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:

God bless!

Christmas 2019

advent conspiracy ending slide

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.

Living in the Light (Colossians 1:11-20)

living in the light

Since the beginning of time, the battle between light and darkness has been one of humanity’s most common and powerful stories. We see it from the Creation story of Genesis 1 where God overcame the darkness by speaking light into existence, right through to the battle between Jedi Knights and Sith Lords using the light and dark side of the Force in the Star Wars movies.

For Christians, the battle between the darkness and the light reached its culmination in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus was born, the one who personified the light of God came into our world which has been made dark through sin and evil. Jesus entered the darkness of human existence to bring us light, exposing the darkness that lives within all people and driving it out through his love and grace. When Jesus went to the cross, he carried all that is dark in the world and put it to death. This was symbolized by the darkness that fell for three hours as the Son of God was crucified. When Jesus was raised to new life on the third day, he brought the light of eternal life to all people in a similar way that the rays of the rising sun expelled the darkness of the night. The victory of the light of Jesus’ life over the darkness of sin and death is the good news that we receive in faith and which gives us new life as God’s people. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God

has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
(Colossians 1:13,14 NLT)

The tense of the verbs Paul uses is significant. He writes that God has rescued us, and he has brought us into the kingdom of Christ. These are events that have happened in the past and which now determine our current reality.

However, wherever there is light in this world there is also shadow. While we might be living in the Kingdom of the Light of God’s love and peace, we can still encounter the darkness of sin and evil in a range of ways. For example, the darkness can still overshadow us when we experience fear, judgment, guilt or face the reality of death. I’ve known too many Christians who have been brought into the Kingdom of Christ but still live in these and other dark shadows.

I don’t write this to make anyone feel bad about it, but to recognise that in our human condition it can be hard for us to live fully in the light. We can tend to think that the darkness we experience in any form is just the way it is and nothing can ever be different. So, like people who have been kept in the dark for too long, we can feel safe and comfortable in the dark, believing that there is nothing beyond it, and that this is just how it is.

But what if life didn’t have to be this way? What if, instead of living in the darkness of fear, judgement, guilt or death, God intended something better for us? As his people whom he has rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the Kingdom of Christ, what if it was possible to live more and more in the light of his love and grace through the power of the Holy Spirit? What if, instead of living in fear, we could find joy? What if the good news of Jesus could actually set us free from the darkness of judgment in our lives? Where guilt casts its shadow over us, what might life be like if we could find forgiveness in the reality of Christ’s Kingdom? All of these and more would contribute to a life that was fully lived in the light of God’s grace, love and peace which we find in the good news of Jesus.

Where do you live right now – in the darkness of fear, judgment and guilt, or in the light of joy, freedom and forgiveness? I’ll say it again: I don’t want anyone to feel bad or guilty about experiencing darkness of any kind in their lives – it is a reality of living in this world and just plays into the devil’s hands when we focus on the dark. Instead, I want to help people see that the light of God’s grace and love has come to us in Jesus. Through him, to use Paul’s words again, God has already ‘rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his Son’! We don’t have to live in the darkness any more because the light is already here!

Where do you want to live – in the dark or in the light? This is our journey as disciples of Jesus. He calls us to follow him from the dark into the light of the joy, freedom and forgiveness that he gives. We can learn a new way of living from Jesus where we can find increasing joy, freedom and forgiveness by leaving the darkness behind and keeping our eyes fixed on his love, peace and hope through faith in him. As we hear Jesus speak words of good news to us through the Bible, as the Holy Spirit grows faith in us, maturing us as God’s children and making us more like Jesus, then the light of God’s grace will shine brighter within us and others will see the goodness of God in us.

In some ways, the battle between darkness and light seems to be very simple. However, more modern interpretations have shown that sometimes the difference is harder to distinguish. Where would you prefer to live – in the dark or in the light? I understand that sometimes it can seem safer and more comfortable to stay in the dark, or at least in the shadows. However, God has already ‘rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.’ Jesus calls us to follow him into lives that experience the reality of that light so others can find his light in us.

Where would you prefer to live?

