Our Brother Jesus (Hebrews 2:10-18)

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What do you think it would be like to grow up with Jesus as your brother?

When I asked this question in worship on Sunday, people gave a range of answers. One was that it would be hard living up to his standards in things like behaviour or achievement at school. Another idea was that it would be great to grow up with him because Jesus would bring a lot of peace and joy to the family. Someone else thought that it would be frustrating because your parents might always be saying, ‘Why can’t you just be more like Jesus?’

I found it pretty hard to find background graphics for Sunday’s worship PowerPoint. I like to use a picture connected to the theme. When I searched for pictures about Jesus as our brother, however, there wasn’t a lot to choose from online. It’s usually easy to find pictures about Jesus as Lord or King or Saviour or other big, impressive titles, but there wasn’t a lot about Jesus being our brother. This surprised me because one of the most important aspects of the good news of the birth of Jesus was that he became human to relate to us as our brother.

Hebrews 2:10-18 puts this vital but sometimes neglected aspect of the Incarnation well when it says that ‘both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family’ (v11a). The writer to the Hebrews is pointing to Jesus as ‘the one who makes people holy.’ Jesus doesn’t just come into the world to be a perfect example of who we should be and what we should do. He isn’t the perfect older brother with whom our heavenly Dad is always comparing us, asking why we can’t be more like him. Jesus was born into the world to make us holy. He unites the holiness of God with humanity in order to give us the holiness of God to humanity as a gift. Jesus, in uniting himself with us, takes everything about us that is unholy, carries it to the cross and puts it to death so we can be holy people. Jesus, the one who makes us holy, gives us the holiness he possesses as God’s eternal Son as a free gift.

This changes who we are. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to talk about ‘those who are made holy.’ These are all the people who live in relationship with God through faith. By being connected with Jesus through faith, he makes us into holy people through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The first and most important work of the Holy Spirit in us is to gift us with the holiness of God as the Spirit creates saving faith in Jesus within us. This fundamentally changes our nature. I regularly hear people say to me, ‘But pastor, I’m just a sinner’ when taking about the lives we lead. I understand and believe the doctrine that believers are simul justus et peccator (at the same time sinner and saint). However, we can also use or old nature as an excuse to justify behaviours that aren’t consistent with our new nature in Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul lists a range of people who do wrong and will ‘not inherit the Kingdom of God’ (v9) but he then writes, ‘that is what some of you were.’ In other words, our identity as sinful people is in the past tense. It is history because of the redeeming love of Jesus. Paul goes on to state that, ‘you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6:11 NIV). When Paul says that we were ‘sanctified’ he is saying that we were made holy, just as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says. Our new identity is in Christ so while we might fall back into our old, sinful ways, our identity is not defined by them. We are made holy through faith in Jesus by the power of his Spirit. We are now the holy children of God!

That is why ‘Jesus is not ashamed to call (us) brothers and sisters’ (Hebrews 2:11b NIV). One of the more difficult things about family is that our sisters or brothers can often know things about us that we might be ashamed of. Sometimes we can also be ashamed to admit that people are members of our family because of things they’ve done or who they are. Jesus never does that. As the eternal Son of God Jesus knows everything, so he knows everything about us – even those things we are most ashamed of. As a flesh and blood human person, he is also our brother. Jesus is never ashamed of us or of what we have done. Instead, he uncovers our sin and our shame, brings it to the cross, dies with it once and for all so we can be forgiven for our sin and freed from our shame as he calls us ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’

I understand that sometimes our sense of sin and shame can be overwhelming, but Jesus is stronger and better. He died for our sin and covers our shame with his holiness. Even if the voices around us or within us want to make us feel dirty and unholy, the voice of God in the gospel of Jesus tells us that our brother Jesus is not ashamed of us. He makes us holy people so that we can live as God’s holy children in the world. When we find our identity in him and cling to who we are as God’s holy children, no matter what the world or even our own hearts might say about us, we can find such a strong sense of our identity and value that we can live guilt- and shame-free in the world, bringing that same sense of identity and freedom to others who are still struggling to find who they are and where they belong.

