Growing in Prayer (Mark 1:29-39)

Jesus prays 01

It had been a very busy day for Jesus. It began simply enough as Jesus went to the local synagogue to teach. While he was there, Jesus drove out an unclean spirit from one of the locals. Then he went to the home of Simon and Andrew where he healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a serious fever. Word about Jesus must have spread through the village, because as soon as the Sabbath restrictions ended at sunset, people brought their sick and demon-possessed to Jesus. What had started as a quiet Sabbath day of rest for Jesus ended up with an overwhelming flood of people looking to Jesus to help them.

What strikes me about this story is that, after a frantic day of teaching and healing, Jesus didn’t try to sleep in the next morning, or head to the local coffee shop to read the paper or check his social media. Jesus didn’t go fishing, or for a ride on his bike, or any of the things we might like to do after a busy day. Instead, Mark tells us that ‘before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray’ (v35 NLT).

There might be a number of reasons why Jesus wanted some time by himself. I’m thinking at this stage that maybe Jesus knew that he couldn’t handle the pressures and demands he was facing by himself, and he needed his Father if he was going to get through what was coming. By going out to pray, Jesus was trusting that his Father had everything he needed to do what he was called to do, and that his Father would provide him with what he needed. Jesus’ early morning prayer was an act of faith.

What do we do when life seems too hard, or there’s too much to do, or the pressures and expectations of the people around us are overwhelming us? Do we just try to keep our heads down and push through on our own? Or do we look for a break, to escape from the chaos even for just a few minutes, by going out for a coffee, checking our social media, staying in bed, or watching TV? When it feels like life is overwhelming us, do we tend to work harder or run away?

Jesus did neither of these things. Instead, Jesus’ response was to get out of bed earlier than normal, go to a quiet place, and pray.

What if we did the same? What if, instead of working harder or trying to escape from the realities of life, we took everything that’s going on in our lives to our loving heavenly Father in prayer as our first priority?

There is a crazy promise from God in Romans 8:32 where Paul writes,

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (NIV)

The promise in this text is that God has everything we need for life in this world and the next, and for the sake of Jesus we will give us everything we need! When you think about what’s going on in your life at the moment, especially if there are things that are looking to be too hard, too much or too overwhelming, what difference could it make if we trusted that God will give us everything we need? God has brought us into a new relationship with himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and wants to provide for us like loving parents provide for their children. Jesus knew that and so took what was going on in his life to his heavenly Father in prayer. As his followers, that’s what he’s teaching us to do as well – to trust God with what’s going on in our lives by bringing it to him in prayer.

Learning how to pray will need to be a key aspect of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. God is connecting with us by the power of his Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus. As we are growing in that connection, we will also be growing in our willingness and ability to trust God with what’s going on in our lives. We will also need to be equipping each other by learning how to pray, just as Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Luke 11:1). After giving this message on Sunday, a woman in our congregation told me that she had never learned how to pray other than the set prayers she recites every morning and at night. Formal prayers have their place – I use them regularly – however we also need to be able to talk with our heavenly Dad like we talk with our best friend or someone close to us. Good communication is a sign of a healthy relationship, both with people and with God.

This year for Lent we’re coming together with other Lutheran churches in our part of the city to offer workshops on different topics to help grow and equip God’s people. When I was asked to lead a workshop, it seemed to me that spending four weeks focusing on listening to God’s word in the Bible and talking with him in prayer might be a good idea. We need to be learning how to exercise these spiritual disciplines and make them part of our daily rhythm so our faith can remain strong. Like Jesus in this story from Mark 1:29-39, we need to be praying as our first priority, not as a last resort, because God has everything we need and will give it to us because of the new relationship we have with him through Jesus.

