One More Year (Luke 13:6-9)

Luke 13v6-9 looking for figs

In the house where we live there is one part of the yard which was pretty much just dirt and weeds when we moved in. Over the we have lived there, I have been slowly working on the patch to turn it into more of a garden. One plant I put in was doing well to begin with, but a couple of months ago it started losing its leaves and turning brown. I began to ask myself whether this plant was worth saving, or whether I should pull it out and plant something in its place which was going to do better in that spot.

I think most people who have worked in gardens would have been in a similar position to the person in Jesus’ story that we read about in Luke 13:6-9. He comes back time after time to see if his fig tree was producing any fruit, but it never does. In some ways, this is a pretty simple parable to interpret: the owner of the garden is God, and each of us is the fig tree.

This parable starts to get more challenging when we begin to ask what the fruit is that God is looking for in our lives. There are a number of ways in which we could interpret the fruit, but whenever I hear the Bible talk about fruit I think straight away of what Paul says in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (NLT)

The way I’m thinking about the fruit that God comes looking for in our lives, then, is that he is looking to see if our faith is producing:

  • love like Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, especially for people who are hard to love or who don’t love us
  • joy, even in the most tragic or difficult of circumstances
  • peace in the middle of life’s storms, conflicts and uncertainties
  • patience with people who frustrate or annoy us
  • kindness towards those who are unkind to us
  • the goodness of God in everything we think, say and do
  • faithfulness to the promises we have made to others, especially when it’s easier to break our promises, and to God for all of his goodness and grace to us through Jesus
  • gentleness, even with people who may be rough or hostile towards us
  • self-control in situations when it would be easier to let our emotions or feelings get the better of us

This story gives us a way to understand what the Christian life us about. I often talk with people who tell me that being a Christian is about going to church, or bringing other people to church, or getting to heaven when we die. This story says to me, however, that when God looks at our lives, he is looking to see if we are producing these kinds of fruit. This is the purpose and goal of living as Jesus’ disciples – to be growing to maturity so we can produce fruit in our lives and be sowing this kind of fruit into the lives of the people around us.

This is a great text for the New Year because it gives us a chance to look back at the past year and reflect on whether or not our lives have been producing this kind of fruit in our relationships with others. Most of us will probably be able to see times when we have produced fruit like Paul describes. However, there are other times when we have failed to produce these fruit. We are all growing and maturing, like any plant in our gardens. Every living thing is continually growing and maturing. We have times when the fruit is plentiful, but also others when the fruit is more scarce. What is important is that we are growing, because when something’s growing, it means it’s alive.

The good news of this text is that the owner of the garden doesn’t cut the fig tree down or even leave it to do its own thing. Instead, the gardener steps in and offers to care for it by giving it ‘special attention and plenty of fertilizer’ (v8 NLT). This character in the story is Jesus himself who intercedes for us by pleading for us with the Father and then promises to care for us. Jesus is the one who feeds us with his love, nurtures us with his grace, provides for us in his mercy, and grows us as his people. I won’t grow the struggling plant in my garden by telling it to grow stronger. Neither does Jesus grow us by telling us what to do. Instead, by being born and living a human life for us, by dying on the cross and then being raised to new life, Jesus has done everything that we need to grow into healthy, mature people of God so we can produce the fruit that God is looking for in our lives.

Jesus grows us to maturity in his grace through the waters of Baptism and the word of forgiveness. He provides food and drink for us as he gives us his blood and body, his perfect and eternal life, in the wine and bread of Holy Communion. Through our connection with and participation in Christian community, Jesus is there by his Holy Spirit to care for us and provide us with everything we need to grow as his strong, healthy, fruit-producing body of believers. Jesus commits himself to us, just like the gardener in this story, in the hope that as we grow and mature in his grace and love, our lives will produce the fruit of a vibrant and living faith which our heavenly Father is looking for.

I decided not to pull out the plant that wasn’t doing well in my garden. Instead, I committed to take care of it and water more regularly. Now, its leaves are growing back and it’s starting to flower again. This is what God plans for each of us. Through the care his Son gives us and by the power of his Spirit, God wants us to be strong and healthy in our faith so that our lives produce the fruit he is looking for. We can’t do it alone – to be strong, mature people of God we need the grace and love Jesus extends to us through a community of believers. My hope and prayer is that we can all live in the forgiveness, goodness and new life of Jesus this coming year so that our lives produce the fruit our heavenly Father is looking for by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can then sow the seeds of his goodness into the lives of others.

An Attitude of Thanks (Luke 17:11-19)

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Our congregation celebrated Thanksgiving Sunday later than usual this year. With its origins in a more rural culture, there are a lot of churches that have a Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday early in the year before Lent to thank God for produce of the land. We held our Thanksgiving service later this year for two reasons. Firstly, the readings before Lent followed the Sermon on the Mount, and, with our discipleship focus this year, I wanted to focus on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5. Secondly, our church is more suburban than rural, so we’re not tied to the rural rhythm of the harvest.

