An Easy Yoke (Matt 11:16-19, 25-30)

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When I was in primary school, our church used to have an annual picnic. One of the games we would play every year was the three-legged race. If you’ve never been in a three-legged race, the way it works is that you and a partner have your legs tied together, usually at the ankle, and you need to run together towards the end of the course.

It was hard learning how to move together effectively. We are so used to walking at our own pace and in our own ways that we found it difficult to synchronize our movements and find a rhythm so we could run the race. People who were able to find that rhythm did well and finished the race. Those who couldn’t just pulled against each other and ended up on the ground.

When Jesus talked about taking his yoke in Matthew 11:25-30 he was inviting us to learn to walk with him as his disciples. one way we can think of being yoked with Jesus is that it is kind of like running a three-legged race with him. When I was younger, I thought the yoke Jesus was talking about was something we carried individually, the kind that lay across a person’s shoulders with a bucket on each end. Since then I have learned that the yoke Jesus meant was the sort that two oxen would carry to help them walk and work together. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked with him, like we might have our legs tied together in a three-legged race, so that we can learn from Jesus to walk with him in the way of life he walked.

Being yoked with Jesus doesn’t come naturally to us and is difficult for us to learn. We like to walk our own way, going in the directions we choose, and moving at a pace with which we are most comfortable. Especially in our culture which worships our individual right to do what we want, be who we want, and go where we want, the idea of adapting our walk to fit in with others is virtually abhorrent. Our society’s creed of individualism teaches us that we should have the right to choose where, when, and how we walk in our own lives. The problem with this way of thinking is that if we each want to walk our own way, then, like in a three-legged race, we will fall over and probably get hurt.

When Jesus calls us to take up his yoke, he is inviting us to learn a whole new way of living from him that is radically different than our inward-focused, me-first individualism. Jesus’ call to discipleship means learning a way of living that doesn’t burden us with expectations, demands or rules. The religious people of Jesus’ day were really good at doing that. Jesus wants to teach us a different way that leads to rest for our hearts and souls.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus invite us to be his disciples and learn a different way of living from him that involved taking up our cross in faith and love. In Matthew 11:28-30 he uses the image of taking up his yoke with him. This might seem like a burden, but the beauty of Jesus’ words is that he says that his ‘yoke is easy to bear’ and the burden he gives us is light (v30). This might seem like a contradiction, but Jesus is saying that he wants us to learn from him a way of life that is free from expectations and guilt, and full of his grace.

Eugene Petersen describes the new way of living that Jesus invites us to learn as ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG). As Jesus offers us his yoke, or as he ties his leg to ours for our three-legged race together, he is asking us to learn from him how to live with grace as our foundational reality. This grace isn’t something that we struggle or try harder to do, but in the same way that we can find a rhythm with our partner in a three-legged race, Jesus wants us to walk with him so we can find his rhythm of grace and it can flow naturally, in an unforced way, through our whole lives.

This grace works in two ways. Firstly, it is living in God’s grace for us in Jesus. There are lots of ways we can understand this grace: forgiveness, new life, redemption, salvation, and a home in the kingdom of heaven. We can also think of God’s grace as the way he gift us with a new identity as his children whom he loves, a place to belong in the body of Christ and the community of believers, and a new purpose in living for him and being part of God’s mission in the world. In fact, we can understand God’s grace as every good thing he gives us for life in this world and the next. God gifts us with everything we need because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us which renews our relationship with our Father in heaven and gives us his favour. We can spend our whole lives learning more and more about God’s grace in which we live as we take up Jesus’ yoke and walk with him.

The second way we ‘learn the unforced rhythm of grace’ in our lives is in our relationships with other people. Grace isn’t just something God gives to us. It is also something we give to others. Again, we can think of this grace in many different ways, such as forgiving people who have wronged us, or accepting, loving, welcoming, and building up one another. This grace that we extend to others is having an outward focus on others in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need for Jesus’s sake. The ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ are identical to the way of faith and love that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, which lies at the heart of the New Testament letters to early Christian communities. It is grace which flows from God, through us, and into the lives of everyone we meet.

As I said earlier, this rhythm of grace doesn’t come naturally to us and often isn’t easy for us. We need to be life-long learners, disciples of Jesus who are learning from him what this grace looks like and how it works in all the varied circumstances and different situations of life. Carrying Jesus’ yoke, or being Jesus’ three-legged race partner, isn’t just a one-off decision. It means walking closely with him every day of our lives, listening to his word, watching the way he trusted our Father and treated people, so that we can live in the reality of his grace and we can live out his grace in relationship and community with others.

Which way are we walking in our lives? Are we being discipled by our individualistic culture, which tells us to walk where we want, how we want, when we want? If we are, how is that working out for us? Are we walking well, or are we stumbling or falling along the way? Are we ready to learn a new way of living, walking closely with Jesus and learning a new way of living from him as his disciples? Are we willing to pick up his yoke? Will we trust him enough to tie our leg to his and learn how to walk in his way, and not our own? Are we ready to learn the unforced rhythm of grace from Jesus?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even been in a three-legged race? How did you find it – was it easy or hard for you? Why was that?
  • What makes it difficult to walk with someone in a three-legged race? What can help us walk together?
  • How might taking up Jesus’ yoke be like partnering with him in a three-legged race? Do you think the analogy works? Explain why/why not…
  • What do you think it might mean to take up Jesus’ yoke? How can we find rest in it? In what ways can it be ‘easy’ and ‘light’?
  • What do you think of Eugene Petersen’s description of taking up Jesus’ yoke as ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’? What do you think that looks like?
  • Would you say that you are ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus? Or are you walking in your own way at your own pace? Give reasons for your answers…
  • What might your life be like if you were learning the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus by taking up his yoke as his student? How might your life be the same? How might it be different?
  • If Jesus is asking each of us to take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him, then we can think of our congregation as a Christ-centred community of faith where we are all learning this new way of life in our relationships with each other. What is your reaction to thinking about ‘church’ in this way?
  • What will you do this week to walk with Jesus, take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/JNDH_rD9qQE

God bless!

