Choices (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

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We all make choices. Each and every day of our lives, we choose things like what to eat, what to wear, where to go, how to get there and almost an infinite number of other things. As Christians living in the developed world, we have more choices than we know what to do with.

For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have discussed the extent and limits of human choice. Some have argued that we have no real choices because every aspect of our lives has been predetermined by fate, destiny or something similar. Others have argued that we have unlimited choices and that we have the power to choose anything we want.

Like most things, I tend to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle – we have choices but those choices have limits. Ultimately, only God is totally free to choose. The rest of us are restricted by our genetic makeup (nature), our upbringing and past experiences (nurture), our physical restrictions and the way in which we perceive the world around us. It all gets pretty complicated, and while I’m not able to fully explore the idea of choice in this message, I’m always happy to discuss it with people more if you’d like.

No matter how we might perceive the extent or limits of human choice, the reading from Deuteronomy 30:15-20 reminds us that we have choices. Moses was addressing the Israelites at the end of their forty-year wandering in the wilderness. He was just about to leave them and hand over to Joshua to lead them into the Promised Land. Earlier in Deuteronomy, Moses had reminded the Israelites that they are the people God has chosen for his own (see 4:37, 7:6, 7:7, 10:15, 14:2). In this part of his address, Moses tells the Israelites that God was placing before them two different ways to move into their future. One way would lead to life with goodness and blessings. The other to death with evil and curses (vv15,19). I really don’t think Moses was threatening them if they make the wrong choice. He was just telling them how it is. One path would lead them to walk with God who creates and sustains all life with his goodness and blessing. The other path would lead them away from God, to the absence of good, along with curses and ultimately death.

In our time and place, with the emphasis our culture places on our freedom and rights to make choices, it is important for us to listen to what God is saying to us through Moses. There are choices we make which lead us down roads that are good or evil because they have consequences for ourselves and for the people around us. These choices either create and grow life in us and in others, or they impede, damage or even end life in us or in the people around us. For a lot of choices that we make, we need to understand and accept that they can result in either life or death, good or evil, blessings or curses, for ourselves and for other people.

Moses helps us to make choices which bring God’s goodness, blessings and life to us and to the people around us by saying that we can choose life by loving the Lord our God, listening to his voice and clinging to him (v20, my translation).

When we are living in the reality of the perfect and infinite love of God for us in Jesus, we can love God for his goodness, grace and love which frees us from sin, death and the power of evil. Trusting in the love of Jesus will help us to naturally make choices that lead to life. Through faith in the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can learn from Jesus how make choices that are based on love, choosing what is good and finding God’s blessings in our lives.

We encounter and grow in Christ’s love by listening to God in the words of Scripture. In my life, the Bible has been the clearest way that I’ve heard God communicate what he wants for us and how he wants us to live as his chosen people. I know that often the Bible doesn’t give us specific instructions on what choices we should make, but as we listen to God’s voice in his Word, the Holy Spirit will shape our hearts and minds in ways that will help us walk in step with God and lead us into the life God has for us in Jesus.

Clinging to God means that holding on to him in all the circumstances of life like we would a life buoy when we’re in deep water. Instead of thinking that we have to make a ‘right’ choice for God to love us, or worrying that God will reject us if we make a ‘wrong’ choice, clinging to God in faith means trusting that God’s love for us in Christ will change never change, no matter what choices we make. God won’t love us any less if we choose wrongly and he can’t love us any more if we choose rightly. When we make choices which are grounded in love by listening to God in his Word, we can find a lot of freedom because in Jesus God loves us unconditionally and can even create good when we get it wrong (Romans 8:28).

As our family faces the choice between staying here at Tea Tree Gully or accepting a call to serve another congregation, Moses’ words from Deuteronomy 30:15-20 aren’t just some abstract theological theory. These are words that give me guidance, comfort and hope in the decision that faces us. As people God has chosen for his own, like the Israelites about to enter into the Promised Land, God gives us freedom to make choices. Do we choose paths that take life away from us and from the people around us, leading us into evil and curses? Or, in the freedom we have through God’s liberating love for us in Jesus, do we choose life by loving God, listening to him, and clinging to him in all the decisions we make?

It’s not always easy, but God’s promise is that through his liberating love and grace for us in Jesus, we can choose life!

Listening to Jesus (Luke 9:28-36)

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Every day we have dozens, maybe hundreds, of voices speaking into our lives. They can be the voices of family members, friends, people we work with, teachers, the media, social media, advertising, people on the radio, musicians, and more…

If we were to listen to each of the voices that are constantly speaking into our lives, I wonder what messages we would hear. They might be words of encouragement and affirmation. We might hear expectations, vices telling us who we should be, what we should look like, or what we should do. These can quickly become words of criticism, judgement or condemnation when we feel like we don’t live up to the expectations we have of ourselves or others have of us.