I believe that it is still good to set aside a special Sunday each year to give thanks to God for the good things he gives to us each and every day. We live in a culture that makes being thankful for what we have very hard. We face unrealistic expectations from the media about our identity, appearance, relationships, possessions, probably just about every aspect of our lives. The consumer culture in which we live aims to make us dissatisfied and unhappy with ourselves and our lives so we will buy more to make ourselves feel better. The problem is that this constant search for new or better products, experiences or relationships doesn’t actually make us happy. Instead, because of the dissatisfaction that our consumer culture generates, we end up feeling discontent and unhappy.

Jesus teaches a very counter-cultural way of living. It begins with giving thanks for what we already have and recognising that every good thing we have is a gift from a God who loves us and wants the best for us. This is a theme that runs right through the Bible. We find it in the refrain of the psalms which call us to give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and whose love endures forever (see Psalms 106, 107, 118, 136). We have the story from Luke 17 in which the healed leper who returns to thank Jesus for his grace receives deeper healing and wholeness. Paul’s letters talk about being satisfied with what we have and giving thanks to God in all circumstances of life (see Philippians 4:12,13; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; 1 Timothy 6:6-8). As followers of Jesus, we are called to have thankful hearts for the good things God gives us each and every day, rather than focusing on what we don’t have and pursuing whatever appears to be new or better.

I know from my own experiences that when we start thanking God for the good things he is already giving us each day, our attitude towards the challenges we face in life change. This attitude grows from the faith that is God providing us with everything we need for life in this world and the next as an act of pure grace. This grace is seen most clearly when we look at the cross of Christ and see the love of God there as he gives us his all and holds nothing back so that we can live in a new relationship with him as his children. As we grow in this relationship with God through Jesus, trusting that he is our loving Father in heaven who ‘provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day’ (from Martin Luther’s explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism), we can see the little blessings and the small graces he extends to us each and every day of our lives. When we recognise God’s love for us in the relationships, possessions and other good things we already have which he gives to us for the sake of Jesus, then his Holy Spirit grows thankful hearts and we can find contentment and joy in all the circumstances of life.

This isn’t natural for us and it doesn’t always come easy. That is why we need to be part of communities of faith which will embody the goodness of God for us and in which we can give thanks to God for all of his acts of loving grace to us. So we continue to celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday, not just for the harvest the farmers reap each year, but for all the good things God continues to give to each of us every day of our lives for the sake of Jesus.

More to think about:

  • Do you generally find yourself focusing on good things you already have or things you don’t have? Why do you think that is?
  • Do you think having more or better or newer possessions, relationships or experiences will make you happier or more content? Explain why you think that is…
  • Do you think it is possible to find something good from God in every circumstance of your life, like Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18? Explain your reasons.
  • If God loves you enough to give you his Son, how might that faith help you to see other good things your loving heavenly Father gives you every day?
  • What are some things that God has already given to you that maybe you have forgotten or can take for granted? Make a list & then read through your list, thanking God for each of them.

Walking with Jesus (Luke 24:13-35)

Walking With Jesus 01

What do you reckon it would be like to go for a walk with Jesus?

I don’t mean some sort of ‘spiritual’ journey or having a vague idea that Jesus is with us. I mean a real, physical, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other walk. It might be down the road to the shops, through a national park, a couple of blocks to work, or even around the block. What would it be like to walk with Jesus?

It surprises me that the two disciples didn’t recognise Jesus while he walked with them in this story. There are a range of ways people try to explain their lack of recognition, but I wonder how often we go through life with Jesus walking next to us and we just don’t recognise him either…

This story is a great picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: walking with him through life and recognising that he walks with us. As they walked together, Jesus and the disciples talked together as he opened up the words of Scripture for them so they could understand that God’s chosen Messiah had to suffer, die and rise again from the grave (vv 25-27). This caused the disciples hearts to burn within them (v32) as they grew in their understanding of God’s grace for them and as they began to make sense of what had happened to them through their growing faith in Jesus.

What if walking with Jesus and listening to him as he opens up God’s word for us could do the same for us?

There was a time in the early years of my ministry when I was really struggling. For more than a year I battled on the best I could but things were overwhelming me. So I started getting out of bed and going for a walk each morning. As I walked, I would talk to Jesus about what was going on in my life – the things I was struggling with, the things that were overwhelming me, the mistakes I was making, the help I needed. I didn’t talk out loud, but it was still a real conversation as I talked with Jesus in my head. Then I listened to what Jesus had to say to me by reading a couple chapters of my Bible over breakfast. I was surprised how often what I was reading would speak into what was going on in my life. Over time, things got better as I relied on Jesus’ help more and more, and God changed me through what he was saying to me in his Word. I learned from first-hand experience that walking closer with Jesus by talking to him about what’s going on in our lives and listening to him talk to us through his word really makes a difference in our lives.

The promise of this story from Luke’s gospel is that Jesus walks with us to talk to us through his word, to help us make sense of what’s going on in our lives through his suffering, death and resurrection, so we can find grace, hope and joy in his presence with us.

It was only when Jesus blessed and broke the bread at their meal at the end of the day that the disciples recognised Jesus. In the same way, Jesus makes his presence known to us as he gives himself to us in the breaking of bread in the meal we know as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. This same Jesus whose body was broken and whose blood was shed on the cross, this same Jesus who is risen from the grace and who has defeated death, this same Jesus is the one who comes to us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion to make himself known to us as the one who physically walks with us through life. Just as the disciples recognised Jesus when he gave them that meal, so we can recognise Jesus with us as he gives himself to us as a real and present flesh and blood person in the Lord’s Supper. It is his promise and his assurance that he literally walks with us through the ups and downs of our lives, through the good times and the bad, to help us find grace and peace, joy and hope in his presence with us.

