Standing in Grace (Romans 5:1-8)

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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!

‘Hosanna!’ (Matthew 21:1-11)

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One week out from Easter, on a day we know as Palm Sunday, Christians commemorate an event in Jesus’ life which points towards the culmination of his ministry. Jesus entered Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, and as we read in Matthew 21:1-11, a very large crowd gathered to welcome him. they lay their outer garments and tree branches on the road in front of him as Jesus rode on a donkey. Then the crowd acknowledged Jesus as the heir of King David who would come to save them by shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 NIV)

This word Hosanna has been used in lots of different Christian songs and hymns over the centuries, particularly in those written for Palm Sunday or which acknowledge Jesus as King. But what does it mean? Like a lot of words we can use in Christian conversations, songs, hymns and worship, it can be good for us to give some thought to its meaning and why we use it.

Literally Hosanna means, ‘Save!’ It is used in Psalm 118:25 to ask God to send his Messiah to liberate his people and give them ‘success’ (NIV) in all they did. When the people of Jerusalem used it to welcome Jesus to their city, they were using this ancient term to point to him as the one who would save them by freeing them from tyranny and restoring them as the people of God.

When I think about how we use the word ‘save’ in our place and time, there are aspects to its meaning which can help us understand more about what the word Hosanna means for us. For example, as I wrote this message out on my computer, I will regularly ‘save’ my work so I don’t lose it but can keep it to send out to you. When I go to the beach to swim, there might be a ‘life-saver’ to look out for me and rescue me when I get into trouble. When I go to the shops, I will generally look for specials so I can ‘save’ some money off my grocery bill.

However, most of the time when I hear the word ‘save’ I tend to think about money boxes. These are boxes of various shapes and sizes which we can use to save our money, especially our coins or small change. We save coins in money boxes because they are valuable to us. We save them because we might not want other people in our household from taking them from us. We might also save them because, when we add them to other loose change we have saved in our money box, they become part of something greater than themselves and are able to purchase something more expensive than if they had remained on their own.

The main way Christians often think about being ‘saved’ is going to heaven when we die. I wonder, though, when we sing Hosanna this Palm Sunday, we might be calling on Jesus to save us in ways that aren’t too different from the ways we can save our coins.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus saves us because we are valuable to him. 1 Peter 1:18-19 tells us that God didn’t save us with perishable things like silver or gold, but with ‘the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God’ (NLT). Jesus rode into Jerusalem to save us because we are worth more to God than all the silver and gold in the world. God gives the most valuable thing he has, the life of his own Son, to make us his own because that’s what you are worth to him. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us because to him we are worth it.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus also saves us because he wants to keep us safe. Especially during this time when our church buildings are closed, we’re practising social distancing and we are isolated from each other, it is good for us to trust that Jesus saves us to keep us safe. Whether we are afraid of how COVID-19 might affect us or our loved ones, we are anxious about the future, or feeling lonely and disconnected from others, Jesus keeps us safe by embracing us in his resurrection love and surrounding us with the light of his good news. It doesn’t mean the we won’t have problems or suffering in life, but when they do come, we can be confident that they won’t overcome us and we have Jesus’ resurrection life in us. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us by keeping us safe.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus saves us by making us a part of something bigger than ourselves. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as King, not of a temporary, earthly kingdom, but of the eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus makes us part of his Kingdom which includes all people who are saved from every time and every place. This is the family of God, the body of Christ, the community of God’s holy people, the Christian Church. As we face a period of isolation because of the COVID-19 virus, we are never truly alone. God brings us into community with other believers so we can encourage each other, build each other up in faith and love, strengthen each other and walk with each other until God brings us through this time and we can be physically present with each other again. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us by making us citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, his living, breathing body on earth.

This Palm Sunday, what does it mean to you to be saved? A greater sense of self-worth? Being kept safe from things that might take life from you? Being part of something bigger than ourselves, even while we might be isolated or alone? Or it might mean something different. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as God’s chosen King who comes to us here and now to give us his saving help. Where do you need his saving help in your life?

