Everything You Need (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

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It can be exciting to open a new Lego set. Whatever we might be building, when we open the box there are bags of little plastic pieces in lots of different shapes, sizes and colours. Everything we need to build the model is there. Piece by piece, we can put them together so that a whole range of diverse pieces form something new. Lego is such a great toy because all of those separate blocks can combine to make something greater than if they remain separate.

Sometimes I think the church is like a Lego kit. I don’t mean the church as a building or institutional organisation, but as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world. Like Lego bricks, the beauty and the frustration of the family of God is that we’re all different. We all have our individual strengths, personalities, shortcomings and abilities. When the Holy Spirit unites us in faith and brings us together into the body of Christ, God assembles us with all our differences into something that’s greater than when we are separate individuals. Together, God forms us into his physical presence in the world.

Like a Lego set, everything we need to live as God’s presence in the world is already here. A couple of weeks ago I was talking with someone whose congregation is looking for a pastor. She was saying that she feels like her congregation is ready to move into the future. All they need is a pastor to lead them. Then I started thinking about what Paul wrote to God’s people in Corinth. He told them that they already had every spiritual gift they needed as they waited for Jesus to return (1 Corinthians 1:7). I wonder whether this is the same for us, too – that we already have everything we need as the Holy Spirit forms us into the body of Christ to be God’s presence in the world.

The first important thing to hear in Paul’s words is that he wasn’t speaking to an individual. When he wrote, ‘you have every spiritual gift you need,’ he wasn’t saying that each individual Christian has every spiritual gift. Instead, he was talking to the congregation as a whole. In the same way that one Lego brick can’t make a whole model, no one Christian possesses every spiritual gift. Instead, God gives various gifts to every Christian so that together we have every gift we need. When the Holy Spirit gathers us with all our different gifts into Christian community, we all have something good to contribute. Following Jesus is not an individual exercise. Like a Lego set, we need each other with all of our differences and diversity in order to fully be the church.

We also need to hear what Paul means when he writes about ‘spiritual gifts’. The word Paul uses, which is translated as ‘spiritual gifts’ in 1 Corinthians 1:7, is charisma. It is the same word Paul uses in Romans 6:23 when he writes, ‘the free gift (charisma) of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord’ (NLT). We can therefore understand God’s gift to us in a broader sense of the whole life of Christ. The first and most important gift of the Holy Spirit to us is Jesus’ resurrected life and everything that goes along that such as salvation, forgiveness, righteousness, love, joy peace, hope, and so much more, which we receive through faith.

Paul not only uses charisma in a broader sense, but he also uses is to talk about more specific gifts. For example, in Romans 12:6-8 Paul writes, ‘In his grace (charis), God has given us different gifts (charismata) for doing certain things well’ (NLT). He then goes on to highlight the gifts of prophecy, serving, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership and showing kindness. This isn’t an exhaustive list and it’s not meant to be prescriptive of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to God’s people. Instead, Paul is teaching us that the Holy Spirit gifts us in diverse ways so that we use these gifts to God’s glory and the good of those around us.

Peter says something similar when he writes, ‘God has given each of you a gift (charisma) from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another’ (1 Peter 4:10 NLT). The Holy Spirit gifts us in a variety of ways so that we can use those gifts to serve each other in faith and in love. As we use our gifts faithfully, the Holy Spirit builds up the body of Christ and strengthens us as we become God’s life-giving presence to each other and to the world.

Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 1:7 that the Holy Spirit has already gifted us with everything we need to live as the body of Christ in the world as we wait for his return. I don’t believe people who try to tell me that they don’t have a spiritual gift. The Holy Spirit has gifted each of us in one way or another. Whether it’s speaking in worship, playing an instrument in the music team, serving morning tea, cleaning the church, or a whole range of other things, God has gifted all of us in some way to serve each other. I don’t always think it’s necessary to do a course to discover our spiritual gifts because we will naturally be drawn towards serving in those ways that are in tune with the way the Holy Spirit has gifted us. What’s important is that we are aware of the needs in our communities of faith and how we are available to contribute.

As we start a new year of ministry in our church, it is encouraging to hear Paul tell us that the Holy Spirit has already given us every spiritual gift we need to faithfully serve our Lord and be part of his mission in the world. Like a Lego set, we already have everything we need. Maybe a question for us to think about is whether we’re happy being our individual little piece, or whether we would like to use what God has already gifted to us to serve, bless and build his people up in this community of faith.

How might you use God’s gift to you to contribute to your community of faith this year?

Our Brother Jesus (Hebrews 2:10-18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love All (Romans 1:1-7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give More (Matthew 11:2-11)

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It might seem strange to some that the week after we talked about Spending Less at Christmas, we look at the idea of Giving More. Maybe that’s because we often closely connect giving with spending money. What if we didn’t have to? What might Christmas be like if we explored the ways we can give more of ourselves to each other relationally, rather than giving things we don’t really need?

