Standing in Grace (Romans 5:1-8)

romans 5v2 standing in grace 01

I love the story in Luke 13:18-21 when Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?’ (NIV). I can picture Jesus sitting with his disciples, looking at what was happening and what people were doing around him, as he searched for examples that would help his followers grow in their understanding of the way God was at work in the world. Jesus went on to use two very ordinary, every-day objects to illustrate the mystery of the kingdom of God in the world – a mustard seed and yeast.

As a disciple of Jesus who is continually learning from him, this is how I approach my message preparation each week. I listen to God’s Word for the good news he is speaking into our lives, and then I look for an ordinary, every-day item that will help to illustrate the ways in which God is at work in our lives. Some weeks they come easily. Other weeks, however, it can be more of a challenge…

This week was one of the harder ones. We have these amazing words from Paul in Romans 5:1-8 about being justified through faith which gives us peace with God (v1). What really caught my attention was what Paul wrote about standing in God’s grace. With all the upheaval and uncertainty that we are experiencing with the rest of the world at this time, there is something reassuring about being able to stand in something we can be sure of while it seems like a lot of other things are falling down around us.

Then came the hard part as I asked myself the same questions as Jesus: What is it like to stand in God’s grace? To what shall I compare it?

I had a few ideas, none of which were really working, so I asked my children what they stand in. Their answers were classic! One said that they like to stand in the rain. Another answered that they stand in lines. Another suggestion was that they stand in muddy puddles. Then one of our children said that they stand on the trampoline…

This answer got my imagination firing. Can we compare standing in God’s grace to standing in a trampoline? How might standing in God’s grace be like standing in a trampoline?

Firstly, there is a way in. When I climb into our trampoline there is a small entrance where the netting around the trampoline overlaps. It was designed for children because it’s not easy for a person my age to climb through it. Paul wrote that we have access or entry into God’s grace by faith in Jesus (v2). I have heard some people say that the Christian religion is too easy because all you have to do is believe and you’re in. But is faith really a simple and easy way to access the grace of God?

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus described the entrance that leads to life as a narrow and small gate. Maybe the way to access God’s grace isn’t as easy as some people might think. If we think of faith as trusting God’s promises to us in Jesus, sometimes that isn’t easy for us. We can find it hard enough to trust people that we can see, so it can be even harder to trust in the promises of God who we can’t see. That’s why Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as ‘confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’ (NIV). There will always be a degree of uncertainty in faith that will make it difficult. However, when we hear God’s promises to us in Jesus and trust them enough to live like what they say is true, we crawl through that narrow and small entry into the perfect and infinite grace of God.

When we gain access to God’s grace in Jesus through faith, we can find some similarities between standing in this grace and in a trampoline. Firstly, it surrounds us and protects us. Modern trampolines have nets around them, so people don’t fall off and hurt themselves. There are lots of things in life that would hurt us and rob us of the life God has given to us in physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual ways. However, when we stand in God’s grace for us in Jesus, God protects us like a net around a trampoline. We can be sure of who we are, what we’re worth, where we belong, and what our purpose is in life because God gifts us with all these in Jesus. When we stand in God’s grace, nothing can harm us because we know who we are, whose we are, what we’re worth and where we’re going.

Standing in God’s grace can be like a trampoline because it helps us to see things differently. The first time I climbed into our trampoline I was surprised by all the different things I could see. It gave me a different perspective of our backyard and the properties around us. Standing in God’s grace through Jesus gives us a different perspective on life as well. We can see things in a different way when we trust that God loves us enough to give everything for us in Jesus, and who has literally gone to hell and back for us. Standing in God’s grace helps us to see that every good thing we have in life is a gift from our Father in heaven who loves us. Standing in God’s grace opens our eyes to see that life itself is a gift that we can cherish and pass on to others by extending God’s grace to them as well.

Standing in God’s grace can be like a trampoline because it brings us joy! Bouncing on a trampoline gets pretty tiring for an older bloke like me and I can’t do it as long as my kids, but it’s still fun! Living in the reality of God’s grace gives us joy as we trust that Jesus’ love is stronger that death and the brokenness of this world. It will bring us through every struggle, difficulty, hardship, or uncertainty we might encounter in this life. This joy is different to the fun I might have on the trampoline because it runs much deeper, lasts much longer, and is more enduring through life’s problems. The fun I have on the trampoline depends on my stamina and my own ability to keep bouncing. The joy we find when we stand in God’s grace doesn’t depend on us but is a gift from God which grows out of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives through the gospel as God justifies us, gives us peace and fills us with hope.

Jesus looked for every-day things to illustrate the mystery of the kingdom of God to help people encounter God’s goodness and stand in the reality of his grace. Just like I can crawl onto the trampoline and stand on it, I hope and pray that we will all enter into the grace of God through Jesus by trusting in God’s promises to us, and that we will stand in the reality of God’s grace as it keeps us safe, gives us a new way of seeing ourselves and the world around us, and gives us joy.

Maybe you might like to bounce on a trampoline for a while as you contemplate God’s grace for you in Jesus, in which you now stand.

More to think about & discuss:

  • What are some things that you stand in?
  • How might they illustrate what it means to stand in God’s grace for you or for others?
  • What does the language of ‘standing in’ mean to you? Does it sound strong, messy, resolute, something different…?
  • What does it mean for you to stand in God’s grace?
  • Do you find faith easy or difficult? Why is that? Why do you think Paul describes faith as the way to gain access to God’s grace?
  • Paul connects faith and grace with peace and hope in the opening verses of Romans 5. Where do you need God’s peace in your life? How might standing in God’s grace through faith help you to find the peace you need?
  • Where do you need hope in your life? How might standing in God’s grace through faith help you to find the hope you need?
  • Is there someone in your life who needs peace or hope? How can you stand with them in grace through faith in Jesus to help them find the peace or hope they need?

You can also find a video version of this message here: https://youtu.be/R33HN9sPoeE

God bless!

A Recipe for Hope (1 Peter 3:13-22)

1 peter 3v15 ready to explain your hope 01

While we have been isolating because of the COVID-19 restrictions, I have heard about families who have been spending time cooking together. Baking or cooking is a great way to connect with each other, doing something that is enjoyable with a tasty result at the end. The added bonus is that when we cook together, we have something good to share with others, whether they are our kids who come home from school at the end of the day, family members we live with, or others we might know who would appreciate a spontaneous gift.

I am not a chef, but I do know that whenever we cook, we need to prepare. There have been times when I have started making something without first preparing properly and have realized part way through that I did not have some of the necessary ingredients. If what we are cooking is going to produce something good that we can offer other people, we need to get ready and prepare first.