The voices we listen to go a long way in shaping our view of ourselves, the world around us and our place in it. To put it another way, the words we listen to can play a big part in shaping our identity, our belonging and our purpose in life.

Of all the voices that speak into my life, there is one I listen to most. It is the voice that most clearly speaks words of grace, love, hope and peace. While so many other voices are telling me who I should be, what I should do, and that I’m not good enough for a whole range of reasons, there is one voice which tells me that there is something bigger and better than all of that. This voice is the voice that speaks words of forgiveness and mercy and love and a life that is stronger than death.

This is the voice of Jesus.

In Luke 9:28-36, when the disciples went up a mountain to pray with Jesus and saw him in his heavenly glory, the voice that came from heaven told then to listen to the Son. God knows the voices that we hear in the world. God knows how they can be words that take life from us. God wants to give us his love and life and hope and peace. The way he does that is through his creative and powerful word.

Right from the beginning of creation, God’s word brought order to chaos, light to the darkness, and life where there was nothing. That’s why the Apostle John identifies Jesus as the Word of God and the Light of the World (John 1:1-5; 8:12). Jesus is the word God speaks into our existence to continue his creative work of bringing order from chaos, light from darkness, and life from nothing. God continues to speak his word which brings life and hope and love and peace in Jesus through his Holy Spirit. As we listen to Jesus speak to us through God’s word, the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, works in our hearts, minds and souls to create the goodness of God in us and to give us God’s good gifts. Listening to Jesus becomes crucial in the lives of his followers, not just because God is telling us what to do or giving us guidance through them. Instead, listening to the voice of Jesus in God’s word is the way the Holy Spirit breathes life into us so we can grow as the body of Christ in faith and love.

This Lent, the focus in our church will be helping people learn how to listen to Jesus’ voice in God’s word. This is a priority for me throughout my ministry, but Lent gives us a special opportunity to get together around God’s word and learn together how to listen to Jesus’ voice in it. Each Wednesday morning and evening you are invited to gather and spend time listening to what God is saying to us through the coming Sunday’s message text. The discussion will be very open ended. It will be less about what I hear in the text and more about learning to hear for ourselves the words of grace, love and truth which Jesus might be saying to us.

After Easter I hope that we will be able to continue to meet around God’s word in smaller groups, maybe even just two or three, to listen to what Jesus is saying to us as he builds us up in our faith in him and love for each other through his words of truth, grace, love and peace. In this way, we can become more and more a community of faith which is listening to Jesus, learning from him, growing in his love and mercy, and being equipped as the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Once we are able to hear the grace-filled and life-giving voice of Jesus in God’s word, then we have a new and better word to speak to the world and the people around us. When we are listening to the voice of Jesus, the Holy Spirit uses his words to shape us, our identity, our belonging and our purpose. We can find ourselves and all we need in Jesus. We become God’s mouthpieces to the world as we speak the truth and love, grace and mercy of Jesus to others in every conversation we have with our families, friends, work colleagues, strangers. Everything we say can be seasoned with the grace of God, as Paul says in Colossians 4:6. When we are listening to Jesus and the Holy Spirit is shaping us through his word, then our words will also change so others can hear the echo of Jesus’ voice in us.

For some people, listening to God’s voice is a super-spiritual, mystical event. It doesn’t need to be. God has spoken very clearly and simply to us through the words of many people over the centuries, but most specifically though his Son (Hebrews 1:1,2). The disciples recognised that Jesus had the words which give a life which is stronger than death (John 6:68)! This Lent, join with us in learning how to listen to the voice of Jesus so together we can find greater hope, joy, peace and love in him.

Psalm 91:1,2,9-16 Discussion/Reflection Questions

Next Sunday’s message at St John’s will be based on Psalm 91:1,2,9-16. Read the text and then discuss or reflect on the following questions:

  • What questions to you have of the text?
  • What promise do you hear from God in this text?
  • What is difficult to believe about this text? Why do you find it hard to believe?
  • In Luke 4:9-12 the devil used these words to tempt Jesus. How does what the devil say show us how we can interpret them wrongly?
  • How do you think Jesus might have interpreted these words while he was hanging on the cross? What do you think they might have been saying to him then?
  • When we are going through difficult times or suffering in life, would these words be difficult to believe? Or might they be able to give you hope? Explain why…

Feel free to leave any comments or questions below.