I wonder what it would be like to grow up with Jesus as my brother. In some ways, the letter to the Hebrews helps me answer this question. As our brother, Jesus makes us holy, gives us a new identity as God’s holy children, and is never ashamed of us or what we have done. Jesus gives this grace to us all so we can find a strong sense of who we are in him, we can find a place to belong in the family of God, and we can live a holy life to honour and praise our divine brother.

Christmas 2019

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For the four weeks leading up to Christmas, our congregation prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus by participating in the Advent Conspiracy. You can find more information on the Advent Conspiracy in previous messages but its basic purpose is to help us find greater meaning in Christmas by Worshiping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.

As our church gathered in worship on Christmas Eve, I reflected on the times I had been to our local shopping centre over the last few weeks. A couple of kilometres from us is Tea Tree Plaza, the biggest shopping centre in the north-east suburbs of Adelaide. It is one of the most popular places in Adelaide for people to shop so there is always a pretty strong flow of people through it. This flow turns into a torrent around Christmas as people flock to it to do their Christmas shopping.

During a couple of my visits to the Plaza before Christmas, I saw people who were wearing very Christmassy t-shirts with words like ‘Peace’ and ‘Joy’ on them. However, when I looked at their faces, they didn’t seem to be displaying a lot of peace or joy. Instead they looked worried, concerned, stressed, and frantic.

I find it ironic and, to a larger extent, tragic that the season which is supposed to be about peace and joy ends up producing exactly the opposite.

What if Christmas didn’t have to be that way? What if the things that we identify with Christmas such as peace, joy, hope and love didn’t have to be merely slogans on the clothes we wear or cards we purchase, but could be the realities in which we live and which we give to the people around us?

Instead of just talking about peace, joy, hope and love, the goal of the Advent Conspiracy is to help us find greater peace, joy, love and hope by bringing us back to what Christmas was originally all about. At Christmas we journey to the manger in faith to witness how God has entered into our existence, taken all our worries, anxieties, failures and brokenness on himself in order to free us from them, and given us life in all of its fullness. The celebration of Christmas was never intended to burden us with stress, worry and anxiety. Jesus came into the world to free us from those things and give us greater peace, joy, hope and love.

The four themes of the Advent Conspiracy are to help us on our way of finding these gifts at Christmas. When we worship fully, we keep Jesus at the centre of our Christmas celebrations, remembering that he came into the world to bless us with a deeper and longer-lasting peace, joy, hope and love. We can spend less money, freeing us from the burden of unmanageable debt, to help people who have less than we do, from our own neighbours to others around the world. We can give more of ourselves, celebrating our relationships with each other and building stronger connections with people who are closest to us or that we have a hard time relating to. And we can love all, being as inclusive with our love as God is by including us in his love through Jesus.

This isn’t just something that we can be part of at Christmas. On Christmas Day I continued with the Advent Conspiracy theme by pointing out that the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation wasn’t just a one-off event. The way I hear some people talk about Christmas, it seems like they celebrate the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a land far, far away – but that’s it. I’ve been surprised this year by the number of people I’ve heard refer to Jesus’ birth as just an historical event, almost like it was confined to a moment in the past.

The mystery of the Incarnation, that the infinite God took on human form by becoming a flesh-and-blood person, is something that is a continuing reality for us. The mystery and the miracle of the Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, is that since the birth of Jesus God has been immediately and intimately involved in human history as a real person. Something changed in the universe when Jesus was born and God began to experience what it is like for us to be born, live and die.

In a way, we can think of every day as Christmas. We focus on God becoming human in the infant Jesus at Christmas, but we share in the blessings he brings us every day of our lives. Imagine what it would be like to enjoy the best things of Christmas each and every day of the year. When we were talking about this in our service on Christmas Day, some were worried that if we have all the things that make Christmas special every day, such as decorations, food, carols and gifts, then they would become ordinary and stop being special. But what if we could wake up every morning with all the best things about Christmas there for us to enjoy, and they would never stop being special? How good would that be?