So I’m going to ask again: what would it be like to go for a walk with Jesus? How might our lives and our community be different if we lived like Jesus was actually walking with us, speaking grace and truth into our lives, our relationships and our community through his word?

Because what this story says to me is that Jesus really is walking with us, every step of the way.

More to think about:

  • What do you think it would be like to go for a walk with Jesus?
  • Christians often talk about Jesus being with us, but do we live like that’s a reality or like Jesus is actually distant? One way to think about that is ask yourself: would you live your life differently if Jesus was actually walking with you every moment of every day?
  • In the story from Luke 24, Jesus began his conversation with the two disciples by asking them what they were discussing (v17). If Jesus asked you what was going on with you, what would you say to him?
  • Jesus opened up Scripture to his disciples to help them understand God’s plan of redemption, but also to help them make sense of what they had experienced & to find God’s grace in their experiences. Do you think that God’s word can help you make sense of your experiences & find his grace in them? How can we help you open up God’s word to find grace & truth for your own life in it?
  • Jesus made himself known to the disciples as he blessed, broke & then gave bread to them. How can the gift of Holy Communion help us recognise Jesus’ presence with us?

When the King Returns (Luke 19:11-27)

bag-of-coins-01In some ways, this parable doesn’t seem too hard to understand. The nobleman is Jesus himself who leaves this world to be crowned king in his ascension into heaven. The time between Jesus’ departure and his return from heaven is the age we are living in now. God’s people, including us, are the servants who are given a bag of sliver to put to work while he is gone. A key point of the story is that one day the King, namely Jesus, will return to the earth and he will want to see what we have been doing with what he left with us.

It is at this point, however, that the parable throws up some challenging questions for us to think through…

For example, how did the first servant turn one bag of silver into ten???

I’m almost half way through my working life, so I’m starting to think about retirement and having enough to live on. I want to talk to this person to find out how he multiplied his investment by ten because that is the kind of nest egg I want to retire on. Imagine multiplying what you have now by ten!

I’m thinking that this servant is either a very shrewd businessman or he is involved in some very dodgy dealings. Either way, you don’t multiply your investment by ten without taking some significant risks. Even the second servant who only multiplied his investment by five must have taken some risks to achieve that return.

Which raises the question of what the bag of silver represents. We could understand it as money or the physical things God has given us in this life. We could also understand these bags of silver to be the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us. Matthew’s version of this parable (25:14-30) talks about a unit of weight called a talent, which is why a lot of people interpret this parable as using your gifts and abilities for the Kingdom of God. Another way we can think about these bags of silver is to reflect on everything Jesus gives us: his peace, love and joy, his righteousness, forgiveness, new life, identity as God’s children, and so much more. In short, we can think about the bags of silver as the grace Jesus gives us, with each coin in that bag representing another aspect of his grace which we can pull out and marvel at.

This brings us to the parable’s big question: what are we doing with what Jesus has given us? Do we turn up to church on Sunday, but then keep his grace hidden during the rest of the week out of fear like the third servant? The warning in the parable is that if we are doing that, God’s grace can be taken from us. Or, like the first two servants, do we receive God’s grace with joy and put it to work by investing it in the people around us? That might mean taking some big risks with the grace Jesus has given us by showing grace to the people we know who need it the most but deserve it the least. If the first two servants multiplied their bags of silver by taking risks with them, are we following their example and living lives of bold, risk-taking faith by investing the grace Jesus has given us by showing grace to others?

Ultimately, like the nobleman in the parable who gambles his bags of silver by giving them away, that’s what God does with us. He takes a huge risk on us by giving us the grace of forgiveness and new life as his children. Then he asks us to put what he has given us to work by living lives of bold, confident, risk-taking grace in our relationships with others.
So who is the person you know who deserves the grace of Jesus the least, but who needs it the most? How can you put the grace Jesus has given to you to work by showing grace to that person? In the end, what’s most important is not the return we get – both the servants who achieved a five-fold and a ten-fold return were praised by the king. What is important is that we do not keep the grace Jesus has given us buried, but we are living bold, confident, risk-taking lives of grace, investing what Jesus has first given us into the lives of the people around us.

Because, when the King returns, what will we have to show for what he has given us?

More to think about:

  • What is the ‘bag of silver’ that Jesus has given you – possessions, time, life, grace, forgiveness, or something else?
  • How do you think the first two servants were able to multiply their investments by five and by ten? Did they do that by playing it safe or by taking some risks? Explain why you might think that.
  • What does it mean to you that Jesus says to put your ‘bag of silver’ to work while he is away? Are you keeping it safe? Or are you doing something with it?
  • What might be the riskiest thing you could do with what Jesus has given you? What might you lose? What might you gain?
  • Who is someone in your life that is hard to love or might not deserve God’s grace? What are some ways in which you could invest Jesus’s love and grace in that person’s life this week?