Who Do We Serve? (Romans 6:12-23)

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What do you think would be the best job in the world?

Sometimes I like to ask younger people what they want to do when they grow up or leave school. They sometimes give answers like a police officer, ballet dancer, secret agent, footballer, or a whole range of other things. I wonder, though, no matter how old we are, what your ideal job would be. What do you reckon would be the best job in the world?

I am also curious what you think the worst job in the world might be. There used to be a television show called Dirty Jobs where the show’s presenter would talk to people who had some of the most disgusting work you could imagine, and then gave that job a try. Some of the worst jobs he looked at included a sewer inspector, a cow inseminator, a concrete chipper, and a snake researcher who would squeeze out the contents of a snake’s stomach to examine their diet. What is the worst job you can think of?

Now, imagine your life if this was your job. Every day you would get out of bed to go to the worst work you can think of. What would that be like for you? Would you continue doing that job because that is all you know? What if someone offered you the best job you can think of? Would you decide that the job offer must be too good to be true? Would you not want to risk giving up your old job in case it didn’t work out? Would you continue to go back, day after day, to the same dirty, gross work? Or would you take the opportunity and accept the job that had been offered to you?

We can react negatively to Paul’s use of the word slave in Romans 6:12-23, but we need to remember that Paul was writing in a different social context. We reject slavery because it abuses people’s fundamental human rights. We condemn it because it exploits and devalues people who have been made in God’s image and for whom Jesus gave his life. When Paul refers to slavery in the New Testament, I do not believe he is arguing that slavery is an acceptable practice. In Paul’s time it was part of their culture. Today, thankfully, we know better. As we read Romans 6:12-23, we can still learn something from what Paul wrote because, as he explains in verse 19, he uses the practice of slavery as an illustration to teach us something about what it means to live in the reality of God’s grace.

One important difference between slavery in Paul’s time and the way we work today is that slaves didn’t have regular working hours. They weren’t casual, part-time or even full-time employees who could go home at the end of their working day. Slaves were in their situation all day, every day, often for their entire lives. When Paul writes about slavery, he is referring to something that impacted people’s entire existence and defined their identity, belonging and purpose. He wasn’t just talking about a job – he was referring to a way of life.

Paul draws a sharp contrast between two ways of living which is even more dramatic that the contrast between the best and worst jobs we can imagine. On the one hand is a life that is dominated and controlled by sin. Paul doesn’t just think of ‘sin’ as doing something wrong, the way we sometimes do. Instead, he uses words like ‘impurity’ and ‘lawlessness’ (v19 NLT), ‘ashamed’ and ‘death’ (v21 NIV). This gives us a broader understanding of sin as those things in our lives that make us unclean or dirty, that bring shame on us and ultimately take life from us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically.

In sharp contrast Paul also describes what it means to be a slave to righteousness (v18). This sounds like a contradiction, because when Paul writes about being set free from slavery to sin (vv18,22 NLT) we would assume that people who have been liberated are no longer slaves. This is where we need to remember that Paul seems to be thinking of something that is part of our lives every hour of every day, not just a casual or part-time job. When we become ‘slaves to righteous living’ (v18 NLT), this righteousness becomes part of our being in which we constantly live. ‘Righteous living’ isn’t just about our behaviours or actions. It is who we are as people who have been made right through faith in Jesus.

In the same way that I asked you if you would accept the best job in the world if you had been working in the worst job in the world, Paul is asking his readers if they want to give themselves to righteousness if they had up to that point been working in sin’s household. As we have seen, Paul connects sin with shame, being unclean or dirty, and death. He then describes the qualities of righteous living as holiness and eternal life (vv19,22). This holiness is a big concept and carries with it a range of different meanings. It means to be pure, clean, uncontaminated, set apart for God, or sanctified. It means receiving God’s holiness as a gift and growing to be more like God because one of God’s essential characteristics is holiness. Becoming slaves to righteous living isn’t about following a set of rules or trying harder to be a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person. Righteous living that leads to holiness is more like having all the filth washed off us when we have spent our working lives as a sewer inspector, and being made clean from all the shame and dirt we used to live in as slaves to sin. The righteousness that leads to holiness is, in Paul’s thinking, living our entire lives in the goodness of God which is reflected through our lives in everything we do and say.

We can live in this righteousness because Jesus has set us free from sin. When Paul writes, ‘now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you’ (v17 NLT) he is talking about faith in the gospel of Jesus (see Romans 1:5). We are only able to ‘choose to obey God’ (v16 NLT) or ‘offer’ ourselves to the ‘obedience’ of faith (v16 NIV) because Jesus has liberated us from slavery to sin through his life, death and resurrection for us. Slaves had no choice about who they served. They were bought and sold like cattle. As people who have been set free from slavery to sin when Jesus redeemed us or bought us back by giving his life for us on the cross, now we are free to give ourselves and our lives to either sin or righteousness.

