Planted by the Waters (Psalm 1)

psalm 1 desert 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

Old fashioned vintage book on wooden background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Changed Heart (Acts 9:1-20)

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Do you believe that people can change?

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

So what do you think – can people really change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus changed Saul. He can change us, too.

More to think about:

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

‘Believe and Live!’ (John 20:19-31)

John 20v31 life 02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

Taming our Words (James 3:1-12)

James 3v5 taming the tongue 01

Have you ever tried putting toothpaste back into a tube?

There have been a couple of times when we’ve been teaching our children to brush their teeth when they have squeezed the toothpaste tube too hard and it has gone all over the bathroom sink. What a mess! Because we want to teach our children not to waste, we then tried to put the toothpaste back into the tube. It didn’t work. No matter what we did, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, nothing can put it back in.

This is a well-known illustration about how we can’t take words back once we say them. Probably all of us have said things in our lives that we have regretted and wished we could take back. But we can’t. No matter how hard we try, when we say damaging or hurtful things, or when we talk about people behind their backs and they hear about it, there is nothing we can do to put those words back in the tube.

God knew the importance of the words we say when he gave us the 8th Commandment: ‘You must not testify falsely against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16 NLT). Martin Luther explained this commandment means that

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray them, slander them, or hurt their reputations, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way. (Small Catechism, alt.)

Basically, the way Luther interpreted this commandment was the same as what my Mum used to tell me as a child: if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.

It sounds good in theory, but have you ever seriously tried to do this? How do we go when we endeavour to only say positive, constructive, life-giving words to and about each other? This is where James 3:1-12 becomes really important for us to hear. It seems like James wasn’t very hopeful about people’s ability to speak well of each other. Especially in verse 8 where James wrote, ‘no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison’ (NLT), he appears to have a very pessimistic view of our ability to be able to keep our tongues in check, and for the words that come out of our mouths to be constructive and life-giving.

On the one hand, we need to listen to James and recognize the dangers that come with speaking to or about other people. Once our words come out, we can’t put them back in. To use James’s image, once our words light a fire, it can burn the whole forest down before we know it. It can easily happen in the church where a thoughtless or even well-intentioned comment about someone can spread like wildfire. Before you know it, relationships are damaged and a congregation can be split. We need to be careful about what we say to and about people, and that we are explaining our neighbours’ actions in the kindest possible way.

Secondly, we also need to realize that this doesn’t always come naturally. James’s words remind us that it is too easy for us to use words to and about each other in destructive ways. At some stage we will all say things that we wish we could take back or put back into the tube. When this happens, we need to be showing grace to each other and forgiving each other as God has forgiven us through Jesus (see Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13), no matter how difficult it might be to do that.

Something inside us needs to change if we are to be continually speaking well to and of each other. Jesus taught that the things we say actually come from the heart when he said, ‘What you say flows from what is in your heart’ (Luke 6:45 NLT; see also Mathew 12: 34,35; 15:18). Our problem is not just the words we say, but it’s a heart problem. When our hearts are wrong, our words will be hurtful and destructive. However, when our hearts are full of the life and goodness of Jesus, then our words will also be good and bring life to others.

If our words are to be constructive and life-giving, what we really need are hearts that have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t do this ourselves. We need God to do it for us as an act of grace. That is why King David’s prayer from Psalm 51:10, asking God to create clean hearts in us, becomes such an important prayer for all of God’s people. When God’s Holy Spirit cleans our hearts out, removing everything that is hurtful, deceitful and destructive, then our words will stop being hurtful, deceitful and destructive. When God gives us hearts that are good, true and full of the life of Christ, then our words will also be good, true and life-giving.

God gives us the Holy Spirit through his word. God speaks two kinds of words to us: words of law which show us that we are a long way from the people he wants us to be, like he does here in James 3, but also words of grace which speak the love, mercy and life of Christ to us. When God speaks the good news to us, God promises us new hearts which beat with the life of Christ and are in synch with his compassion, mercy and love. When we hear words of forgiveness and new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Holy Spirit works on our heart to make them new. From these, new hearts come the words of forgiveness, love and life that we are able to speak into the lives of others. As James says, we might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new hearts by the power of his Spirit for the sake of Jesus, then good and live-giving words will flow from our hearts into the lives of others.

I haven’t been able to get the excess toothpaste back into the tube yet, so I hope what comes out will be good for those who will be cleaning their teeth with it. In the same way, my hope and prayer is that the words which come out of our mouths, the things we say to and about each other, will be constructive and life-giving as we defend each other, speak well of each other, and explain each other’s actions in the kindest possible ways.

We might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new and good hearts through Jesus by the power of his Holy Spirit, then the words which come out of us will be good as well.