Looking Down (Luke 18:9-14)

pharisee-and-tax-collector-02We need to be careful in reading Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

It would be easy, on the one hand, to look at the Pharisee and think we really shouldn’t be like him. He went into the Temple to pray and was quick to thank God that he was such a good person who did so many good things. The Pharisee compared himself with the tax collector, who was obviously a bad person just because he was a tax collector, and looked down on the tax collector because he thought he was better than the tax collector.

This can teach us that we should not look down on others like the Pharisee. There is truth in this, however if we start looking down on the Pharisee, we can actually be like the Pharisee. His example reminds us that faith is not about comparing ourselves with others, or looking down on others because of what they might do, or not do, or how they look, or the way we worship, or for any reason. Remember, Luke opens this story by saying that Jesus told this parable to people ‘who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else’ (NIV). We have no right to look down on anyone else for any reason.

On the other hand, we can look at the tax collector and think that he represents what we should be like. He was a humble man who was earnestly seeking the grace and mercy of God. The danger with holding the tax collector up as someone we should be like is that we can begin to put on a false mask of humility. I wonder sometimes if a lot of Christians fill the back of the church first because we want to identify more with the tax collector than the Pharisee. In the end, though, God cares a lot more about our hearts than where we sit in church.

The other danger with holding up the tax collector as an example to model ourselves on is that people can carry a lot of unnecessary guilt through their lives. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as Paul says in Romans 3:23, however when we make our sin the main thing we focus on, we can neglect the grace of God and forget that Jesus died to save us from guilt. Faith in God’s grace to us is more about living in the joy that comes from salvation in Jesus (see Nehemiah 8:10; Psalm 51: 12) than living in guilt.

We can also see the tax collector as a person who is basically being honest with God. He is real about being a flawed and broken person who is in need of God’s mercy. He doesn’t try to hide behind the mask of good works or church involvement or what he gives to the church. He doesn’t try to justify himself or his behaviours by looking around and comparing himself with others. Instead, he looks down because he is real about his situation before God. While the Pharisee looks down on the tax collector because he thinks he is a better person, the tax collector looks down in humility and repentance because he is real about who he is before God.

If we think that this story is about not being like the Pharisee and being more like the tax collector, we actually miss the point. This parable isn’t about us. This parable is about what God is doing. We see when Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the tax collector who goes home justified, not the Pharisee. The main point of the story is that God justifies sinners. We heard this same good news a few weeks ago when Paul gave his trustworthy saying in 1 Timothy 1:15, that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (NLT). It is the tax collector who went home justified because Jesus, who became sin for us, met him at the back of the Temple, took all his sin from him, and freed him from sin by forgiving him.

In saying this, Jesus turns our entire idea of what it means to be a Christian on its head. Christians aren’t good people who don’t cheat, don’t sin, don’t commit adultery, who fast regularly and give a percentage of what they have to the church. What Jesus is telling us here is that Christians are sinners who are forgiven and justified by the mercy and grace of God. This good news gives us the freedom to come to God just as we are, with no pretensions or masks, with all of our flaws, brokenness and sin, to find mercy in Jesus. This parable is about God looking down from heaven, seeing us as we are and who sending us home as justified people when we are honest about our condition before him and dare ask for his mercy.

We know that God hates sin and he recreates us to live a new life through faith in Christ by the power of his Spirit. However, that is for another day. The scandal and the blessing of this particular story is that the parable of the Pharisee who looks down on the tax collector, and the tax collector who looks down in shame, is not actually about either the Pharisee or the tax collector. It is about God who looks down at us all, sees us as we are, and justifies us freely for Christ’s sake.

More to think about:

  • It would be easy for us to hear this parable saying we should be less like the Pharisee and more like the tax collector. If we are honest, though, in what ways can we act like both the Pharisee and the tax collector?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to ask God for mercy? Can you explain why?
  • How can our understanding of this parable change when we shift from focusing on the Pharisee and tax collector to focusing on God’s work of justifying sinners?
  • When the tax collector went home, do you think he had a sense of being justified by God? How important is it for people to leave worship knowing that we are justified by God?
  • How might the good news of God justifying sinners through faith in Jesus help you find a greater sense of freedom, peace, hope and joy in your life?

Thanks (Luke 17:11-19)

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Like a lot of Bible texts, there are a couple of ways we can hear what this text is saying.

The first is about being thankful. In this story, ten people with leprosy, who had been excluded from their families, their communities, even their worshiping communities, were able to return to their loved ones because Jesus made them clean. I can only begin to imagine the joy they must have experienced as they went to show themselves to the priests and found that they had been healed of their leprosy. They would have been able to go home to their families, others who cared for them, and to worship God with his people again.

The return of the Samaritan leper to thank Jesus for making him clean is a reminder to all of us that it is good for us to give thanks to God for all of his goodness to us. Especially in our culture which cultivates in us an attitude of always wanting more, it can be easy for us to take the good things God gives us for granted. We can be quick to ask God for things, but how often do we return to God and thank him for the ways in which he answers those prayers? Or how often do we focus on what we don’t have and forget about all the good things God is giving us every day of our lives? In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul says,

Be thankful in all circumstances,
for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. (NLT)

I understand that having an attitude of thanks can be hard, especially when life is difficult or we experience tragedies of some kind. Paul isn’t saying that we ignore or minimize the difficulties or challenges of life in this world. Instead, recognizing the reality of hardships in our lives, giving thanks to God for the good things he gives us can help us to find the strength, faith and hope we need to endure those difficulties and overcome them in the strength the Spirit gives. No matter how hard life might be, God is always doing something good. The example of the Samaritan leper is to help us acknowledge that every good thing we have comes from God, and remember to take the time to thank him for the good things he gives us.