As we sing Hosanna, Jesus comes to save us all…

More to think about & discuss:

  • When you read this story, what questions do you have?
  • How do you understand what it means to be ‘saved’?
  • When we think about being saved like coins in a money box, what connects more with where you are in your life: Jesus giving you value, keeping you safe or connecting you to something bigger than yourself? Or something else? Explain why…
  • How might trusting that you are a saved child of God help you see what you are going through right now a bit differently?

Jesus’ Guest List (Luke 14:1,7-14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

The Kingdom of Love (2 Samuel 7:1-11,16)

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I am amazed how often I see stories about the royal family in my news-feed when I open my email homepage. Australians are divided on whether the Queen should be our head of state or not, but that doesn’t stop us having a fascination with the royal family, who they are marrying, or what they are wearing. Occasionally I see people debating who will be the next King of Great Britain – whether it will be Charles or pass straight to William. It reminds me that all monarchs, rulers and governments in this world are temporary. It doesn’t matter whether they get their power from being part of a family or through more democratic means, at some stage every worldly ruler passes on their authority on to someone else.

During the Christmas season, Christians celebrate the birth of the child who has come to reign as our spiritual King and to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. This king was foretold throughout the Old Testament and God’s people waited for centuries for his coming. When Jesus was born, the prophesied king came into our world to establish God’s kingdom and to reign over his people.

There are a number of ways in which the reign of Jesus as our king is very different from the reign of earthly rulers. I would like to look at three ways in which Jesus’ kingdom is different from any other worldly government.

Firstly, as the prophet Nathan told David about a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, this king would reign forever. In 2 Samuel 7:1-16 we read that David wanted to build a physical house made of stone and word in which God could make his home in the world. God turns it around and tells David through the prophet Nathan that instead he would build a spiritual ‘house’ from David’s descendants, meaning a dynasty of kings. One of David’s descendants would reign over an eternal kingdom which would never end. This prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus who began his reign over the kingdom of God during his earthly ministry and who continues to reign over us now through faith. The promise is that Jesus’ kingdom will never end as he will rule over us for all of eternity.

The second big difference is that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t made up of a complicated legal system which only lawyers can understand. As we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent, we remember that Jesus’ kingdom has just one command: the law of love. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength, and to love others like we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). In John’s gospel, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus gave a new commandment to his followers: to love each other in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34). The rest of the New Testament explores how communities of Jesus’ followers were working out how this law looked in their relationships with each other. In the same way, as members of Jesus’ kingdom through faith, we only have one law to live by: to love each other in the same self-giving, self-sacrificing way that Jesus loves us.

This leads us to the third big difference between our worldly rulers and the way Jesus rules over us as our spiritual King. Earthly rulers can make all the rules they want, but they cannot give us the ability to keep them. In Jesus’ kingdom, we have a king who gives us what we need so that we can live in the way he wants us to. Jesus’ new command is based on and flows out of the love he gives us. During his time on earth, Jesus loved others perfectly, not just to set us an example for us to follow, but so that we can know his perfect love for us. We can understand grace as God giving to us what he wants from us. Jesus our king loves us perfectly by being born for us, living for us, dying for us and rising again from the grave to give us new life through faith in him. It would kind of be like Queen Elizabeth II paying the taxes she demands from us so that we can use that money to help and bless other people. Jesus rules as our king to use his power and authority to provide for us in every way, to protect us from all harm, and to keep us strong in his love. Through the experience of being loved by our King Jesus we are then able to love the people around us, not matter how difficult it might be to do that. As we live in the reality of Jesus’ Kingdom of Love, we participate in his love by receiving his love through faith in him and sharing his love in our relationships with others.

Talking about Australia as a constitutional monarchy runs the risk of people arguing over the Queen should be our head of state or not. I don’t want to get into that because, like King David about three thousand years ago, kings and queens come and go, and their kingdoms, constitutions and governments are only temporary. However, we belong to the eternal Kingdom of Love whose king will rule forever. We encounter Jesus’ love when we look into the manger in faith and see our king who is born for us in Bethlehem. This is the king who loves us perfectly in his life, death and resurrection. This is the king who still rules over our hearts with his love. And this is the king whose perfect, infinite grace will keep us in his Kingdom of Love for ever.