Doing the Word (James 1:17-27)

James 1v22 02

We all know how important it is to follow the directions when we need to take medication. If we are sick, it doesn’t help us to go to a doctor, get a prescription, listen to how we are to take it, but then put it on the shelf and forget about it. If we are going to get better, we need to trust that the medicine will do what the doctor promises, follow the directions and take our medication.

When it comes to medicine, it makes sense to both listen and do. It is the same for us as followers of Jesus. One of my greatest concerns as a pastor is that it can be easy for us to turn up to worship, hear a message, thank the pastor for the message at the door, but nothing changes after that. I have actually had a couple of people tell me over my years of ministry that they don’t want to think too much or be challenged in their faith. All they want is to come to church and hear a nice sermon.

Seriously.

That’s why James’ words about not just listening to God’s word but doing what it says are so important for us. We all carry an illness called sin. While it may not be popular to talk about sin in our contemporary Western culture, the reality I see is that we’re all suffering from the effects of sin in our lives in one way or another. We all suffer from broken relationships, illness, death and other maladies which come from carrying sin in us like an infection that we can’t get rid of.

Like a medication prescribed to give us health and life, God’s word is the remedy for sin. Every story in the Bible, from the creation of the world in Genesis 1, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, to the fulfilment of God’s salvation in Revelation, points us to a God who brings light and life to the world and everything in it through his word. The centre of these stories, the person of Jesus, makes new life possible by carrying all our sin in himself to the cross, putting it to death once and for all, and giving us the gift of new life through his resurrection. The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is God’s way of giving us healing, wholeness and life in a similar way that medication gives us healing, wholeness and life when we face a specific illness. That’s why James writes that God’s word has the power to save us (v20 NIV). God’s word isn’t just information about God. It is the power of God to heal us from sin and give us life that is stronger than death (see Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

If God’s medication for our condition is the good news of Jesus, then his directions for taking that medication is faith. One of the mistakes we can make is to think that God’s word is a long set of moral rules and ethical commands, and that doing what the word says means keeping all these rules. Instead, the directions Jesus gives us is to trust the good news of his sin-conquering, life-giving love. I tend to interpret the words of the Bible through what Jesus says in John 6:29. Some people had come to Jesus to ask him what the works were that God wanted them to do. Jesus replied, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (NIV). If the good news of Jesus is the medication, his directions are to trust him. That’s it. The rest of the Bible tells us what this faith looks like, and how it can make a difference in our lives and the lives of the people around us.

If we listen to James’ words about being both hearers and doers of God’s word from this perspective, we can understand them saying that it is vital that we not only hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, but that we live like it’s true. When we find God’s love in the gospel, then ‘doing the word’ means loving others, even when it’s hard or we don’t think they deserve it. When we encounter God’s grace, ‘doing the word’ means being grace-filled in our relationships with others. When we experience God’s mercy, forgiveness and peace in the gospel, ‘doing the word’ means being merciful, forgiving and peace-making towards everyone we meet. Following Jesus isn’t just about finding his goodness for ourselves. Being ‘doers of his word’ means extending the goodness of God we find in Jesus towards everyone in our lives through all we do and say.

This week, I want to challenge you to be hearers as well as doers of God’s word in your lives. If you’re not a regular reader of the Bible, doing God’s word might start with making time each day to listen to the good news God wants to speak into your life. It really doesn’t matter how we’re reading our Bibles. What’s important is that we’re listening for God’s promises of grace, love, forgiveness and new life in his word for ourselves. If you need help doing that or not sure where to start, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Being a doer of God’s word might also mean praying regularly. Last week we heard Paul write, ‘pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere’ (Ephesians 6:18 NLT), so prayer is an important part of doing the word. We can also ‘do the word’ by being ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry’ (v19 NLT). You might want to practice this during the week by listening more than talking in your conversations with others. Try it and see what a difference it can make. Or, if you’re looking for a more serious challenge, listen to what Jesus says about telling the difference between our human traditions in the church and God’s commands (Mark 7:5-8), and imagine how prioritizing what God wants over what you want for your church might look.

In whatever ways we endeavour to be doers as well as listeners of God’s word, what is essential is that they are acts of faith in God’s life-giving love for us in Jesus, not attempts to try to get his love. That love is already yours, for Jesus’ sake.

The medication, God’s remedy for sin, is already ours as an act of grace from the God who loves us. We wouldn’t receive medicine from a doctor and leave it on the shelf. We’d follow the directions so that it can make us healthy and whole again. In the same way, we can’t just listen to the word of God that gives life and then do nothing with it. That doesn’t help anyone. By being doers of the word, listening to God’s promises and living like they are true, extending his grace and love to others by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we can find healing, wholeness and a life that is stronger than death.

