A Changed Heart (Acts 9:1-20)

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Do you believe that people can change?

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

So what do you think – can people really change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus changed Saul. He can change us, too.

More to think about:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

Listening to Jesus (Luke 9:28-36)

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Every day we have dozens, maybe hundreds, of voices speaking into our lives. They can be the voices of family members, friends, people we work with, teachers, the media, social media, advertising, people on the radio, musicians, and more…

If we were to listen to each of the voices that are constantly speaking into our lives, I wonder what messages we would hear. They might be words of encouragement and affirmation. We might hear expectations, vices telling us who we should be, what we should look like, or what we should do. These can quickly become words of criticism, judgement or condemnation when we feel like we don’t live up to the expectations we have of ourselves or others have of us.

The voices we listen to go a long way in shaping our view of ourselves, the world around us and our place in it. To put it another way, the words we listen to can play a big part in shaping our identity, our belonging and our purpose in life.

Of all the voices that speak into my life, there is one I listen to most. It is the voice that most clearly speaks words of grace, love, hope and peace. While so many other voices are telling me who I should be, what I should do, and that I’m not good enough for a whole range of reasons, there is one voice which tells me that there is something bigger and better than all of that. This voice is the voice that speaks words of forgiveness and mercy and love and a life that is stronger than death.

This is the voice of Jesus.

In Luke 9:28-36, when the disciples went up a mountain to pray with Jesus and saw him in his heavenly glory, the voice that came from heaven told then to listen to the Son. God knows the voices that we hear in the world. God knows how they can be words that take life from us. God wants to give us his love and life and hope and peace. The way he does that is through his creative and powerful word.

Right from the beginning of creation, God’s word brought order to chaos, light to the darkness, and life where there was nothing. That’s why the Apostle John identifies Jesus as the Word of God and the Light of the World (John 1:1-5; 8:12). Jesus is the word God speaks into our existence to continue his creative work of bringing order from chaos, light from darkness, and life from nothing. God continues to speak his word which brings life and hope and love and peace in Jesus through his Holy Spirit. As we listen to Jesus speak to us through God’s word, the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, works in our hearts, minds and souls to create the goodness of God in us and to give us God’s good gifts. Listening to Jesus becomes crucial in the lives of his followers, not just because God is telling us what to do or giving us guidance through them. Instead, listening to the voice of Jesus in God’s word is the way the Holy Spirit breathes life into us so we can grow as the body of Christ in faith and love.

This Lent, the focus in our church will be helping people learn how to listen to Jesus’ voice in God’s word. This is a priority for me throughout my ministry, but Lent gives us a special opportunity to get together around God’s word and learn together how to listen to Jesus’ voice in it. Each Wednesday morning and evening you are invited to gather and spend time listening to what God is saying to us through the coming Sunday’s message text. The discussion will be very open ended. It will be less about what I hear in the text and more about learning to hear for ourselves the words of grace, love and truth which Jesus might be saying to us.

After Easter I hope that we will be able to continue to meet around God’s word in smaller groups, maybe even just two or three, to listen to what Jesus is saying to us as he builds us up in our faith in him and love for each other through his words of truth, grace, love and peace. In this way, we can become more and more a community of faith which is listening to Jesus, learning from him, growing in his love and mercy, and being equipped as the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Once we are able to hear the grace-filled and life-giving voice of Jesus in God’s word, then we have a new and better word to speak to the world and the people around us. When we are listening to the voice of Jesus, the Holy Spirit uses his words to shape us, our identity, our belonging and our purpose. We can find ourselves and all we need in Jesus. We become God’s mouthpieces to the world as we speak the truth and love, grace and mercy of Jesus to others in every conversation we have with our families, friends, work colleagues, strangers. Everything we say can be seasoned with the grace of God, as Paul says in Colossians 4:6. When we are listening to Jesus and the Holy Spirit is shaping us through his word, then our words will also change so others can hear the echo of Jesus’ voice in us.

For some people, listening to God’s voice is a super-spiritual, mystical event. It doesn’t need to be. God has spoken very clearly and simply to us through the words of many people over the centuries, but most specifically though his Son (Hebrews 1:1,2). The disciples recognised that Jesus had the words which give a life which is stronger than death (John 6:68)! This Lent, join with us in learning how to listen to the voice of Jesus so together we can find greater hope, joy, peace and love in him.

