Organic Faith (Luke 13:6-9)

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Comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant might sound like a stupid thing to do. There are a lot of things that are obviously different about them. For example, an eggbeater is a machine. You turn the handle, which moves cogs which, in turn, rotate the beaters. It’s a simple machine, but it still involves a mechanical process which is predictable, controlled and results in a particular outcome.

A pot plant, however, is organic and not mechanical. It is alive which means it is less controllable than a machine and can grow in ways which aren’t always predictable. I can leave my eggbeater in the utensil draw of our kitchen and it will still work when I go looking for it. However, my pot plant requires constant care and nurture if it is going to stay alive, continue to grow and produce flowers, especially in hot and dry weather.
My reason for comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant is to ask whether faith is more like an eggbeater or a pot plant? Is faith more mechanical or organic?

It seems to me that we can at times taken a more mechanical view of faith in the church. We have tried to construct processes in the church which we expect people to move through and assume that they will result in spiritual maturity. When I listen to some church leaders, spiritual growth almost sounds like a production line which begins with baptism, moves through Sunday School or another form of children’s ministry, through to First Communion, Confirmation, and youth group into adult Bible studies or other programs that the church might offer. We can approach the Christian life like an eggbeater with a simple cause and effect relationship, thinking that if we do this event or run that program, then people will come out the end as mature Christians.

When I listen to the teachings of Jesus, however, I hear a much more organic approach to faith. Jesus tells lots of stories that use plants, trees and other living organisms to illustrate faith and the Kingdom of God. For example, in Luke 13:6-9, the gospel reading for New Year’s Eve, Jesus talks about a fig tree that wasn’t producing any fruit. Instead of applying a mechanical process to the fig tree, the gardener’s approach is understandably organic as he talks about digging around the tree and fertilizing it. The goal of both the owner of the vineyard and the gardener are the same: they both want the fig tree to produce fruit. The gardener understands that if that is going to happen, then he needs to nurture the tree, care for it and feed it. He does that with no guarantee of success. This isn’t a mechanical process where the production is controlled and the outcome is predetermined. Instead, the gardener takes a chance on the tree by investing time and resources into the tree hoping that it will grow into a strong, mature tree which will produces the fruit they are looking for.

How do we approach spiritual growth in our church? Do we try to put people through programs which are intended to produce predictable outcomes? Or do we take a more organic approach to faith, looking to nurture and grow faith in people? What might happen if we saw faith less as a process and more a longer-term growth? In our own lives, do we expect faith to happen as we go through the motions of a religious life? Or do we look to God to grow us by feeding and watering us so we can produce the fruit of faith in our lives? Are we then willing to be like the gardener from Jesus’ story in the lives of others, nurturing their faith so that it grows and produces fruit? Or do we rely on processes the church has in place to produce faith in people’s lives?

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When our congregation adopted our Discipling Plan of Connecting, Growing, Equipping and Sending, we deliberately chose an image with a young plant in it. We understood from the teachings of Jesus that maturity in faith doesn’t come through a process, but through organic growth. We want to be connecting people with the gospel in the same way that we plant a seed in fertile soil. We want to be growing people in their faith in the same way the gardener from the story wanted to grow the fig tree to maturity. We want to be equipping people to serve others in faith, producing the good fruit that God wants to see on his mature children. And we want to be sending people into the world, into God’s garden, to continue his work and to work with him in cultivating faith in the people we meet every day.

As people who live in a culture that has a modernist, mechanical mindset, it is easy for us to think that faith happens through processes and programs. We do need good processes and procedures for the sake of good order in the church, but real, sustainable, vibrant spiritual growth is a lot more like my pot plant than my eggbeater. My eggbeater is much more simple than my pot plant because it is easily maintained, produces a predictable result and I can leave it on its own for months and it will still work. Plants are much more difficult. They are unpredictable. They require more maintenance and care, especially when the heat is on. And there’s no guarantee that the effort we put in will produce any visible results.

Maybe that’s why Jesus talked about plants instead of machines. He understands that our faith is a living thing, that it’s fragile and needs constant care. But maybe Jesus also knew that the results are worth the effort. Jesus knew the beauty that is produced by a living faith, whether it is a fig we can eat or a flower whose beauty we can admire. As we end this calendar year, we can thank God for the ways he has continued to care for and nurture the faith within us and our loved ones over the past twelve months. As we begin a new year, it is good for us to remember that faith is organic. It is a living thing, and so needs to be cared for, looked after, nurtured, fed and watered.

This year, we will have the responsibility to take an organic approach to our own faith, making sure it is kept healthy and growing to maturity, as well as opportunities to care for the faith of others, nurturing them through the grace God gives and the love he shares in the gospel of Jesus.

Standing Straight (Luke 13:10-17)

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The account of Jesus releasing a crippled woman on a Sabbath in Luke 13:10-17 might look like just another healing story when we first read it. However, when we listen carefully to the language Luke uses to describe the event we can find that there is more going on under the surface.

