Love (Hebrews 10:5-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joy (Isaiah 12:2-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace (Luke 1:68-79)

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As a motorcyclist, I tend to want to look for a longer, more interesting way, hopefully with lots of corners, to get from one place to another. There are times, however, when I need to find the quickest, most direct route to my destination. That’s when I go to the app on my smartphone where I can type in my destination, add my starting point, and it will guide me in the most direct way to get to where I need to be.

The final line in the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) basically describes Jesus in a similar way. This is the song Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sung when his son was born. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel who had promised him that his wife, Elizabeth, who was ‘well along in years’ (v18 NLT), was going to have a baby. The consequence was that Zechariah wasn’t able to speak during Elizabeth’s pregnancy. When the child was born, however, and Zechariah told people that the baby’s name would be John, his mouth was opened, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied about his son’s future and the Saviour whose arrival he would announce.

Zechariah describes Jesus as the one who will ‘guide us to the path of peace’ (v79 NLT). The peace which he talks about is very different to the way a lot of people understand peace today. Most of the time it seems like we think of peace as a feeling we experience, or being calm in the middle of the chaos of life. The biblical idea of peace includes this, but means a lot more. Its foundation in is the concept of shalom from the Old Testament. This shalom peace rises out of an end to armed conflict between two tribes or nations. Not only would they stop fighting, but the shalom peace they could find was a new relationship where they were able to work together and live in harmony with each other.

Shalom peace, then, means a restoration to what had previously been broken. It is repairing what had been fractured to the point that it is returned to its original state. If we break something like a cup or a plate, it’s never quite the same again. Relationships can be like that too. Shalom peace returns something to its original condition so that no evidence of brokenness can be detected at all. Shalom peace makes everything new, the way things were meant to be from the beginning.

This is the peace that Zechariah tells us Jesus came to guide us into by the most direct route. The way Jesus does it, according to Zechariah’s inspired words, is by telling us how to find salvation through the forgiveness of sins (v77). When relationships are broken, forgiveness is the only way to establish shalom peace and restore what was broken. Creating this shalom peace by forgiving sin was the reason for Jesus’ birth which we will celebrate in a couple of weeks. Jesus opens the way for us to find shalom peace through forgiveness by joining us in our brokenness as an infant, carrying our wrongs to the cross, and raising us to new life through faith in his resurrection. In his birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus makes it possible for our sins to be forgiven so he can lead us in the path of shalom peace.

We can find shalom peace through the forgiveness Jesus won for us in four main aspects of our lives. Firstly, we can have shalom peace with God as everything which got in the way of a relationship with the Divine is washed away and we are made new through faith in Jesus. Secondly, we can have shalom peace with others as we extend forgiveness to people who wrong us and we receive forgiveness from people we have wronged. As we move towards Christmas, it is worth asking who we can give the gift of forgiveness and shalom peace to because this is really the greatest gift we can offer someone. The third aspect of this shalom peace is within ourselves. I don’t tell people who are struggling with guilt or shame that they need to forgive themselves because you can’t give yourself something you don’t already have. Instead, a better way is to find forgiveness in Jesus, because God has already forgiven us because of what Jesus has done for us. It’s a done deal – all is forgiven! We can find shalom peace within ourselves through this promise. The fourth aspect of shalom peace is in our relationship with creation. We do significant damage to the world around us each and every day, even though we have a responsibility to care for the earth God has given to us. When Jesus comes again to establish his kingdom of shalom peace, then our relationship with the world will also be restored to its original state as God intended.

This idea of shalom peace might sound great but how do we achieve it? At this point, it might be tempting to offer a handful of easy steps to achieve shalom peace in our lives, but life doesn’t often work like that. Instead, Zechariah tells us that Jesus will guide us into the ‘path of peace.’ Zechariah’s words tell us that shalom peace is something we journey into as we follow Jesus in our lives, just like I might follow the directions of my maps application to get to where I’m going. This is discipleship language. It is about learning a new way of living from Jesus, the way an apprentice learns a trade from the master tradesman. The evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke describe this ‘path of peace’ as learning to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). The Apostle John gives us a slightly different version of the path when he gives us Jesus’ new command to love one another with the same self-giving, self-sacrificing love with which he loves us (John 13:34,35;15:9-17). Paul’s letters are all about guiding us in this same path as he explores what it looks like for Christian communities to be following the way of faith and love (Galatians 5:6).