The Advent Conspiracy was never meant to be just a Christmas thing. It is there to help us re-orient our worldview at Christmas so we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All for the other forty-eight weeks of the year as well. As we look for Jesus and the mystery of ‘God with us’ during the whole year, we can find deeper and lasting peace, joy, hope and love all year round. These aren’t just nice ideas for a particular time of year, but gifts that we can carry with us and draw on throughout the year, especially when we or others around us need them the most.

God is with us in Jesus through his Spirit for the entire year. God didn’t just take on human flesh two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God continues to take on our human existence, becoming flesh and blood as he is born in us, just as Jesus was born in the manger. Jesus comes alive in our hearts as we hear the good news of his birth and life, death and resurrection for us. The same Holy Spirit who created the life of Jesus within Mary creates his new life in us through the faith the Spirit gives us. When we gather together as God’s people to celebrate the meal that Jesus gave us, he is there, giving us his incarnate self through the bread and wine to live in us, to unite us in relationship with our loving heavenly Father, and to join us with other believers as his living, breathing body in the world.

God’s gift of his Son to us wasn’t just an event that happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. God gifts his Son to us through the Holy Spirit every time we read or hear his Word, the good news of Jesus, and as we receive the meal Jesus provided for his followers. That means that every day is Christmas as God becomes one with us and gifts us with his life-giving presence.

As we came to the end of the Advent Conspiracy for this year, we gathered in worship to hear the story of Jesus birth and to live in the faith that God who embraced human existence is still embracing us and our humanity. Because of this good news, we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All as we live in the peace, joy hope and love that Jesus gifts to us every day of the year.

Love All (Romans 1:1-7)

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As we explored the four key ideas of the Advent Conspiracy over the last few weeks, I have been getting together with groups of people on Wednesday mornings and evenings to discuss how they might help us celebrate Christmas in a more meaningful way. This week’s discussions on Loving All were very different but both very challenging.

I actually thought this would be one of the easier topics to discuss because love is central to the teachings of Jesus. However, the conversations were very personal and challenging. It can be really difficult to love people in the way Jesus teaches, especially at Christmas. That might be because of the overwhelming needs that we face, especially when we look at the global need for basic necessities such as food, clean water, shelter, safety and medical supplies. Loving all might also be hard because there are people in our lives who are difficult to love. When we get together with our families at Christmas, there can be an expectation to have a picture-perfect celebration. However, every family has some degree of dysfunction and Christmas can be a time when that can come out in ways that can lead to arguments or other forms of conflict.

I read an author once who suggested that we can read Jesus’ command to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17) as the heart of the Bible’s message, and everything else is commentary on it. We can read Scripture as being full of examples of God’s love for us in Jesus and how to love others in the same way. Especially as we read the New Testament, we can see the apostles discipling Christian communities of faith into loving others in the way Jesus teaches in their various relationships, contexts and circumstances.

What is most challenging about loving in the way of Jesus is that it focuses on what is best for the other person, even if that comes at a cost to us. The love Jesus embodied and calls us to is other-centred love. We can see this all the way through Paul’s letters for example, especially in texts such as ‘No one should seek their own good, but the good of others’ (1 Corinthians 10:24 NIV) and ‘in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:3b,4 NIV). Since I came across this idea, I’ve been reading the Bible through this filter, asking how each passage tells me about God’s love for me in Jesus or how to love others in the way of Jesus. I’ve found it very helpful in growing as a disciple of Jesus.

Reading the Bible in this way has shown me two basic truths. Firstly, that it is impossible for me to love this way on my own. St Augustine, a leader of the early Christian church who was born in 354AD, described sin as being curved in on ourselves. If Jesus teaches us an other-centred love, then the opposite of that will be me-centred. We can therefore understand sin not so much as breaking rules or doing the wrong thing, but an orientation towards ourselves where we think of what’s good for us over what’s good for others.