However, there is another level to this story. Luke tell us that when the lepers obeyed Jesus in faith and went to show themselves to the priest to get their clean bill of health, they were ‘cleansed of their leprosy’ (v14 NLT). In the same way, when Jesus asked the Samaritan leper where the other nine were, he talked about them as being ‘cleansed’ (NIV). When he talks to the healed Samaritan leper, though, the Greek text has Jesus saying to him that his faith has ‘saved’ him.

In recognizing God’s power at work through Jesus and returning to praise God by thanking Jesus for what he had done for him, the Samaritan was finding a more complete healing that his physical cure from leprosy. In this moment, the Samaritan in the story experienced God’s salvation in his life.

A lot of the time we can think of ‘salvation’ as something we will experience in the future when we die and go to heaven. However, Jesus is saying here that this Samaritan had entered into God’s salvation which he was bringing about in Jesus as a present reality. Through this man’s encounter with Jesus, by trusting the way God was at work in Jesus and thanking him for what he had done, the Samaritan became a part of Christ’s salvation of the world.

The New Testament consistently points to God’s salvation coming in the person of Jesus. God’s salvation is wherever Jesus is. We become part of God’s saving work when we recognize the power of God at work in the person of Jesus through faith, just like the Samaritan leper. Through this faith, when we give thanks to God and praise him for what he is doing in us and in our world through Jesus by the power of his Spirit, we enter into and can even experience God’s salvation in this life.

This salvation has the power to give us strength, hope and faith in even the most difficult circumstances of life. This salvation can give us a greater sense of who we are, what we are worth and why we are here. It brings light to the darkest times of our lives, gives hope when it seems like there is none, clarity when everything seems murky and confusing, and healing when we are wounded or damaged. We encounter this salvation when we hear the voice of Jesus which makes us clean, both body and soul. This salvation takes hold as it creates faith in our hearts, trusting in the way God is at work in our lives and in the world through Jesus. This salvation grows in us when we give thanks to Jesus for what he has done and is continuing to do for us by the power of his Spirit, and we praise God together for all of his goodness to us.

Life can be hard and it is easy to focus on what we don’t have. The story of the Ten Lepers can teach us at least two things. Firstly, every day God is constantly pouring good things into our lives. Take the time to count your blessings and thank him for the good he gives us every day. Secondly, when we recognize that God is at work through Jesus, bringing healing and wholeness to the world and to us, and when we take the time to come to Jesus to thank him for the grace he extends to us, we enter into God’s salvation here and now.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to be a ‘glass half full’ or ‘glass half empty’ person? In other words, do you find it easy to give thanks for the good things you already have? Or do you tend to focus on what you don’t have?
  • Why do you think the 9 healed lepers didn’t come back to thank Jesus? Why do you think the Samaritan made the effort to return to Jesus? What do you think you would have done if you were one of the lepers in the story?
  • What are you thankful for in your life right now? (Try counting your blessings every day for the next week)
  • How do you usually understand ‘salvation’? Is it something you look forward to in the future? Or do you think of salvation as something you live in right now? Can you explain why you think that way?
  • What difference could Jesus’ words make to your life when he says, ‘Your faith has saved you’ (v19), especially when you go through difficult or challenging times?

Duty (Luke 17:5-10)

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For anyone who identifies their love language as affirmation, this story of Jesus could be a nightmare!

Put yourself in the story: you have spent all day in the paddocks, plowing the rain-soaked earth or trying to look after the cold, wet sheep. When you come in to the warm, dry house your boss tells you to get the dinner on and then wait until he has finished his before you can sit down to eat. And then, at the end of the long, hard day of work, instead of getting thanked for your effort, you’re supposed to say, ‘No worries boss – just doing my duty.’

If that was you, how long do you reckon you would last in that job?

We all like to recognized, affirmed or thanked for what we do. In fact, one of the things best things about helping others can sometimes be what we get out of it– those warm feelings that come with doing good and helping other people. In a culture that often encourages us to do good because of what we can get out of it, this story can be pretty confronting.

This can say something about our motivation to do good. When Jesus taught us to love God and love others, the kind of love that he talked about was all about looking to what was in the best interests of the other person, even if it comes at a cost to us. When look to get something out of the good things we do for others, are we doing them for their benefit or our own? I know that God blesses us when we help others, but if we are doing good to get thanks, affirmation or to feel good about ourselves, then we really need to ask whether we are actually acting in Christ-like love.

Maybe that’s why this story sits a little uncomfortably with us.

Instead, Jesus says that faithful servants, after they have done everything they have been told to do, will say, ‘We have only done our duty’ (v10 NIV). The word used here for ‘duty’ means something that is owed. In doing his duty, the servant in Jesus’ story is repaying a debt to his master. Often when we hear the word ‘duty’ we can think of obeying a set of rules because we have to. ‘Duty’ can imply unwilling compliance to someone else’s rules or expectations.