We were trapped in shame, dirt, and death because of the debt of our sin. Jesus paid our debt in full by his death on the cross, so now we are free to choose. Do we want to go back to the worst job in the world? Or do we want to step in faith into our most ideal job? Will we go back to slavery to sin with the shame, dirt, and death that it brings? Or will we walk in the obedience of faith into a new reality which gives us holiness and a life that is stronger than death?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think would be the best job in the world? Why do you think it would be so good?
  • What do you think would be the worst job in the world? Why do you think it would be so bad?
  • If you were working in the worst job in the world and someone offered you the best job in the world, would you accept it? Explain why you would do that…
  • Why do you think Paul used the illustration of ‘slavery’ for living in either sin or righteous living? What might be some of the problems with this illustration in our cultural context? What might be another way that Paul could illustrate the same idea to people of our time?
  • Paul contrasts a life of sin with shame, dirt, and death, with righteous living that brings holiness and eternal life. Which sounds better to you? Do you think it might be easier to live in one or the other? Can you explain why you think that…?
  • Why might people find it hard to leave a bad job for a better one? What does that tell us about why some people might find it hard to leave a life of sin for a life of righteousness?
  • What do you imagine a life of righteous living might look like?
  • We are able to live in either sin or righteousness because Jesus has redeemed and liberated us through his life, death and resurrection for us. Why do you think this message of freedom can be such an important part of the gospel of Jesus?
  • As a community of faith, how can we help each other live in righteousness that leads to holiness and eternal life? How might you be able to help someone do that this week?

You can also find a video version of this message by following this link: https://youtu.be/wclr5JQBBc0

God bless!

Taking Up Our Cross (Matthew 10:24-39)

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In a lot of workplaces, employees need to complete manual handling training. These courses basically teach people how to lift things safely. When I worked as a supermarket casual during my student years, I first thought that doing a course to learn how to lift things was a waste of time. I had been lifting things my while life, so why did I need training in it? However, then I started meeting people with serious back problems because they didn’t lift properly. My mind was changed – maybe we need to learn how to lift so we don’t injure ourselves and we can enjoy the life we have been given.

Have you ever thought about Jesus as a manual handling trainer? Towards the end of Matthew 10:24-39, the Gospel Reading for this week, Jesus calls us to do some heavy lifting in our lives. He says, ‘If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine’ (v38 NLT). Here, as in other places in the gospel, Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples by taking up our cross (see also Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

People interpret what it means it take up a cross in different ways. In the most literal sense, however, Jesus took up his cross when he suffered and died for us. Jesus knew that the only way that we could live as God’s children in this world and the next was for him to literally pick up a heavy wooden cross and carry it to Calvary where he would suffer and die. He walked this path trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and the promises he received through the Scriptures. Jesus walked this path in love for us, knowing that his death would mean life for us as it gives us forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and new life. Jesus lifted the heavy weight of the cross and walked the path of suffering and death in faith and love.

Jesus wants us to learn to live like this as well. He calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the path of faith and love. The word used in Matthew 10: 24 as ‘student’ in both the NIV and NLT is translated in other passages of the New Testament as ‘disciple’. Disciples are students who are learning a new way of living from their teacher. Jesus calls us to follow him as his students. He wants to teach us a new way of living by learning from the way he lived his life. This new way of life involves picking up our crosses and following Jesus in the path of faith and love.

This is where the illustration of Jesus as a manual handling trainer might help us understand more about being his disciples or students. Following Jesus is not an easy road to walk. In this reading from Matthew 10:24-39 Jesus is warning us that there will be a cost in following him. Jesus did not pick up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives convenient, safe, easy, or comfortable. Instead, he calls us to follow him so we can find what life is all about and then share the life Jesus gives us with others.

The life of faith and love to which Jesus calls us and that he models for us is not an easy one. It is a complete reorientation of our lives away from ourselves towards God and other people. When Jesus took up his cross to suffer and die, he was trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and extending that love to us. Jesus’ life was oriented away from himself towards God and us. The way of faith and love which Jesus teaches us follows the same orientation. It turns our focus away from ourselves towards him and others. It is a life lived in faith as we trust God to give us everything we need for life in this world and the next because of what Jesus did for us. This faith frees us from having to worry about ourselves so we can focus on the people around us and how we can serve them, just like Jesus serves us.

This kind of life involves some heavy lifting. It will cost us, in the same way it cost Jesus, as we prioritize others by serving, blessing and extending grace to them, just as Jesus serves, blesses and shows infinite, perfect grace to us. Jesus wants us to live this life in a way that is healthy and good for us, so he teaches us how to do it in a life-giving way. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants to teach us how to lift our crosses in ways that won’t hurt or injure us but will give us life so we can pass his life on to others. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn how to lift our crosses well so we can continue to live for him and for others in faith and love.

It is really important for us to hear this at this time. For a while now people have been telling me how much they are enjoying worshiping at home because we can do it when we like, how they we, and with people we like. Worship at home is safe, comfortable, convenient, and easy. I understand why we have needed to worship at home over the last few months, however, this is not the life to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ teaching to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34,35 etc) only makes sense when it is practised in community with people who are different to us. It’s easy to love people who we like and who agree with us. It is much harder to love people who have different opinions, who look different, who behave different, who have different worship preferences, or who think in different ways to us. To love in the way that Jesus teaches means loving people who we find hard to love, just like Jesus loves me.

Jesus calls us to follow him as his student disciples so we can learn his new way of loving and living from him. This way of life doesn’t come naturally to us, so we need Jesus to teach us how to lift our crosses, how to trust the love of our Father in heaven, and how to love other people in the same way he does. This will cost us, and in a world that teaches us that my life should be oriented around me and what I want, it will bring us into conflict with the world and culture in which we live. However, Jesus promises us in Matthew 10:39 that when we learn this way of living from him, and when we re-orient our lives by trusting Jesus and loving other people, we will find greater meaning in a life which is stronger than death.

