Planted by the Waters (Psalm 1)

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When you travel through the Australian Outback, for hours all you see is desert or low, scrubby salt-bush. Every now and then you might find tall gum trees rising from the dry landscape. These trees are signs that there is water somewhere nearby. It might be a river or a waterhole or even an underground water source, but for trees to grow strong and tall, they need water to sustain them in the long, hot, dry Australian summers and droughts. Their presence tells us that there is water somewhere close for their roots to provide them with the goodness they need for life.

The ancient people of the Bible lived in a hot, dry climate like Australia. They knew how important water is for life. Plants or trees didn’t last long if they tried to grow a long way from a dependable water source like a river. For a tree to grow strong and produce the fruit that it was intended to, then it would have to be planted near water to give it what it needed to survive and thrive.

We can learn a lot from this image from Psalm 1 of a person who meditates on God’s word being like a tree planted along a riverbank. In lots of different ways, we can experience dry spells or droughts in life. When that happens, where do we go for strength, nourishment or hope? Where do we look for what we need to survive in this world and try to find what we need for life?

The promise of Psalm 1 is that when we are planted next to the life-giving water of God’s word, we will find everything we need to not just survive in life, but to thrive in even the driest times of life, and to produce the fruit that God wants to share with the world through us. When our roots go deep into God’s word and his promises to us through it, we will be like trees whose leaves never wither and are always fresh and green like a gum tree in the Outback. I know that the analogy is flawed because gum trees don’t produce fruit, so maybe it’s more appropriate to think about an apricot, apple or orange tree thriving in the middle of an Australian desert – can you imagine that? God’s promise to us in Psalm 1 is that no matter how things might try to suck the life out of us, when we are planted in God’s word with our roots going down deep into his love, grace and goodness, God will provide us with everything we need to have green leaves and produce delicious fruit in season.

At the heart of God’s word is the promise of his grace and love in Jesus. We can read God’s word as laws, rules and direction for our lives, but they are there to point us towards Jesus (Galatians 3:24). He is the source of a life which is stronger than the dry spells and droughts we go through, even stronger than death. When we read the Bible and hear the good that God promises to do for us and in us through Jesus, the Holy Spirit feeds and strengthens us, giving us everything we need for life in this world and the next (Romans 8:32). When we put our roots down deep into the good news of Jesus and draw on the grace and love of God for us in him, then the Bible gives us life to survive through and even thrive in every situation of life (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

That’s why it is vital that we are meditating on God’s word daily. If I just water a plant every now and then it’s not going to be as healthy and the fruit won’t be as sweet as when I water it regularly. It’s the same with us. When we are planted near God’s word and it’s a part of our everyday life, it gives us what we need for life to the full (John 10:10). It also means that when the dry times come, when tragedy strikes or life gets really hard for any reason, we are already prepared. Trees which have roots that go deep into the soil have a much better chance of surviving a drought than those with shallow roots. When our roots are diving deeper into the goodness of God’s word every day, we are already drawing on its goodness and finding what we need to thrive and continue to produce the fruit of good works when the dry times of our lives come.

Psalm 1 says this comes through meditating on God’s word (v2). The word ‘meditation’ might make some people think of sitting cross-legged on a mat while we try to achieve inner peace. Meditation doesn’t have to look like that. We all meditate when we think about things, turning ideas and other thoughts over in our heads. We all think about things such as what we’re going to do, what we’re going to eat, what do other people might think about us, what people may have said to us or about us, and so on. The main question for us isn’t so much ‘Do we meditate?’ but ‘On what do we meditate?’