The Apostle Peter encourages Christians to prepare so we can be ready when people ask us about the hope we have in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). Since the opening of his letter, Peter has talked about our hope as people who have been raised with Jesus through faith. We have new birth into a living hope through Jesus’ resurrection (1:3). We can put our hope in the salvation Jesus will bring when he comes again (1:13). We can trust God because he raised Jesus from the dead (1:21). For Peter, faith in Jesus’ resurrection goes hand in hand with a life-giving hope.

In 3:15, Peter now says to be prepared to explain the hope we have in Jesus to anyone who asks us. There is a lot we can get out of these few words, but our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic gives us a specific context to find meaning in his words.

Since the pandemic started and restrictions were put in place, I have witnessed a lot of worry and fear in people. One clear example was the panic-buying of essential items like toilet paper and non-perishable foods. As the people of God and followers of Jesus, the Holy Spirit has gifted us with the antidote to the worry and fear people are experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic or any other reason. God’s antidote is hope. This is not a vague hope that things will get better, or that if we look after each other we will get through these tough times. The hope the Holy Spirit gifts to us is specifically in the resurrection of Jesus.

When we live as people of hope in the middle of so much worry and fear, it will show in our lives and in our relationships. That is why Peter urges us to be ready to explain the hope we have in Jesus. When people notice that we are living in hope, not worry or fear, and they ask us why we are living that way, we can share with them the goodness of God we find through faith in Jesus. Just like I will prepare before I start cooking to make sure I’m ready with everything I need, Peter wants us to prepare to share the hope we have so that others can find hope in Jesus’ resurrection as well.

So how do we get ready to give the reason for the hope we have in Jesus’ resurrection? I would like to share with you the simple recipe I use to prepare to share the hope I have in Jesus.

The first step is to identify what makes us worry or be afraid. We might not like to admit the causes of our worries or fears because we can sometimes think that we should be able to handle them on our own. If we are going to find real hope in the middle of our fears, worries or anxieties, though, we need to know what they are. A good way to identify our fears or worries is to talk with someone that we trust about them. So, the first question I ask to prepare to give the reason for our hope is, what is making us worry or afraid?

The second step is to explore how the good news of Jesus speaks into that specific worry or fear. God promises us that he will give us everything we need for life in this world and in the next for the sake of Jesus (see Romans 8:32). For example, if we are afraid of being isolated and alone because of the COVID-19 restrictions, Jesus promises that he will always be with us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5), and this promise is made tangible in the community of faith as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15,16). If we are worried about loss of income and financial hardship, Jesus promises to provide us with every physical thing we need for life in this world (Matthew 6:25-34). Even if we or our loved ones were to catch COVID-19 and possibly die, Jesus promises us that his love and life and stronger than death and he will give us eternal life through his death and resurrection (eg John 11:25,26). Exploring how the message of Jesus is good news for us can be challenging, but it helps us see that the gospel is not just an off-the shelf message, but, like a homemade recipe, it speaks specifically and directly into our personal worries and fears. So, my second question is, how is Jesus’ message good news for us with our worries or fears?

The third step to preparing to give the reason for the hope we have in Jesus is to find hope in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. When we trust God’s promises to provide us with everything we need for this life and the next for the sake of Jesus, it helps us to see through our current worries and fears to the possibility of a better tomorrow. Paul writes that this hope is for both this life and the life to come (see 1 Corinthians 15:19,20). Whatever our fears or worries might be, when we find the ways in which God’s promises and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection bring God’s goodness into our lives, no matter what we are experiencing, we can find hope. When we have found this hope for ourselves, we can share that hope with others. So, my third question is, how does Jesus’ good news give you hope?

In many cooking shows, they will display an example of what they were cooking which they had prepared earlier. This shows us that they had done their preparation, and everything worked as it should. As Peter encourages us to be ready to answer everyone who asks us about the hope we have in the risen Christ, I encourage you to take some time this week to prepare what you could say when someone asks you about your hope. You might do this is by following my simple recipe: What worries or fears do you have? How is Jesus’ message good news for you with your worries or fears? How does Jesus’ good news give you hope?

There is a lot of worry and fear in the world right now because of the COVID-19 virus and for other reasons. God gives us the antidote to worry and fear through the hope we have in Jesus. Will you be ready to give your reasons for the hope you have in Jesus when someone asks you?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What are some examples you have seen in the last few weeks about people’s worries or fears about the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • Do you find hope something that comes easily, or do you struggle with it? Try to explain why that might be the case for you…
  • Would you like to live as a person of hope? Give some reasons for your answer.
  • What worries or fears do you have at the moment, either in connection with COVID-19, the restrictions that are in place, or anything else that might be happening in your life?
  • How can Jesus’ message be good news for you in your situation right now?
  • How can trusting Jesus’ good news help you to find hope in your life? What might a better tomorrow through Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of his life to you look like?
  • If someone asked you to explain the hope you have in Jesus, what might you say?

Setting Our Sights (Colossians 3:1-4)

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When I went to camps as a teenager, I loved going on night hikes. We felt a real sense of adventure as we headed off in the dark down unfamiliar country roads, trying to dodge potholes, tree branches and other obstacles and we attempted not to fall, trip or get lost along the way.

While it was fun walking in the dark, we were still relieved when the lights of the campsite would come into view and we could see our destination. Knowing where we were heading made the walk easier. We could see the endpoint of our journey and it gave us the hope of being warm, safe and sometimes even dry with a cup of hot Milo to enjoy. Being able to see the lights of our destination helped us get through the darkness that surrounded us.

This year we won’t be able to gather in worship at sunrise on Easter Sunday for our annual dawn service. I’m disappointed about that because it’s a highlight of the year for me. There’s something special about getting up in the dark, and meeting together outside in worship as the dawn breaks and the sun rises. It is a way of connecting with the first Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and were greeted by the angels with the good news of the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).

For the women and men who followed Jesus, the news of his resurrection from the dead was like light bursting into a dark place. They had been grieving Jesus’ death since Friday. They must have felt lost, confused, uncertain about the future, and afraid of what might happen next. In their darkness, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection must have been as welcome as the morning sunlight. It gave them hope. It gave them joy. It gave them purpose. The resurrection of Jesus gave them life!

In our own time and place, a lot of us can feel like we are in dark places too. Everything that’s happening with the COVID-19 virus is upsetting our regular way of life and generating uncertainty about the future, fear, anxiety and worry. In addition to these, many of us are also coping with illness, grief, disabilities, mental illnesses, addictions, broken relationships, and so much more. I can understand that at times life can feel like a night hike which seems to go on without end as we struggle in the dark from one day to the next.

The message of the resurrection of Jesus is still good news for us today. When we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we don’t just remember something that happened two thousand years ago on the other side of the world. The resurrection isn’t even just about going to heaven when we die. Instead, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection casts life-giving light on our lives right here and now.

