Easter 2018

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For Christians, the Easter weekend is one of the most important periods of the year as we journey with Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection from the grave. This year, our congregation tried a few different things in our services to try to help people connect with the events that are central to our faith and to find a greater sense of meaning in them. Rather than write out each message in detail, I’m going to provide a brief summary of what we did and what I said at each service.

We began on Maundy Thursday in the hall. This service commemorates Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before his death, so we wanted to try to help people experience the Lord’s Supper as the family meal for the people of God. We welcomed worshippers in the church foyer where we offered to wash their feet, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. From there, people moved into the hall where chairs were arranged in the round. At the centre was a table on which were the bread and wine for Holy Communion. The service order was very simple, with Bible readings and prayers being done by people from their seats. We closed with Psalm 88 being read as we removed what was on the table and reflected on what Jesus suffered after the meal.

My message was based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul was passing on to the Christians in Corinth what he had received from Jesus – the words used whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For almost two thousand years, these words have been passed on from generation to generation of Jesus’ followers as they have proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ death which brings life to those who have come after them. The promise we receive through these words is the real presence of Jesus with us in all the circumstances of life, and the gift of his life which is stronger than death. The challenge these words present to us is to pass them on to the generation that is coming after us. Will we, as the family of God and the body of the living Christ, be willing to do whatever is necessary to pass on the good news of Jesus’ death and the meal he gave us to the next generation so they can live in the love and grace of Jesus?

On Good Friday morning we gathered outside the church and then moved as a group to five different areas around the church grounds to hear the story of Jesus arrest, suffering and death from Mark 14:32-15:47. We divided up the story into five scenes – Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, his trial before the Jewish High Council, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, and then his crucifixion and death. Various people read the words of the different characters in the story and there were one or two props at each place to help set the scene. It was all kept very simple to give the congregation a chance to imagine what it may have been like for Jesus and his followers. After the story, I gave a short message, we spent some time in prayer, and people were welcome to remain for some time of reflection and meditation.

Our hope for the service was to help people move from being spectators to participants in the story by following Jesus the way the crowd might have done. When we spectate at sporting events, theatre performances or concerts, there is a divide between us and the participants. The same can happen with Jesus’ suffering and death – when we are just spectators of the events, a divide exists between us and Jesus. However, Jesus overcomes the divide between us and God through his death, signified by the tearing of the curtain in the Temple (Mark 15:38). Jesus invites us to participate in his death through faith in him, so we can also participate in the life of God through his Holy Spirit. As long as we are spectators of Jesus death, we miss out on its benefits in our lives. When we participate in Jesus’ suffering and death through faith, we can find life in all its fullness.

On Easter morning more than sixty of us met at the picnic ground at Anstey Hill Recreation Park for a dawn service. Like we did on Maundy Thursday evening, we gathered around a table with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection and remembered that the life of the risen Christ is our life through his gift of his Holy Spirit. We were blessed with a beautiful sunrise as people who had gathered participated in the Bible readings, including the resurrection story from Mark 16:1-8, an affirmation of Baptism, resurrection songs, and prayers. Then some of us went back to church for breakfast and to continue celebrating Jesus’ resurrection at our regular worship times.

I realised early in the year that Easter Sunday was going to be on April Fools’ Day. When the women who were first at Jesus’ empty tomb had gone back to the disciples, I wonder if they thought that the women were trying to fool them. The news of the resurrection of Jesus can sound like an April Fools’ Day joke because in our experience dead people don’t come back to life. From a worldly point of view, the message of Jesus’ resurrection sounds pretty foolish. A group of Christians, sitting in a park, singing songs at dawn probably also looked foolish to the early morning walkers who saw us. Paul tells us that the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection will sound foolish to people who don’t believe (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). However, we can trust the message of the resurrection of Jesus because Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 that more than five hundred people saw the risen Jesus, including himself. This wasn’t just a story Jesus’ followers made up, or a hope that Jesus would somehow live on in the memory of his disciples. They saw him and were even willing to die for the truth that Jesus is risen from the grave. In our own lives, too, faith that Jesus’ resurrection gives us a life which is stronger than the difficulties, pains, uncertainties and struggles we might be experiencing, can give us a hope that gets us through the darkest and most difficult of times. This hope says to me that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead makes a real difference for us.

I was over at the shops this morning. All the Easter decorations have gone already. As followers of Jesus, though, our Easter celebrations have just started. For the next six weeks, we will continue to rejoice in the good news that Jesus suffered, died and is risen again for us to give us life that is stronger than death. Whatever you might be going through in life, what we experience in this world will one day come to an end. The life of Jesus that is yours through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit will never end.

As the sun comes up each day, I hope and pray you can find that hope in him.

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Climbing Down (Philippians 2:5-11)

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We can use ladders in lots of ways – for example when we are cleaning the gutters, painting a house, or getting a ball which your child has thrown onto the roof.