The art of Christian meditation is bringing what God says to us in his word into those thoughts, so that our focus is on what God says to us and about us. Being planted by God’s word might be carrying one word of God’s grace, love or peace from the Bible with us through our whole day. The way I do it is to read the verse of the day on a Bible app on my phone before I look at the weather or my email first thing in the morning. Or I’ll read a couple chapters of my Bible in my office before I turn on my computer. My goal is to find one piece of good news or one promise from God which I can carry with me. During the day, then, I go back to that verse, promise or piece of good news to give me God’s perspective on what’s going on, to filter what’s happening through God’s word or to find God’s goodness in Jesus through it. Meditation is about seeing the whole of our existence from God’s perspective, through the lens of God’s grace and love for us in Jesus.
Learning to meditate on God’s word isn’t just for professional ministers. It’s an art for all of Jesus’ followers to grow in so that we can be planted near God’s word like a tree by a billabong in the Outback, drawing on and finding life in the goodness of God in Jesus which we encounter through the Bible.

I know the difference being planted near a river can make to a gum tree in the Outback. Being planted near God’s word can make the same difference to our lives.

More to think about:

  • Why is it important for trees and plants to have a constant source or water? What happens if they don’t get regular water, especially during hot, dry summers or droughts?
  • What are some things that can cause people to experience ‘dry periods’ in life? What are some of the ‘dry spells’ you’ve experienced in your life?
  • Where did you go or what did you do to try to get through those dry spells? Did they help?
  • What do you think of God’s promise in Psalm 1 that we will find life when we are planted near & meditating on God’s word? Is that a difficult promise to believe? What do you like about that promise?
  • How do you go with reading your Bible? What might help you read your Bible more regularly?
  • How do you think you would go if you committed to reading your Bible every day, found one piece of good news or promise from God in your Bible, and then carried it with you through your day? Would that be easy or difficult for you? How might it help you find God’s goodness in your life during the day?
  • What are some other ways you might be able to be planted near God’s word to draw goodness from it to help you in your life?
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God’s Nearby Word (Deuteronomy 30:9-14)

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In last week’s message, I left our church with a couple of questions:

  • In what area of your life would you like to know more of God’s peace?
  • With whom can you share God’s peace this week?

I wonder how they went answering or even thinking about these questions. Were they able to identify areas of their lives where they hoped for a greater sense of God’s peace? Were they able to share the peace of God which passes all human understanding (Philippians 4:7) with someone they know who needs it?

A couple of people during the week asked me where they can find the kind of peace that we were talking about. It’s a fair question. Sometimes it can be hard to find peace in the middle of the chaos, craziness and confusion of life with all of its stresses, worries and anxieties. Where do we go to find God’s peace?

It’s a question that can be asked of all the fruits God promises to produce in our lives through the Holy Spirit. Where do we find the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that God promises his Spirit will produce in our lives (Galatians 5:22,23)?

There are lots of courses, seminars, workshops and practices that people offer to help us find this kinds of life. For a lot of people, they can seem out of reach and impossible to find, so we can settle for lives that are a long way from what we hope they could be, and from what God promises they can be.

In Deuteronomy 30:9-14, however, God promises us a better life. Moses was addressing the nation of Israel at the end of their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, just before they were about to cross the Jordan River and take possession of the Promised Land under Joshua. Moses gave the Israelites a choice between ‘life and death, between blessings and curses’ (Deuteronomy 30:19 NLT). Either their future would be a good one, full of the life that God had promised them, or it would be pain and struggle. Moses urged the Israelites to ‘choose life’ so that they and their descendants might live.

Many of us who grew up in the 1980s might remember the t-shirts that were in fashion for a while that featured the slogan ‘Choose Life!’ I wasn’t a fan of the band that made them popular, but it struck me then, as it does now, that our world is looking for the very thing that Moses was promising the Israelites – life! Jesus promised the same thing when he told his followers that he came to give them ‘a rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10 NLT). The New Testament talks a lot about what this life looks like, but I’m going to take as my starting point what Paul says about the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 – that the life Moses and Jesus promise us is immersed in and overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the life God promises us and wants to give us through his Spirit, not just for our benefit but so others can find life in God’s grace through us as well.

What Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is that this life isn’t hard for us to understand and it’s not beyond our reach. It isn’t up in heaven so someone has to get it to bring it down to us, and it isn’t across the oceans so someone has to go to find it. Instead, Moses tells us that we can find the life God promises us in his message to us, in the Word of God, which is very close at hand. In fact, the message contained in God’s Word is already on our lips and in our hearts so we can follow it and find life in it.

We can find the life God has for us in the message of the Bible. We have a tendency to want to over-complicate the Bible’s message, but it is actually very simple. For example, we hear it when an expert in the Law of Moses asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus points him to the two-sided command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10:25-28). Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34. John gives us his version of the way to life when Jesus gives his followers a new command, to love each other in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34). Paul’s version of the way to life can be summarised by what he wrote to the Galatians, that the only thing that counts for those who are in Christ Jesus is faith in a loving a grace-filled God which shows itself in love for others (Galatians 5:6). All of these passages are saying basically the same thing – that the path to life as God intends is by loving the God who loves us enough to sacrifice everything for us, trusting in his perfect and infinite love, and then loving other people in the same way in the freedom that faith brings.

It isn’t a complicated message. It’s something we can call understand. It’s right here, in the words of Scripture, on our lips and in our hearts, so we can obey it by trusting Jesus in all the circumstances of our lives and living like what it promises is true.

This is the way to find real peace in our lives, in our relationships, and in our communities. This is the way to find the life that Jesus died and is risen again to give us. The message of Scripture is the way the Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth of God’s love for us so we can be growing in his love and producing the fruit of faith in our lives. Like the Israelites listening to Moses, God gives us a choice. As people he has adopted and set free, God asks us to choose between life and death, blessings and curses. The way to life to the full which Jesus came to give us can be found by following in the way of faith and love that he teaches. We find this way through the words of the Bible – hearing them explained in worship, discussing them with others in small groups, and listening to God on our own.

So where do we go from here? Do we continue to live our lives as they are, without the hope of anything getting better? Or do we open our Bibles together, listen to what God has to say to us, learn to live in the way of faith and love from Jesus, and find the life God intends for us…?

‘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…?

Scripture Alone (2 Timothy 3:16)

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Last week, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we began looking at some of the basic teachings of the movement which not only re-shaped the Christian church in Europe, but also heavily influenced Western civilization. This week we are looking at the principle that the Bible is the only authority when it comes to matters of faith, teaching and practice in the church.

During the Middle Ages, when the leaders of the church needed to make decisions about what they believed, taught or did, they relied on two authorities – the Bible and the traditions of the church. When the Reformers started working to make changes in the church, however, they only recognised the authority of the Bible, giving birth to the principle of Scripture Alone. For those working to reform the church, the Bible gave the clearest picture of what God wants the church to be and the work God wants the church to be doing in the world. Traditions of the church had their place, but it was the Bible that was to determine which of those traditions were to remain and which were to be discarded.

For example, when Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V in 1521, he was ordered to take back what he had been writing. If he didn’t, he would be excommunicated from the church and condemned as a heretic. The story goes that Luther replied by saying:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

One thing we can learn from these words is that Luther saw the Bible as the only authority in determining what is taught, believed and done in the church because human authorities have the tendency to get things wrong.

This is important for us today because traditions can still play a big part in our churches. Over the years, there have been times when I have been talking with people about how the Bible describes what God wants for a Christian community and people have replied that they have never done things like that before. As a church that is called to be continually reforming so that we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in a rapidly changing world, it is critical that we listen to the Reformers who pointed to the Bible as our only way of knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
The challenge that goes with this is that it can hard for us to agree on what the Bible is actually saying. The Reformers discovered this, which is why we have so many different Christian denominations today. We say that the Bible is our only authority, but we find it incredibly difficult to agree on what the Bible actually says.

One example of this is the way I have seen the Bible being used in the same-sex marriage debate in Australia over the last few months. Christians on both sides of the discussion have pointed to different Bible verses to support their point of view about whether biblical rules say same-sex marriage is OK or not. They both claim that the Bible is their source of truth, but both read the Bible in very different ways.