All of these are ways in which Jesus guides us into the way of shalom peace, just like my maps app shows me the way to where I need to go. Our destination is a full experience of God’s shalom peace where everything will be restored to the way God intended in the beginning. Until that day we can still walk the way of shalom peace as we follow Jesus, living in his forgiveness, and growing in restored relationships with God, other people, ourselves and all of creation.

Hope (Psalm 25:1-10)

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If there is something that you want, are you happy to wait for it? Or would you prefer to get it straight away?

We live in a society that isn’t very good at waiting. Generally speaking, we are constantly being told that we can have what we want right now, without needing to wait for it. We can buy things and pay for them later. We can use an app to order our coffee so it’s ready to collect when we arrive. Dating websites give us the opportunity to find our ‘perfect match’ without wasting time getting to know the other person. In so many ways, a strong message from our society is that we can have whatever we want right now without waiting for it.

Maybe that is one reason why our society also finds it hard to hope. I was surprised to find that in Psalm 25, the Hebrew word which is translated as ‘hope’ in verse 5 of the New Living Translation, as well as verse 3 in the New International Version, is also the word for ‘wait’. This tells us that the people of the Old Testament saw a very close connection between ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’. To wait for something good also meant to hope for it. Maybe if we are going to find hope, we also need to learn to wait.

As he wrote Psalm 25, David was waiting and hoping for someone to save him. He wrote, ‘Do not let me be disgraced, or let my enemies rejoice in my defeat’ (v2 NLT) and ‘Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me’ (v5 NLT). Like other Old Testament people, when David wrote these words he didn’t think that being saved meant going to heaven when he died. Instead, he was waiting and hoping for God to save him from his enemies. These were real people who wanted to take his life. For Old Testament people, salvation was more about here and now than it was about what happens when we die.

If we think about ‘being saved’ in this way, then we all have very real enemies we need God to save us from. I’m not thinking about human, flesh and blood enemies who make life difficult for us. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). Instead, I’m thinking about enemies who want to take life from us such as fear, guilt, physical and mental illnesses, anxiety, depression, shame, and even death itself. If we read Psalm 25 with these ‘enemies’ in mind, then David’s words can take on new meaning for us and can actually give us hope, no matter what our ‘enemies’ might be.

As we celebrate the First Sunday in Advent, this is what we can wait and hope for in the coming of Jesus. One reason for Jesus’ birth is to give us hope in the face of the ‘enemies’ we struggle with as we wait for him to come and save us. Jesus’ saving work began when he entered into our human experience as an infant. This saving miracle is what we celebrate at Christmas. Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus constantly saved the people he had contact with by freeing them from their ‘enemies’ and giving them new life as whole, clean, forgiven people. Jesus then defeated our ‘enemies’ by suffering on the cross and dying in our place. This is where he won his saving victory for us which was made evident when he was raised from death to eternal life at Easter. Jesus’ whole life, from his birth, through his death and resurrection, and still now as he joins his life with ours through his gift of the Holy Spirit, is to save us from our ‘enemies’ which want to take life from us. The time will come when Jesus will return again to complete his saving work by getting rid of all the evil in the world, making everything that is wrong in creation right again.

This is what we wait and hope for as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth in the season of Advent. Jesus came to us as a baby to save us from our enemies. He is coming at the end of time to complete his saving work once and for all. As we wait for that, Jesus is still coming to us as the one who saves us from the ‘enemies’ that want to take life from us. I understand that there are times in life when it doesn’t seem like Jesus is saving us, and it can appear like our enemies have the upper hand. That is because the paradox of hope is that it is waiting for something we don’t have yet. The Apostle Paul put it this way:

We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) (Romans 8:23b-25 NLT)

Like the people of the Old Testament, Paul connects waiting and hoping like two sides of the same coin. He also says that we have been saved, but that we also hope for something that we don’t have yet. As God’s people whom he has saved in Jesus, we wait and hope with patience and confidence for God to complete his saving work in Jesus, even though we don’t fully have it yet. Even though it might not feel like Jesus has saved us from our enemies, we can still wait in hope for his saving work to be made complete in us.