Ladders can also be used as a metaphor for getting ahead in life. We can talk about climbing the ladder of success. We hope that our football team will be higher on the ladder than other teams. We can also use the picture of a ladder to describe a person’s journey towards heaven, paradise, nirvana, enlightenment, personal fulfilment, or any other name for the ideal spiritual state.

Almost every spirituality, philosophy or system of human thought that I’ve come across in my life has the goal of climbing a ladder to a higher level of being human. Religions as well as secular humanist ways of seeing life aim to rise above where we are and move upwards towards something better. The goal of a lot of people’s lives is to be upwardly mobile, climbing whatever ladder we think is important, until we reach our objective.

When the Apostle Paul describes the incarnation and life of Jesus in Philippians 2:6-8, however, he points to a person who moves in the opposite direction. When billions of spiritual or religious people over the course of human history and in our own time have been trying to work their way up the spiritual ladder, Jesus, the one who was with God since before the creation of the world, left the comfort and safety of heaven and moved down the ladder to meet us where we are.

Paul tell us that Jesus began his downward journey by not thinking of ‘equality with God as something to cling to’ (v6 NLT). Jesus’ attitude is so very different from our natural tendency to either want to play God, or to look for the divine within us. Instead of trying to hang one to God’s glory and power, Jesus journeyed downwards as he ‘gave up his divine privileges’ and ‘took the humble position of a slave’ (v7). Paul’s use of the word ‘slave’ here is important because slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder in ancient culture. When Jesus became human, his entry point into the human experience was the bottom rung of the ladder. Then Jesus continued to move downwards as he humbled himself even further by ‘dying a criminal’s death on a cross’ (v8). Jesus’ downward journey hit rock bottom as he suffered the most painful and shameful execution which was reserved for the lowest of the low in Romans society.

Jesus moved in this downward direction and endured suffering and a shame-filled death to meet us where we are and to give us the promise of something better. He knows that we can never climb the spiritual ladder to be where God is or to reach heaven. It’s not just because we can’t do enough good or do it well enough. Our whole orientation is wrong. Jesus taught us to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love others like we love ourselves. If we are trying to climb the spiritual ladder for our own benefit, then we are not doing it in love for God or for others, and we have failed form the start. For all our efforts, we get no closer to our goal.

Jesus fulfils God’s command for us by loving us enough to sacrifice everything for us and descend the ladder from heaven to meet us in our human experience, and loving God by trusting that he will raise him up. Jesus embraces us in himself by taking on our humanity and becoming one with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to climb the ladder because Jesus meets us wherever we are, no matter how low or down we may be feeling.

Having embraced us as members of his body, Jesus displayed perfect faith in our heavenly Father by trusting that he would raise him up from the darkest depths of human existence and bring him back to where he belonged. In verse 9, Paul writes that ‘God elevated him to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names’ (NLT). In his resurrection and ascension, God the Father honoured Jesus’ faithfulness by lifting him up to his rightful place at the top of the ladder again. When we are united with Jesus through faith, God also raises us up with Jesus as members of his body. We don’t have to try to work our way up the ladder because the Father has raised us up with Jesus from death to life eternal (see Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1). This is the essence of the Christian faith: to trust that Jesus meets us where we are, embraces us in his own body and carries us upwards into the presence of almighty God for ever.

Paul introduces this passage by writings that we ‘must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had’ (v5). To trust in Jesus means following him down the ladders of life in the faith that our heavenly Father will lift us up again. The basic human problem is that we still want to work our way up the ladders of our lives. Especially in our relationships with each other, which is how the NIV translates verse 5, we tend to want the upper hand, to be in control of what happens and how things are done, and to see that we get our own way, even if it is at the expense of others. The way Paul says we are to live in our relationships with sisters and brothers in Christian community, however, is to follow Jesus in the opposite direction by serving others, looking to what benefits them even if it comes at our own personal expense, to give up our power and control and do what gives others an experience of Jesus’ downward movement into our lives through grace and love. As members of the body of Christ, we need to be placing ourselves below others in the faith that that is where we find Jesus and that God our heavenly Father will raise us up with him.

In which direction is your life heading? Are you looking for upward mobility with a greater sense of power and control over your life? Are you trying to find a closer connection with God, or looking for the divine within? If we are trying to move up the ladder in any sense, we run the risk of missing Jesus who heads in the opposite direction.

As we walk with Jesus through the events of his suffering, death and resurrection next weekend, we witness his downward movement into the darkest depths of human existence. That is where we find God. When he finds us there, and when Jesus makes us one with him, then our Father promises us, just as he promised his Son, that he will raise us up.

So don’t be afraid to look down…

When God Comes Down (Isaiah 64:1-9)

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The season of Advent is four Sundays before Christmas when Christians focus on the coming of Jesus in his birth at Bethlehem and again at the end of time. There is a strong connection between us waiting for Jesus and God’s Old Testament people waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah. They were also waiting and looking forward to the hope, peace, joy and love that the Messiah would bring. As we wait for the coming of Jesus the Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time, I thought it would be good to listen to the words of the Old Testament prophets for what they might be saying to us, thousands of years later.