God bless ya…

Doing the Word (James 1:17-27)

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We all know how important it is to follow the directions when we need to take medication. If we are sick, it doesn’t help us to go to a doctor, get a prescription, listen to how we are to take it, but then put it on the shelf and forget about it. If we are going to get better, we need to trust that the medicine will do what the doctor promises, follow the directions and take our medication.

When it comes to medicine, it makes sense to both listen and do. It is the same for us as followers of Jesus. One of my greatest concerns as a pastor is that it can be easy for us to turn up to worship, hear a message, thank the pastor for the message at the door, but nothing changes after that. I have actually had a couple of people tell me over my years of ministry that they don’t want to think too much or be challenged in their faith. All they want is to come to church and hear a nice sermon.

Seriously.

That’s why James’ words about not just listening to God’s word but doing what it says are so important for us. We all carry an illness called sin. While it may not be popular to talk about sin in our contemporary Western culture, the reality I see is that we’re all suffering from the effects of sin in our lives in one way or another. We all suffer from broken relationships, illness, death and other maladies which come from carrying sin in us like an infection that we can’t get rid of.

Like a medication prescribed to give us health and life, God’s word is the remedy for sin. Every story in the Bible, from the creation of the world in Genesis 1, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, to the fulfilment of God’s salvation in Revelation, points us to a God who brings light and life to the world and everything in it through his word. The centre of these stories, the person of Jesus, makes new life possible by carrying all our sin in himself to the cross, putting it to death once and for all, and giving us the gift of new life through his resurrection. The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is God’s way of giving us healing, wholeness and life in a similar way that medication gives us healing, wholeness and life when we face a specific illness. That’s why James writes that God’s word has the power to save us (v20 NIV). God’s word isn’t just information about God. It is the power of God to heal us from sin and give us life that is stronger than death (see Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

If God’s medication for our condition is the good news of Jesus, then his directions for taking that medication is faith. One of the mistakes we can make is to think that God’s word is a long set of moral rules and ethical commands, and that doing what the word says means keeping all these rules. Instead, the directions Jesus gives us is to trust the good news of his sin-conquering, life-giving love. I tend to interpret the words of the Bible through what Jesus says in John 6:29. Some people had come to Jesus to ask him what the works were that God wanted them to do. Jesus replied, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (NIV). If the good news of Jesus is the medication, his directions are to trust him. That’s it. The rest of the Bible tells us what this faith looks like, and how it can make a difference in our lives and the lives of the people around us.

If we listen to James’ words about being both hearers and doers of God’s word from this perspective, we can understand them saying that it is vital that we not only hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, but that we live like it’s true. When we find God’s love in the gospel, then ‘doing the word’ means loving others, even when it’s hard or we don’t think they deserve it. When we encounter God’s grace, ‘doing the word’ means being grace-filled in our relationships with others. When we experience God’s mercy, forgiveness and peace in the gospel, ‘doing the word’ means being merciful, forgiving and peace-making towards everyone we meet. Following Jesus isn’t just about finding his goodness for ourselves. Being ‘doers of his word’ means extending the goodness of God we find in Jesus towards everyone in our lives through all we do and say.

This week, I want to challenge you to be hearers as well as doers of God’s word in your lives. If you’re not a regular reader of the Bible, doing God’s word might start with making time each day to listen to the good news God wants to speak into your life. It really doesn’t matter how we’re reading our Bibles. What’s important is that we’re listening for God’s promises of grace, love, forgiveness and new life in his word for ourselves. If you need help doing that or not sure where to start, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Being a doer of God’s word might also mean praying regularly. Last week we heard Paul write, ‘pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere’ (Ephesians 6:18 NLT), so prayer is an important part of doing the word. We can also ‘do the word’ by being ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry’ (v19 NLT). You might want to practice this during the week by listening more than talking in your conversations with others. Try it and see what a difference it can make. Or, if you’re looking for a more serious challenge, listen to what Jesus says about telling the difference between our human traditions in the church and God’s commands (Mark 7:5-8), and imagine how prioritizing what God wants over what you want for your church might look.

In whatever ways we endeavour to be doers as well as listeners of God’s word, what is essential is that they are acts of faith in God’s life-giving love for us in Jesus, not attempts to try to get his love. That love is already yours, for Jesus’ sake.