In Colossians 3:1-4, the Apostle Paul writes,

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (NLT)

The way Paul talks about Jesus’ resurrection is significant because he writes that we ‘have been raised to new life with Christ’ already! Through faith in Jesus we are united with him in his death and resurrection. The life of the risen Christ is God’s gift to us by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith. No matter what else is going on around us or within us, we carry the life of the risen Christ in us. That shapes and determines our reality.

Paul encourages us to set our sights on Jesus and the new life he gives to us. Like seeing the campsite lights when we were on our night hikes, the light of the angel’s words helps us see where we are going. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection helps us to see our destination. Its light also helps to illuminate our path through life so we can see each step we take a little more clearly. When we set our sights on the risen Christ and look beyond what’s happening in us or around us to see the future Christ has for us, it helps us find our way in this world.

It doesn’t mean that we ignore the realities of this world, that we pretend they don’t exist or try to escape from them. Setting our sights on the reality of heaven doesn’t mean that we deny or minimize the difficulties and challenges of this life. What it does mean, however, is that we see them from a different perspective. When we set our sights on where we are going and the future God has for us, we can see through our current struggles or problems to a better tomorrow in the faith that Jesus is carrying us there. That makes it possible to put one foot in front of the other, following Jesus into a better future, in the faith and hope that the source of our lives is the risen Christ. Faith in Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t ignore or escape from the darkness of this life. It gives light to our path so we can be confident that Jesus will get us through.

We set our sights on heaven’s reality by reading God’s word and listening to what the Bible has to say to us. Story after story tells us how heaven’s realities broke through into different people’s lives so they could live in the light of the goodness of God and the life Jesus gives through his Holy Spirit. As we read or hear their stories and the ways that setting their sights on heaven’s realities made a difference in their lives, God will provide us with what we need to set our sights on our common destination. That’s when we will find the help we need and the courage that comes through faith in the risen Jesus to keep going.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

This message was good news for the women when they went to the tomb as the new day was dawning all those centuries ago. It was good news for Jesus’ followers as it drove away the darkness of fear and uncertainty. It is still good news for us as we experience the darkness of life in this world in a lot of different ways. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is a light in our darkness, showing us where we’re are heading, giving us a destination to hope for as we live in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and his victory over the darkness.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even tried to find your way in the dark? What was it like for you? How did it help to have light to help you find your way?
  • As you look at the world around us at the moment, where do you see the darkness of fear, worry or uncertainty? Where do you experience darkness in your own life?
  • How do you think the good news of Jesus’ resurrection can bring light to the darkness we are going through at this time?
  • How do you react when you hear Paul say that ‘you have been raised to new life with Christ’ already? What sounds good about that? What is difficult to believe?
  • How might you see what’s happening around you or within you differently if you look at it from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection and the reality of heaven?
  • What might you do different today in the faith that the hardships you might be experiencing will pass away, but the life of Jesus in you will last forever?

God’s Breath of Life (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Mr Potato Head pieces

One of the toys I loved playing with as a kid, and still do now that we have our own children, is Mr Potato Head. If you’re not familiar with this toy, it has a potato-shaped body with a lot of different arms, legs, eyes, ears, noses, ears, hats and other body parts or items which you can mix and match. The idea behind the toy is that you can make a huge number of different potato people using all the different body parts.

Can you imagine what it would be like, though, to be able to bring Mr Potato Head to life? What would your reaction be if someone told you to speak to the wind and tell it to breathe life into your Mr Potato Head so it could come alive?

People who love the Toy Story movies might think that would be awesome! Others might think I’ve gone a bit crazy. Whatever your reaction might be, I wonder if we would react like Ezekiel when God asked him if the dry bones God showed him could become living people again (Ezekiel 37:3)? I know that there are some significant differences between a Mr Potato Head toy and dried-up human bones, but the principle is pretty much the same – can something which has no life in it become a living, breathing being?

As Ezekiel’s story continues in chapter 37, God does something miraculous. God tells Ezekiel to speak a prophetic message, which he does, and the bones reconnect and are covered with muscles, flesh and skin. However, there is still no life in the bodies. Then God tells Ezekiel to speak again, to tell the four winds to breathe life into the dead bodies. When Ezekiel speaks God’s message, breath enters the dead bodies, they come to life and stand up on their feet.

When we read this story, it helps to know that the Hebrew language of the Old Testament has one word which mean breath, wind and spirit – ruach (pronounced roo-ach with the ch sounding like it does in school). It might be a good idea to read the story again, taking note of all the times it mentions spirit, breath or wind. Each time, this one word ruach is used. It is the same word used in Genesis 1:2 when God’s Spirit, or ruach, was hovering over the waters. In the Ezekiel story, God’s Spirit worked through the word God gave to Ezekiel to create new life where there had been death.

We can read this story in the light of the resurrection of Jesus to hear how God can raise the dead and will raise us along with all believers to new life when Jesus returns at the end of time. That is the ultimate hope we have in Jesus as God’s people.

However, God originally told Ezekiel to bring this message to his people who were exiled in captivity in Babylon. They were the ones who were saying, ‘We have become old, dry bones – all hope is gone’ (v11 NLT). This story isn’t just about eternal life in heaven. It is God speaking hope to people who were in exile, isolated from their homes and loved ones, who had lost their national identity and sense of community.

This is where this story can speak to us as well. We are facing a time which could be thought of as a kind of exile. As more people self-isolate because of the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus, we are at risk of becoming like old, dry bones and losing hope. I have seen how destructive fear and isolation can be to people’s well-being and mental health. However, I have also seen how powerful hope, and especially the hope that comes from faith in Jesus, can be as the antidote to fear and isolation.

As we self-isolate to protect ourselves and others from the threat of the virus, what will prevent us from becoming like old, dry bones is the life-giving breath of God, the Holy Spirit of God, which God gives to us through his Word. In the Old Testament times, prophecy was more about bringing a word from God that foretelling the future. The prophetic message God gave to Ezekiel and the other prophets was to speak his word into a particular circumstance. In this story, the word God gave Ezekiel to speak filled the dead with new life as God breathed his Spirit into his people. God’s life-giving Spirit, working through the Word God gave to Ezekiel, brought the dead back to life and gave hope to God’s people in exile – that God would bring them through the exile, give them life, and they would return home again.

As we face an uncertain future and the possibility of our own, personal exiles in our homes, this story becomes God’s prophetic message to us. COVID-19, and the fear and isolation it brings, has the potential to rob us of life. But God’s Word is stronger and more powerful than a virus. No matter what happens, the Holy Spirit will continue to work through God’s life-giving Word to breathe the life of Jesus into us so we can live in the hope that God will get us through this, we will return to our families and communities of faith, and we will live again.