Martin Luther’s approach to reading the Bible can help us find a way through this challenge. Luther taught that God says two words to us through the Bible. On the one hand, there are things God wants us to do, which we call law. On the other hand, God also wants to tell us what God has done and wants to do for us, especially in the person of Jesus. We call this gospel because it is good news for us (see verses such as John 1:17; Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 3:17,18).

As long as we read the Bible as a book of rules, it will always show us to be people who break rules (Romans 3:20). For Luther, then, the main message of the Bible is that in the person of Jesus, God comes to give rule-breakers forgiveness, freedom, hope and life. For Luther, the central story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. He ate with social outcasts, extended mercy to the people society had rejected, brought grace to the people who needed it the most but deserved it the least, and gave healing to people with wounded hearts and souls. Jesus was crucified as a rule-breaker, died with convicted criminals, set the guilty free through his death and brings us life through his resurrection and victory over death. As we hear in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed as he brings us God’s favour and grace.

So when Luther argued and fought for the principle of Scripture Alone, he was fighting for the church to keep the good news of Jesus central to all we are and do.

It is easy for us to drift away from keeping the gospel, the central message of the Bible, as our central message. We can easily become more like a business, a social club, a welfare agency, or a moral watchdog. The call for us to recognize Scripture Alone as our authority means, for us as Lutherans, that we keep the gospel as our first and foremost priority, so that we can join with Luther and the Reformers in bringing the good news of Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of the hope, joy, love and grace it provides.

More to think about:

  • Do you read your Bible regularly? Why / why not?
  • What is more important in how you think about what we do as church: our traditions (the way we’ve always done things) or what the Bible teaches us? How might your church community be different if you applied the Scripture Alone principle and relied solely on what the Bible teaches us about being church?
  • When you think about the central message of the Bible, do you tend to think more about about the law or gospel, rules or grace, God’s commands or God’s promises to us? Can you explain why you think about the message of the Bible like that?
  • How might your understanding of the Bible be different if you thought of it more in terms of the way God wants to speak his grace, love, forgiveness and freedom into your life?
  • What might need to change in your church community if you were to keep communicating the good news of Jesus as your core purpose and task?

Reforming Since 1517 (Ephesians 2:8)

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Christians around the world from many denominations will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month. On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, pastor and university lecturer, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Many see this event as the start of a movement which changed Western European society forever.

Because this is such a significant event, our congregation will spend all 5 Sundays in October having a closer look at some of the key ideas of the Reformation movement and why they are still important for us today.

One way we can understand why the Reformation happened was that the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages. By the 1500s, the church was concerned with worldly power and influence, generating financial revenue, and using fear and guilt to maintain their control. While this might be a simplistic evaluation of a complicated church culture, basically the church had strayed a long way from the picture of Christian community that God has given us in the Bible.

This was the church culture in which Martin Luther grew up. He took his sin very seriously and was struggling to find a forgiving and loving God in the church of his day. The harder Luther tried to make God happy with him, the more he felt God was unhappy with him.

Luther eventually discovered that God was pleased with him, but not because of what he was doing. He found God’s grace in the Bible through verses like Romans 1:17 that “the righteous will live by faith” (NIV) and Ephesians 2:8, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NIV). Luther’s personal discovery of the gospel grew into a thriving movement as he and others sought to communicate the good news of God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and to bring freedom to people who were trapped in fear and guilt.

A pivotal idea of the Reformation was that the church needs to be continually re-forming. The Reformation was never meant to be just an event that we read about in history books. Instead, the people who dedicated themselves to restoring God’s vision for the church wanted those who came after them to continue their work of returning to the basic truths of the Christian faith, asking whether we are still being consistent with those truths, affirming where we are being faithful, but also being courageous enough to make changes where we are drifting away from them.

As Lutherans, we celebrate the Reformation because we believe that God still wants to be re-forming us as his church today.