As we wait for Jesus’ coming during this Advent season, we can wait in hope, peace, joy and love. These are God’s gifts to us all in the birth and life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Whatever our ‘enemies’ might be, God gives us the hope of a better tomorrow as Jesus comes to save us from them.

I honestly pray that you might find a greater sense of hope this Christmas as you put your trust in Jesus who comes to save you from the enemies you face in your life. Or, if you already have this hope, that you might be able to give the gift of hope to someone else who needs it.

The End Times (John 5:21-29)

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What would you do with your life if you knew you were going to live forever?

Most people I have known over my life, both from within and outside of the Christian church, have told me that they believe the goal of a religious life is to do enough good to get into heaven. The requirements or the standards may be different from person to person, but the one goal remains the same: do enough good and avoid enough bad so that when we move from this life to the next, we can be sure that we qualify for eternal life. So the view is that we spend our whole lives trying to do good in the hope that maybe we’ll be good enough to get eternal life.

But what if that’s actually back-to-front? What if the goal of a life of faith isn’t to try to get eternal life, but to grow into a life that has been given to us which will last for ever?

On Sunday we celebrated the last Sunday of the church year. It is often called the Day of Fulfilment because it looks forward to the end of time when Jesus will return to judge between those who will live for ever with him and those who will miss out on that eternity. It is a reminder that not everyone makes it into eternal life. Jesus teaches us what is needed if we want to spend eternity with God when he says, ‘I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life’ (John 5:24a NLT). The Christian perspective as Jesus teaches it is that all who listen to his word of grace and truth (John 1:17) and trust in God (John 1:12; 6:29) will live for ever.

The best news in from Jesus in John 5:24 is that we don’t even have to wait to get it. Instead of spending our lives trying to do good so that we might have a chance at getting eternal life, Jesus goes on to say that it is already ours! He says that those who hear his message of grace and truth and trust that God will give what he promises ‘will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life’ (NLT). I checked the Greek to make sure that the tenses of the verbs were faithful translations of the Greek test and as far as I can tell there is no mistake here. According to what the Apostle John reports Jesus said, eternal life isn’t something that we work for in the hope that we might somehow be good enough. Through his life, death and resurrection for us, Jesus has already carried us over from death to life and eternal life has already started!

Jesus goes on to say that one day he will return to fulfil all of God’s promises to us, to raise the dead to new life, and to judge between those who will live with him forever and those who won’t. He says that we don’t need to fear that judgement because we are already free from condemnation. This is the same as what Paul says in Romans 8:1, that ‘now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus’ (NLT). We don’t have to be afraid of being judged or condemned by God or anyone else because Christ has already carried us over from death to eternal life, and we already participate in the resurrected life of Jesus now because of the gift of the Holy Spirit in us.

This means that we can understand Discipleship as growing into the eternal life which Jesus has already given to us. God has a new life for us to live which is grounded in and producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control like we read about in Galatians 5:22f. It is a life which is sustained by, flowing out of and expressing itself in the love that God has for us which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a – love that is patient and kind, that is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude, that does not demand its own way, is not irritable, keeps no record of being wronged, does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices when the truth wins out, that never gives us, never loses faith, is always hopeful, endures all circumstances, and lasts forever. This is the love of God which is the source of our lives and which brings life to others.

The goal of the Christian life, then, is not to somehow do enough good to get eternal life. The goal of the Christian life is to grow into the life that Jesus has already breathed into us through the Holy Spirit which is stronger than death and which will last forever. Whatever we decide we want to do with the life Jesus has given us, or whatever we believe God wants us to do with this life, we can constantly be growing into the life that is described by the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians and Paul’s words description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. This is what it can mean to be Jesus’ disciples: following him into the life that will last forever which Jesus has already given us and in which we participate now.

A lot of people are afraid of the end times because they see it as a time of judgment and condemnation. We don’t need to be afraid, but we can look forward to Jesus’ return with confidence and hope. Jesus has already carried us over from death to life, and the life the Holy Spirit breathes into us now through his word of grace and peace will last for ever.

So, what do you want to do with your life, knowing that you’re going to live forever?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bigger Picture (Revelation 7:9-17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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