Please consider putting a bookmark in your Bibles at Ezekiel 37. If there are times during the coming months when you begin to feel like you are becoming like old, dry bones, please read this story again. The Breath of God, his Holy Spirit, will continue to work through God’s prophetic Word to breath the resurrection life of Jesus into you, so you will be able to live in the hope that God will bring you through this time and we will be united again as a community of faith in Jesus.

I might not be able to breathe life into Mr Potato Head and make it live, but God can do that for us and for others through us!

More to think about:

  • What questions do you have of this story, or what doesn’t make sense to you?
  • What do you think your reaction might have been if you were Ezekiel and God asked you if a valley of dry bones could become living people again? Why might you have reacted that way?
  • What do you think about this story being more about hope for the future than the resurrection of the dead? How might that change the way you understand the story?
  • As we face time when we will effectively be in exile from each other, what do you hear God saying to you through this story?
  • What scares you most about the spread of the COVID-19 virus? What in this story can give you hope?

Looking at the Heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

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My message for this Sunday changed significantly since the start of the week. I was going to look at 1 Samuel 16:1-13, exploring the differences between outward appearances and what lies at the heart, the external and internal, in regards to people and what we focus on.

Then things started changing with growing concerns around the spreading of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Australia, and in particular the ban on indoor gatherings of 100 people or more.

Many congregations that I’m aware of are cancelling most or even all forms of ministry that involve personal contact, including regular worship, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. I understand the need to be careful and responsible in our contact with each other to minimize the spread of the virus as an act of love. What is sitting rather uncomfortably with me, though, is the way ‘doing church online’ seems to have become the Christian church’s default option without exploring other ways of connecting together as sisters and brothers in the faith.

If there’s one thing we need right now as we face the threat of the virus is to be building each other up in faith and love so that fear and isolation don’t overwhelm us.

That’s where I start to hear the story of Samuel anointing David in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 speaking into our circumstances. I believe that we have had a superficial perspective of church for far too long. In the culture of my particular church organization, our understanding of church has revolved largely around attendance at Sunday worship, being a member of a congregation and maybe being involved in some committees, rosters or activities in the congregation. When I listen to what Samuel says in v7, I can’t help but view these activities as the outward appearance or function of church.

What God looks at, of course, is at the heart. This includes the heart of what it means to be church.

There are lots of ways people define what it means to be ‘church’ and there is usually something good we can find in most of them. My favourite definition is one that Martin Luther wrote about five hundred years ago, that the church consists of ‘holy believers … who hear the voice of their Shepherd’ whose ‘holiness exists in the Word of God and true faith’ (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article 13). The way I read this is that whenever God’s people gather around his Word in faith, that is the church.

This sits well with what is written in Hebrews 10:23-25 which says,

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (NLT)

If there’s one thing our world needs right now to combat and overcome the fear people are experiencing about the COVID-19 virus, it is hope. As the people of God who trust in the life-giving promises of Jesus, we have hope to offer all who need it. The challenge I face pastorally is how to help the people of our church grow in the hope which comes through faith so we can be people of hope, bringing hope to people who have none. Part of God’s solution, according to Hebrews 10:23-25, is to keep meeting together.

Exactly how we are going to do that in these days of limits and requirements of how many and where we can meet will a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. We can meet together around God’s word in faith in family groups, in a few families getting together, in our regular small groups, with a friend or two, or in larger worshiping groups, and so on. Maybe we need to be offering more services which cater for groups of smaller numbers of people meeting together in worship at different times, not only on Sundays but even during the week. How we will do this belongs to the ‘outward appearance’ or the externals that Samuel talks about. Why we gather together, to encourage and build each other so our hearts are full of faith, hope and love, becomes the more important question.

We can look for ways of gathering together in the freedom the gospel gives. It’s significant that when Samuel met David, he saw that David ‘was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes’ (v12 NLT). God didn’t accept him because he was good-looking, but he didn’t reject him for being attractive either. God was interested in David’s heart and that he trusted in God. Likewise, in our current situation, how we meet together really is an external thing. Why we meet together – to hold on to the hope Jesus gives us, to motivate each other to love and good works, and to encourage each other in difficult times – this is the heart of what it means to be church and what is really vital.

My plan at the time of writing is to ask our congregation who will worship on Sunday how we might be able to gather together in the future. We need to accept that different people will be looking for different ways to connect together around God’s word in faith, according to their circumstances, and to give people the freedom and the opportunities to do that. God is looking beyond the externals to see our hearts, and wants to fill them with faith, hope and love through his Holy Spirit. We will find these as we gather as his church around his Word in faith. Then we will have real hope to bring to the world.

If you have any thoughts about how we can be helping you to gather around God’s word while we watch and wait for further developments as the virus takes its course, please let me know. I really see this as an opportunity to get past what can often be superficial, external appearances of church to really get to the heart of what it means to be the people of God in the world, living with hearts full of faith, hope and love, to bring God’s blessings to everyone we meet.

More to think about & discuss:

  • In what ways do you see people focussing more on the outward appearance than what lies at the heart, or, in other words, on what something looks like instead of what it really is?
  • In what ways might we do that as church?
  • Why do you think God is more interested in what’s at the heart instead of the outward appearance?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on other people’s hearts than on how they look or what they do?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on your heart trusting God than on what people see?
  • How can our congregation help you through this time to:
    • gather with others around God’s word?
    • hold on to the hope we have in Jesus?
    • motivate one another to love and good works?
    • encourage one another to trust in Jesus?

Christmas 2019

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For the four weeks leading up to Christmas, our congregation prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus by participating in the Advent Conspiracy. You can find more information on the Advent Conspiracy in previous messages but its basic purpose is to help us find greater meaning in Christmas by Worshiping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.

As our church gathered in worship on Christmas Eve, I reflected on the times I had been to our local shopping centre over the last few weeks. A couple of kilometres from us is Tea Tree Plaza, the biggest shopping centre in the north-east suburbs of Adelaide. It is one of the most popular places in Adelaide for people to shop so there is always a pretty strong flow of people through it. This flow turns into a torrent around Christmas as people flock to it to do their Christmas shopping.

During a couple of my visits to the Plaza before Christmas, I saw people who were wearing very Christmassy t-shirts with words like ‘Peace’ and ‘Joy’ on them. However, when I looked at their faces, they didn’t seem to be displaying a lot of peace or joy. Instead they looked worried, concerned, stressed, and frantic.

I find it ironic and, to a larger extent, tragic that the season which is supposed to be about peace and joy ends up producing exactly the opposite.

What if Christmas didn’t have to be that way? What if the things that we identify with Christmas such as peace, joy, hope and love didn’t have to be merely slogans on the clothes we wear or cards we purchase, but could be the realities in which we live and which we give to the people around us?