The authors of the Advent Conspiracy write about giving more of ourselves in our relationships with others because of their faith in the giving nature of God. When we encounter God in the person of Jesus, we meet the God who gives with no strings attached. The authors of the Advent Conspiracy show us how we can understand God gift to us in the person of Jesus in a few ways:

  • God gave us his presence
    Matthew’s gospel identifies Jesus as the one who fulfils the words of the prophet Isaiah that Jesus is Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:22,23). Jesus is God’s presence with us in all the circumstances of our lives.
  • The gift of Jesus was personal
    God knows what each and every one of us needs in our lives. We can talk about Jesus coming to give life to everyone in the world, but a saving faith trusts that he did it for each of us personally.
  • His gift was costly
    God held nothing back, but he gave up his Son, the most precious thing he has, out of love for us (John 3:16). In the same way, Jesus gave everything up for us and held nothing back by dying on the cross (1 John 4:10). The gift of life cost Jesus everything.
  • His gift bridged the gap
    When sin separated us from God, Jesus bridged the gap between us and brought us back into relationship with God. God did this by becoming one with us in Jesus who is fully God and fully human, and then Jesus removed everything that divides us by dying on the cross.

In Jesus’ birth we find a God who gives everything to us and for us. We can also see the giving nature of God in Jesus in the words of the gospel reading for last Sunday. In Matthew 11:2-11, John the Baptists sends some of his disciples to see if Jesus really is the Messiah they had been waiting for. Jesus replies by saying,

‘Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen – the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.’ (vv4,5 NLT)

In this reading we witness some of the gifts God gives to us through Jesus. He doesn’t just physically heal people, but also our heart, mind and soul. When we find it hard to see God’s goodness, Jesus helps us see God’s grace and love. He gives us the strength we need to walk in the way he teaches as we follow him in faith and love. Jesus makes us clean by taking everything about us that is unclean, forgiving us and restoring us to our relationships and community. When we were dead in sin, Jesus raises us to new life as children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. This is the Good News which he proclaims to us when our hearts, minds and souls are impoverished and empty.

When the authors of the Advent Conspiracy point us to the way God gives to us in Jesus, they ask us to consider giving to others in the same way: giving our presence in a personal way, even though it might cost us, to bridge the gaps that exist between us. The gifts they encourage us to give are more relational in nature. These are gifts that celebrate the relationships we have and keep them strong.

The Advent Conspiracy website has a lot of good ideas on how to give more in a relational way. As I thought about Giving More leading up to Advent, though, it became clear that the idea of Giving More doesn’t just apply to Christmas, but connects with other things that are happening around our church.

During our Annual Business Meeting a few weeks ago, I asked the people who attended to describe the church they hope to be in the future. As I read their responses, ideas like ‘inclusive’, ‘inter-generational’ and ‘community’ came up regularly. I started asking myself if this was the kind of community people were hoping to get for themselves, or were hoping to give to others. If we all hope to get a community that includes me or my generation, then it isn’t going to happen. To Give More means to be willing to give an inclusive, inter-generational community as a gift to others by being inclusive of all people, of all generations. The other idea that appeared regularly was being ‘Christ-centred.’ To be ‘Christ-centred’ essentially means loving each other in the way Christ loves us. To use the language of the Advent Conspiracy, that includes giving more of our presence to each other in a personal way, no matter what the cost, to bridge the gaps that exist between us.

We have an opportunity to do that next month. Between Christmas and the end of January, our congregation will be having one weekly worship service. The hope is to combine elements of both styles of worship, but from past experiences I suspect that some people’s immediate reaction will be to complain that they aren’t getting what they want. I hope that our congregation will Give More in worship after Christmas by giving up our personal preferences for music, liturgical style, and other things so we can worship with others in our congregation who like to worship in a different way. I’m asking the people of our church to prioritise people over our worship preferences. When we do that, we extend God’s grace to each other as we give more for the sake of Jesus.

To Give More means to embrace a life of grace. I tend to think that life is about one of two things: what we give or what we get. It is our natural orientation to want to get more than we give. However, when we encounter the gift of Jesus, born for us in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, we witness the giving nature of God who gifts us with his presence in a personal way, no matter what the cost, to bridge the gap that existed between us.

As we trust in God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus, God then asks us to go and give of ourselves to others in the same way.

How might we do that this Christmas, and in the coming year…?

Spend Less (Matthew 3:1-12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship Fully (Isaiah 2:1-5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Guest List (Luke 14:1,7-14)

Luke 14v12-14 banquet 05

If you were throwing a party or having a dinner to celebrate a special occasion, who would you invite?

I’m guessing that there are a few different ways we might decide on a guest list. We might think about people who have invited us to their homes or special events, or people with whom we have a close relationship, or people from whom we might hope to get a return invitation. But would you ever consider inviting people who could never invite you back?

It is natural for us to want to invite people for dinner or to a party that we like, are close to or might hope for a return invitation. The same was true in Jesus’ day. As Jesus sat at a dinner with a leader of the Pharisees on a Sabbath day in Luke 14:1-14, he watched people turn an opportunity for generosity and community into an exercise in social status. Some guests tried to sit in the most prestigious positions. It seems like they were using the dinner as an opportunity to make themselves look more important and climb the social ladder in their community. It might even be possible that the Pharisee, by inviting Jesus, was trying to make himself look good in others people’s eyes by inviting the Teacher into his home.