The Joy of the Lord! (Nehemiah 8:1-3,5,6,8-10)

nehemiah joy 02

Nehemiah was a Jew who was born in exile. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and taken most of its people away as slaves about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. More than a century later, Nehemiah served as cupbearer for Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. The book of the Bible which carries Nehemiah’s name tells us that a relative who had come from Jerusalem told him about the walls of the city which were in ruins and had no gates to protect its people from attack. This made him sad, which was noticed by Artaxerxes. When he asked Nehemiah what was wrong, he told the king about Jerusalem. Artaxerxes then gave Nehemiah permission and the support he needed to return to Jerusalem so he could rebuild its walls.

When Nehemiah reached Jerusalem, he directed its people to rebuild sections of the walls which were closest to them. The work started well, but there were a number of attempts to stop the building by people who didn’t want the walls to be restored. This lead Nehemiah to put half the city’s workers on guard duty while the rest built the wall. He even instructed the workers to carry a weapon in one hand while they continued working with the other.

The wall was finished in just 52 days. This is where the story from this week’s reading begins in chapter 8:1-10. To celebrate the completion of the work, all the people of Jerusalem assembled in a public square and listened to Ezra, the leading priest and scribe in Jerusalem, as he read the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, to them. The people responded to hearing God’s word by crying and weeping.

I don’t think the congregation was upset because they were standing in the hot sun or because the service was taking too long. Instead, as we read Nehemiah’s response to them in verse 10, it seems as though hearing God’s Law made them realise how far short they had fallen of doing what God wanted them to do and being who God wanted them to be. Their reaction was to cry, weep and mourn their sin and their failings.

What Nehemiah said next is vitally important. He told the assembled people not to ‘be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!’ (v10)

Nehemiah was telling God’s people then and now that the strength we need to live as God’s people and to bring his goodness to the world is not through mourning or crying or weeping or sadness. Instead, God wants us to find joy in his saving work because this joy will give us the strength we need to keep us safe and to live in ways that are pleasing to him.

When we read the books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, there are a lot of rules and regulations in them. However, there are also amazing stories of God saving people who were extremely flawed and working through people who were very messed up. The Torah is not just a set of commands, but also stories of grace, mercy, forgiveness and redemption. Nehemiah was urging the people of Jerusalem to hear the stories of the Torah as good news because if God was able to rescue, redeem and restore them, as messed-up as they were, then he was more than able to do the same for the people of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah encourages us to read the stories of the Bible in the same way – as good news! I understand that there are times in the Christian life for reverence, contrition and repentance, but Nehemiah’s words help us understand that what will give us strength as God’s people is the joy of God’s saving work. When we read about or hear the ways in which God has worked in the past, the way he has been with those who suffer, healed the sick, released the captives and given life to the dead, God is also promising us that he can and will do the same for us. When we encounter God’s grace, peace and redemption in the words of the Bible, they carry with them the promise that God is also at work in our lives to bring us grace, peace, redemption and all of his goodness.

We see that in this week’s gospel reading from Luke 4:14-21 as Jesus read the words of Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come.’
(vv 18,19 NLT)

Jesus then went on to say, ‘The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!’ (v21 NLT)

In Jesus, God fulfils his saving work for us. When we read the stories of Jesus, as with all the stories of the Bible, and hear them as good news for us, we can find a deep and lasting sense of joy that will be our strength. Especially when life is hard, when we suffer in any way or we experience tragedy, the stories and words of the Bible can give us a joy that the world can’t give. As we encounter the goodness of God in the gospel of Jesus, we can find joy which gives us strength to keep on living, to keep on loving, to keep on trusting God and hoping for a better tomorrow. Nehemiah tells us that we don’t find this strength in weeping or crying or feeling bad about ourselves or what we’ve done. We find God’s strength in his word, in the stories of his saving work for the people of the Old and New Testaments, and the joy this good news creates in our hearts.

As we begin a new year of ministry at St John’s it is my hope, my prayer and my goal to bring you the good news of Jesus so we can all grow in the joy that will give us strength in every circumstance of life. When we gather together to hear God’s word like the people in the Nehemiah story, I don’t want it to be a burden or a chore. I hope we can do it in eager expectation that through his good news, God will give us joy because of his saving work for us in Jesus, and that joy will give us strength, no matter what life might throw at us.

Joy (Isaiah 12:2-6)

candle of joy 01

Can you imagine, every morning when you wake up, having to gather empty jars from your house, carrying them some distance to the village well, filling them with water, and them carrying them home again just so you can have water to wash and cook with during the day? And then doing that again tomorrow, and the next day, and every day for the rest of your life?