There was a time when manual handling training didn’t make sense to me. Then I learned how important it is to lift correctly so we can stay fit and enjoy the life that God has given us. As our manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn from him how to lift our cross in faith and love so we can enter into the life God has for us. Jesus didn’t take up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives safe, convenient, or comfortable. When we follow him, our lives won’t be either. However, when we trust Jesus and follow in his way of faith and love, not only do we find the life to the full that he promises (John 10:10), we can also pass his life on to others.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you or someone you know ever done any manual handling training or been taught how to lift things safely? What did you or they think of it? How has it helped you or them?
  • How have you understood Jesus’ teaching to take up our cross in the past? What has it meant to you?
  • Have you ever considered yourself a student of Jesus? What do you think being Jesus’ student might mean?
  • What is your reaction to the idea of Jesus wanting us to learn from him how to take up our cross and live in faith and love? What do you like about it? What is hard to understand about it?
  • Does this way of life sound easy or difficult to you? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might your life look different if you re-oriented it around faith in Jesus and love for other people? How might Jesus be able to help you learn how to do that in ways that are healthy and life-giving?
  • What are some practical ways that can you take this teaching of Jesus seriously in the coming week?

If you would like to watch a video form of this message, you can find it at https://youtu.be/MhGfjV2abvI

God bless!

The Heart of Church (Acts 2:42-47)

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When I went to birthday parties as a child, we used to play a game called pass the parcel. If you have never played this game, what happens is children sit in a circle and pass a parcel wrapped in lots of layers of paper from person to person while music is played. When the music stops, the child holding the parcel removes a layer of paper, and then passes the parcel on again when the music resumes. The child who removes the last layer of paper wins the prize in the centre of the parcel.

The game has changed a bit since I was young. Then, there was only one prize underneath all the layers of paper. Now that our children are playing it, there is usually a small prize under each layer of paper so every person who participates wins something.

Sometimes I wonder if the church is a bit like a pass the parcel. We often think about church in different ways and when we use the word, many various images can come to mind. These diverse understandings can contribute to the overall character of church. However, if we were to peel away the layers, what lies at the centre of the church?

Six weeks ago, we looked at the story of Samuel anointing David to be king and we heard how God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:1-13). I suggested that not being able to meet together in worship and suspending most of our church activities due to the COVID-19 restrictions might give us a chance to look past outward appearances to explore what is at heart of being church. Acts 2:42-47 gives us a glimpse of what early Christians living in Jerusalem considered to be at the heart of their church.

In Acts 2:42 we read that this early community of faith ‘devoted themselves’ to four key elements: ‘to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’ (NIV). A lot has been written on these verses and there is much we could discuss in them. I would share a few thoughts and explore what they might mean for us as a community of faith in our context.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to these four elements. As we read through Acts, we see that this community of faith was doing lots of things, but it made these four its priority. Like a pass the parcel has multiple layers, so does our life together as church. We have buildings, an organizational structure with committees and rosters, things to guide us in ministry such as our Discipling Plan and Growing Young, and different forms of worship. These are all good and helpful, like the prizes in the outer layers of a pass the parcel, but they are not the main thing. The main thing to which the early Christians devoted themselves was what lay under these layers: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

There are a few ways in which we can understand the apostles’ teaching. We can think of it as doctrine and what the church teaches about the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who they are, the way they are at work in our lives, and how that is good news for us. For example, the Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the apostles’ teaching from which we can always learn a lot. However, we can also understand the ‘apostles’ teaching’ as discipling us to live in faith and love as God’s people. In Matthew 28:20 Jesus commissioned his eleven remaining disciples to teach his followers to obey all that he had commanded them. If we read this through Jesus’ New Command to love one another in the way he has loved us (John 13:34,35), then we can also understand the apostles’ teaching as learning to live in the way of love that Jesus taught.

The early Christians also devoted themselves to fellowship. The word used here is koinonia and means much more than a social gathering. This koinonia fellowship is a deep communal relationship where every person is cared for by others and who also cares for others. We get a picture of these mutually giving relationships in the following verses where people were willing to give to provide for each other’s needs, even if it meant selling property to support them. This kind of koinonia fellowship can show itself in lots of different ways, but it involves having such deep relationships with each other that we know about each other’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and we give what we have to meet those needs. This flows from the deep koinonia fellowship we have with God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The third element to which the Acts church devoted themselves was the breaking of bread. Biblical scholars interpret this phrase in different ways, such as communal meals or Holy Communion. A widely held view is that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the early church as part of a shared communal meal. Whatever our understanding of ‘the breaking of bread’ might be, it tells us that the communal meal is central to any community of faith. This is a real challenge for us while we cannot gather in worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. However, when we are able to meet together again in corporate worship, it will be vital for us to remember that what is at the heart of our existence as church is not what happens around the meal, such as the order or liturgy, songs or hymns, but the meal itself.

The fourth element to which the early Christian community devoted itself was prayer. As a community of faith, prayer will always be central. It sounds obvious writing that, but it can be good to be reminded. Sometimes I wonder if people think that prayer is the pastor’s job and not something they can do, or if people are afraid to pray because they might get it wrong in some way, or if we get just get too busy and forget to talk with our loving heavenly Father. We can find lots of excuses not to pray as a community of faith, but the one great reason to pray is that Jesus promised to hear and answer us! Have a look at John 14:13,14 and 15:16 and listen to what Jesus is saying. Talking with God in prayer, both individually and together as a community, will always be central to being church.

During this time of COVID-19 restrictions, we can still function to a large degree as the church. Even without our buildings, our forms of worship and other activities, we can still devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to supporting each other in koinonia fellowship, and to prayer. The day will come when we will be able to break bread together and share in the communal meal we have in communion with God and each other. Until then, I encourage you to keep peeling back the outer layers to get to the heart of what it means to be church.

Because what might our church be like if we looked past the outward appearances, and, with our brothers and sisters in Acts, devoted ourselves first and foremost to the apostles’ teaching, koinonia fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer?

More to think about & discuss:

  • When someone uses the word ‘church’ what do you think of: the building, organisation, worship, community? Or something else?
  • Spend some time discussing or reflecting on the way you understand the four key elements of church from Acts 2:42:
    • The apostles’ teaching
    • Fellowship
    • Breaking of bread
    • Prayer
  • What does each of these mean to you? How is your understanding similar or different from the way I’ve described them? What are some other ways people might interpret each of these?
  • When we are able to gather again as a congregation after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, how might our community of faith look if we dedicated ourselves to these four elements of church? What might be the same? How might our congregation be different?