However, Jesus used this as an opportunity to show that the Kingdom of God doesn’t work in the same way we do. Whatever the Pharisee leader’s reasons were for inviting him, Jesus turned the human desire to look good in front of others on its head by teaching that God will reward people who don’t invite friends, relatives or rich neighbours to a dinner. Instead, God will reward those who invite ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ (v13), in other words the people in society who are most destitute and in the greatest need. Instead of inviting people with the hope or expectation of receiving a return invitation, Jesus teaches us to invite people who have no hope of repaying us with a return invitation. In other words, Jesus is teaching us to make the act of giving generously without any thought of what we might get back in return our priority.

Can you imagine doing that? If you were going to invite someone over for dinner this week, who would be someone you normally wouldn’t invite? It might be someone you don’t get along with, someone from a different cultural background, someone with a disability, or someone who is socially isolated and lonely. There might be a range of reasons why we can find it difficult inviting people over for a meal. But if we are going to take Jesus’ message seriously, would we consider inviting someone with whom we would find it hard to share a meal, someone in need, or someone who couldn’t invite us back?

To be honest, I’m feeling a pretty uncomfortable as I write these words. In our home, with the number of evenings I’m out visiting people or going to meetings, we find it hard to invite people over at all. To then consider inviting people who we normally wouldn’t invite, then, is very challenging. But maybe that’s Jesus’ point.

One the one hand, like with all of Jesus’ teachings, we can hear these words as something we should be doing. Jesus’ teachings challenge our priorities and values as he shows us something deeper about ourselves through them. Jesus might be showing us that we naturally prefer to invite people we like or people who we hope will invite us back. To give an invitation to someone who might be hard to share a meal with is difficult and can go against our natural inclinations. We can’t ignore that and we need to take responsibility for that. The path to a better way of living begins with acknowledging that Jesus’ teachings confront our natural inclinations while at the same time pointing us to something better.

In this case, Jesus is pointing us to a better reality in God’s Kingdom.

When we gather in God’s house in worship, he is effectively inviting us into his presence to share a meal with us. We might like to think about ourselves as good people who somehow have right to share in the meal God invites us to. When we take Jesus’ teaching seriously, however, in all of its confronting brilliance, we can see that we can be the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind that Jesus is talking about. We can be poor in good deeds because we would rather share a meal with people we like or people we hope would invite us back. We can be crippled because we still tend to be tied up in our own self-interest rather than live in the freedom of faith and love. We can be lame because we find it difficult to walk in the way of life that Jesus teaches. We can be blind because we often can’t see others how God sees them, as valued and loved because of the presence of God in them and Jesus’ death and resurrection for them.

When Jesus throws the eternal banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, he doesn’t invite the people the world would naturally tend to invite – the wealthy, the successful, the beautiful, the popular and the good. Instead, Jesus invites people who are in need of what he offers even though we can’t repay him for his generosity. Jesus invites those of us who are poor, crippled, lame and blind in body, mind or spirit. Jesus invites us to his table, to share his meal with him as he gives himself to us in self-sacrificing love, not because we deserve it or because he wants something from us, but because we need what he has to offer and because he wants to bless us with his gifts. He invites us as an act of complete and total grace because, not matter how poor or crippled or lame or blind we might be, Jesus reckons we’re worth it.

It would be easy at this point to throw out the challenge to think about who might be the least likely people you’d invite for dinner and then ask them over this week. I’d feel bad, though, if anyone in our church who has heard this message received that invitation and thought of themselves as ‘needy’ in our eyes. So I’m not going to do that, but instead ask you to consider a broader guest list than you have in the past next time you throw a party or hold a dinner.

I want to remind you, though, about who Jesus invites to his meal in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus doesn’t invite us to his table because we deserve it or because he wants something from us. Jesus invites us because he has something good to offer us – his own self as his act of self-giving, self-sacrificing love for us. As we join Jesus at his table, let’s remember that we come purely because of God’s grace for us in Jesus. And then let’s show that some grace to the people around us.

More to think about:

  • If you were going to have a dinner or party, who are the 3 most likely people that you would invite? Why would you want to invite them?
  • Who are the 3 least likely people you’d invite? Why would you not want to invite them? (you don’t need to share publicly if it will embarrass someone)
  • How is Jesus’ teaching about inviting people who are in need or who can’t invite you back sitting with you? Are you feeling comfortable with his words? Or are they making you uncomfortable? Can you explain why?
  • What do Jesus’ words tell us about the Kingdom of God?
  • When Jesus invites people to his table at Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, etc) do you think he invites them because they deserve it or he wants a return invitation? Or does Jesus invite those who need his grace? Maybe talk more about your understanding of the Lord’s Supper and what you believe happens in Jesus’ meal of bread and wine…
  • In what ways might you be physically, emotionally or spiritually ‘poor, crippled, lame or blind’? If this is who Jesus invites to his meal, how can sharing in his meal help to shape your understanding of God’s grace for you in Jesus?
  • How might you be able to show that same grace to someone else this week?