Having hot and cold running water in our homes is such an amazing blessing when we stoop to think about it. However, in the ancient world, and in many places still today, the journey to the village well has been a daily routine just so people can wash and cook their food.

I don’t imagine that this daily chore would be a joy-filled experience. Which is why Isaiah 6:3 strikes me as a little strange. The prophet writes, ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.’ I’m using the New International Version here because, firstly, it is closer to the original Hebrew wording. However, this verse also points us to the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:1-42. That was where Jesus said, ‘whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will becomes in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (v14 NIV). Here, Jesus is talking about himself as the water in the well of salvation in whom we can find a deep, lasting joy.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about how, for Old Testament people, salvation meant so much more than going to heaven when we die. For ancient Hebrew people like Isaiah, salvation was more about life here and now. This is the same life ‘to the full’ (NIV) or the ‘rich and satisfying life’ (NLT) which Jesus offers us in John 10:10. Isaiah talks about this life being found in trusting God and finding freedom from all sorts of fear. We can find deep and lasting joy by trusting God who gives us strength and victory when the challenges and difficulties of this world seem to be too much or too hard for us to handle (Isaiah 12:2). The joy Isaiah describes comes through the promises of the gospel of Jesus: that God is with us, that God is for us, that God loves us enough to give his Son for us on the cross, and his love is stronger than anything in this world, even death itself. The source of biblical joy is Jesus, and the place where we find this joy is in the good news of his birth, life, death and resurrection for us.

Which brings me to a question that has bothered me this week as I’ve prepared this message: how do I help you find this joy? It’s one thing to come to church, hear a message and sing some songs about joy. But finding a deep, lasting joy in Jesus can be something very different.

I wonder if this is where the old saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink becomes applicable? I can point people towards the well of salvation. I can try to give you taste of this life-giving water. But how do I help you find the joy that the Holy Spirit gives through faith in the good news of Jesus?

This image from Isaiah of drawing water from the wells of salvation with joy can actually challenge us to re-think a lot of how we understand ‘church’. For many people I have known, ‘church’ can be a place that is associated with a lot of expectations, obligations and demands, with a not-so-healthy dose of guilt thrown in to make sure we’re doing the ‘right’ thing. This can end up robbing us of joy instead of helping us find joy.

What if, instead, we thought of ‘church’ as a community of believers with whom we are drawing life-giving water from the wells of salvation so that we can find greater joy together in the salvation Jesus has won for us? What if our goal as church was just to find joy in Jesus’ saving work, so we can draw more on the deep, enduring joy of Jesus, we can then share out this life-giving water to others, and they can be finding joy in Jesus as well?

This is another way we can understand discipleship: learning together to throw our buckets into the life-giving water of Jesus, so we can find greater joy in him, no matter what’s going on in our lives. Next year we will be talking more about small groups in our congregation. My hope is that every person who is connected with our congregation will be part of a small group so that together we can be drawing on the life-giving water of Jesus from the well of the gospel and finding greater joy in the life of Jesus.

Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) which means it can’t be manufactured, manipulated or faked. Isaiah tells us that we can find this deep, long-lasting joy in the well of salvation, the good news of Jesus. His saving work is the source of biblical joy in his birth, life, death and resurrection for us . This joy is deeper than feeling happy. It lasts longer than having fun. It sustains us in all the circumstances of life and outlasts everything else that might try to take it away from us.

I really don’t want to talk just about this joy. I want each of us to find deep, lasting joy in the life-giving water of Jesus.

Dressed in Joy (Isaiah 6:1-4,8-11)

advent wk3 joy 01

There are a few people I have spoken with over the last month who have told me that they’re not doing Christmas this year.

In a way, I can understand why they don’t what to buy into the ‘festive’ season. These are people who have been doing it tough for most of the year, are suffering in one way or another, or who have experienced serious tragedies. The idea of trying to have the ‘happy’ Christmas that we see in the media is the furthest thing from their minds as they deal with the difficulties they are experiencing.

However, in another way, this is why Christmas is such an important event for us as disciples of Jesus. When Jesus was born, he didn’t enter into a perfect Christmas like the media portrays. Jesus wasn’t born into an ideal family surrounded by all the trappings of an affluent lifestyle. Instead, he was born into brokenness, suffering and pain. He entered into our messy existence in order to give us something much better than a superficial happiness that we can pursue by consuming goods, services or relationships.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and comes into our lives to give us a deeper joy.