Jesus believed that his Father had everything he needed in the pressures and demands of life in this world. This trust led him to look to his Father for what he needed in prayer. If your prayer-life is struggling, maybe Lent is a good time to commit to finding time each day to talk with God about what’s going on in your life. When we do it and how we do it aren’t as important as that we do it. If you want some help, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do. Almighty God has everything we need to do what he calls us to do. Jesus believed that and took what was going on in his life to his Father in prayer. When we follow Jesus and trust God enough to take what’s going on in our lives to him, he promises that he will always give you what you need.

More to think about:

  • When life gets difficult or overwhelming what do you tend to do more: try harder to get through, or escape from the pressures or demands? Why do you think you tend to do that?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to pray? Do you have a set time or place to pray each day? Or is it a discipline you find hard to maintain?
  • Why do you think Jesus got up early, went to an isolated place and prayed? Do you find it strange that he would do that? Or do Jesus’ actions make sense to you? Can you explain why?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe God’s promise in Romans 8:32? Why do you think that is? How might your life be different if you were able to trust that God has and will give you ‘all things’ (NIV) for Jesus’ sake?
  • What’s going on in your life right now that is difficult, demanding or overwhelming? Have you taken it to God in prayer? If you find praying difficult to do, how can we, or another sister or brother in Christ, help you do that?
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Growing in Freedom (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

1 cor 8 BBQ 01

Over the last year or so, people in our congregation have been discussing the future of our ministry with teens and young adults using Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) as the basis of our conversations. This resource presents 6 strategies that the FYI research has identified as central to effective ministry with young people. The chapter on one of these strategies, Prioritize Young People (and Families) Everywhere, begins with this question:

How much would you and your church give up to reach young people? (p196)

It’s an excellent question because it challenges us to work out what we value and where our priorities lie. If we are unwilling to give up what’s important to us, such as our time, money or expectations, what we’re doing or the way we’ve done things, then we send a clear message to our young people that we don’t value them. However, if we are willing to give up those aspects of our church culture which are important to us in order to reach young people with the gospel, then we are saying that we value our young people and they are important to us.

When we look at Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, what Paul was willing to give up for others constantly amazes me. Admittedly, he’s writing into a different context. Paul isn’t talking about ministry to young people, but about Christians whose faith allowed them to eat or not eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. However, the key point is that Paul didn’t tell one group that they were right and the others were wrong. Instead, he tells Jesus’ followers that what is important is what they are willing to give up so that others can be built up in faith (v1).

I have friends who are vegetarian or vegan, so the impact of what Paul is willing to give up for others might be lost on some. For most Australians, however, to be willing to give up meat so that another can experience the grace of God is a major sacrifice. I would find it incredibly difficult to permanently give up lamb chops, sausages, schnitzels or steak for another person. As part of my message last Sunday I asked people what they would find hard to give up. Some answers I received were things like coffee, chocolate, music, television, social media, and so on.

The point is that if Paul was willing to give up meat so that he wouldn’t be an obstacle to others in their faith, what are we willing to give up which might be an obstacle to our young people in their faith?

When we follow Jesus, he leads us to the cross where we witness what he gave up for us. Jesus’ whole existence was about sacrificing for others. He gave up his place in heaven to become one with us in this imperfect and broken world. He was constantly giving up his time and energy to serve others during his ministry on earth. Ultimately, Jesus gave up his whole life for us on the cross out of love for each of us so that we can encounter the grace of God through his sacrifice. When I look at this question from Growing Young from Jesus’ perspective, asking how much he was willing to give up for the sake of our young people, the answer is ‘everything!’ Jesus didn’t just give up meat or coffee, his time or a portion of his weekly earnings. Jesus gave everything up for us on the cross so that we can experience grace. That is how great his love is.

Paul’s willingness to give meat up for the rest of his life so that he wouldn’t cause other Christians to stumble in their faith was because he trusted in what Jesus had already given up for him. His actions were a natural outflow of God’s grace to him so that others could experience God’s grace through him. Because that’s a big part of what grace is – giving to another and for the sake of another person just because they need it, no matter what the cost.