Because of our flawed human nature, we always run the risk of drifting away from being the Christ-centred community God wants us to be. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” One way or another, intentionally or not, we are going to get things wrong. Jesus calls us to repentance, to keep turning back to him and the truth of his good news, so we can find forgiveness, freedom, love and life through faith in him. Jesus calls us to be faithful to the gospel in our lives, but also in the ways that we live out the gospel in our relationships with each other and as organisations that carry his name. In the same way, the Reformation movement challenges us to ask whether we, his church, are still being faithful to the gospel in our current time and place. Where we are being faithful to the gospel, we can give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us. However, where we are not being consistent with the good news of Jesus, in the spirit of the Reformation, we need to change.

This is largely what our congregation’s Simple Church and Growing Young conversations have been about over the past year or more. I have been asking our congregation to look at what we are doing and ask whether we have been in step with what the Bible says God wants for us as his community of believers, or whether we need to make some changes. As a congregation that exists in the tradition of the Reformation, we need to reflect on where we are and where we think we are heading, and ask whether we are moving closer to the picture of Christian community which God gives us in the Bible. Where we are, we can give thanks and affirm the good work God is doing in us. However, where we might be drifting away from who God wants us to be, maybe it’s time to make some changes.

For the next four weeks, we will be going back to some of the basic teachings of the Reformation and asking how they might still speak to us. Next week, we will look at the belief that the Bible is the only authority on which we can know God and what he wants for us. The following week, we will be asking what it means that we are saved by grace alone. The week after that, we will look at how Luther and the Reformers understood faith and how our lives are shaped by what we believe. In the last week of October, we will focus on Jesus who alone is God’s revelation of himself to us, and through whom we can find God’s goodness and love for us.

The Reformation is both a gift and a challenge to the church. It is a gift because it restored the gospel of Jesus as the heart and core purpose of our lives, both as individuals and as church. The Reformation is also our challenge because it asks us to make whatever changes may be needed so we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in all we say and do.

As we celebrate the Reformation this month, we don’t just celebrate an historical event that happened 500 years ago. We are part of a 500 year struggle to be true to God’s grace so we can faithfully bring the good news of Jesus to the world around us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Reformation’? Share some thoughts about what the Reformation has meant for you in your life.
  • What do you know about the life of Martin Luther? Share some stories you might have heard about him or what he might have said or done (you can find a short animated version of Luther’s life here; if you would like to read his 95 Theses you can find them here)
  • The basic goal of the Reformation was to re-form the church with the gospel of Jesus as its heart and core purpose. Do you think this was a good aim? Explain why you think that?
  • As you look at the church today, do we still keep the gospel of Jesus as our heart and core purpose? Do you think we still need to be re-forming today? If you think so, what are some aspects of the church that we need to be re-forming?
  • Over the next 4 weeks we will be looking at the Reformation principles of Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Christ Alone. Is there anything connected with any of these that you would like us to look at in particular? Do you have any questions or concerns about any of these that we could explore for you?

Walking with Jesus (Luke 24:13-35)

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What do you reckon it would be like to go for a walk with Jesus?

I don’t mean some sort of ‘spiritual’ journey or having a vague idea that Jesus is with us. I mean a real, physical, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other walk. It might be down the road to the shops, through a national park, a couple of blocks to work, or even around the block. What would it be like to walk with Jesus?

It surprises me that the two disciples didn’t recognise Jesus while he walked with them in this story. There are a range of ways people try to explain their lack of recognition, but I wonder how often we go through life with Jesus walking next to us and we just don’t recognise him either…

This story is a great picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: walking with him through life and recognising that he walks with us. As they walked together, Jesus and the disciples talked together as he opened up the words of Scripture for them so they could understand that God’s chosen Messiah had to suffer, die and rise again from the grave (vv 25-27). This caused the disciples hearts to burn within them (v32) as they grew in their understanding of God’s grace for them and as they began to make sense of what had happened to them through their growing faith in Jesus.

What if walking with Jesus and listening to him as he opens up God’s word for us could do the same for us?