A Different Way (Luke 5:1-11)

 

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I wonder how Peter replied to Jesus when he told the fisherman to go out into deeper waters and let his nets down to catch some fish (Luke 5:1-11). Thanks to Luke we have what Peter said, but I wonder about the way in which Peter said them.

Was he full of confidence, sure that if Jesus told him that he would catch some fish, then he would be successful?

Was Peter tired but still hopeful that following Jesus’ instructions would bring a positive result, even though his own efforts had resulted in empty nets?

Was Peter being sceptical and maybe even sarcastic? After all, Peter was an experienced fisherman but Jesus was a carpenter’s son – what would he know about catching fish?

I wonder about this because Peter had been fishing his whole life. In his mind he was probably sure that he knew what he was doing. Then along comes Jesus who, as far as we know, didn’t have any fishing experience. Then he starts to give Peter advice about how to do his job. If you were Peter, what would you do? Would you be open to some new ideas and willing to try something different? Or would you smile politely, thank Jesus for his advice, but keep doing things the way you’ve always done them?

These are important questions for me because I’ve been where Peter was. At times during my years of fulltime ministry in the church I’ve felt tired, discouraged and even a little cynical because what I’ve been doing hasn’t seemed to be producing the results I’d hoped for. I believe strongly in the mission of the church and the difference God can make in people’s lives through the good news of Jesus, but sometimes it has seemed like the nets have been empty and all my work has been for nothing.

So I understand when people are reluctant to try something new in the church. After decades of struggling with mission and ministry, we can all feel like Peter after a night of hard work to some degree. Our church has tried a lot of programs, events, campaigns and other ministry resources to try to be effective in our work for God’s kingdom. However, we are still an aging, declining church. We can easily begin to wonder if the time, effort and money has been worth it when they haven’t seemed to bring about the results we’ve hoped for, and our nets are empty.

There are two reasons why, like Peter, I keep heading out into deeper waters and letting down the nets in ministry. The first is because Jesus calls us to. If we are going to take Jesus’ message seriously, as one of the core commitments from Growing Young encourages us to, then we need to be listening to Jesus’ call to head out into deeper waters and let down our nets. If Jesus is calling us to go fishing for him, then he has what we need to do it effectively and he will provide the catch. All he asks of us is to listen to him and to trust him enough to follow his call.

The second reason I continue to head out into deeper water and let down my nets is that I believe God is giving us a new set of nets to use. In my past experience in the church, we have relied on programs, events and other organizational activities to do the mission and ministry of the church. These worked well for a particular generation and I thank God for the lives he has touched and the people who have found grace through them. However, in recent decades we have found that they are not as effective any more. Instead, what connects people to Jesus is honest, Christ-centred relationships and a community of faith where they can experience the life-changing reality of grace. This is why another of the Growing Young core commitments is to fuel a warm community. We head out into deeper water and let our nets down when we connect with people relationally and embrace them in Christ-centred community. That is where people can encounter the grace of God and the kind of love which Jesus embodies and Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.

On the one hand, this doesn’t sound very complicated. However, moving from an organisationally driven, program based culture to one where relationships are central requires a significantly different way of thinking about mission and ministry. Thankfully there are resources available to help us put our nets down into these waters. I have found Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute to be an invaluable resource in helping us think through how to do mission and ministry in a relational way, especially with young people. Next weekend, we will be very blessed to have Jake Mulder from the Fuller Youth Institute and a co-author of Growing Young with us to help us in learning to fish in a new way. If you are part of our congregation at St John’s, please make yourself available this weekend to learn from him with us.

Last Sunday I distributed a document which outlines Ten Ways to Connect with Children and Teens in your Church. Its advice is relatively simple, but again a significant shift in thinking about how we can be involved in a more relational mission and ministry. What it says is helpful in our relationships with people of all ages, not just children and teens. I encourage everyone in our congregation to identify one person you know, of any age, gender or background, and start putting them into practice. Can you imagine what our congregation could be like if we were all involved in fishing with Jesus like this?

I can understand how Peter felt as he washed his nets at the start of the story because I’ve been there. But I also hear Jesus’ call to head out into deeper water and let our nets down one more time. Just as Peter shouted to the other fishermen for help to bring in the catch, I’m asking the people of our congregation for help in this work for God’s kingdom as well. It can’t be up to one or two people alone. Instead, when we’re all listening to Jesus and following him faithfully, he will teach us how to fish for people.