Which brings me back to the original question from Growing Young: how much would we and our church give up to reach young people? When we are willing to give up what is important to us for them, we extend grace to our young people. When we are willing to sacrifice our preferences, our traditions, our expectations and our power for other people of any age, we are showing them the same grace Jesus showed us by giving up his life for us. This isn’t about giving young people what they want. My children think they know what they want, until something else comes along, and then they want that. Instead, this about surrounding and embracing our young people in a community of grace so they can experience the grace of God in Jesus through what we are willing to give up for them.

Because if our young people don’t encounter grace through giving relationships with their sisters and brothers in Jesus, the living, breathing body of Christ, then where will they?

That’s why growing in faith is a key element of our Discipling Plan. Part of what it means to grow in faith is trusting more and more in what Jesus gave up for us in his birth, life and death on the cross. As we grow and mature in our understanding of his sacrifice for us, we will also grow in our willingness to give up what is important to us so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationship with us.

Jesus gave up everything on the cross to extend God’s grace to us. Paul was willing to give up meat for the rest of his life so that others might find grace in him. How much are we willing to give up so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationships with us?

Learning to Fish for People (Mark 1:14-20)

Vacations

I never learned how to fish.

Some might by surprised or horrified by my confession because often people think that fishing is an essential pastime for a pastor. I have some friends who love fishing and constantly tell me how much they enjoy fishing and all the fish they catch. So when – or if – the time comes when I want to learn how to fish, what will be the best way?

I could buy a book & read all about it, or watch YouTube clips, or maybe even try to work it out on my own. When I put this question to my congregation on Sunday, just about everyone agreed that the best way to learn how to fish is to go fishing with someone who knows what they’re going.

Generally speaking, that’s how we learn: by watching others and following their example.

When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him as his disciples, he called them to learn from him a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom (v15). Jesus taught that God’s Kingdom wasn’t a long way off, either in distance or in time. Instead, Jesus said that it is near. This Kingdom is God’s power, breaking through into our world by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, righting the wrongs of a fallen creation and restoring things to the way God intended from the beginning. Because God does all this in the person of Jesus, God’s Kingdom is wherever Jesus is, as he restores, redeems and renews all things by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples who followed Jesus learned what living in God’s Kingdom is like. They learned it by being with Jesus, hearing his parables, seeing his miracles and witnessing his disputes with the religious leaders of his time. Most of all, though, they learned about the Kingdom of God in their own relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ followers encountered the reality of God’s coming Kingdom through the perfect and infinite love and grace Jesus displayed through his death on the cross. They also encountered the power of God’s coming Kingdom in Jesus’ resurrection. That’s where they saw that God’s love for us in Jesus is stronger than anything we encounter in this world, even death.

We can understand discipleship, then, as Jesus calling us to learn to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love everyday of our lives. In all the situations we face in life, both good and bad, when Jesus call us to follow him, he wants us to learn from him how the grace and love he extends to us through his death and resurrection can shape us, our relationships with each other, and our community of faith. Learning to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom means encountering Jesus’ perfect and infinite love for us each and every day of our lives, and learning the difference it makes. We don’t learn this from a book or YouTube clip. We learn about the transforming power of God’s coming Kingdom by walking side by side with Christian sisters and brothers around us, just like Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other disciples learned it by walking with Jesus to the cross and empty grave.

This is largely what our congregation’s Discipling Plan is about. Last year, as we were discussing our plan for the future of our church, we spent a lot of time learning about discipleship by reading the gospels to see how Jesus discipled others. In the same way that Jesus connected with these four fishermen on the banks of Sea of Galilee, we hope that people will connect with Jesus and with each other as we learn together what it means to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