There is a big difference between the happiness the media presents and the joy God offers. Being ‘happy’ is kind of like eating a Christmas lolly or sweet – it’s good for the brief time that it lasts, but when it’s gone it leaves us wanting more. So we consume another lolly, and another one, and another one in the vain hope that if we consume enough, we will finally find lasting happiness. Joy, on the other hand, is like a massive gob-stopper that we can enjoy all day. It is there with us wherever we go, through the good times and the bad, providing us with something that is lasting, real and a lot more satisfying.

God’s promise to us in Jesus isn’t a shallow, temporary ‘happy’ feeling, but a deep, lasting, real sense of joy in all the circumstances of life.

We read about the joy Jesus gives in the words of Isaiah 61. Jesus read this passage in the synagogue in Luke 4:14-21 where he said, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (NIV). Jesus fulfils the Prophet’s words as he comes to us to give us joy in his salvation. Isaiah is packed full of good news for us, and each line contains almost a full sermon in itself. Here’s what Jesus brings us:

  • good news to the poor – Jesus brings good news to all who are impoverished or needy in our hearts, minds or spirits; what follows expands on this good news for us
  • to bind up the broken-hearted – Jesus can heal hearts that are broken with the perfect, infinite love which he shows us in his suffering, death and resurrection
  • freedom for the captives – Jesus’ love sets us free from the things in life that trap or bind us, such as sin, death and the devil’s power
  • release from darkness – we all go through dark times, and people I’ve known who suffer depression have described it as a darkness over them, but Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12), comes to free from the darkness
  • the year of the Lord’s favour – in the Old Testament, a Jubilee year was when Jewish society was reset as debts were forgiven, land was returned and slaves set free (see Leviticus 25); now is the year of the Lord’s favour as Jesus puts things back the way they were meant to be
  • to comfort all who mourn – Jesus defeats death through his crucifixion and resurrection so even as we mourn the loss of loved ones, we can still find comfort in the hope that life goes on beyond death for all who die in faith
  • provide for those who grieve – we grieve when we suffer loss; Jesus provides for us when we grieve the losses we suffer; he doesn’t always give us what we want, but always what we need
  • a crown of beauty instead of ashes – another Old Testament reference to grief, mourning and repentance (see Job 2:8, Jonah 3:6 NLT); Jesus replaces ashes with the honour of being children of the King of all Kings
  • joy instead of mourning – in the middle of life’s struggles, challenges and tragedies, we can still find a sense of joy in Jesus’ promises by the power of his Holy Spirit
  • praise instead of a spirit of despair – this joy results in praise as we live in the good news of what God has done, is doing and will do for us in Jesus

One way we can listen to these words from Isaiah is to ask where we are in them – are we in need, broken-hearted, trapped, in a dark place, mourning or grieving a loss? Then we can look at what Jesus brings us through his presence with his by his Spirit – good news, healing, freedom, favour, comfort, as he provides for us in our need and crowns us as his nation of royal priests (1 Peter 2:9). These promises become the source of joy for us who believe, as Jesus becomes one with us in his birth and gives the fullness of God’s goodness to us, no matter what our circumstances might be.

I would love for us as Jesus’ disciples to find a better way of celebrating the birth of Jesus. It seems to me that one of the reasons people don’t want to celebrate Christmas when they are hurting is that, as church, we have bought too much into the world’s idea of a shallow, ‘happy’ Christmas. How could we celebrate the birth of Jesus and with a joy that is deep, lasting and real, while still taking seriously the reality of suffering in people’s lives?

The good news we can celebrate this year and every year is that Jesus is born into our broken, painful, messed up lives where we experience suffering, tragedy and grief. Jesus comes to give us the promise of something much better. The birth of Jesus is good news for us, no matter what our circumstances might be. And this good news can help us find a real and lasting sense of joy which will last for ever.

More to think about:

  • What do you enjoy or not enjoy about the Christmas season? Why is that?
  • Do you think there is a difference between being ‘happy’ and experiencing ‘joy’? Why or why not?
  • How can the birth of Jesus give us joy, even if we are not feeling happy?
  • Read Isaiah 61:1-3. Is there anything that describes what you or someone else may be going through this Christmas? Spend some time explaining why.
  • What does Isaiah promise to people who may be experiencing what you’re going though? Discuss how the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus can bring us joy in these circumstances.
    (If you’re finding that particularly hard, contact me & I’ll see if I can offer some help…)