A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

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There is a park across the street behind our church property with a playground in it. As our children have grown up over the years, we have spent a lot of time at that playground. It has been amazing to watch our children move from the playground’s simpler elements to attempting the more difficult parts until they were able to confidently play on all of the equipment.

Every time our children would attempt a new part of the playground we could see that it was a kind of trial for them. They weren’t sure about whether or not they could get through the obstacle to the other side. So my wife and I would walk with them through it. As adults, we are too large for the play equipment so we would stand outside it with our hands reaching inside, either holding our children’s hands to keep them steady or with our hands in a position to catch them if they lost their balance or fell. Trusting that their parents were with them and ready to catch them gave our children the confidence they needed to put one foot in front of the other and work their way through the obstacles to arrive at the destination they were hoping to reach.

We all face trials in our lives. From one perspective, some might seem less threatening or easier to find our way through, but when we are confronted with these trials, like our children on the play equipment, they can all appear daunting, threatening or scary. These trials might be caused by the restrictions in place because of COVID-19. They might be ongoing concerns like problems with our physical or mental health, relationship breakdowns, addictions, loneliness, or whole range of other things. Whatever the trials might be that we’re facing, when they are in front of us or we are in the middle of them, they can cause a lot of fear, anxiety or dread as we wonder how we will ever get through them. In my experience, just about everyone faces a trial of one kind or another at some time in our lives. For each of us, these trials are real. For each of us, like my children on the playground, these trials or obstacles in life can be scary!

It’s our natural tendency to either think we have to get through these trials on our own, or to keep telling ourselves that we can overcome them. However, that isn’t always true. I have seen people get overwhelmed by particular trials in life because they took them on by themselves and then found that they were too big or too difficult for them. It is sort of like one of my children trying to get through a part of the playground on their own, and then realizing half-way through that they can’t do it. That is when we can realize that we need help. Hopefully that is also when we start looking for help.

When Peter wrote to Christians who were suffering serious trials for their faith in 1 Peter 1:3-9, he encouraged them that they didn’t have to try to get through on their own. A big part of having faith as Christians is trusting that whatever trials we might be facing or going through, Jesus can and will help us. As the Son of God who entered the world as a flesh and blood person, Jesus knows the trials and challenges we face in life because he has been there before us. In his suffering and death, Jesus went through more than I can ever imagine, even experiencing total abandonment by his heavenly Father. However, Jesus continued to trust his Father’s promises to get him through and the Father kept his promise to his Son by raising him to new life on the morning of the resurrection. What that means is that now our crucified, risen and ascended Jesus stands outside our trials, sort of like my wife and I stand outside the play equipment, but is still able to reach in to hold us as we go through our trials.

The faith the Holy Spirit gives us is that Jesus is with us in our trials, but he also stands outside our trials, so he can hold us in his nail-scarred hands, keep us safe, and carry us through our trials until we can stand securely again. In 1 Peter 1:7 we read that our faith is being tested and purified through our trials as we learn to rely on Jesus, to trust in him, and as God grows us in the confidence that Jesus is with us and he will get us through our trials in his resurrection power.

This faith gives us hope. No matter what trials we may be facing or enduring, we can find hope in the faith that Jesus has endured his own trials in his suffering and death, and that he came through them in his resurrection. In the same way, we can live in the hope that he can and will do the same for us. Peter describes this as a ‘living hope’ (v3 NIV) because the one in whom we hope is alive! This hope gives us life! We can hope in Jesus because he endured his own trials in his suffering and death. We can hope in Jesus because he is risen from the grave and holds us in his nail-scarred hands. Because Jesus is alive, his Spirit will keep this hope alive in us so we can find life in the middle of our trials through faith in his resurrection for us.

Whatever trials we might be facing or going through, we don’t have to do it alone or in our own strength. My children wanted to show that they could do each part of the playground on our own because we like to think we can do anything. That’s part of our human nature. All the while, though, my wife and I would be ready with arms outstretched and hands wide open, ready to catch them if they fell or steady them if they lost their balance. All we asked was that they trusted us.

I think God wants the same. We don’t have to do life on our own. As we trust in Jesus, who stands outside our trials and reaches in to hold us in his nail-scarred hands, we will find everything we need to put one foot in front of the other, take one day at a time, until Jesus brings us through our trials to safety. This faith gives us a living hope, as we trust in our risen Saviour and hope in him who was dead but is now alive again. This faith will give us hope that makes us really alive!

More to think about:

  • What trials are you facing in your life right now?
  • When you face trials of any sort, do you tend to want to get through them on your own? Or do you look for help? Why do you think you do that?
  • Do you think of faith more as agreeing with the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection or trusting in the crucified and risen Jesus to get you through your trials? How might each of these look in a person’s life who is going through trials?
  • How important do you think it is to have a ‘living hope’ right now? How do you think faith in Jesus might be able to give you that ‘living hope’?
  • God gives us hope when we exercise basic spiritual disciplines like listening to his Word and praying to him. If you don’t already, how might you start doing those this week?
  • Do you look to Jesus for help as your last resort or first option? What difference might it make to your life if you went to Jesus as your first option?

Generous Giving (2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

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I imagine that life would have been risky for farmers in ancient times. Each year they would have harvested a certain amount of grain. Then they would have had to decide how much of the grain they were going to use during the year and how much they were going to sow for the following year’s crop. If they kept a lot to use for the coming twelves months, and planted only a little of it, they might not have a crop large enough to provide for their needs in the following year. However, if they re-planted too much of it, they might not have enough to get them through the year.