However, it is important for us as followers of Jesus to think about duty through the words of Romans 13:8 which says,

Owe nothing to anyone — except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbour, you will fulfil the requirements of God’s law. (NLT)

The word Paul uses for ‘owe’ is the same word Jesus uses when he talks about ‘duty.’ In this sense, ‘duty’ means repaying someone for something that has already been given to us. Serving God and others without any thought of thanks or affirmation becomes our act of self-giving, Christ-like love for others to repay God for the grace he has already shown us through Jesus’ death on the cross. The Apostle Peter writes,

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. (1 Peter 1:18,19 NLT)

Jesus paid the ultimate price to redeem us and make us God’s children – his own precious, priceless life. In the same way, our Father in heaven paid the greatest price we could imagine, the life of his own Son, in order to rescue us from the power of sin, death and the devil so we can live in his kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy. We can therefore understand the words of the dutiful servant from Luke 17 to mean that his life and service of the servant are his or her gift to the master out of thanks for what the master has already done for the servant. Instead of looking for thanks for what we do for God or for each other, ideally what we do to serve God and others in our lives will be done in thanks for the price God paid to make us his own.

This is a life of faith. Earlier in this reading, the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith (v5). Faith is first and foremost about trusting in Jesus’ work for us on the cross, where he sacrificed his life to give us identity, value and purpose. Imagine having such as strong faith in Jesus and his love for us that we can find of our sense of identity, value and purpose in him, instead of looking for is in the thanks, praise or affirmation of other people. This is the kind of faith Jesus points to as God’s gift to us by the power of his Holy Spirit.

The idea of duty we find in this story is not about doing what we’re told or trying to live up to some set of rules or expectations. Remember: God want us to give cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7)! Instead, this sense of duty grows out of a deep and strong faith in the extreme love of God which he shows by sacrificing everything for us on the cross. When we trust in what Jesus has done for us to make his people, serving God and serving the people around us isn’t a chore. It becomes an act of love for the God who gave everything for us, and for others as we serve each other for Christ’s sake, whether they thank us for it or not.

More to think about:

  • How do you understand the idea of ‘duty’? How might the idea of ‘duty’ being about giving back what we owe help you think of ‘duty’ differently?
  • If you’re honest, what is your main motivation for doing good for others – the way it benefits them, or what you get out if it? How does your motivation fit with what Jesus seems to be saying in this story?
  • This story comes out of Jesus’ disciples asking him to increase their faith (v5). How do you understand the connection between faith and duty?
  • Do you think it is possible for a person to do good for others with no thought of what we get back in return? Why do you think that?
  • Jesus seems to be contrasting the disciples’ request for a greater faith with the small, everyday things the servant was doing in the story. What do you think is more difficult to do – ‘big’ things for God? Or the ordinary, everyday ways in which he calls us to serve each other? How can this story give purpose and value to the little ways in which we can serve others every day?

Counting the Cost (Luke 14:25-33)

cost of discipleship 01

There is a big difference between people who are spectators at a sporting event and those who are committed followers of a team. Spectators might show some interest, keep track of how their team is going, and might go to watch them if the weather is fine and there’s nothing more important happening. However, committed followers will pay to be members of their club, purchase their season ticket, attend every game no matter what the weather might be like or what else is going on, and will be willing to even travel interstate for their team. Committed followers will make their team their highest priority and will pay any cost out of love for their club.

Imagine that you were part of the crowd of people who were following Jesus in this reading from Luke. Maybe you had heard about Jesus and some of the miraculous things he had been doing. You come out to see what the fuss is about and see Jesus heal a man, challenge the teachings of the Pharisees, and then start talking about a free banquet that will never end. Curious to see what Jesus will do next, you join the large crowd of people who are following him and start traveling around the countryside.

Then Jesus turns around, faces us all and tells us that we will need to hate our families and take up our crosses if we want to be his disciples. What do you do? Do you continue to follow him, knowing that it could cost you everything that is important to you? Or do you decide that this is way too hard, and go back to your regular life?

In saying these words, Jesus wants to sort out the spectators from the committed followers. Jesus never tried to be popular or to get people to like him. Instead, he let people know exactly where his path was going– to Jerusalem where he was going to suffer and die on the cross. He has already warned his disciples that students are not above their teacher (Luke 6:40) so if they are going to follow him, they can also expect to suffer like him. Jesus wants his disciples to know what they are getting themselves into so that when it starts to cost them they won’t turn around and say that Jesus never warned them.

It is important to remember, however, that it those who were willing to commit to follow Jesus along the path of suffering and the cross were the ones who witnessed God’s grace and love in the cross of Jesus. The spectators who turned away from Jesus missed seeing how enormous and life-changing his love really is because they never witnessed the power of his self-sacrificing love on the cross. The committed followers of Jesus not only witnessed him giving up everything for them on the cross, they also witnessed the power of this love that is stronger than death in their own lives in his resurrection.