There was a time in the early years of my ministry when I was really struggling. For more than a year I battled on the best I could but things were overwhelming me. So I started getting out of bed and going for a walk each morning. As I walked, I would talk to Jesus about what was going on in my life – the things I was struggling with, the things that were overwhelming me, the mistakes I was making, the help I needed. I didn’t talk out loud, but it was still a real conversation as I talked with Jesus in my head. Then I listened to what Jesus had to say to me by reading a couple chapters of my Bible over breakfast. I was surprised how often what I was reading would speak into what was going on in my life. Over time, things got better as I relied on Jesus’ help more and more, and God changed me through what he was saying to me in his Word. I learned from first-hand experience that walking closer with Jesus by talking to him about what’s going on in our lives and listening to him talk to us through his word really makes a difference in our lives.

The promise of this story from Luke’s gospel is that Jesus walks with us to talk to us through his word, to help us make sense of what’s going on in our lives through his suffering, death and resurrection, so we can find grace, hope and joy in his presence with us.

It was only when Jesus blessed and broke the bread at their meal at the end of the day that the disciples recognised Jesus. In the same way, Jesus makes his presence known to us as he gives himself to us in the breaking of bread in the meal we know as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. This same Jesus whose body was broken and whose blood was shed on the cross, this same Jesus who is risen from the grace and who has defeated death, this same Jesus is the one who comes to us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion to make himself known to us as the one who physically walks with us through life. Just as the disciples recognised Jesus when he gave them that meal, so we can recognise Jesus with us as he gives himself to us as a real and present flesh and blood person in the Lord’s Supper. It is his promise and his assurance that he literally walks with us through the ups and downs of our lives, through the good times and the bad, to help us find grace and peace, joy and hope in his presence with us.

So I’m going to ask again: what would it be like to go for a walk with Jesus? How might our lives and our community be different if we lived like Jesus was actually walking with us, speaking grace and truth into our lives, our relationships and our community through his word?

Because what this story says to me is that Jesus really is walking with us, every step of the way.

More to think about:

  • What do you think it would be like to go for a walk with Jesus?
  • Christians often talk about Jesus being with us, but do we live like that’s a reality or like Jesus is actually distant? One way to think about that is ask yourself: would you live your life differently if Jesus was actually walking with you every moment of every day?
  • In the story from Luke 24, Jesus began his conversation with the two disciples by asking them what they were discussing (v17). If Jesus asked you what was going on with you, what would you say to him?
  • Jesus opened up Scripture to his disciples to help them understand God’s plan of redemption, but also to help them make sense of what they had experienced & to find God’s grace in their experiences. Do you think that God’s word can help you make sense of your experiences & find his grace in them? How can we help you open up God’s word to find grace & truth for your own life in it?
  • Jesus made himself known to the disciples as he blessed, broke & then gave bread to them. How can the gift of Holy Communion help us recognise Jesus’ presence with us?

Duel (Matthew 4:1-11)

I am intrigued by the way people represent the temptation of Jesus in art and movies. Many times, the devil is portrayed as the embodiment of evil, with cloven hoofs, horns, tail and wings. At other times, however, I have seen the devil represented as a well-dressed, respectable-looking person, just like we might see around us every day. Sometimes, the tempter looks obvious, but at other times he seems to be a long way from what we think of evil.

We all face temptation in our lives. Sometimes, like the representations of the devil with hoofs, horns and a tail, those temptations are obvious. At other times, like the well-dressed, respectable-looking devil, those temptations are much subtler. Like the temptations Jesus faced, they can be to put our appetites and desires before trusting in God to provide. They can be the desire for something spectacular so we can know for sure that God is real, instead of trusting in his word of promise. We might be tempted to take the easy road to power, control and glory instead of the way of humility, sacrifice and suffering through service and self-giving love. The temptations we face might look different, but they have one thing in common – to give up trusting God and take control for ourselves.