Sowing the seed the farmers had harvested was an act of faith. They had to trust God to do two things. Firstly, that God had provided them with enough grain to get them through the year to the next harvest. Secondly, that God would provide a harvest that was large enough to provide them with what they needed for the following year and into the future.

When Paul said to the Christians in Corinth that ‘a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop’ (2 Corinthians 9:6 NLT) he was describing what a life of faith in Christ is like. Every day of our lives, God provides many of us with so much that is good – in fact more than we need. It is good, then, that once a year we set aside a Sunday, traditionally known as Harvest Thanksgiving, to focus on the good that God gives us and to thank God for his goodness to us in all its forms.

As we give thanks to God for his goodness to us, Paul’s words challenge us to consider what we do with the good God gives us. God provides us with more than we need. Paul explains that God does this so that we can share with others who are in need. He writes, ‘you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous’ (v11a NLT). God doesn’t bless us with his goodness so we can be self-indulgent with it. God gives us good things so we can share the good he has given us with others who need what we have been given.

In 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 Paul is talking specifically about money. He is raising funds from the churches in Greece to bring back to the Jerusalem Christians who were in need (see v12). However, he is also talking about God’s grace in all of its forms. We can see that in verses 14 where Paul uses the Greek word for grace (charis). This is the grace God gives to us in Jesus so our sins are forgiven, we are united with Christ through faith by the Holy Spirit and we receive the gift of new life. God gives us every other good thing in our lives because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us. God doesn’t give us good because we somehow deserve it. Instead, he gives us his goodness because he favours us because of what Jesus has done for us and because he lives in us.

The main question this passage challenges us to think about is what are we doing with God’s good gifts to us? We can thank God for his gifts to us, but what happens then? Do we just take our things home and keep them safely locked away? Or do we listen to what Paul is saying and trust God by sowing what he has given to us into the lives of other people?

We need to hear what Paul says in verse 6: that if we only plant a little of what God has given us into the lives of others, then we are only going to see a little result. We can follow that through to the point where if we are sowing nothing of what God has given to us, then we are going to see nothing happen. However, God’s promise to us through Paul is that if we trust God enough to sow generously into the lives of others, then we will see a generous or plentiful result.

We need to remember this when we talk about the ministries of our congregation and the hopes we have for the future of our church. These don’t just happen by themselves. Instead, ministry only happens when people are willing to give of themselves to see those ministries grow and flourish. Our hopes won’t miraculously fall from the sky if we just sit back and wait for them. If we are sowing sparingly, we will only reap sparingly. However, if we are willing to sow our time and energy in relationships with each other, then we will see a generous harvest in our congregation.

This is critical in our ministry with young people. I think just about all of us would like to see more young people in our church. But are we willing to sow into the lives of our young people for that to happen? Maybe one of the reasons we don’t have the young people in our church that we once did is because of what we sowed into their lives. If we are sowing little to nothing into their lives, then we will see little to no result. One way we can understand the Growing Young research is that young people remain connected to congregations that are willing to sow the goodness of God into their lives. This happens when we hand over leadership responsibilities, empathise with young people, take Jesus’ message seriously, fuel a warm, relationally rich community, make our young people a priority in our lives, and be the best neighbours. If we sow nothing of God’s goodness and grace into the lives of our young people, that is exactly what we will see happen – nothing. However, as we listen to Paul’s words, if we sow generously into the lives of our young people by giving them our time, our energy, our listening ears and our supportive, caring relationships, then in time we will see a generous harvest.

Each year, ancient farmers faced a decision – how much would they use for themselves and how much would they sow for next year’s crop? Paul didn’t tell his readers how much he wanted them to give because it was up to each of them to decide, depending on their circumstances. I’m not going to tell our congregation how much they need to give to the ministries of this congregation or to our young people either. Instead, like Paul, I want us to remember that if we sow little to nothing of God’s goodness into the lives of the people around us, that’s exactly what we will see in the future. However, in the faith that God gives us every good thing we need, and he gives us more than we need, we can show our thanks to God for his goodness to us by sowing his goodness and grace, love and hope generously into the lives of the people around us. That’s when we will see a generous harvest in our church.

What will you sow into the lives of the people around you?

Standing Firm (Luke 21:5-19)

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A few months ago I read an article online about an Australian doomsday prepper. A doomsday prepper is a person who believes that a catastrophic event of some kind is coming soon and is preparing what they need in order to survive it. Usually being a doomsday prepper involves buying a property in a remote area far away from a major city, constructing a bunker or another kind of retreat to live in, stockpiling food, water and other supplies necessary for survival, and keeping a few weapons handy, just in case.

When we read the news headlines, sometimes I wonder if doomsday preppers have a point. There are armed conflicts on most continents. There are protests and other forms of serious political unrest going on in various cities around the world. The effects of climate change appear to be causing flooding, droughts and destructive storms across the globe. In this past week New South Wales endured some unprecedented bushfires, and the fires in Queensland look like they could continue out of control for some time yet.

I can understand how a doomsday prepper could look at these and other events around the world, and conclude that something big is coming which we need to prepare for.
Doomsday preppers are nothing new. Over the last two millennia of Christian history, there have been people who have looked at events around them and come to the conclusion that the world as they knew it was about to end. Often, they have used the words of Jesus to back up their fears. For example, in this Sunday’s reading from Luke 21:5-19 we hear Jesus say,

‘Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and there will be famines and plagues in many lands, and there will be terrifying things and great miraculous signs from heaven.’ (vv10,11 NLT)

On a global scale, we could easily think that Jesus was talking about our own times with what we’re reading about in the news. Then Jesus brings things a little closer to home when he says,

‘But before all this occurs, there will be a time of great persecution. You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers.’ (v12 NLT)

If anyone says that following Jesus means having fun, they haven’t read him very closely. Here and in other places Jesus warns us that being his disciple will mean suffering persecution. This won’t just come from wider society, but from even our closest relationships. Jesus continues,

‘Even those closest to you – your parents, brothers, relatives, and friends – will betray you. They will even kill some of you. And everyone will hate you because you are my followers.’ (vv16,17 NLT)

So far this isn’t sounding like good news for Christians. From what Jesus is saying, it sounds like a time was coming when there will be catastrophic destruction, and his followers will suffer persecution and rejection from even those who were closest to them. From an historical perspective, Jesus’ words were fulfilled when the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70, and when Christians were persecuted by various Roman emperors in the first century. However, many also interpret Jesus words as referring to what will happen in the days leading up to his return at the end of time. This interpretation has led groups of Christians to behave like doomsday preppers over the centuries, as they abandoned their homes and families, went to isolated places, and waited for Jesus to return.