The second truth that reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ teaching on love gives me is that God really is the source of all love in the world. The Apostle John wrote, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10 NIV). God is so other-centred that he gave everything for us and to us in the person of Jesus. This is what we talked about last week when we looked at the theme of Giving More – in Jesus, God gives all of himself to us as God became one with us, and then Jesus gave all of himself for us by dying on the cross. When we start to uncover how God has loved his people throughout history and promises to continue to love us in the words of the Bible, we begin to ‘grasp how wide and long and high and deep if the love of Christ’ so that we ‘may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:18,19 NIV).

God fills us with the fullness of his love in Jesus so we can bring his self-sacrificing, other-focused, life-changing love to others. Paul tells us at the start of his letter to the Christians in Rome that this love was never intended to be for one, exclusive group, but for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from. (Romans 1:6,7). We all have countless opportunities to show God’s inclusive love to others! The authors of the Advent Conspiracy challenge us to look overseas, to people who lack the basic necessities of life that we take for granted every day and ask how we can love them as the body of Christ. We can also look closer to home, to the needs that exist within our own nation by being the light of Christ in our country by showing his love to others in any way we can. We can also look to our own communities of faith, no matter what form they might take, and ask how we can help every person who connects with us experience the reality of God’s love life-changing for them. We can also look to our own families, with all the baggage, the history, the hurts and the dysfunction we’ll bring to our Christmas and New year celebrations, and ask how we can love them in the way Jesus loves us, no matter what it might cost us. When we love them in the way of Jesus, they can encounter the miracle of the Incarnation, almighty and eternal God taking on human flesh in human relationships, in our relationship with us.

What’s important in Loving All isn’t that we try to enforce our understanding of the meaning of Christmas onto others. That isn’t the kind of love Jesus embodied. Instead, Jesus ate and drank with sinners, loving them, accepting them, showing them a better way to live and extending grace to them, especially those who needed it the most but deserved it the least. What if we loved all in the same way – not expecting anything from them, but incarnating the goodness and mercy of God among them in grace and self-giving, other-focused love?

I pray that God will make his presence with you real in the person of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, so that as you celebrate his coming, not just then and there in Bethlehem but here and now in you, you also might be the presence of our loving God in the world as you love all.

Spend Less (Matthew 3:1-12)

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As our congregation continues participating in the Advent Conspiracy to help us prepare to celebrate Christmas, the second theme we’re looking at is to Spend Less. I did some homework to find out how much we spend at this time of year and discovered that last year Australians spent $25 billion. That works out to about $1,325 per person across our country.

I was stunned when I found that statistic. What makes it even more extraordinary to me is when we look at it in the context of people who are in need around the world. For example:

  • More than a billion people in the world live on less than a dollar per day
  • 2.8 billion people, almost half of the global population, live on less than 2 dollars per day
  • Every day, 30,000 children under 5 die from avoidable diseases
  • More than a billion people don’t have access to healthy water
  • 20% of the global population have 90% of the wealth

(Source: www.atd-fourthworld.org/who-we-are/faq/how-many-people-living-in-poverty-are-there/)

Closer to home, as I sat down at my desk last Friday to prepare this message, I received an email telling me that ‘one in six Australian children and young people are growing up in poverty.’ Whether we look globally or on our own doorstep, there are people in need who would benefit from at least some of the $25 billion we spend on presents, food, decorations and other things at Christmas.

It makes even less sense to me that we spend this amount of money at Christmas when we listen to the teachings of the person whose birth we are celebrating. When we read the gospels and what Jesus said about money, he said things like:

  • “You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Matthew 6:24)
  • “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6:20)
  • “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” (Luke 12:21)
  • “Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven!” (Luke 12:33)

We can spend a lot of time discussing exactly what Jesus meant when he said these and other words like them. Some people take them more literally, while others argue that Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point or speaking metaphorically. No matter how we might interpret Jesus’ teachings, there can be no doubt that Jesus challenges his followers to think carefully about the place money has in our lives and the importance we give to material possessions. It can be easy for us as more affluent Christians in the developed world to skip over what Jesus says about money, but we need to be listening to Jesus and wrestling with the meaning behind his words if we are going to find and share the life he promises us.