It is significant to see that when Jesus called these disciples, he already had their destination in mind. Jesus wanted them to learn about the reality of God’s coming Kingdom so they could then teach others. That’s why Jesus said that he was going to show them ‘how to fish for people’ (v17 NLT). In the same way, our Discipling Plan begins with our destination in mind as we aim to send people out to ‘fish for people’ in our lives, too. To achieve this, we are planning to grow in our faith, just as Peter and the other disciples learned to trust Jesus, and to be equipped for the work Jesus is calling us to do, just like someone who goes fishing needs the right equipment. We find everything we need to fulfil Jesus’ calling when we follow him and learn from him to live in the day-to-day reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

This becomes especially important when we are talking about our ministry to young people in our congregation. Whether we like it or not, our children, grandchildren and others who are new to the Christian faith are learning from us – our words, our actions and our relationships – what the Kingdom of God is like. We need to be asking ourselves what they are learning from us? Are our young people learning that the Kingdom of God is about turning up to church? Or are they learning that God’s Kingdom is about going on a roster or a committee? Worshipping together and being organized are important elements of Christian community, but they aren’t the main thing in God’s coming Kingdom. What we learn from Jesus as we follow him to the cross and empty grave is that his grace and love for us is better and stronger than anything else in this world. My hope and prayer for our young people is that they will learn from us that living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom each and every day brings hope and joy and peace, and that they will also learn for themselves how to fish for others.

The best way to learn to fish is to find someone who knows how to fish, and then go fishing with them. Are we willing to learn a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love from Jesus? As we learn from him, then others – and our young people especially – will learn about living in God’s coming Kingdom from us, as Jesus teaches us to fish for people together.

A Personal Invitation (John 1:43-51)

come and see 01

At our congregation’s general meeting last November, we adopted the following Discipling Plan as our theme for 2018 and our strategic direction for the future:

Following Jesus and making disciples by connecting, growing, equipping and sending.

As we begin a new year of ministry and mission in Tea Tree Gully, I’m intending to listen to God’s Word through our Discipling Plan when I prepare my messages each week to learn what Jesus might be teaching us about connecting, growing, equipping and sending as his followers in the world.

This story from John 1:43-51 talks a lot about connecting with others in relationships. Jesus connects with Philip by calling him into a discipling relationship with him. Philip then uses an existing connection he has with Nathanael to tell him that he had found the person that Moses and the Old Testament prophets had promised, and that person was Jesus from Nazareth. Philip then invites Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus by asking him to come and see Jesus for himself. The surprise in the story is that, as Nathanael comes to Jesus, he states that he had already seen Nathanael under the fig tree, even before he came to him.

What stands out to me in this story is that Philip didn’t need to be trained or taught how to bring Nathanael to meet Jesus. Neither did he invite him to attend a program or an event, or ask him to join a roster or a committee. Philip didn’t even ask Nathanael to go to church. Philip’s invitation was simple and personal: come and see Jesus for yourself.

We need to hear this because sometimes it seems like the aim of many people in the church is often to try get people to come to church, and we think that once we’ve done that our work is done. We can assume that if people are coming to church regularly, or semi-regularly, or participating in the organization of the congregation by being on a roster or in a committee, then they are connected to Jesus. However, just because we come to church or are part of a church organization, it doesn’t mean that we know Jesus. Over my years of ministry, I have met people who have been very faithful in attending church or active in the organization of the congregation, but their words and actions have made me wonder whether they have actually met Jesus.

This becomes critical as we discuss ministry with our young people. At times I have conversations with parents whose children have disconnected from church and they ask me why their children don’t come to church anymore. Of course, this is a complicated questions and there are many, many reasons why people might stop attending worship. Over recent years, however, as I have reflected on my experiences in the church but also my own family, I have been wondering whether the main problem is that too many of our young people just haven’t met Jesus in our churches. We can be so immersed in the busyness and business of church that maybe our focus has drifted from Jesus and know him through faith.

Maybe we need to be asking more how we can follow Philip’s example by helping our young people and others meet Jesus.

This is largely what our Discipling Plan is about. It adopts a relational understanding of church and emphasises the importance of meeting Jesus and growing in our relationship with him through participation in our community of faith. Our Discipling Plan begins where Jesus begins: by connecting with him in a discipling relationship and connecting with others with Jesus at the centre of our relationships with each other, just like Philip and Nathanael.