What’s significant about Jesus’ words, however, is that he never wanted his followers abandon the world. Instead, Jesus wants us to remain in the world, even if it is difficult or challenging. He says that when we are persecuted and stand trial in front of secular leaders, we will have the opportunity to tell them about him (v13). When we see the signs of Jesus’ return and are questioned by people who don’t know Jesus, God is giving us the opportunity to tell them about Jesus and the goodness of God we encounter in him. It is really important that we don’t see the end of the world as a threat to be afraid of, but an opportunity to witness to God’s love and grace for us to embrace.

Jesus also tells us not to worry about what we are going to say and how we will answer the accusations people will make against us because he will give us the words to say (vv14,15). There is always value in learning more about how to share our faith or to defend what we believe. However, when we are so immersed in our faith and so grounded in the good news of Jesus that it becomes part of who we are, when people ask us about him we can answer from a deep, personal encounter with and reliance on his message. This is more than having the right arguments about Christian teachings or doctrines. The words that Jesus will give us will come from the Holy Spirit through a deep, committed relationship with him and our own personal experiences of living as his disciples.

When we are living in the reality of the grace God gives us, we will be able to stand firm and receive the life he has promised. The words the New Living Translation interpret as ‘standing firm’ can also mean ‘patient endurance.’ As we wait for Jesus, not knowing exactly when he will return (see Mark 13:32, Luke 12:40), Jesus wants us to persevere in the hope that when he comes again he will fulfil all of his promises to us. The events Jesus describes in this passage will make it hard for us to remain faithful to him. However, when we are standing firm in the faith we have, that God is with us in all the circumstances and events of life, no matter how bad they might be, and that Jesus will come again to make everything wrong in the world right again, we will receive the perfect and eternal life that he promises us.

We can think of doomsday preppers as living their lives in fear of what might be coming. As God’s people, we don’t need to live in fear! Instead, as we wait for Jesus’ return, we can interpret what we see around us as opportunities to point people to the life-giving grace of God that we meet in Jesus, and to share the hope we have with others. As we live as people who look forward to Jesus’ return, standing firm means trusting that Jesus has taken the world’s brokenness on himself, he is making all things new in his resurrection, and he will bring a life that will never end to all who trust in him.

Be Still (Psalm 46)

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Adelaide has started experiencing some warmer weather in the last couple of weeks, reminding us that summer is just around the corner. When the temperatures start to rise, a lot of Australians head to the beach to cool off. While we’re enjoying the surf, we also need to remember what to do if we find ourselves in trouble. If something happens that we can’t swim back to the beach, we’re taught to raise our arm to signal for help and call out to the surf lifesavers or someone else on the beach. When that person comes out to help us, the best thing we can do is to do nothing. When someone swims out to save us, we need to relax, be still and let the rescuer carry us to safety.

Doing nothing requires a lot of faith. Our natural instinct is to do anything we can to keep our heads above water. Especially if we are panicked or terrified of drowning, we want to do whatever it takes to save ourselves. To stop what we’re doing and rely on another person means we need to trust that they can and will get us to safety. Being still in another person’s saving arms is only possible when we believe that they can save us and we trust that they are able to rescue us.

This natural tendency to want to do something to get ourselves out of difficult situations can be seen in almost every aspect of our lives. When troubles of any sort come our way, or when difficulties or struggles occur, we usually look for something we can do to fix things or make them right again. It’s like getting into trouble while swimming at the beach – our natural instinct is to want to keep our heads above water and sort things out for ourselves.

The person who wrote Psalm 46 knew what it was like to experience ‘times of trouble’ (v1 NLT). His world must have been collapsing around him as he describes earthquakes, mountains crumbling into the sea, oceans roaring and foaming, and mountains trembling as the waters surged (vv2,3). Whether we interpret these events literally or figuratively, they represent the chaos which this person was experiencing in his life. From where he stood, it looked like his world was falling apart!

However, in the middle of this chaos and confusion, the writer of Psalm 46 was not afraid. He trusted in God as his refuge and strength, a fortress into whom he could retreat and find security and safety. His relationship with God gave him the stability and shelter he needed to live in peace and hope. Like a lifesaver who swims out to a person in trouble at the beach, the writer of Psalm 46 looked to God to keep his head above the waves, hold him in his arms and bring him back to safety. He trusted that God would use the power he has to end wars, break bows, snap spears and burn shields (v9 NLT) to protect and care for him in the middle of his troubles.

All God asked of him was to be still (v10). In the same way that the best thing we can do to help a lifesaver get us back to the beach is relax, be still and do nothing, when God speaks in Psalm 46 he tells us to be still and trust him. The good news of Psalm 46 is that when we are experiencing times of trouble, when our world is falling apart, when our natural instinct is to either save ourselves or try to fix things, God asks us to be still and trust that he will take care of it. This isn’t easy for us because we feel like we need to do something, but this is one way we can understand grace: God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He just asks us to trust him. This ‘being still’ involves letting go of things that are out of our control, relaxing when troubles cause us stress or anxiety, and trusting that God can and will bring us through our troubles to a better place.