Jesus identified strongly with the poor because he knew poverty. When he was born, his parents lay him in a manger, a place which contained straw for the animals to eat, and not in a soft, comfortable bed. By the age of two, Jesus and his parents fled their home to Egypt as refugees. During the three years of his ministry, Jesus was basically an unemployed homeless person who survived on the generosity of others. He was crucified as a slave with no clothes, money or other possessions. After his death, Jesus’ friends laid his body in a borrowed tomb.

The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus embraced poverty in order to provide us with the riches of God’s grace. He wrote,

‘You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT).

Paul uses financial language to tell us that Jesus gave up everything we might think is important so that we can become rich in our relationship with God. Everything in creation belongs to Jesus because he created it with the Father and the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus gave it all up to live in poverty and die with nothing so that we might become rich in God’s grace. Some like to think that Paul means financially rich, but he more likely means that we can become rich in the things that money can’t buy. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we become rich in God’s love as he gives us his perfect and infinite love. God makes us rich in hope as Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope of a better tomorrow. God makes us rich in joy as we celebrate the presence of God in our lives through Jesus. God makes us rich in peace as we find peace with God and with others through the forgiveness of sins, and peace in ourselves as we trust God in every circumstance of life. God makes us rich through Jesus in ways that money can’t buy, and in ways that will last beyond death for all eternity.

The challenge of the Advent Conspiracy to spend less isn’t about making us feel guilty for spending money at Christmas. Firstly, it challenges us to look beyond the consumerism of the society we live in and our own desires for more stuff to the greater need that exists in our own country and around the world. It then challenges us to share some of what we have with others who need it more than we do.

The second challenge of the Advent Conspiracy is to ask ourselves what really matters to us at Christmas. Are we trying to fill our lives or the lives of others with stuff so that we don’t have to deal with the deeper needs we have within us? Do we get caught up in the spending frenzy because that’s what we think gives our lives value or meaning? Or are we willing to admit that we have deeper needs which presents or possessions can’t satisfy? What if we could find what we need in Jesus who became poor to make us rich in hope, peace, joy and love? No matter how much we spend, I haven’t met anyone yet who have found these in what they buy. The promise Jesus gives us is that he gives them to us for free.

The gospel reading for Sunday tells the story of John the Baptist who calls people to repent (Matthew 3:1,2). Repentance doesn’t mean feeling sorry for the wrong things we’ve done. It means making changes in our lives and moving in a better direction. Maybe this Christmas, John is calling us to repent by changing the way we spend. Maybe John is calling us to look for what our hearts need in relationship with Jesus, not in the things we buy or the things we want. When we find what our hearts need in Jesus, then, maybe, we can spend less on stuff that doesn’t last, and share that with others who need it more than we do.

Worship Fully (Isaiah 2:1-5)

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A few months ago I was discussing with the small group leaders of our congregation what we might be able to look at as we entered the Advent season leading up to Christmas. One of the suggestions was the Advent Conspiracy. This resource uses the four weeks of Advent to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth by challenging participants to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All. After looking at the Advent Conspiracy material, we decided to give it a go this year and begin to re-imagine how we might celebrate Christmas differently by putting Jesus’ birth at the centre of everything we did.

Last Sunday we began Advent by looking at what it means to Worship Fully. I find that any discussion about worship is challenging because it seems like everyone has an opinion on how, when and where Christians should or should not worship. We all have personal preferences about just about every aspect of worship such as the styles of music we sing, whether we have a formal, responsive liturgy or not, and a whole lot of other things. Personally speaking, I get concerned whenever people start voicing their opinions about worship because most of the time it is very easy to miss the point of what worship is supposed to be all about.

The word worship comes from an Old English word which can mean to give someone or something worth or value. The things we value most in life, then, can become the objects of our worship. That might be God or some other deity, but it might also be our material possessions, our relationships, our work or even our favourite sporting team. Usually, we value these things because we look for our own sense of self-worth or value in them. For example, we might value our possessions because owning them might give us a sense of self-worth. We might value our relationships because they make us feel valued and significant. A lot of people value their work because it helps them feel useful and worthwhile. Belonging to a sporting club or supporting a team can help us feel like we belong and give us a purpose to our lives.

