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?

Heaven Comes Down (Revelation 21:1-6)

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What do you think heaven will be like?

There are lots of ways people answer this question. If people believe in a life after death – and it’s important to acknowledge that an increasing number of people in our society think that there is nothing after we die – then our picture of what that life looks like can vary a lot from person to person.

When I was growing up in the church, the picture I had of heaven was a kingdom in the sky where we would be living in clouds, singing old hymns with a pipe organ in a vast heavenly choir. To be honest, as a teenager it didn’t sound like the kind of eternity I was hoping for. In fact, if heaven was singing old hymns for ever, I wasn’t actually sure I wanted to be a part of it.

Thankfully, Revelation 21:1-6 gives us a very different picture of heaven to what I had as a teenager. It tells us that in eternity ‘there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain’ (v4) because the brokenness of life in this world will be gone for ever. This is an eternity that we can all look forward to, as pain and suffering of every kind is eradicated once and for all.

What can be challenging for those of us who have grown up with the ‘heaven in the clouds’ picture of eternity is where John tells us we will spend the afterlife. Instead of being taken up to God’s kingdom in the sky, John says quite the opposite. He doesn’t see people going up into heaven. John sees heaven come down to earth.

In Revelation 21:2, John writes ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven’ (NLT). He then goes on to tell us,

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.’ (v3 NLT)

John locates our eternity on earth, not in the clouds. I understand that the Bible gives the impression of heaven being ‘up there’ in passages such as Jesus’ ascension (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9) and when Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica about Jesus’ return on the last day (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). I don’t believe that these writers contradict each other because sometimes the Bible describes the same truth from different points of view. John’s perspective, as he relates his vision of eternity to us, is that God’s kingdom will descend to earth and God will establish his eternal reign, restoring the world to the way God intended it from the beginning.

In the next two chapters of Revelation, John gives us a fuller picture of what eternity will be like. If you’re interested in his vision of heaven, please read Revelation chapters 21 and 22 and let me know if there’s anything in there you would like to discuss or aren’t sure about. For now, though, I just want to focus on the idea that heaven comes down to us and what that means for us as followers of Jesus as we live a life of faith.

For some Christians who have held to a ‘kingdom in the sky’ picture of eternity, the world doesn’t matter. They can see it as a broken and evil place which God will eventually destroy. This idea of the material world being corrupt and sinful has lead people to wrongly think that we don’t need to take care of the world and we can do nothing as we wait for God to take us somewhere better. So over the course of history, some ‘Christians’ have sat around, waiting for heaven to arrive, letting the world get worse and worse.

If, however, we take the message of John’s revelation seriously that God is making all things new (v5), then we need to start looking at the world around us through different eyes. If God’s plan of salvation includes restoring all of creation to its original condition, then we have a part of play in God’s plan. Jesus announced God’s coming kingdom at the start of his public ministry (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). Jesus’ miracles were evidence that God’s coming kingdom was breaking into the world through Jesus to make things right again. Every time we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, we ask that God’s kingdom would come to us and our world (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). The coming of God’s kingdom isn’t just something that will happen at the end of time, which is the way some people read Revelation. God’s kingdom comes to us in Jesus now. He is the presence of the living God among us (Matthew 1:22,23) who makes his home with us (both John 1:14 and Revelation 21:3 use the same word when talking about God ‘tabernacling’ or dwelling with us).

While we wait for Jesus to return to establish his eternal kingdom, the heavenly city of the new Jerusalem, we have an important role to play in God’s mission to restore the world to its original condition. God’s kingdom of heaven is coming into the world right now, and one of the ways it does that is through us, the body of Christ. God is calling us to participate with him in making all things new as we live like citizens of this kingdom. In Revelation, John gives us a picture of our eternal future. As we wait for its fulfilment, God calls us to live like this is where we have our home, this is where we belong, and this is what we have to look forward to. Our job as the people of God is not to sit around, waiting for him to take us to heaven. Instead, God saves us and calls us to be citizens of the new Jerusalem, God’s presence in the world, making all things new, just like God intended life to be in Genesis 1.

How can you be part of God’s work in the world this week through what you say and do? How can you work with God in bringing his heavenly city into your homes, where you work, your schools and universities, your sporting or social groups, or wherever God might lead you? As people whose home is the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, we are part of its coming when we live now like we will live in eternity, trusting in God’s goodness and grace to us in Jesus and loving others in the same way he loves us. When we live in faith and love, we are part of God’s coming kingdom and we share in its coming reality now and for ever.