The Synagogue leader got upset with Jesus because he broke the Sabbath rules. About fifteen hundred years earlier, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God gifted his people with a day off each week. This day of rest, known as the Sabbath, was so important that God enshrined it as one of the Ten Commandments – ‘Remember to observe the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy’ (Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT). In order to protect this gift, subsequent generations of Israelites began defining what they regarded as ‘work’ so they knew how not to break this commandment. By the time of Jesus, the gift of the rest day had become an expectation, lost under a complicated system of rules about what a person could and could not do on that day.

The synagogue leader got upset with Jesus because he viewed releasing the woman from her illness as work and so Jesus had broken this commandment in his eyes. Jesus challenged the leader’s understanding of God’s purpose for the Sabbath by pointing to the way he would untie his donkey or ox in order to lead it out for a drink of water. This action was also ‘work’ according to the synagogue leader’s Sabbath regulations.

This is where the language of the story becomes very significant. In verse 12, where the New Living Translation has Jesus saying, ‘you are healed of your sickness,’ the Greek text uses a verb which means more like ‘released’ or ‘let go’. In the same way, the word Jesus uses in verse 16 which is translated as ‘released’ is the same word he uses in verse 15 when he talks about ‘untying’ a donkey or an ox to lead it out for a drink of water. Luke used this language is to tell us that Jesus came to untie or release us from the effects of sin which tie us up, weight us down and prevent us from living in the ways God originally intended for us.

The Synagogue leader was effectively tying people up with rules, traditions and expectations around the Sabbath-day of rest. In contrast, Jesus saw an opportunity on this particular Sabbath to untie the woman, set her free and release her to live the life God intended for her.

When we gather together on our day of rest, I wonder who we more closely resemble? Are we living in the freedom that Jesus gives us through faith to find release from the things in life that tie us up, weigh us down and keep our eyes looking towards the ground? Or are we tied up with rules, traditions and expectations, passing those things that tie us up on to others? As people join us in worship, do they encounter rules that bind them or the grace of Jesus which sets us free?

We all have things that bind us. For some, like the woman in the story, it might be a physical disability which ties us up and prevents us from living the life God intends for us. If that’s the case, the good news of this story is that Jesus has the power to release us from our physical weaknesses and infirmities. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has the power to make all things new, including our bodies. Some miraculously experience this healing and release in this life. Others wait their whole lives for it in faith and hope. Either way, Jesus asks us to trust him because ‘faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us the assurance about things we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11:1 NLT).

This woman’s physical disability also signifies something deeper that can happen within all of us. We can easily get tied up in things like guilt, fear, shame, anxiety, loneliness, other people’s expectations, the need to please others, and the list can go on and on. They bind us in ways that are very similar to the woman in the story because they restrict us and prevent us from living the ‘life to the full’ which Jesus promises us (John 10:10) in the love, joy, peace and hope that God intends for us. The things that tie us up keep us looking at the ground in front of our feet, making us stumble our way through life instead of having eyes that are lifted up to see Jesus in faith and others in Christ-like love. For us to live the life that God promises us, we need to be set free from the things that tie us up so we can stand straight and strong in the love and grace of Jesus.

That’s what Christian community it meant to be about. Our purpose is not to keep people tied up in expectations, human traditions or rules. That was what the synagogue leader was doing. Jesus’ purpose was to release people, to set us free, to give us life in all of its fullness. As a community of faith which carries the name of Christ, our purpose is to be finding and living in the love of God through Jesus which releases us, and then extending that same liberating love and grace to others. For a lot of people who grew up in churches which emphasised the importance of certain behaviours, customs, human traditions and expectations, this is a significantly different way of thinking about church.

But what might our community of faith look like if we understood our purpose as helping people find freedom from what binds them in life through a living and growing faith in Jesus?

There is a lot more going on in this story that just another healing miracle. Through the words of this story, Jesus gives us the promise that he can untie us from whatever binds us in life so we can stand straight, seeing his love and grace and seeing others around us who also need his love and grace. This story also challenges us to think about our own community of faith. How can we be a community where people can encounter the love of Jesus which releases us from what ties us up, so they can find the freedom which comes through faith too?

More to think about:

  • What questions or thoughts do you have about the story in Luke 13:10-17?
  • What are some of the things that can tie people up in life?
  • Has your experience of ‘church’ been more about being tied up with rules or expectations, or being set free through grace and love? Maybe share some examples.
  • What ties you up in your life?
  • Do you think it is possible for Jesus to untie you from the things that tie you up like he did for the woman in the story? Discuss your answers…
  • How might your view of ‘Christian discipleship’ be similar or different if you thought about Jesus calling you to follow him means that he wants to lead you into greater freedom from the things that tie you up in life?
  • How might your view of Christian community or church be different if you saw it more as followers of Jesus walking together into greater freedom through a growing faith in Jesus?
  • You might like to talk with Jesus in prayer, giving him whatever might be tying you up in life and asking him to untie you from it…

Beneath Jesus’ Wings (Luke 13:31-35)

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There has been one question in particular that has bothered me about this text during the week: Why wouldn’t baby chicks want to come back to their Mum?