The problem comes when the things that we value and in which we look for value come to an end, are taken from us, or fail to give us what we hope for. When we look for our self-worth in the things we own, we can spend our lives trying to get more and more as newer and better versions of these possessions are produced. When we look for our value in our relationships, we can end up feeling worthless if those relationships end or become increasingly dysfunctional. I know a lot of people who struggle with their own self-worth when they lose their jobs, retire from full-time employment, or are too old to do the things they used to do. If we’re looking for our value in our sporting teams, what happens when they lose or don’t achieve what we hope they will?

To Worship Fully at Christmas is much more than singing Christmas carols or going to church. It challenges us to ask what we value most about Christmas and where we look for our self-worth at this time of year. For some, we might find our value in the giving or receiving of presents. It might be in the family dinner and the gathering of relatives. For others, it might be in the activity that goes on around a lot of churches during the festive season. There are lots of ways we can look for self-worth at Christmas in the things that we value most of all. As I said, the problem is whether or not they are able to give us a sense of self-worth if we lose them or they are taken away from us.

When we look for our value in Jesus, we can find a sense of self-worth which can’t be taken from us and which we will never lose. One way we can understand the meaning of Christmas is that God gave us the most precious gift he had, his only Son, because he thinks we’re worth it! God values each and every person so much that he enters into the reality of human existence by being born to a teenaged girl in Bethlehem. God’s plan is to rescue us from our superficial and flawed attempts at finding our self-worth in the things we own, the things we do, or the people we are trying to be by giving us a value that can’t be calculated. God values us so much that he enters our lives and unites himself with us in Jesus. He takes our sin and brokenness to the cross because he values us more than we will ever understand in this world. Jesus defeats death, overcomes the grave and rises from the dead to show us how precious we are to him. The entire plan of salvation, from Jesus’ birth to his death, resurrection and ascension all point us to the value God places on each and every person. God does everything that is necessary to give our lives value and meaning by accepting us as we are, adopting us as his children and welcoming us into a new relationship with him.

Basically, Jesus enters the world as an infant at Christmas to save us because he reckons we are worth saving!

When we find our value in Jesus and his birth, life, death and resurrection for us, it is natural for us to worship him – to give him worth for everything he has done, is doing and will continue to do for us. This is what it means to Worship Fully, especially at Christmas. We can find a deep and lasting sense of our self-worth, not in the decorations or presents or meals or any of the other superficial trappings of this time of year, but in God’s gift of himself to us in the baby Jesus. When we trust that God gives us a sense of self-worth in Jesus, then we can worship him fully by making the birth of Jesus the one thing we value most about the Christmas season.

What do you value most about the Christmas season? What might that say about where you look for your sense of value and self-worth? How might you celebrate Christmas differently with your family, friends or church community if you intentionally looked for your value in the birth of Jesus and then valued him most of all? The other things aren’t wrong or bad, but how might they look different if we valued Jesus most of all as we find our value in him?

When we find our self-worth in God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus, then we can worship him fully with our whole lives, not just at Christmas.

Following the Baby (Luke 2:16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peace Road (Isaiah 40:1-11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

God’s Glory (John 1:1-14)

glory-to-god-in-the-highest-03Every now and then a gentleman comes into the church office asking questions about God and faith. I don’t honestly know whether this gentleman is searching for answers to his questions, or whether he is just looking for an argument. Whatever his reason might be, his questions are good and challenge us to search for a deeper understanding of God and the way he is at work in the world.

One question this gentleman has asked a number of times is one that has perplexed humanity for thousands of years – if God is all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then why are children and other innocents dying everyday all around the world from war, hunger, abuse, preventable diseases, and other evils. The assumption behind his question is that if God is actually all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then he would somehow eradicate evil and everyone, especially the innocent victims of human hatred and greed, would be able to live safe, happy, well-adjusted lives.