Instead of just talking about peace, joy, hope and love, the goal of the Advent Conspiracy is to help us find greater peace, joy, love and hope by bringing us back to what Christmas was originally all about. At Christmas we journey to the manger in faith to witness how God has entered into our existence, taken all our worries, anxieties, failures and brokenness on himself in order to free us from them, and given us life in all of its fullness. The celebration of Christmas was never intended to burden us with stress, worry and anxiety. Jesus came into the world to free us from those things and give us greater peace, joy, hope and love.

The four themes of the Advent Conspiracy are to help us on our way of finding these gifts at Christmas. When we worship fully, we keep Jesus at the centre of our Christmas celebrations, remembering that he came into the world to bless us with a deeper and longer-lasting peace, joy, hope and love. We can spend less money, freeing us from the burden of unmanageable debt, to help people who have less than we do, from our own neighbours to others around the world. We can give more of ourselves, celebrating our relationships with each other and building stronger connections with people who are closest to us or that we have a hard time relating to. And we can love all, being as inclusive with our love as God is by including us in his love through Jesus.

This isn’t just something that we can be part of at Christmas. On Christmas Day I continued with the Advent Conspiracy theme by pointing out that the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation wasn’t just a one-off event. The way I hear some people talk about Christmas, it seems like they celebrate the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a land far, far away – but that’s it. I’ve been surprised this year by the number of people I’ve heard refer to Jesus’ birth as just an historical event, almost like it was confined to a moment in the past.

The mystery of the Incarnation, that the infinite God took on human form by becoming a flesh-and-blood person, is something that is a continuing reality for us. The mystery and the miracle of the Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, is that since the birth of Jesus God has been immediately and intimately involved in human history as a real person. Something changed in the universe when Jesus was born and God began to experience what it is like for us to be born, live and die.

In a way, we can think of every day as Christmas. We focus on God becoming human in the infant Jesus at Christmas, but we share in the blessings he brings us every day of our lives. Imagine what it would be like to enjoy the best things of Christmas each and every day of the year. When we were talking about this in our service on Christmas Day, some were worried that if we have all the things that make Christmas special every day, such as decorations, food, carols and gifts, then they would become ordinary and stop being special. But what if we could wake up every morning with all the best things about Christmas there for us to enjoy, and they would never stop being special? How good would that be?

The Advent Conspiracy was never meant to be just a Christmas thing. It is there to help us re-orient our worldview at Christmas so we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All for the other forty-eight weeks of the year as well. As we look for Jesus and the mystery of ‘God with us’ during the whole year, we can find deeper and lasting peace, joy, hope and love all year round. These aren’t just nice ideas for a particular time of year, but gifts that we can carry with us and draw on throughout the year, especially when we or others around us need them the most.

God is with us in Jesus through his Spirit for the entire year. God didn’t just take on human flesh two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God continues to take on our human existence, becoming flesh and blood as he is born in us, just as Jesus was born in the manger. Jesus comes alive in our hearts as we hear the good news of his birth and life, death and resurrection for us. The same Holy Spirit who created the life of Jesus within Mary creates his new life in us through the faith the Spirit gives us. When we gather together as God’s people to celebrate the meal that Jesus gave us, he is there, giving us his incarnate self through the bread and wine to live in us, to unite us in relationship with our loving heavenly Father, and to join us with other believers as his living, breathing body in the world.

God’s gift of his Son to us wasn’t just an event that happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. God gifts his Son to us through the Holy Spirit every time we read or hear his Word, the good news of Jesus, and as we receive the meal Jesus provided for his followers. That means that every day is Christmas as God becomes one with us and gifts us with his life-giving presence.

As we came to the end of the Advent Conspiracy for this year, we gathered in worship to hear the story of Jesus birth and to live in the faith that God who embraced human existence is still embracing us and our humanity. Because of this good news, we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All as we live in the peace, joy hope and love that Jesus gifts to us every day of the year.

With My Own Eyes (Job 19:23-27a)

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I remember the first time I saw the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House for myself. I had grown up seeing pictures of these iconic Australian landmarks my whole life and had always thought they looked pretty impressive. Then, in my early twenties, I was able to travel to Sydney for a holiday. I caught the train into central Sydney, got off at Circular Quay and looked out to see Sydney Harbor with my own eyes for the first time.

Seeing pictures of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House was good. Seeing them for myself with my own eyes was so much better…

Job had everything anyone could possibly want. Then he lost it all. Job’s story presents us with a whole range of philosophical challenges which we will need to wrestle with another time. One thing that amazes me in this story, however, is that when Job was sitting on a garbage pile, with nothing but a wife telling him to curse God and die and three friends who are giving him advice which wasn’t at all helpful, Job still had hope. The optimism which is evident in his words from Job 19:23-27 is just incredible.

The hope Job had was that his Redeemer, the one who could rescue him from his troubles and give him everything he needed for life, was alive. In the context of Job’s story this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. These words may have been written anything from a couple of hundred years to more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. However, in these words Job points us to a Redeemer who overcomes death, who stands on the earth in victory, and whom Job can physically see with his own, two eyes. Even in the darkest place of human existence, Job still had the hope that he will see Jesus face to face as a living, flesh and blood person.

When I think about the joy I had in seeing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House with my own eyes for the first time, I find it hard to imagine the joy that will come with seeing Jesus for the first time with my own eyes. Like Job, the promise of seeing Jesus face to face as a real flesh and blood person can give us hope when we are going through dark times or when we wonder where God is. It can give us the hope that what we are enduring is temporary, and that what is permanent and eternal is the life of Christ which is stronger than death and is God’s gift to us through the gospel.

This is a different way of thinking about eternity than people often have. A common idea I often come across, among Christians as well as others outside the church, is that when we die, our souls go to heaven but our bodies remain in the ground. However, this is not the Bibles message. The gospels tell us about the physical resurrection of Jesus. The triumph of Jesus over death as a flesh and blood person points us to a physical resurrection for all of God’s people. In the same way that Jesus was physically raised to new life, so the Holy Spirit will also raise all of God’s people to eternal life which will be lived in real, flesh and blood bodies.

The Apostle Paul talks about the physical resurrection a number of times in his letters. In particular, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes a lot about the resurrection of Jesus and the hope this good news gives to believers. He describes the difference between ‘heavenly bodies’ and ‘earthly bodies’ (1 Corinthians 15:40 NLT), ‘natural bodies’ and ‘spiritual bodies’ (v44 NLT), as well as ‘mortal bodies’ and ‘immortal bodies’ (v53 NLT). His language might sound a little strange, almost contradictory, but Paul is saying that we will have physical bodies which will be different to the bodies we now have. We will need to wait to find out exactly what our heavenly, spiritual and immortal bodies will be like. However, what we can learn from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 is that we will live as real, flesh and blood people, and not disembodied spirits, for eternity with God.