One way we can understand the stories of Jesus’ temptations is to learn from him how to battle temptation in our own lives. As we watch the duel between the devil and the Son of God, one thing is clear – the use of God’s word. Last week, as we celebrated the transfiguration of Jesus, we heard the voice of God tell us as Jesus’ disciples to listen to him. Here, in Jesus’ temptation, we see the importance of God’s word in our lives. The only way to resist temptation is by being anchored in God’s word. Each time the devil tempts Jesus, he responds with a word from Scripture which brought God’s truth into the situation. In the same way, when we are anchored in God’s word and living in the promises it gives us, God’s word will also give us what we need to resist temptation and live in the peace God gives to us.

Even when the devil tries to misuse God’s word in the second temptation, Jesus corrects what the devil says by relying on what God has said in Scripture. This is important for us: not everyone who uses God’s word uses it to bring us into a closer relationship with God. God’s word can be used to lure us away from the truth. That is why, as we talked about last week, it is important that we learn the art of listening rightly to God’s word together so we can find the truth and grace of Jesus in it.

It is important that we don’t just read the stories of Jesus’ duel with the devil as an example to follow, but also as the gift he gives us. As people who are one with Jesus through faith in him, we need to read this story as a duel he fights for us and a victory he gives to us. If we were to try to resist the devil on our own, we will fail. That is largely what these temptations are about – relying on ourselves rather than God. Faith in God as the story of Jesus’ temptation presents it is about trusting that Jesus has already duelled with the devil and won! Because of his identity as God’s Son and his perfect trust in God’s word, Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves and resists the devil and his temptations. Jesus gives his victory to us as a gift through faith by the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus’ victory over the devil is now your victory, so when temptation comes, we are already declared to be righteous and victorious over those temptations.

This means that God’s grace in temptation is much greater than simply thinking that we will be forgiven if, or when, we fail. God’s grace to us, what he does for us which we can’t do for ourselves, is Jesus’ victory over the devil’ temptations. When temptations come, then, instead of thinking that we have to try hard to resist temptation, we can be anchored in God’s word and live in Jesus’ victory. We can tell the devil he has no power over us, and find what we need in our relationship with Jesus. When we find our identity in Jesus as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he pleased (Matt 3:17), the verse which comes directly before the temptation of Jesus, then we stand with Jesus in his victory. When we are sure of God’s unconditional love and acceptance in Jesus, and when the Spirit of God fills us with the assurance of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we can resist temptation and live faithfully in the live Christ gives us.

What that means for us as followers of Jesus, then, can be thought of as:

Discipleship is …
… resisting temptation by being anchored in God’s word and our identity as his children.

I know from my own journey as a follower of Jesus how difficult it is to struggle with temptation. Sometimes, temptations can be very subtle. Other times, they can be obviously against what God wants, but still look appealing or attractive. And then there are the times when the temptations we face look like they are the best option, and maybe even what we think God wants. It can get complicated, and working out what God wants for us can be hard. That is why we need to not just read this story as an example of how to resist temptation. We need to find God’s grace in this story: in Jesus, God was doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves by defeating the devil and his temptations. This victory is now yours as God gives you Jesus’ victory through the Holy Spirit’s power.

The next time you are tempted, the devil has already lost. The victory over temptation is already yours in Jesus.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If you were making a movie about Jesus’ temptation how would you portray the devil – as someone who was obviously evil, or something more subtle?
  • What is a temptation you have faced in the past or might be facing at the present time? How did you deal with that temptation? Were you able to overcome it or did you give in to it?
  • What do you think Jesus meant when he said that people can’t live on bread alone (v4)? How can being anchored in God’s word help you when you are tempted?
  • We can understand grace as not just being forgiven when we give in to temptation, but God giving us Christ’s victory over temptation through his Spirit even before we are tempted. How might Jesus’ victory over the devil help you when you are tempted?
  • How can finding a strong sense of your identity in Jesus help you when the devil tries to tempt you away from trusting in God?