God does this for us in the person of Jesus. To use the lifesaver analogy, when Jesus was born as a human baby, he dove into the surf of human existence. Throughout his life, and especially in his suffering and death, Jesus joined us in the troubles, worries and pain of life in this world. Jesus’ life and death was him swimming out to meet us and wrapping his arms around us, no matter what we might be going through. Jesus’ resurrection is the way he carries us back to the safety of the beach. His triumph over sin, death and the power of evil carries us through the difficulties and traumas of this world to the safe and secure place of God’s presence in a new relationship with him. That is why Psalm 46 repeats the declaration that ‘The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress’ (vv7,11). God swims out, meets us and carries us in his arms to safety through Jesus because he has already won the victory over the waves and storms of life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now he asks us to relax, let go, be still and trust that he will carry us to safety.

There are times in life when faith calls us to be active, especially in our love for each other. Psalm 46 teaches us, though, that there are also times in life when faith means doing nothing and trusting that God will work things out for us. There have been times in my life when I’ve experienced troubles that my natural reaction was to try to fix things or try to make them better. My efforts only resulted in making things worse. When I listened to the word of God telling me to ‘be still’ I relaxed, let go and trusted God to work things out. That was when things started to improve as God displayed his grace by doing what I couldn’t.

What is happening in your life right now? What troubles are you facing? If life is good, please remember to thank God for his blessings to you. However, if you are going through times of trouble, if there are things which are causing you stress, worry or anxiety, is it possible that God is asking you to relax, let go, be still and trust him? The promise of Psalm 46 is that through Jesus, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is there with you and the God of Israel is your fortress. So you don’t need to be afraid. God is always ready to help in times of trouble.

Be still, and know that he is God.

Persistent in Prayer (Luke 18:1-8)

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When I was serving as a pastor in Lutheran schools, there were times when I would be teaching a class and students would ask me for things such as going to their locker, getting a drink, sitting with their friend, and so on. If my answer was ‘no’ it usually wouldn’t take long before they would come and ask me again. If my reply was still ‘no’ they would come back to me again and again in the hope that I would give them what they were asking for. I wondered sometimes whether my answer of ‘no’ was interpreted as ‘not now, but if you come back enough times you’ll get what you’re asking for.’

These experiences in the classroom, and more recently as a parent, helps me to understand the perspective of the judge in Jesus’ story. The widow kept coming back to him, asking him for the same thing, until she got what she wanted. The big difference between the widow and the students in my classes was that their requests were usually for things to make their life easier or more convenient. The widow in the story, however, was asking for justice.

We don’t know exactly what the ‘justice’ was that the widow was asking for from the judge. What that does, though, is give us room to read the injustices that we experience into Jesus’ story to help make it our story. In some way, though, the widow had been wronged. Something had happened to her or been done to her which was unjust and not right. She was looking for someone to make the wrong she had experienced in her life right again. Her desire for justice was a hope that someone with more authority than she had would do for her what she couldn’t do for herself and make right the wrongs that had been done to her.

There are times in our lives when we can probably identify what she was going through. We all witness or experience wrongs of one kind or another. This is because the world is not the way God intended it to be. When we read the creation story from Genesis 1, at the end of each day (however you want to interpret that period of time) God saw that what he had created was good. When we look at the world now, though, it seems a long way from that goodness. We can see conflicts and natural disasters happening all over the world. Closer to home, our nation is suffering from social, cultural and environmental wrongs. Our relationships can go wrong for a range of reasons, either what we have done or has been done to us. Even within ourselves, there are things that are wrong that might not be our fault, but still take life from us and from others. Wherever we look, we can see that there is something wrong with the world in which we live.

This wasn’t how God intended life to be, so in Jesus he did what was needed to set the wrong things right again. This is one way we can understand the biblical role of a judge. When we read the Book of Judges from the Old Testament, we can see that they were not people who sentenced offenders in a court of law. Instead, the Old Testament judges were people God raised up to right the wrongs that were being done to God’s people. This flows from an understanding of God as judge, who makes the wrong things in the world right again through his justice, grace and love.

Ultimately, God establishes his reign of justice in the world through Jesus. When he was born, he entered this world-gone-wrong and took its wrongs on himself. Jesus embraced everything that is wrong with us, our relationships and our world on himself, and takes it to the cross where he puts it all to death. This is one way of understanding the idea that Jesus takes away the sin of the world – he overcomes all that is wrong with this existence in his crucifixion, even death itself.

Jesus then restores us and all creation to its original state of being good and right in his resurrection. When Jesus was raised to new life, he triumphed over the wrongs of the world and set things right again so that we can live in right relationships with God, ourselves, other people and all of creation. This is what is called ‘the righteousness of God’ – his gift to us of making everything that is wrong in us right again through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can also call this God’s justice as Jesus removes the wrongs that infect us and all creation and fills us with God’s goodness.

As long as we live in this world we will still encounter its wrongs in one way or another. That is why Jesus encourages his followers to ‘pray and never give up’ (v1). The widow in his story kept asking the unjust judge for justice because she believed that he could make the wrongs in her life right again. Jesus is encouraging us to believe that God is good and just, that he can and will bring about justice for us as well. Jesus is contrasting the character of the unjust judge with our just God and saying that if the judge in the story ended up providing justice for the widow, how much more will God bring justice for us when we look to him for it?

Where do you see or experience the injustice of this world? In what ways are the wrongs of this world robbing you of the life God has for you in Jesus? God can and will bring justice to the world and to our lives. In Jesus, God embraces all that is wrong with us and our world and makes us right again through his grace.

When we believe that, when we trust that good news, then asking God to set the wrong things right again will be a natural thing for us to do. Things are what they are, but they don’t have to continue to be that way. In Jesus, God makes all things new and sets things right again. This faith gives us good reason to always pray for God’s justice to reign in us and never give up.