This is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, sometimes people might think that what is spiritual is good but the physical is evil or corrupt. While we need to take the reality of sin seriously, we also need to recognise that when God created the physical world, including people’s bodies, he said that it was very good (Genesis 1:31). Since God has created our bodies, and redeemed them through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we need to see our bodies as good gifts from a loving God and take care of them. Just like we might take care of a valuable gift that someone gives us, when we see our bodies as gifts from God, then we will look after them to honour God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19,20).
The second reason takes us back to Job. When we listen to his words and, remembering Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, when we trust that even after our bodies have decayed we will see God in our new, eternal bodies, then we can find hope even in the middle of life’s most difficult or darkest times. Like Job, God does not abandon us. Instead, God redeems us as whole people, body and soul, through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. Our Redeemer lives and one day he will stand on the earth in victory over sin, death and all the powers of evil. When that happens, even though our bodies have decayed in the earth or been cremated, bodies we will see God in all of his glory in our new, physical, flesh and blood bodies. With our own eyes we will see the face of our Redeemer and Saviour in perfect 20/20 vision. When that happens, all the pain, all the sorrow, all the loneliness, confusion and uncertainty will disappear as we see face to face the one we hope for, the one we hope in.

I’ve seen some pretty cool things in my life. I always find that they look a whole lot better when I can see them with my own eyes rather than just a photo. When our lives in this world are over and we finally see Jesus with our own eyes, it will be like nothing else. Like Job, I’m overwhelmed at the thought!

Until that day, we can live every day in the hope that in our bodies, with our own eyes, by the grace of our Redeemer Jesus, we will see God!

By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16)

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One of the toys our kids are currently collecting are small plastic pencil-top figures called Ooshies. There are two main ways to buy Ooshies. One way is in a multi-pack where you can see what characters you’re buying, except for a mystery Ooshie which is included. You can also buy single packs called ‘blind bags’ where you don’t know what you’re getting. In either case, buying Ooshies can be thought of as an act of faith because we are hoping for something good even though we can’t see exactly what we’re getting.

In some ways, this is the kind of faith the Letter to the Hebrews talks about in chapter 11. The author looks back at Old Testament heroes and shows how their faith meant that they lived their whole lives trusting in God’s promises to them even though they couldn’t see what they were hoping for.

Hebrews 11 teaches us some important things about the nature of Christian faith:

1. Faith is grounded and grows in God’s promises
The faith of the Old Testament people in Hebrews 11 was directed towards God’s promises to them. For example, God promised Abraham a land that his descendants would inherit. To Sarah, God promised a child. As Hebrews 11 looks back at the other Old Testament heroes, in every case their faith was connected a promise God gave them. It’s the same with us. Saving faith is always grounded in and grows from God’s promises to us in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, ‘faith comes from hearing … the Good News about Christ’ (NLT). For us and for our faith, then, hearing God’s promises in the Bible becomes vital to a living, active and saving faith.

2. Faith makes a difference to our lives
In every example that Hebrews gives, people’s lives were changed because of their faith in God’s promises. For Abraham the change was leaving his home and living in tents in the land God had promised him. The difference to Sarah’s life was having a child and becoming a mother at the age of 99. For the rest of the people in Hebrews 11, faith in God’s promises led to some sort of action. This is very different from an understanding of faith I come across sometimes which is more about intellectually agreeing with a church’s teachings or doctrines. Good teaching and doctrine are important in a church, but their purpose is always to point us to faith in God’s promises in the gospel which changes our lives.

3. Faith generates hope
The big difference faith in God’s promises made to all the people mentioned in Hebrews was that it gave them hope. Using the examples of Abraham and Sarah, both of them found hope when they believed what God had promised them. For Abraham, the hope was that his descendants would have a homeland. Sarah’s hope was that her shame would be removed through the birth of a child. For us, too, faith creates and sustains hope in our lives. When so many people in our society are struggling for something to hope in, when we trust in God’s promises and bring that good news to others, faith in those promises will lead to a greater hope in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

4. Faith means trusting in what we can’t see
None of the people of faith in Hebrews 11 actually received what God had promised them. In verse 13 we read, ‘they did not receive what was promised,’ and again verse 39 states, ‘none of them received all that God had promised’ (NLT). This is the most difficult thing about faith – it’s trusting that something is real and living like it’s true even though we can’t see it and don’t fully experience it. This is especially hard in a culture which teaches that ‘seeing is believing’ and that if you can’t prove or have empirical evidence of something, then it doesn’t really exist. The very nature of Christian faith is that we hope for something and live like it’s true even though we can’t see it or prove it. The best we can do is look back at the ways in which God has kept his promises in the past. Based on that evidence, we can continue to hope that God will keep his promises to us in the same way that God kept his promises to all the people of the Old Testament. This is the purpose of Hebrews 11, and in fact all of the stories in the Bible: to encourage us in our faith. As we hear how God kept his promises to the people of the past, we can trust that God will keep his promises to us in the same way.

I have known people who say that living in the way of faith is easy because there are no absolute moral standards to reach and no rules that we have to follow. I disagree. Living by faith is much harder than a rule-based or self-help life because it asks us to trust God’s promises and live like they’re true, even though our experiences in life might indicate something different. Faith means hoping for what God promises, even though we can’t see it.

When I buy an Ooshie for my kids it’s an act of faith. We are hoping for something good, even though we can’t see what we’re getting. God makes us amazing, life-giving promises in Jesus. He asks us to trust him enough to live like what he promises is true, even though we might not be able to see what he promises us. As we read Hebrews 11 and look back at the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, God is showing us that he can be trusted so our faith can grow and we can bring the hope he gives to the people of the world, even when we can’t see it.

More to think about:

  • I’ve heard it said that everyone has faith – what’s important is in what you have faith. Would you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
  • What do you have faith in? Why do you have faith in it? What does it promise you? Can it actually deliver what it promises?
  • As you read Hebrews 11, which is your favourite Old Testament character? Why is that person your favourite?
  • I’m suggesting there are four things we can learn about faith from Hebrews 11. What was the promise your favourite character received from God? What difference did it make to his/her life? How did s/he find hope through faith in the promise? Why did s/he never see what was promised?
  • What are some promises God makes you in Jesus?
  • What difference might having faith in those promises make in your life?
  • How might those promises give you a greater sense of hope?
  • How might you be able to live like those promises are true, even if you can’t see them?
  • Who is someone you know whose life might change for the better through faith in God’s promises to them? How might you be able to share a promise form God with them this week?

Easter 2019

 

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Maundy Thursday: ‘As I Have Loved You’ (John 13:1-17,31b-35)

This year’s Maundy Thursday service was held in our hall. The chairs were arranged in the round with a table in the centre on which was placed the bread and wine for Holy Communion. As people entered, they were offered the opportunity to have their feet washed. I always find it interesting to watch people’s reactions to the offer. Some accept and are thankful to have someone wash their feet. Others, however, are not comfortable with it and decline the invitation.