When we see church as a community where we can meet Jesus and through which we can help others meet Jesus, a major shift happens in our thinking. We become more of the living, breathing body of Christ in the world where people encounter God’s love for them through our love for each other. When we are living Christ-like lives by preferring each other’s needs over our own, doing what’s good for others even if it comes at a personal cost to ourselves, and being willing to sacrifice for each other rather than just working for what benefits ourselves, then people meet Jesus in us. I regularly hear people in our congregation pray that the Holy Spirit would make us more and more like Jesus. This is a good and vital prayer because when the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ, and this transformation is evident in our words and actions, in our relationships and how we treat each other, then people meet Jesus in us.

It is also important to see that at this stage of his journey as a follower of Jesus, Philip didn’t knock on someone’s door or approach a stranger to tell them about Jesus. Instead, he went to someone with whom he already had a relationship. In the same way, mission begins with the people we already know. God wants to work through the connections we already have to connect with others, including our families, friends, people we work with or with whom we spend our leisure time. When he met Jesus, Philip found us someone he had been waiting for. Then, he naturally wanted to share who he had found with someone he knew. When we find what our hearts are waiting for in Jesus, then inviting others to meet Jesus will be a natural thing to do.

So this story leaves me with two questions. The first is, how might our congregation be different if our main goal was to introduce people to Jesus? My personal hope and prayer is that by implementing our Discipling Plan, we might all meet Jesus as the real, living person that he is, that we might grow in our relationship with him, equipping us through the power of the Holy Spirit as he sends is into the world to participate in God’s mission of redeeming, restoring and renewing creation.

My second question is, where are you in this story? Do you identify with Philip as a follower of Jesus who has found in him what your heart has been waiting for? Then our Discipling Plan is about equipping you to invite others to meet Jesus. Or are you more like Nathanael, someone who is still waiting to meet Jesus? I hope and pray that through your connection with our congregation this year you might meet the crucified, risen and living Jesus, and grow in your relationship with him to find everything your heart is waiting for.

The good news is that whether you are more of a Philip or a Nathanael, Jesus already sees you, knows you, and is waiting for you.

More to think about:

  • Do you like meeting new people? Can you explain why you like or dislike it?
  • Why do you think Philip was so quick to tell Nathanael about meeting Jesus? What does that tell us about what meeting Jesus can do for us?
  • Do you feel like you have met Jesus in Christian community? What has helped you meet Jesus or has got in the way of you meeting Jesus?
  • Do you agree that we can help people meet Jesus when we love them in the same way that he loves us? Who could you introduce to Jesus today by loving them like Jesus loves you?
  • How might your Christian community or church be different if your main goal was to help people meet Jesus and grow in their relationship with him?

One More Year (Luke 13:6-9)

Luke 13v6-9 looking for figs

In the house where we live there is one part of the yard which was pretty much just dirt and weeds when we moved in. Over the we have lived there, I have been slowly working on the patch to turn it into more of a garden. One plant I put in was doing well to begin with, but a couple of months ago it started losing its leaves and turning brown. I began to ask myself whether this plant was worth saving, or whether I should pull it out and plant something in its place which was going to do better in that spot.

I think most people who have worked in gardens would have been in a similar position to the person in Jesus’ story that we read about in Luke 13:6-9. He comes back time after time to see if his fig tree was producing any fruit, but it never does. In some ways, this is a pretty simple parable to interpret: the owner of the garden is God, and each of us is the fig tree.