God’s Powerful Word (Genesis 1:1-5)

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Many Christians have spent a lot of time arguing over the meaning of the creation story in Genesis 1. Some believe that God created the world in seven 24-hour days. Others understand the story more as ancient people trying to describe something God did over millions of years. As we hear the opening words from Genesis 1 as the Old Testament reading for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, I’m not really interested in arguing in favour of one interpretation or the other. Instead, Genesis 1 can teach us a lot about God and the way he is at work in our world, no matter how we may interpret it.

One of the most important things we can learn about God from Genesis 1 is that when God speaks, things happen. God’s word is so powerful that it has the ability to do exactly what it says. When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ that was exactly what happened – light came into existence and to give warmth to a dark and cold universe. As each day unfolded, God’s word continued to work its dynamic power, speaking the sky, dry land, trees and plants, and all living things into existence. The pattern is the same throughout the story: God speaks and whatever he says comes into being. This is because when the Holy Spirit is at work through the dynamic word of God, things happen.

We also see this in the ministry of Jesus. The Apostle John reflected the words of Genesis 1 in the opening chapter of his gospel when he wrote,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NIV)

In these words, John points to Jesus as the Word which God spoke at the beginning of time to bring everything into existence. This Word had now entered into creation in the form of a living, breathing person. As the Word-made-flesh, Jesus is the walking, talking Word of God who entered into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit to restore the original goodness of creation.

We can see this dynamic power of God’s word in Jesus as he spoke a new reality into existence through his earthly ministry. For example, at the start of Mark chapter 2, Jesus told a man who could not walk that his sins were forgiven. This was considered blasphemy by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day because they believed that only God could forgive sins. To show them that God had given him the authority to forgive sins, Jesus told the man to stand up, pick up his mat, and go home. To everyone’s amazement, that is exactly what happened! What Jesus said came into existence through God’s powerful word.

In this and every other miracle during Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see Holy Spirit at work through God’s powerful word. When Jesus told blind people to open their eyes, they were able to see. When he told lepers to show themselves to the priests, they are made clean. When he told the dead to come out of their tombs, they were raised to new life. And when Jesus told sinners that they were forgiven, the Holy Spirit worked through the powerful word of God to free them from their guilt, and make them righteous and good.

This dynamic word of God through which the Holy Spirit works is still with us today. It is so important for us to be listening to God through his word in the Bible because that is the main way the Holy Spirit operates in our lives. Just like the Holy Spirit worked through God’s word at the beginning of time to bring creation into existence, and just like the Holy Spirit worked through the words of Jesus to heal the sick, raise the dead and forgive sinners, so the Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives through God’s word. When we read the Bible and hear God’s promises to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in us to bring into existence exactly what we read. When the Word of God promises us we are the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27, that is who the Spirit makes us. When the Word of God promises us that we are a holy nation and a kingdom of priests in 1 Peter 2:9, that is who the Holy Spirit is making us. When the Word of God promises us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that we are a new creation in Christ, that the old has gone and the new is here, the Spirit of God is continuing the work of creation by doing exactly what it says – making us new creations in Christ Jesus.

This Word of God is not just a written word that we read. It is also a word that we speak to each other and hear from each other. We do this each and every week when our pastor says to us that we are forgiven in Jesus’ name. Through the authority of Jesus which he has given to his church, when our pastor speaks God’s forgiveness, grace and love to us, that is exactly what God works in us – his forgiveness, grace and love.

This is not just something God gives to pastors. As members of God’s nation of royal priests, we are all able to speak the dynamic Word of God to each other in the Holy Spirit’s power. When we speak words of peace to each other, the same Spirit of God that was at work at the beginning of creation works through our words to create peace in the hearts and minds of those who receive our words. When we speak words of grace to each other, the Holy Spirit uses our words to extend God’s grace through us to the people we are speaking to. When we speak words of forgiveness to each other, the Spirit of God frees people from the wrongs they have done and gives them new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way that God brought everything into existence at the start of creation through his powerful word, when we speak God’s grace, love and blessing to others, God’s powerful word is at work through us and in us to create light, beauty and life in other people.

There are times when it can seem like words are empty and without meaning. When we read the story of creation in Genesis 1, however, we see that God’s word is powerful enough to do exactly what it says. God’s powerful word is still at work bringing light to dark places, giving warmth to cold hearts, and life where there is nothing at all. As we read God’s word, hearing his promises of grace and love, and when we speak God’s words of forgiveness and new life to each other, the Holy Spirit is still working in us and through us to do exactly what God says.