I can understand this gentleman’s struggle with the paradox of God’s love and power because I grapple with it on a regular basis in a number of different circumstances. The problem with simply getting rid of evil is that, if God were to do that, God would also need to get rid of human will which is often the cause of the evils in the world. We would end up with a God who controls people instead of a God who gifts people with freedom. People who have no will are people who are unable to love, and if God’s desire is that we live in loving relationships with him and with others (see Matthew 22:34-40 etc.), then taking away our will also takes away our capacity to love.

So instead, God deals with the problem of evil in a different way. Instead of magically getting rid of suffering in the world, God shows us his glory by doing something that we don’t expect and that no-one else could do – he enters into the suffering of the world as a child. God joins us in our suffering in order to meet us where we are and then give us the hope of something better in Jesus.

This might sound a little philosophical and a bit depressing for a Christmas Day message. We expect and look for Christmas to be light and happy most of the time. But that misses the real significance and power of the Christmas story. Jesus wasn’t born in a sanitized and air conditioned birthing suite. He came into the world by being born in a dirty, smelly, unhygienic cattle shed. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were shameful for their culture as his mother became pregnant before she was married to her fiancé. At the time, the people to whom Jesus was born were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire which kept control through brutal and oppressive violence. We can sanitize the Christmas story so much that we forget that God entered the world in humble way, immersed in shame and into the suffering of an occupied and oppressed people. The Christmas story is really a story of shame, dirt, and conflict.

We see God’s glory in this story because when we are suffering from shame, dirt or conflict, God is with us through the birth of Jesus to give us hope and peace, love and even joy. Jesus shows us the glory of a God who isn’t removed or distant from the realities of our lives, but he is right there with us, walking with us every step of the way, because he has been there before us in the person of Jesus. He doesn’t just leave us there, but, in Jesus, God promises us a life that is free from shame, in which we are made clean through his forgiveness and healing, and set free from the oppression of sin, death and all the evils of this world.

When this gentleman comes into the office, then, and asks where God is when the innocents are suffering and dying, I can tell him that in Jesus, God is right there with them. This is not an empty platitude to try to win an argument, but the glory of God at work in the world. In Jesus, God exercises his power by joining with all of us who suffer. He surrenders his power to meet us in the circumstances of our lives and then gives us the hope of a better life. We see the love of God as, in Jesus, God is willing to sacrifice everything, even his heavenly glory and his own life, to suffer at the hands of evil in order to free us from the power of evil. We encounter the glory of God in Jesus who meets us where we are, journeys with us to carry our shame, scandal and conflict for us, sets us free and gives us life that never ends.

Where is God when the world, or when we are hurting? In the birth of Jesus, God is right there with us.

More to think about:

  • Do you ever ask where God is when things go wrong or you witness people suffering? What has caused you to ask that question recently?
  • Are you able to reconcile the idea of an all-loving and all-powerful God with suffering in the world? If so, how do you do it? If not, what gets in the way?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering in the person of Jesus shape your thinking about God’s relationship with pain in the world?
  • If or when you suffer from shame, scandal or conflict in your life, could it make a difference to trust that God is with you in those times in the person of Jesus, and that he will get you through them? Can you explain why or why not?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering inspire us to walk with others who are experiencing their own pain?

‘Incarnate’ (Matthew 1:18-25)

Nativity

I recently finished reading a book called Beyond Belief: How we find meaning, with or without religion (Macmillan, 2016). In it, author and social researcher Hugh Mackay reflects the way that many Australians look for meaning and spiritual growth in their lives outside of mainstream Christian churches. One thing he says in the book is that it is unreasonable for people to believe in the claims of traditional Christianity that Jesus was born of a virgin and was raised from the dead. He writes, ‘for me, the whole edifice of Christianity would crumble if the idea of a literal virgin birth were to be regarded as its crucial foundation’ (p223).

As we approach Christmas, it becomes important for us to think through the claim of the virgin birth and whether it actually makes any difference. If the claim of the virgin birth is not to be taken literally, then we are left with a Jesus who was like many others who taught how we are to live our lives. He might teach us how to live, but is not able to help us when we are unable to live the way we are supposed.