Are you ready to go fishing?

Loving Like Jesus (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

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Central to the teachings of Jesus is the command to love. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus asking him which was the most important of God’s commandments. Jesus summarises the Old Testament law by replying that God wants us to love him with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). John develops this idea in his gospel when he tells the story of Jesus giving his disciples a new command: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). To make sure his followers get the point, John has Jesus repeating this same command twice more in 15:12 and 15:17.

Every book of the New Testament except one talks about what it means to love each other in the way Jesus taught at some point. The only book that doesn’t explicitly talk about Jesus’ command to love is the Acts of the Apostles. However, Acts has plenty of examples of how the early Christians loved each other in community and brought the message of Jesus’ love to the world. It is possible to read the entire Bible as an epic story of God’s love for people and the love it inspires for others.

While we might talk and read about God’s love for us in Jesus, we can still struggle with how that love looks practically in our lives. There are a lot of different ideas of how to follow Jesus’ teachings on love, and there are many ways we can show his love in our relationships. One of the most helpful passages in Scripture I have found that describes the love Jesus taught is 1 Corinthians 13.

One way this passage can help us love in the way Jesus taught is to read verses 4-8a with our own names substituted for the word ‘love’. Whenever I do that, it doesn’t take long at all before I start feeling very uncomfortable – usually around the word ‘patient.’ Replacing the word ‘love’ with our names shows us that we fall a long way short of loving people in the way Jesus wants us to. While this can make us uncomfortable, it’s not a bad thing because it shows us that if we are to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers, we need help to do it.

That’s where I read this passage again, but this time inserting ‘God’ for the word ‘love.’ We can do that because the Apostle John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16). God is the source, the embodiment, the fullness of all love. By saying that ‘God is love’ john tells us that God is synonymous with love. When we read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a from this perspective, it tells us a lot about the nature of God:

God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. God does not dishonour others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails. (NIV)

Even when we fail to love others in the way God wants us to, the promise of this text is that God never fails to love us. God is patient with us even when we lose our patience with others. God is kind to us even when we are unkind to each other. God is not envious, boastful or proud, but instead embraces humility to serve us. God does not dishonour us, but gives us the honour of calling us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God is not self-seeking, but seeks what is good for us even though it kills him on a cross. God is not angry with us and keeps no record of our wrongs, but removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. God rejoices in the truth of his grace and peace. God is always protecting us, always trusting us with his goodness and gifts, always hoping for the best for us, always persevering and hanging in there for us. Ultimately, God will never fail us because the story of the Bible shows time and time again that God never fails his people.

God loves us this way because of what Jesus has done for us. God loves us in the way 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a describes because he entered into our broken human existence, taking our humanity on himself in the person of Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we fail to live, loving people in the perfect way God wants us to. Jesus took our flaws, failures and everything we don’t do in 1 Corinthians 13 to the cross, putting our wrongs to death once and for all. Then Jesus rose to new life so we can live new lives united with him through the Holy Spirit. God loves us perfectly even when we fail to love the way he wants us to because his Son Jesus lives in us.

Paul writes that when he was a child, he spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. As he matured, though, he put away childish ways (1 Cor 13:11). This is the spiritual growth that God wants for all of us. The path to spiritual maturity comes through recognising that we fail to love the way God wants us to and finding God’s love for us in Jesus. As we repent of our failure to love by turning towards God who is the source of perfect love in Jesus, and trust in his love for us, the Holy Spirit works in us to mature us as Jesus’ followers. I know from personal experience that when we recognise our failures in loving God and people, and when we turn to God in faith, trusting in his love for us in Jesus, it can change us into people who have a greater capacity to love others on the way 1 Corinthians 13 describes, even people who are hard to love. When we are able to love each other as the Spirit enable us, then people will see that we are followers of Jesus (John 13:35) and God’s love enters the lives of others through us.

Just about everything I do as a pastor is to help people grow in their faith in God’s love for them in Jesus so they can become more loving people towards others. 1 Corinthians 13 has become crucial to my understanding of what the love Jesus taught looks like. In the end, when everything else we think is so important is gone, then these three will remain: faith, hope and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love, because that’s where we find the life-changing goodness of God.

Joy (Isaiah 12:2-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace (Luke 1:68-79)

candle of peace 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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