This parable starts to get more challenging when we begin to ask what the fruit is that God is looking for in our lives. There are a number of ways in which we could interpret the fruit, but whenever I hear the Bible talk about fruit I think straight away of what Paul says in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (NLT)

The way I’m thinking about the fruit that God comes looking for in our lives, then, is that he is looking to see if our faith is producing:

  • love like Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, especially for people who are hard to love or who don’t love us
  • joy, even in the most tragic or difficult of circumstances
  • peace in the middle of life’s storms, conflicts and uncertainties
  • patience with people who frustrate or annoy us
  • kindness towards those who are unkind to us
  • the goodness of God in everything we think, say and do
  • faithfulness to the promises we have made to others, especially when it’s easier to break our promises, and to God for all of his goodness and grace to us through Jesus
  • gentleness, even with people who may be rough or hostile towards us
  • self-control in situations when it would be easier to let our emotions or feelings get the better of us

This story gives us a way to understand what the Christian life us about. I often talk with people who tell me that being a Christian is about going to church, or bringing other people to church, or getting to heaven when we die. This story says to me, however, that when God looks at our lives, he is looking to see if we are producing these kinds of fruit. This is the purpose and goal of living as Jesus’ disciples – to be growing to maturity so we can produce fruit in our lives and be sowing this kind of fruit into the lives of the people around us.

This is a great text for the New Year because it gives us a chance to look back at the past year and reflect on whether or not our lives have been producing this kind of fruit in our relationships with others. Most of us will probably be able to see times when we have produced fruit like Paul describes. However, there are other times when we have failed to produce these fruit. We are all growing and maturing, like any plant in our gardens. Every living thing is continually growing and maturing. We have times when the fruit is plentiful, but also others when the fruit is more scarce. What is important is that we are growing, because when something’s growing, it means it’s alive.

The good news of this text is that the owner of the garden doesn’t cut the fig tree down or even leave it to do its own thing. Instead, the gardener steps in and offers to care for it by giving it ‘special attention and plenty of fertilizer’ (v8 NLT). This character in the story is Jesus himself who intercedes for us by pleading for us with the Father and then promises to care for us. Jesus is the one who feeds us with his love, nurtures us with his grace, provides for us in his mercy, and grows us as his people. I won’t grow the struggling plant in my garden by telling it to grow stronger. Neither does Jesus grow us by telling us what to do. Instead, by being born and living a human life for us, by dying on the cross and then being raised to new life, Jesus has done everything that we need to grow into healthy, mature people of God so we can produce the fruit that God is looking for in our lives.

Jesus grows us to maturity in his grace through the waters of Baptism and the word of forgiveness. He provides food and drink for us as he gives us his blood and body, his perfect and eternal life, in the wine and bread of Holy Communion. Through our connection with and participation in Christian community, Jesus is there by his Holy Spirit to care for us and provide us with everything we need to grow as his strong, healthy, fruit-producing body of believers. Jesus commits himself to us, just like the gardener in this story, in the hope that as we grow and mature in his grace and love, our lives will produce the fruit of a vibrant and living faith which our heavenly Father is looking for.

I decided not to pull out the plant that wasn’t doing well in my garden. Instead, I committed to take care of it and water more regularly. Now, its leaves are growing back and it’s starting to flower again. This is what God plans for each of us. Through the care his Son gives us and by the power of his Spirit, God wants us to be strong and healthy in our faith so that our lives produce the fruit he is looking for. We can’t do it alone – to be strong, mature people of God we need the grace and love Jesus extends to us through a community of believers. My hope and prayer is that we can all live in the forgiveness, goodness and new life of Jesus this coming year so that our lives produce the fruit our heavenly Father is looking for by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can then sow the seeds of his goodness into the lives of others.

Following the Baby (Luke 2:16)

jesus in manger 01

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?

debt free 04

Most people I know live with some amount of debt. For some, the debt might be comparatively small, but for others, the debt is pretty substantial once you add up credit cards, personal loans and a mortgage. A lot of people in our society will spend their entire lives in debt and never know what it is like to live without owing anybody anything.

Maybe that’s why we find grace such a difficult idea. As people who can spend most of our lives paying off our debts, the idea of someone paying our debts for us so we can live a debt-free life seems completely unrealistic. Even if someone was to be generous enough to pay off our debts, it would just mean that we would feel indebted to that person. It can seem that we’ll always be in debt and nothing will ever change that.