It seems like a natural thing for chicks to want to run towards their mother. In particular, if they were facing threats or danger, then it would make sense that they would look for shelter and protection under her wings. However, when Jesus describes his desire to enfold the people of Jerusalem under his protection like a mother chicken protects her young under her wings, he says that the people he wanted to embrace wouldn’t actually let him (v34). They ran away from him instead.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Why would they run away from their Mum instead of towards her?

People had a number of ideas about why this might be the case in our discussions on this text during the week. Maybe the chicks wanted to be independent, or they weren’t aware of danger, or they just wanted to do their own thing. It is even possible that they didn’t believe that their Mum could keep them safe.

It’s worth spending time thinking why the chicks weren’t willing to find shelter and protection under the wings of their Mum for ourselves. Sometimes the reasons we come up with can reflect why we tend not to come to Jesus when life gets difficult or we are confronted with problems of any sort.

Because another question which has followed me this week with this text is which way are we moving on our lives? It’s easy for us to look at the people of Jerusalem from this side of Jesus’ resurrection and think that they should have known better. However, do we tend to run towards Jesus or away from him, especially when we face dangers, difficulties or suffering in our own lives?

From what I’ve experienced in my life, it seems to me that we tend to see Jesus more as a last resort than our first option when we face difficulties in life. When I listened to people’s thoughts about why the chicks would run away from their Mama Chook instead of towards her, their ideas reflected the common human experience. We want to be independent, self-sufficient people. Often, we aren’t aware of how dangerous particular circumstances can be, either to our physical, emotional or spiritual selves. We live in a culture that tells us to do our own thing and not worry about anyone or anything else. A lot of the time, I wonder if we even believe that Jesus can help us with what’s going on in our lives.

So we run around like baby chicks, stressed out and under pressure, trying to make everything right and cope with life’s challenges and tragedies by ourselves. All the while, however, we have a Mama Chook in Jesus who calls us by name, offering us protection, security and safety under the wings of his grace and love.

This is fundamentally a question of trust. Do we trust that Jesus can provide us with the security, shelter and protection we need when life gets difficult and we face dangers or threats to our wellbeing? It is good to remember that the person who wants to shelter us under his wings is also the Son of the Almighty God. I find the words of Jesus fascinating when he, a human person about 33 years old, talks about wanting to shelter the people of Jerusalem throughout the Old Testament times. We can’t divide Jesus’ humanity from this divinity, but here we hear God speaking through a flesh-and-blood person, using the picture of a chook to show us how he wants to embrace all of us!

This is the man through whom God enters our human existence so he can understand us and what we go through in life. Jesus is the one through whom God experiences rejection, suffering, abandonment and death. Jesus is also the one through whom God defeats sin, death and the power of the devil in his resurrection. In Jesus, we can see God overcoming everything in this world that would threaten us, put our wellbeing in danger, rob us of the life he has given us or harm us in any way. Faith in Jesus doesn’t mean that nothing will touch us and we’ll never have any problems. What it does mean, however, is that when troubles come, we can view them from the perspective of faith: we are under Jesus’ protection and no matter what may happen, he will always keep us safe with him.

When troubles come and when dangers appear in life, do we try to deal with things ourselves and treat Jesus as our last resort? Or do we trust Jesus enough to run to him as our first option? Or better still, do we trust Jesus enough to live under his protection every day by regularly listening to his word of grace and love, and talking to him about what’s going on in our lives regularly through prayer? How might our lives be different if Jesus was our first option rather than our last resort?

We’re all running in one direction or another. Generally, those directions are either towards Jesus or away from him. When the man who suffered, was crucified and is risen again is offering us security, safety and protection under his wings, why wouldn’t we run to Jesus in the faith that he has everything we need?

My hope is that by learning how to listen to Jesus’ voice in the Bible and talking with him in prayer, we will all find what we need under the shelter of his grace, just like those baby chicks can find what they need under the shelter of their Mama’s wings.

Luke 13:31-35 Discussion / Reflection Questions

The message for 17 March at St John’s will be based on Luke 13:31-35. Here are some questions for you to reflect on or discuss in a small group to help you prepare for Sunday’s services…

  • What questions do you have about this text?
  • What do you think Jesus meant by his reply in verses 32 & 33? What do you think he understands as his ‘purpose’?
  • What do you hear Jesus saying with the image of the mother hen in verse 34?
  • Why do you think baby chicks wouldn’t want to find shelter under their mother’s wings? What does this image tell you about the way in which Jesus saw the people of Jerusalem? What might it be saying about people in general?
  • In verse 35, what does Jesus say is the consequence of the people rejecting him? What can we learn from his words?
  • When you think about your life, in which direction are you moving – towards Jesus or away from Jesus? Why is that?
  • If Jesus describes himself as a mother chook, what might he be offering people under his wings? What might he be offering you?
  • Lent is a time of repentance, meaning turning around & changing direction. How could you move closer towards Jesus to find shelter under his wings? What changes might you need to make to do that? What might you gain by doing that?

Please feel free to leave your comments or further questions in the comment section below. God bless your reflection & discussion…