If, however, we take literally this story of the angel’s assurance to Joseph that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, then everything changes. Jesus is no longer a moral teacher who tells me how to live but is unable to help me in my need. Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to state that Jesus’ biological father was actually God. If we understand the virgin birth literally, then Jesus is the embodied, flesh and blood presence of God with humanity. God enters into our existence through the person of Jesus to share with our joys and struggles, our successes and our failures. He brings with him the blessings that come with the full goodness of God in a human body. That is what ‘Incarnate’ means: Jesus is God who comes to us as a real, flesh and blood person to enter into our reality and bring God’s life-giving presence to us in all of life’s circumstances.

We can think of it like this: During my years serving as a school pastor I taught Christian Studies. When students were struggling to complete a task, if I stood at the front of the classroom and told them what to do, they still found it difficult to solve the problem. However, if I got out from behind the desk, went to where they were and got alongside them, we were able to solve the problem together. In the person of Jesus, God doesn’t stay in heaven and tell us what we need to do to live in ways that are good for us and for each other. Instead, God moves to where we are, joins us in our lives, embraces us in our humanity, walks with us through the ups and downs of life, and gives us what we need to live in the peace, joy, hope and love that we celebrate at Christmas.

Because Jesus is God, he is not limited by time and space. That is why we don’t just celebrate the coming of Jesus two thousand years ago, but that he continues to come to us as a real, flesh and blood person to embrace us in our lives, no matter what might be happening in our lives. We are never alone because Jesus is God with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gives himself to us and becomes one with us as he takes away our guilt, shame and brokenness and gives us forgiveness, healing and new life as his people. It may not feel like it sometimes, but the promise of the angel to Joseph is also God’s promise to us: in Jesus, God is with us in all the circumstances of life, and he will never let us go.

One final aspect of the idea of the Incarnation is that God continues to enter into the world to bring his peace, joy, hope and love to the world in real, flesh and blood ways. When the Apostle Paul describes believers in Jesus as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), he isn’t just using a nice metaphor or image. Because Jesus comes to us as a real, flesh and blood person, and makes himself one with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus takes on our flesh and blood and enters the world through us. As the living and breathing, flesh and blood body of Jesus in the world, God enters the world through us as we live as Jesus’ followers in faith and in love. Growing as Jesus’ disciples and following him in all we say and do becomes so critically important because as we grow as children of God and followers of Jesus, Jesus enters the world to continue his work of redeeming and renewing the world through us. In a way, we become little Marys as Christ enters the world to bring grace, love and hope through our words and actions, through our relationships and callings in life.

I can understand Hugh Mackay’s difficulty in accepting the claims of Jesus’ virgin birth. From a human point of view, it doesn’t make sense. However, if decide that we can’t take it literally, then Jesus just becomes another moral teacher who can tell me what I should be doing but who can’t help me when I need it. When we embrace the mystery of the virgin birth and enter into it through faith, then God is with us in a real, flesh and blood way through Jesus. God embraces us and gives us what we need to live in hope, peace, joy and love with a life that is even stronger than death. When we embrace this mystery through faith, then we find that Jesus isn’t just ‘God with us’ in the stories of the past. Instead, God is with us right here and now to give us hope, peace, joy and love in all the circumstances of life, and God is with others through us.

More to think about:

  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Can you explain why you think that way?
  • Do you tend to think of Jesus more as a moral teacher or as someone who came to save those who couldn’t live up to his moral teachings? Do you think it is possible to someone to live up to Jesus’ ethical & moral standards? (If you’re not sure what Jesus standards were, read Matthew chapters 5 to 7 – his Sermon on the Mount)
  • When we look at a baby, we can see a person who is helpless, dependent on others, and who has no control, either of things around them or even their own bodies. How might this be good news for us – that when we are helpless, dependent or out of control, God is with us in the infant Jesus?
  • If we take the incarnation (God embracing humanity as a real, flesh & blood person) literally, how might that shape the way you think of your relationship God? With others? With your congregation’s relationship with the community around you?
  • What are some ways in which God can enter into the lives of the people you will see this Christmas to give them his hope, peace, joy and love through your words and actions?