These words from Isaiah 64:1-9 were written while the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon. About 587 years before Jesus’ birth, the Babylonians had conquered the Jewish nation, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and had taken the people to Babylon in captivity. This is also about the time when the stories of Daniel and his friends were set. The Jews were a people who had lost everything – their homeland, their worship and their freedom.

The Prophet calls for God to tear heaven open and come down to avenge his people for the wrongs that had been done to them (vv1,2). His hope is that God will execute justice on those who have taken the Jews into exile through a display of his power and might. Just like God did at the Exodus, he wants God to show his awesome deeds and strike terror in the hearts of those who were oppressing his people (v3). Then the mountains will tremble with the presence of God’s might and power like Mount Sinai did when God came down to give Moses the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 19:16-20). The Prophet argues that from the beginning of creation, God has always helped those who wait for him and who live in the way he wants (vv4,5a).

But then there is a dramatic shift in the Prophet’s words. If God ‘works for those who wait for him’ and welcomes ‘those who gladly do good, who follow godly ways’ (vv4b,5a), then the Prophet confesses that his people are not blameless. The Prophet offers a confession on behalf of his people, admitting that they are ‘infected and impure with sin,’ whose ‘righteous deeds’ are ‘nothing but filthy rags’ (v6 NLT). The Prophet recognises that they have failed to call on God’s name or look for his mercy, and this is why they are in exile (v7). Instead of just seeing the wrongs of the world around him, the Prophet recognises the wrongs within him.

This leads him to a new hope. The Prophet is hoping for a new relationship with God as their Father, and idea which is very rare in the Old Testament. His hope is that God would re-form his people like a potter forms the clay, and that God would forgive their sin and make his people right again with him (vv8,9). The new hope the Prophet has is that God would make the wrong things in him right again so that he could live in a new relationship with God as his child.

It is easy for us to see the presence of evil in the world and a lot of things that are wrong. We see people who are suffering from injustice and abuse, both internationally and more personally. Governments seem to be working more for their own benefit than for the benefit of the people who have voted them into office. Many people are living in the fear that we are losing our freedoms. With all of this going on, it would be easy for us to join in the prayer of the Prophet and ask God to tear heaven open, come down and put right the wrongs of the world through a display of power and strength.

What these words from the Prophet challenge us to do, however, is to recognise that we are also guilty of wrongs in our own life. It is easy to see what is wrong outside of us, but much more difficult to recognise the wrongs that exist within us. Like the Prophet, instead of looking for God to tear heaven open to destroy the wrongs ‘out there’, we need to acknowledge and confess the wrongs that live inside each of us.

Because when God opened heaven to come down, God didn’t do it through a display of earthly power and strength, punishing the wicked and destroying evil people. Instead, God came to us from heaven in humility and weakness in the birth of Jesus. If God was to destroy the wrongs of the world through might and power, then he would also need to destroy the wrongs in us in the same way. What can give us hope is that God comes down out of heaven as a person like us who understands our weakness and failures. Jesus joins us in our brokenness to walk with us, to suffer with us, but also to give us the promise of something better. Jesus begins to put what’s wrong in the world right again by beginning with us. He takes our sin on himself and gives us his righteousness through faith in him. Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God whom we can now know as our loving heavenly Dad. Jesus re-forms us and re-shapes us by the power of his Spirit to be people of hope so we can bring his hope to the world. The hope we can find as God opens heaven and comes down to us in the birth of Jesus is that he makes right what is wrong in us so we can live every day as his people in the world.

Part of the Advent message is that God will ‘burst from the heavens and come down’ (v1 NLT) again at the end of time to finally put all the wrongs things in the world right again through Jesus. Until that day we care called to live in the hope that God has already come from heaven to us in Jesus. The hope we have is that Jesus puts the wrong things in us right again. In that hope we can join him in putting the wrongs of this world right again.

More to think about:

  • When you think about God bursting from the heavens and coming down to earth (v1), what would you normally expect that to look like?
  • What does it say to you about the nature of God that when he comes down from heaven, he does it as a newborn baby rather than through a display of vengeance, power and might?
  • Do you find it easier to identify what’s wrong with the world, or what’s wrong inside you? Why do you think you tend to do that?
  • How does it feel for you to pray verses 5b to 7 as a prayer of confession? How can God’s forgiveness in Jesus give you hope for the future?
  • How can the Prophet’s words about God being our ‘Father’ and our ‘potter’ be good news for us? How can a new relationship with God as our perfect Father and his promise to re-form us as a potter forms the clay give you a sense of hope?
  • If there are people in your life who have wronged you, how might you be able bring hope into their lives by offering them the gift of forgiveness this Christmas?