More to think about:

  • What do you think heaven will be like? Spend some time reflecting on or discussing your thoughts. If you are more artistic, you might like to draw or paint what you imagine heaven to be like…
  • What surprises you about what John sees in Revelation 21:1-6? What doesn’t seem to make sense?
  • What is similar to what you imagine heaven to be like? What is different?
  • What is you reaction to the picture of eternity being spent on a restored earth which God has made new where life will be what he intended from the beginning? What do you like about that picture? What doesn’t sit comfortably with you?
  • If this is how we can view eternity, how might it change the way you see the world around you? Is it worth restoring? Share your thoughts on why you think that…
  • If we will spend eternity in a world which God has restored to its original condition, how might you be able to work with God in making ‘all things new’… in your home & family? in your paid or unpaid work? in your relationships? in your church? in the wider community? in other ways…?

Son of David (Matthew 21:1-11)

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Over the season of Lent, people from our congregation have been reading through the gospel of Matthew and listening to what Jesus teaches us about discipleship. From the very beginning of book, we saw that Matthew points us to Jesus as King David’s descendant who was promised in the Old Testament to reign over God’s people and establish his eternal kingdom.

This theme began in chapter one when Matthew used Jesus’ family history to show Jesus’ connection with David and the royal house of Judah. When we come to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in today’s reading, then, we see the crowds welcome Jesus in the hopeful expectation that he really is the king they have been waiting for, and that he will establish the kingdom of God on earth.

As we have read through Matthew’s gospel, I’ve been thinking about how the two themes of discipleship and the kingdom of God fit together. It seems to me that…

Discipleship is … living with Jesus as our king.

We can often think of kings as being tyrants who are removed from the everyday life of their subjects and who only use their power for their own self-interest. Especially in Australia, we tend to have a strongly anti-authoritarian views of those in positions of power, and so we can be suspicious and cynical of anyone who claims to be a king.

Jesus is a totally different kind of king. It is important to hear the crowds in Jerusalem welcome Jesus as the descendant of David, who was to rule in the same way that David ruled. When we read the stories of David’s reign in 2 Samuel, we see a king who made mistakes and who didn’t always use his power wisely. However, David was thought of as being the greatest king of Israel because he was a king who looked after God’s people like a shepherd looks after the sheep entrusted to him.

This is the kind of king Jesus is. He uses his authority and power for the benefit of those in his care, not for his own personal gain. Like a shepherd, he provides for his people, protects his people from harm and danger, leads his people to green pastures and good waters, and takes care of them in all their needs. When we read through the great shepherd psalm composed by David, Psalm 23, we have a great picture of what our shepherd-king does for us as he provides us with everything we need for this life and the next.

That was why the crowds in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus with the cry ‘Hosanna!’ (v9) which literally means ‘Save us!’ They were hoping that the shepherd-king would save them from their enemies and bring in a new era of peace for God’s people. As a people who were occupied by a foreign and often brutal empire, they looked to Jesus as the promised deliverer who would free them from their oppression.

This is what our shepherd-king does for us. Jesus brings us saving help, not just for the life to come, but also in all the circumstances of life in this world. Matthew points to Jesus as the king who is with us in every situation of life (see Matthew 1:23 & 28:20b) to give us the help we need. We can find freedom from fear, guilt, shame and worry through faith in Jesus the shepherd-king who has all authority in heaven and earth (28:18) and who uses his authority to forgive, heal, make clean and bless. All the way through the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is bringing life to people as their shepherd—king as he gives his saving help to everyone who needs it.

To live as Jesus’ disciple and a member of his kingdom is to look to him and trust in him as the one who brings God’s saving help to us, whatever we might need. We can be critical of the people of Jerusalem who were welcoming Jesus as their king on that first Palm Sunday, but who then called out for his crucifixion only five days later. We are not that different if we turn up to worship, or even in our own private worship, sing Jesus’ praises as our king, but then fail to look to him as the source of our saving help in other aspects of our lives. It is too easy for us to look to ourselves, other people or other places for the help we need instead of to Jesus. To live with Jesus as our king is to live each moment of each day, looking to him, our shepherd-king, as he brings us saving help in all the circumstances of life.

As we journey through Holy Week towards the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, we witness what our shepherd-king was willing and able to do for us to provide us with the freedom and saving help that we need. Jesus isn’t a king who sits on a throne in a castle and sends others to fight his battles for him. Jesus is a king who enters into our battles, who embraces our suffering, to take on the enemies we face that would rob us of the life God wants to give us, and who triumphs over them on the cross and in the empty tomb. As we celebrate the events of Easter, we see what our shepherd-king did for us in defeating sin, death and the devil’s power, and the victory he gives to us as his disciples and citizens of his kingdom.

With Jesus as our king, his victory is ours, every day of our lives.

More to think about:

  • What comes to your mind when you think about a ‘king’? Do you usually think of kings in positive or negative ways?
  • When the crowds in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday welcomed Jesus as their king, what do you think they were hoping for?
  • Why do you think public opinion towards Jesus changed so dramatically between this event on Sunday and his crucifixion on Friday? What changed their minds?
  • What do you think of the image of Jesus as a shepherd-king who has saving help for us in all the circumstances of our lives? In what areas of life do you need help right now? How might Jesus be able to help you as your shepherd-king?
  • If you were to live everyday with Jesus as your king, would it make a difference? In what ways? or Why not?