The medication, God’s remedy for sin, is already ours as an act of grace from the God who loves us. We wouldn’t receive medicine from a doctor and leave it on the shelf. We’d follow the directions so that it can make us healthy and whole again. In the same way, we can’t just listen to the word of God that gives life and then do nothing with it. That doesn’t help anyone. By being doers of the word, listening to God’s promises and living like they are true, extending his grace and love to others by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we can find healing, wholeness and a life that is stronger than death.

Listening (Matthew 17:1-9)

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But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said,
“This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.”
(v5 NLT)

When I was a child we used to play a game called ‘Simon Says’. To play the game, one person, who played the role of ‘Simon’, would call out instructions beginning with ‘Simon says’ and everyone else would need to do what ‘Simon’ told them to do. Occasionally, the caller would give an instruction without saying ‘Simon says’ and if a participant did the action, that person was out of the game.

I know that there are dangers with using a game like ‘Simon Says’ as an illustration of being followers of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just give us instructions in life, and then exclude us if we get it wrong. My reason for using Simon Says as an example of being Jesus’ disciple is that it highlights the importance of listening to the person who is leading us.

When Jesus led Peter, James and John up the mountain to witness his transfiguration, God’s voice identified Jesus as his Son whom he loved and with whom he was pleased (v5 NIV). We have already heard these words in Matthew’s gospel at Jesus’ baptism. However, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that the voice from heaven added the words, ‘Listen to him.’ The Transfiguration of Jesus gives us insight into one of the most important aspects of being a disciple of Jesus – listening to him.

Listening to Jesus is essential if we are to listen to him. How can we follow someone if we are not listening to where that person is leading us? In the example of the game of Simon Says, how can we follow what the leader’s instructions if we are not paying attention to that person is saying? If we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we need to be listening to his voice so we can follow him and learn from him.

While there are some different ideas about how to hear God’s voice, in the end we hear the voice of Jesus most clearly when we listen to what he has said to us in Scripture. The Bible is the most reliable source of Jesus’ teachings that we have. As Hebrews 1:1,2a says,
Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.

These words point to Jesus being the living Word of God, as John does at the start of his gospel, and the voice of God in the world. If we are going to follow Jesus, we need to be listening to him, and the clearest place we find what Jesus says is in the words of the Bible.
However, it is easy to misunderstand what another person is saying to us, as most of us would probably know. The same happens with listening to Jesus in the Bible. That is why the Bible itself teaches us how to listen for Jesus’ voice. For example, John 1:17 says, ‘the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (NIV). John is telling us that if we are to hear Jesus’ voice, we need to be listening not only for what he is telling us to do, but for what Jesus has done, is doing and will do for us. If he is just telling us what to do, his teachings are law, and that was Moses’ job. However, John tells us that Jesus came to bring us grace and truth. The art of listening to Jesus’ voice, then is to listen to his words for the truth of his grace. In other words, listening to Jesus as his disciples means learning to listen for what he wants to do for us.

When we do that, we can hear Jesus say words such as:

‘The Kingdom of Heaven is near.’ (Matthew 4:17)
‘You will be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matt 5:48)
‘Take heart … your sins are forgiven.’ (Matt 9:2)
‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Matt 9:13)
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matt 11:28)
‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20b)

Jesus’ disciples knew that he has ‘the words that give eternal life’ (John 6:68) and so they listened to him as they followed him and learned from him. As Jesus’ disciples we also need to listen to him so we can follow him and grow in the life he gives us as we learn from him. So today, I’m thinking that,

Discipleship is… listening to Jesus and learning to live in his way.

To help us learn the art of listening to Jesus, during the season of Lent I would like to challenge us all to read through the gospel of Matthew, one chapter a day. As we do, I am offering this booklet (exploring-discipleship-in-matthew) with some guiding questions to help us hear what Jesus teaches us about being his disciples. This booklet can be used by individuals or small groups, and will be the basis of our congregation’s Lent devotions as we journey towards Easter.

Like playing a game of Simon Says, we need to be listening to Jesus if we are going to live as his disciples. Unlike a game of Simon Says, however, Jesus doesn’t just give us instructions or tell us what to do. Through the Spirit of the Living God, Jesus’ words breathe grace and truth into our lives. Through them he gives us a new life to live as his disciples, and the grace of God to be his salt and light in the world.

Are you listening to Jesus?

More to think about:

  • Do you think it is important for Jesus’ followers to listen to him? Why?
  • How often do you read your Bible?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to read your Bible? Explain why.
  • Would it be easier for you to read your Bible on your own or with others? Can you explain why?
  • How might it help you read your Bible if you thought of it as an important way for Jesus to speak life-giving grace and truth to you? How can we help you to learn the art of hearing God’s grace in the words of the Bible?