This story places us in the same situation as the people who originally heard Jesus’ words. He speaks to us across the centuries to ask whether we are spectators or committed followers. Are we willing to risk everything by picking up our own crosses and following Jesus by living in the way of self-giving, sacrificial love for others? Are we willing to offer everything we have to God by living for the people around us, especially those who deserve grace the least but need it the most, in the same way that Jesus has for us? When it comes to our faith, are we spectators who might turn up to Jesus if it’s convenient and the conditions suit us? Or are we committed followers who are prepared to go to any length, pay any price, travel any distance for the sake of the man who is our number one priority?

When we commit to follow Jesus by living in self-giving, sacrificial ways, we more fully encounter his love and grace in a couple of ways. When we learn what it is like to suffer for the sake of others in small ways, Jesus’ suffering for us can become even greater as we identify with what he went through for us. When we fail to live for others and default back to living for ourselves, we can grow in our appreciation for what Jesus did for us as we realize how hard it is for us to live like Jesus calls us to live. This is grace: that God does for us in Jesus what we can’t do for ourselves. We can embark on the path of self-giving, sacrificial, Christ-like love for others because whether we succeed or fail, our understanding can grow of how wide, long, high and deep God’s love for us in Jesus really is.

Sometimes I wonder what the church would be like if we were as committed to following Jesus as a lot of football supporters are to following their team. Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat what it means to be his followers. It will cost us, and sometimes that cost will hurt. However, the promise Jesus gives us through this text is that when we commit to follow him, ultimately he leads us to the cross and empty tomb where we witness God’s perfect and infinite love for us, a love that is even stronger than death. Jesus doesn’t want us to be spectators. He call us to follow him in the way of the cross. When we commit to follow Jesus by living in self-giving, sacrificial love for others, growing in his grace along the way will be worth it.

More to think about:

  • Put yourself in the crowd of people in this story. What would your reaction have been to what Jesus said? Would you have continued to follow him? Or would you have gone home? Why would you have reacted that way?
  • What is something that you are committed to in your life?
  • What would your life look like if you were that committed to following Jesus in the way of self-giving, sacrificial love for others?
  • How might following Jesus in the way of self-giving, sacrificial love for others give you a greater understanding and a stronger faith in the love Jesus displays for us on the cross?
  • Would that make the cost of following Jesus worthwhile for you? Why/why not?

Division (Luke 12:49-56)

not peace but division 01One day when I was serving as a chaplain in a Lutheran college, a student came to me and asked if he could talk to me about something he had something he had read in the Bible. The teenager opened up this passage and asked me if it meant that he didn’t have to do what his parents told him anymore.

This text can seem to contradict what is often understood as the basic message of the gospel. We talk a lot about Jesus coming to bring peace to the world, yet here Jesus is saying that he did not come to bring peace but division. So what do we do with these words?

here are times when I hear of people who live in non-Christian countries who face this kind of division when they come to faith in Jesus. These words are very real for them because to become a follower of Jesus means that they are excluded and rejected from their families and communities. They face a very real and difficult choice – to follow Jesus means losing their families and loved ones. Out of love for Jesus, however, this is a sacrifice they are willing to make.

But what about us? We can thank God that we are blessed to live in a country where we don’t face this sort of social exclusion if we are to follow Jesus. However, there are more subtle divisions that can happen when we follow Jesus faithfully and commit to living as his disciples, even in our culture.

In the Animate: Faith course we did a few months ago, there was a session on the Bible where the presenter discussed the idea of ‘dislocated reading.’ She explained that when we read the Bible in different locations, we can hear the words of the Bible in different ways and it can open up new insights for us. Last Monday, I spent some of the day in Rundle Mall while my motorbike was being serviced. I tried this idea of ‘dislocated reading’ by reading this text while I sat in a Rundle Mall food-court. As I reflected on the words, I looked at the shops, the advertising, the consumerism that surrounded me, and the people who were rushing around, caught up in the busyness of a day in the city, I started thinking about this text a little differently.

Living in the way of Jesus is so different from the way of the world. When we look at Jesus, we see someone who values the lost, the last, the least and the lowest people in society. Here is a man who was willing to give up everything by sacrificing his life for the sake of people who are flawed, broken, without hope and trapped in darkness. Jesus is all about what he can give to those of us who need him, no matter what it might cost him. What I witnessed in that food-court, however, is a culture that values beauty, youth, power, and all the trappings that go with a ‘successful’ life, however you want to define that. It is a culture that says that you can buy a sense of identity, self-worth or belonging in the things we purchase or the way we look. The values, ethics and morals of this world are so very different from what Jesus taught.

Maybe that is why the Apostle James wrote,

Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?
I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God.
(James 4:4 NLT)

James knew that the world operates in a very different way from how Jesus teaches and there is no middle ground. Either we are friends of God or we are friends of the world. Either we live in the way of the world, or we follow Jesus in the way of deep grace and self-giving love. Because there is no middle ground between them, it makes sense that Jesus says there will be a divide between those who live in the world’s way and those who follow him. Jesus isn’t calling us to launch some sort of crusade or holy war against the world. Instead, Jesus is saying that when we follow him, we will live in a different way than others who live in the way of the world. This will separate us from the world, and there will be a divide between us and the way we live, and those who live according to the morals, ethics and values of the world.