Repentance Fruit (Matthew 3:1-12)

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We can often think of repentance in very negative ways. The call to repent can bring to mind a person standing on a street corner, telling people to turn from their sins because judgement is coming that will result in condemnation for all who are not living the right way. Repentance is often based on threats and can be motivated by guilt and fear.

When we listen to John the Baptist’s call to repentance in Matthew 3, we can hear him urging those who are listening to him to turn from a particular way of living. What is important is that John was talking this way to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious people of his day (v7). John was telling them that going through a religious ritual with no intention of making changes in their lives was worthless. Instead of thinking that they had no need to repent because of their religious goodness, they needed to produce the fruit that comes from a changed heart and mind in their lives.

This is a challenge to all of us. It can be easy for us, too, to go through the motions of turning up to church, saying a prayer of confession, hearing the forgiveness, without it making a difference in our lives. When John the Baptist calls us to produce fruit in keeping, he is saying that repentance will show in the way we live and relate to other people.

For example, during Advent we celebrate God’s gifts of hope, peace, joy and love through the birth of Jesus. This is a good time to look at our lives and ask whether we are producing the fruit of hope, peace, joy or love in our lives. If we are turning up to worship, lighting the candles each week, singing carols and other songs, but not finding hope, peace, joy or love in our lives, then we are not too different from the Pharisees and Sadducees who turned up to be baptised by John but were not willing to change their ways of living. It might sound harsh, but when John says that the axe is at the root of the tree, ready to cut it down if it is not bearing fruit (v10), he also warning us that God wants to see the fruit of hope, peace, joy and love in our lives.

What produces this fruit is turning towards God by trusting in the promise of his coming kingdom. Matthew writes that John’s message of repentance was the same as Jesus’ message at the start of his ministry: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 3:2; 4:17 NIV). They both call people to turn to God and be part of his coming kingdom on earth. The coming Kingdom of Heaven is good news for us because Christ’s kingdom brings with it all the goodness of God in the person of Jesus. John and Jesus both call us to repent, to turn towards God, on the basis of the promise of God’s goodness coming to us in his kingdom. We can hear this call to repentance as the promise of something good and not just a threat of punishment.

With the coming of Christ’s kingdom is everything we need to produce the fruit God is looking for. If I am trying to grow fruit on a tree, the best way to help it produce a good crop is to feed it, water it, care for it and nurture it. God does the same with us by giving us what we need through Jesus to produce fruit in us. This is called ‘grace’. If we are lacking hope in our lives, Jesus gives us hope as the one who defeated death and whose life is stronger than anything that might try to take our hope away. If we are in conflict, either with ourselves or with others, Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross establishes peace between us and God which we can live out in our relationships with ourselves and with others. If we are lacking joy, the good news of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection can give us joy as we live in the reality of God’s grace and love for us. And if we are finding it hard to love God, others or ourselves, the love that God show us in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection can inspire love in us for everyone who needs it. Whatever fruit we may be lacking in our lives, by turning towards Christ’s kingdom through faith, the Holy Spirit provides us with all we need to produce the fruit of repentance in our lives.

That is why John the Baptist calls us to repent. Instead of spending our lives looking for hope, peace, joy or love in ways that will ultimately fall short, he is calling us back to the one place where God provides us with everything we need to produce what he is looking for. Repentance is a vital part of the lifestyle of the follower of Jesus. It grows when we trust that God has everything we need for this life and the next and gives us what we need as an on-going act of grace through the coming of his kingdom in Jesus. Repentance is much bigger than turning up to church sometimes and saying a ‘sorry’ prayer. By participating in acts of confessing sin with sisters and brothers in Christ, and by receiving the forgiveness God has for us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit will continue to grow us to maturity so we can produce the fruits of repentance which God is looking for in our lives.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to think about repentance as turning away from judgement & condemnation, or turning towards the hope, peace, joy and love Jesus brings in his coming kingdom? is the difference important? Can you explain why?
  • I have talked about some of the fruits of repentance as hope, peace, joy and love. What are some other fruits that grow out of turning towards Jesus & living in his kingdom?
  • The New Testament talks a lot more about repentance than confessing sin. In what ways are repentance & confession different? In what ways are they connected?
  • What is one aspect of your life where repentance (making changes) is hard? How can being connected with Jesus help you make changes in your life? (see John 15:1-8)
  • It can be a lot easier to pray a prayer of confession in church than it is to repent by confessing to someone that we have wronged them. Is there someone that you have wronged to whom it would be good for you confess to? How can this help establish peace in your life this Christmas?