I can understand why they do that. we can be very sensitive about our feet. We often think of them as unattractive, dirty, smelly or something we just don’t like other people seeing or holding. We are can feel shame because of our feet and so don’t like others to be close to them or to see them as they really are.

We often think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet before their last meal together (John 13:1-17) as an example of how we should serve each other. I wonder whether there was more to it. As I reflected on how reluctant people often are about others seeing or touching their feet, I thought about the areas of our lives which we don’t like others knowing about. We carry things in our hearts and lives that are unclean, or unacceptable, or shameful. They might be things we’ve done, things that have been done to us, either sins we’ve committed or that have been committed against us. We can try to keep them hidden from others like smelly feet, but they’re still there and we carry them with us everywhere we go.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he was showing that he is able to make the dirtiest, smelliest, most shameful parts of our lives clean and fragrant again. Jesus’ death and resurrection for us removes all our guilt and shame so we are able to live in God’s presence as his holy children. Jesus is able to do this because he knows everything about us – all the things we try to keep secret, we don’t want anyone else knowing, or we are ashamed to admit even to ourselves. We can’t hide anything from him. But he sees who we are, he takes our guilt, our shame, our dirt to the cross and puts it to death. Then he washes us clean in his blood so we can be clean, righteous and good people through faith in him.

Imagine what it would be like to be in a community of people who knew everything about you, even the things that you’d prefer to keep secret, and who still loved you unconditionally. I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when he gave his new command, to love each other like he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). We experience real grace when we reveal our ‘dirty feet’ to each other and still continue to accept, forgive and love each other in the same way that Jesus accepts, forgives and loves us. If we aren’t honest with each other about our flaws, wrongs or wounds, then we won’t experience the full healing and life-giving power of the grace Jesus extends to us in his death and resurrection. To love each other like he loves us means being real about the dirty, smelly, shameful parts of our lives, and then accepting, forgiving and loving others who are really just the same as we are.

That’s when Jesus’ love becomes real for all of us.

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Good Friday: ‘Listening to Jesus from the Cross’ (Luke 22:39-23:56)

On Good Friday morning we gathered in the church to listen to the story of Jesus’ suffering, death and burial from Luke’s gospel. As part of the reading, three people from the congregation shared personal reflections on what they heard when Jesus spoke from the cross. Luke tells us that Jesus said three things as he was being crucified:

  • “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 NLT)
  • “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 NLT)
  • “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” (Luke 23:46 NLT)

When we listen to Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke’s gospel, we can hear him praying for forgiveness, promising Paradise, and trusting God to take care of him. These words amaze me, because so often we don’t do what Jesus did. When people hurt us, how often do we want to do the same or worse to them as they have done to us? When we are suffering or in pain, how often are we critical or judgmental of others? When life is out of our control and going badly, how often do we try to take control ourselves?

Jesus’ words of forgiveness, promise and trust from the cross show me that he was much more than just an ordinary bloke. I don’t think any of us could have done what he did. That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus doesn’t just give us an example of how to live our lives. It would be easy to turn these words into a morality message like, ‘We should all forgive, promise and trust like Jesus did.’ While there’s some truth in that, the reality is that it’s hard, sometimes even impossible, for us to do that. We need to acknowledge that our natural tendencies are to do to others like they do to us, to criticise and condemn, or to try to control those things around us that are making life hard.

We need to listen the words Jesus says as though he was saying them to us. When we are treating others badly because of something they’ve done to us, Jesus prays for us to be forgiven. When we are suffering or have been hurt by others, Jesus promises us a place in Paradise with him. When our lives are out of control or going in directions we don’t want them to go, Jesus entrusts us and everything in our lives in the safe and loving hands of our heavenly Father. Grace means that Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and then gives us the benefit as a free gift. So when he prays for forgiveness, promises paradise and trusts God with his future, we can hear him speaking to us, saying and doing for us what we often can’t say or do ourselves because of our human condition.

When we hear Jesus speaking to us and for us, that’s when we find new and better words to say to others. When we hear Jesus speak words of forgiveness, promise and trust, then we, with Jesus, can pray for forgiveness, promise a better future to others, and entrust everything into the Father’s gracious and loving care.

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Resurrection Sunday: ‘A Strange New Word’ (Luke 24:1-12)

One of the things we can look forward to at Easter is the giving and receiving of chocolate eggs. Christians often use the hollow egg as a symbol of Jesus’ empty tomb. However, for most people, Easter eggs just taste good, especially if we have given up chocolate for Lent.

Imagine waking up on Easter Sunday morning and finding that your largest, most delicious egg was broken. What would you think, though, if you put it away in a cupboard while you ate the rest of your chocolate, then, few days later, you went back to the cupboard and found that the egg had been made whole again? What would your reaction be if what was broken had been made whole again?

Even as I write this, the idea sounds like nonsense. Broken things don’t spontaneously become whole again. It’s not the way the world works! Some things can heal over time, such as broken bones, and the human body has an amazing capacity to mend itself. But most things can’t be restored to their original condition once they have been broken. To suggest they do sounds like nonsense.

One thing I love about Luke’s telling of the resurrection story in Luke 24:1-12 is the amount of confusion. When the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb early on the first day of the week, ‘they stood there puzzled’ (v4) because the body they had expected to be there wasn’t. Then, when they told Jesus’ remaining disciples about his resurrection, ‘the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it’ (v11 NLT). For the women to tell Jesus’ disciples that he was risen from the grave would kind of be like me telling someone that their broken Easter egg had been made whole again. It doesn’t make sense because it’s not part of our regular experience.

How much sense does the message of Jesus’ resurrection make to us? We might connect the story with the promise of eternal life in heaven, but, there is a lot more to it than that for us. For example, Paul writes that through baptism we have been united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, so we ‘should consider (our)selves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ’ (Romans 6:11 NLT). Paul is saying that the resurrection of Jesus makes a difference in our lives now! We have already been raised with Jesus and we live as people whose defining reality is not the brokenness of this world, but the healing and wholeness that Jesus gives through his Spirit in the promise of his resurrection.

An important part of living as Jesus’ followers means making sense of the resurrection in whatever is happening in our lives right now. We all suffer from brokenness – in our bodies, minds or hearts, in our relationships and community, in our world. The burning of Notre Dame in Paris and the bombing attacks in Sri Lanka are recent examples of that. In Jesus’ resurrection, God makes his mission known to us. God’s plan of salvation is to put the broken pieces of this world, our relationships and our lives back together again, restoring all of creation to its original condition. God’s mission to bring healing and wholeness was put into effect with the resurrection of Jesus and will continue until the last day. Then his saving work will be completed as the dead are raised with new, imperishable bodies and creation is returned to the way God intended from the beginning.

