with Paul at the time. If we understand Paul’s ‘we’ and ‘us’ as himself and those with him, then the appeal he is making is obviously to those who received the letter, the people of Corinth.

As modern hearers of Paul’s words, it is important that we hear Paul talking to us as well. Sometimes our biggest problem is that we don’t have a problem. We like to think that we can live our lives for ourselves, doing whatever suits us best, and God’s OK with that. We need to recognise that we all have the natural tendency to live like either the younger son or the older son, or sometimes both, from the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). We can behave like the younger son when we take what God has given us and use it selfishly. We can be like the older son when we think that God owes us something for the ‘good’ things we do. Either way, our actions bring us into conflict with God when we fail to trust in his grace and love others in the same self-sacrificing way that God loves us in Jesus.

That’s why Paul writes to Christian communities as Christ’s ambassador, pleading us to come back to God and be reconciled to him again. As Australians, we know how failing to admit past wrongs gets in the way of reconciling with others. In Jesus, God has done everything to reconcile with us. As Paul writes in this text,

God made him who had no sin to be son for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (v21 NIV).

Because of this great exchange Jesus made when he traded our wrongs and brokenness for his goodness and purity,

if anyone is in Christ, the new creation is come: The old has gone, the new is here! (v17 NIV)

We are reconciled to God through God’s work for us in Christ Jesus as he takes away everything about us that gets in the way of a relationship with God and restores that broken relationship by making us new.

This gives us a new purpose in life. As people who have been reconciled with God through the work of Jesus, God appoints us to serve in his Kingdom as Jesus’ ambassadors. This gives us a second way to understand Paul’s use of ‘we’ and ‘us’. He is saying that everyone who has been reconciled with God the Father through Christ Jesus has now been given the job of being his ambassadors to a broken and hurting world. God has authorised us to bring this good news to the people of the world: be reconciled to God!

This is important work because the world needs to hear this good news. Instead of thinking about God as some nasty being in the sky who plays games with people’s lives, or as a distant, uncaring thing who has abandoned us to suffer alone and work things out for ourselves, the work God is calling us to as his ambassadors is to help people see God as someone who is appealing to people, pleading with us, begging all people to come back to a new relationship with him so we can find life in all of its fullness.

The Parable of the Lost Son gives us a new way of understanding God as the father who is waiting at the front gate of his property, looking in desperate hope for his child to return. Ours is the God who throws away all of his dignity and pride as he runs up the road to embrace his child and welcome him home again. This is the God who wants all of humanity to come back to him, to live in a new, reconciled relationship with him, so we can all know God as our loving heavenly Father who doesn’t hold our sins against us but has done everything in his power, who has literally gone through hell and back in the person of Jesus, to reconcile with us. This is the good news we have to share as Christ’s ambassadors with our families, with our friends, with our community and with the world.

Being Christ’s ambassador is a very important job. It brings the message of reconciliation to people so we can live every day in peace with God, with ourselves and with the people around us. It gives us a place in our Father’s home for all eternity, but it also gives us value and purpose now. As people who have been reconciled to God through Jesus, we have good news to bring to the world. God’s not angry with us. God doesn’t count our sins against us. God just wants to embrace us in perfect love and grace.

As we work towards reconciling with the people in our lives with whom we are in conflict, we also have the opportunity to represent Jesus as his ambassadors as we plead with Paul: Be reconciled to God!