I don’t know how literally Paul meant us to take his advice to ‘owe nothing to anyone’ (v8a NLT). In some ways, it makes sense for us to control our degree of debt so it doesn’t overwhelm us. However, Paul seems to have something in mind other than sound financial advice. As he goes on to talk about our ‘continuing debt to love one another’ (v8b NIV), Paul appears to be talking about something other than our bank loans or credit cards.

There was a time when we were all in debt to God. Each and every day, God freely gives us everything we need for life just because he loves us. Our problem, though, is that we tend to use the good things God has given us selfishly, more for our own benefit and pleasure rather than to help and bless others. We misuse or even abuse God’s gifts to us in a whole lot of different ways.

When we do, we owe God. This debt is something we can never hope to repay, because even if I was able to use God’s gifts properly from this moment on for the rest of my life, I would still owe him for the ways I misused them already today.

That’s where God’s grace steps in. God himself pays our debt in the person of Jesus who paid what we owe by giving his life for us on the cross. When Jesus died in our place, he paid in full everything that we owe God in the past, present and future. His sacrifice clears our debt with God so we can now live debt-free with God. It would be amazing enough for someone to step in and pay off my mortgage and other financial loans for me. However, the debt we had with God was so much greater that only the death of Jesus could cancel it. The good news of Jesus is that his death on the cross was payment in full for everything I will ever owe God because of my sin.

This good news is liberating for us! Imagine someone paid off all of your debts – what would you do with the money that you had been using for your repayments, or the time and energy you were using to generate that income? You would be free to use those resources any way you wanted!

In Romans 13:8 Paul is saying that God doesn’t need our time, energy or money because Jesus has paid our debts for us. Instead of using our freed-up resources in self-indulgent ways, Paul is telling us that God wants us to use our time, energy and money to serve, bless and love the people around us. I have heard it said that God doesn’t need our time, energy or money because all of heaven and earth are already his; however, the people around us need those resources which are freed up when Jesus makes us debt-free with God. There are people who need our financial resources because they have none of their own. There are people who need our energy because theirs are either very low or even non-existent. Sometimes the most valuable thing people need, especially those who are closest to us, is our time. In lives that are often dominated by the busyness that comes with working hard to pay off debts we accumulated to buy things we don’t really need, one of the most precious gifts we can give is time for our families, with friends, with brothers and sisters in Christ who might need a shoulder to lean on, and ear to listen to them, or just to check in with how they’re doing.

Because Jesus has paid our debts to God, we can now live in debt-free ways. I’ll leave it with you to decide how much Paul is talking about finances, but what’s more important is that we can live with a debt-free attitude in every aspect of our lives, no matter how large our mortgage or credit card debt might be. Having a debt-free attitude means living every day and in every situation like we don’t owe anybody anything because everything we have is a gift from a God who loves us and who has given his best to set us free. When we trust this good news, we are liberated to use what God first gives us to serve, bless and love other people. When we live with this focus on others and how we can bless them with God’s gifts to us, we learn how to live in faith and love.

More to think about:

  • What would you do tomorrow if someone paid off all your debts for you today? How would you use your time, energy & finances that were freed up because your debts had been paid? Would you use them for yourself? Or for others?
  • In your relationship with God, do you tend to think that you owe God, either for wrongs you have done or because of what Jesus has done for you? Why do you think that?
  • Why do you think Paul says to ‘owe nothing to anyone’ (v8 NLT)? Do you think he is talking about money? Or something else?
  • How would you feel if someone paid all your debts for you – joy? relief? free? How can they describe the Christian life when we believe that Jesus has paid our debts to God for us?
  • Paul writes that Christians have a ‘continuing debt to love one another’ (v8b NIV). How might your day be different if you used what God has given you to love the people around you in the freedom that comes from the faith you are debt-free with God?