Until that day we can participate with God in his mission to bring healing and wholeness to our broken world in two ways. The first is to make sense of the resurrection in our own lives by looking for God to heal us and make us whole from our brokenness. Our wholeness will be completed when Jesus returns, but the healing can start how through Jesus’ resurrection power. The second way we can participate in God’s mission to restore a broken world is by looking for ways to bring his healing and wholeness to others. As I read the Scriptures, it seems to me that the mission of the church is less about converting people to our way of thinking, and more about bringing the life-giving message of Jesus’ resurrection to broken people living in a broken world in all we say and do.

This message might make about as much sense as a broken Easter egg becoming whole again after a few days in the cupboard, but it didn’t make sense to Jesus’ disciples when they first heard it either. The more we make sense of Jesus’ resurrection as the defining reality of our own lives, the more it will make sense to others as they see Jesus’ healing and wholeness in us.

More to think about:

  • Do you think the idea of someone washing your feet? Why? Why not?
  • What do you think it would be like for someone to know everything about you and still love you? How is that like Jesus’ love for you?
  • Who can you show this kind of love to in your life?
  • What do you hear Jesus saying to you when he prays for forgiveness, promises Paradise and entrusts himself into God’s hands?
  • What is it like to think he says these words to & for you?
  • To whom in your life can you speak a word of forgiveness, promise or trust?
  • What doesn’t make sense to you about the resurrection of Jesus?
  • Where do you experience brokenness in your life?
  • How might the resurrection of Jesus bring you healing or wholeness?

A Face Like Stone (Isaiah 50:4-9a)

 

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Over the season of Lent, we have been focusing on listening to the voice of Jesus. It just makes sense that if we are going to follow Jesus as his disciples, we need to learn to hear what Jesus is saying to us.

The clearest way Jesus speaks to us is through the Bible. That’s why John calls him ‘the Word of God’ (see John 1:1-14). Jesus speaks to us through the stories of the gospels, the letters of the New Testament, and even the ancient writings of the Old Testament.

For example, we can hear the voice of Jesus in this year’s Old Testament reading for Palm Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a, which was written five or six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. As I listen to them in the context of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I can imagine him reflecting on these words while he waited for his friends to bring him the donkey, thinking about what lay ahead of him, preparing for the events of the coming week.

During his life, Jesus listened to God to learn ‘words of wisdom’ which ‘comfort the weary’ (v4). Jesus learned the will of the Father as God taught it to him ‘morning by morning.’ These words give us a picture of Jesus gradually learning God’s will for him as an on-going process through his life. This is very different from what I thought when I was young. I believed that Jesus just naturally knew what God wanted for him because of his divine nature. However, Isaiah’s words seem to be saying that Jesus grew in his understanding of his Father’s will as he learned to listen to God, just like we do. As God spoke with him, and as Jesus listened and learned, Jesus didn’t rebel or turn away from God’s will, but he embraced what God wanted for him and followed in his way.

Jesus knew that following God’s will would be difficult and hard. Verse 6 tells us that Jesus knew that it would involve being beaten, having his beard pulled out, being mocked and spat on. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the shouts and praises of the crowd, he knew that what lay before him was suffering and death. That’s why he ‘sets his face like a stone’ (v7). Knowing what was ahead of him, Jesus embraced the future he was walking into with a gritty determination to see it through.

We can think of what Jesus did as an act of obedience to his Father. Another way to see it is that he acted out of love for us. He rode into Jerusalem because he knew that the only way to restore our relationship with God and renew us as God’s holy people was to suffer and die for us. Jesus did that because he reckons you are worth it. He chose that path because you matter to him. Jesus did what was necessary because he learned by listening to God that God’s will is that everyone be saved and know the truth (1 Timothy 2:4) of his grace and love. The only way for that to happen was through his suffering and death, so he took the hard road out of love for us and every person who has ever walked this planet.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to suffer and die out of love for us and in the faith that God would help him. If we read this text as Jesus’ words, we can hear him declaring his faith that the Sovereign Lord helps him, he will not be disgraced, he will not be put to shame (v7), God will give him justice in the face of those who unfairly accused him(v8), and the Sovereign Lord was on his side even when people declared him guilty (v9a). Again, when I was young I thought that Jesus knew he was going to be saved from death because of his divine nature, so he had nothing to worry about. Listening to these words and looking at the struggle Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane, I now wonder if the only thing Jesus had when he rode into Jerusalem was faith in the promises of an ancient book. In these verses we can hear God telling his Son through Isaiah that he would not abandon him but would help and vindicate him. I wonder if, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he trusted in his heavenly Father’s saving help because of the words he had read. Jesus set his face like a stone and rode into suffering and death because he trusted that God would declare him innocent, no matter that the priests or crowd or anyone else said, by raising him from the dead.

These words are really important for us to hear. We all have our accusers – voices that come from outside of us or within us which accuse us of the wrongs we have done or the good we haven’t done. Our culture, the media, other people, even our own hearts, can accuse us by telling us that we’re not good enough, that we’re hopeless, that we don’t belong, that we’re too much of one thing or not enough of another. As we follow Jesus into Jerusalem we share in the promises God made to his Son. When we face accusations of any kind, we will not be put to shame because God has declared us innocent for Jesus’ sake. Because we are in Christ, and have been united in his death and resurrection through faith in him (Romans 6:4), God makes us new and calls us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). If this is what God says about us when we are in Jesus, then it really doesn’t matter what anyone else says!

As we listen to Jesus in the words of Isaiah 50:4-9a, we hear the words of someone who listened to God and who learned what God wanted from what he heard. We hear the words of someone who knew that God’s will involved taking the hard road which would lead to suffering and death, but who took that road because of his love for us, because we matter to him, and because he reckons we’re worth it. We hear the words of someone who did all that, trusting that God would help him, would not let him be put to shame, and would give him justice in the face of those who accused him. These are the words of Jesus who rode into Jerusalem, who suffered and died for us, who trusted in his Father who raised him to life, who brings us a word to comfort us when we are weary, and who teaches us words of comfort and hope which we can bring to others.

More to think about:

  • Do you generally prefer to take the easy way or the more difficult way? In what circumstances would you prefer to take the more difficult way? What does that say about what’s more important to you or what you value?
  • How does reading Isaiah 50:4-9a from Jesus’ perspective shape the way you understand these words? How does reading them from Jesus’ perspective shape your understanding of Jesus?
  • Do you think Jesus rode into Jerusalem more knowing what was going to happen or trusting in the saving work of his Father? What is the difference? How can the difference help us when we are struggling with our futures?
  • Do you hear voices accusing you in your life? How can the trust Jesus had in our heavenly Father give you confidence & hope when you face accusations from either inside or outside of yourself?
  • As we travel towards Easter, how can these words from Isaiah 50:4-9a give you a greater insight or appreciation for what Jesus was about to go through? Do they help you walk with Jesus? Do they help you trust that Jesus is walking with you? Discuss why…