We live like this because of the peace God gives us through Jesus. The message of the gospel is a message of peace because Jesus’ life, death and resurrection establishes peace between God and us. This gives us peace in our hearts and in reconciled relationships with other people. However, as we live in peace with God, we also come into conflict with the world which doesn’t understand this peace and wants to rob us of this peace. That is the division that comes from faith in Jesus brings – division between those of us who live in God’s peace through faith in Jesus by the power of his Spirit, and those who persist in living according to the world’s values, ethics and morals.

In a few months, we will again hear the angels proclaim the good news that Jesus came to bring peace on earth to those who find favour with God through faith. Living in God’s peace puts us out of step with the world as we live in a very different way. We might not be excluded from our families when we come to faith in Jesus, but it still divides us from the world as we leave behind selfish, shallow ways and find true peace in the way of Jesus.

More to think about:

  • In what ways are Jesus’ teachings different from or even conflict with the way of the world?
  • What are some ways in which you have had to decide between living in the way of Jesus or the way of the world?
  • What do you think your life would be like if you lived every day in the way Jesus teaches?
  • Are there areas in your life where you would like to find a greater measure of God’s peace?
  • How can God’s peace help us when we are caught between living in the way of Jesus and the world?

Our Heart’s Treasure (Luke 12:32-40)

treasure chest 01What do we do with these words of Jesus? If we are going to be faithful followers of Jesus, how do we make sense of Jesus’ teachings when tells us to sell everything we have and give it all away?

It seems to me that we can hear Jesus’ words in a few ways. We can tell ourselves that what Jesus is asking is unrealistic, and we can try to ignore his teaching as being irrelevant. The opposite extreme is that we can take a legalistic approach to the idea of selling everything we have, follow it to the letter and then potentially criticize anyone who doesn’t do the same.

So the question remains: how do we take the words of Jesus seriously without dismissing them completely or becoming a legalistic expectation?

The key is in verse 34 where Jesus says, ‘Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be’ (NLT). In challenging us to sell everything we have, Jesus is asking us to work out where our treasure is. Do we value Jesus enough to listen to what he says and respond in faith? Or do we value our worldly possessions more highly and walk away from Jesus sad, like the rich man in Luke 18:18-27? Jesus’ teaching to sell all we have and give it away challenges us to ask the tough question: what do we value more – Jesus or our possessions?

This becomes a worthwhile exercise because it shows us something about ourselves. Jesus teaches us to love God with all our heart. If our hearts are where our treasure is, and if we are treasuring things other than God, then God does not have our whole hearts and we are failing in what God wants most from us – to love him above everything else.

If Jesus’ teaching shows us we have a problem, then what is the solution?

Earlier in this chapter Jesus tells us not to worry about our lives, because God values us much more than the birds of the air he feeds every day (v24). Jesus is showing us that because God values us, because he ‘treasures’ us, we can be free from worrying about the things of this life. God will always provide for and look after us. Jesus echoes this idea at the start of this passage when he tells his followers not to be afraid because ‘it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom’ (v32 NLT). We can treasure God in our hearts because God values us so much that he is pleased to give us a place in his Kingdom of goodness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17b NLT).

These are critically important words from Jesus for a couple of reasons. Firstly, countless people over the centuries have spent their lives trying to get into the Kingdom of heaven, however they might understand it, by their own efforts. I once knew a person who spent some time as a practicing Buddhist. He gave it up because he found that reaching Nirvana through spiritual discipline was impossible for him and there was no guarantee that he would even make it. Jesus teaches us that God is pleased to give us his Kingdom as a gift. He gave his most treasured Son for us, who gave the most valuable thing he has, his perfect, sinless life, for us on the cross. It is because of the grace of God – the gift of Jesus’ life on the cross – that we can participate in God’s Kingdom of goodness, peace and joy.

Secondly, Jesus also says that God is pleased (NIV) to give it to us. It gives him great happiness (NLT) to give us a place in his Kingdom. This isn’t something the Father does begrudgingly or reluctantly, but because God created us to be in relationship with him, it brings him ‘great happiness’ to welcome us into a new relationship with him through faith in Jesus. It is almost like Jesus is saying that the desire of God’s heart is for us to be a part of his family because he treasures us, and nothing gives him greater joy than welcoming us into his Kingdom so he can protect and provide for us as his people.

When we compare what God has given for us and the great happiness it gives him to give us his Kingdom, the things Jesus is asking us to give up don’t seem that valuable anymore. This love means that we can treasure God first and foremost in our hearts. In the end, then, we can take Jesus seriously when he teaches us to sell all we have and give the money to the poor because it shows us where the treasure of our heart really is. God knows that, and it still gives our Father in heaven great happiness to give us his Kingdom. When our hearts treasure our God, who values us enough to give everything up for us in Jesus, we are free to use everything God has given us to bless the people around us.

More to think about:

  • What is your most treasured possession? Would you be able to sell it and give the money away?
  • What does that say about your heart’s treasure?
  • If we find it hard to give away our most treasured possessions, how difficult do you think it would have been for our Father in heaven to give up his Son for us? For Jesus to give up his life on the cross for us?
  • When you think about what the Father and the Son both gave up to give you a place in the Kingdom, what do they say about the way in God values you? Have you ever thought about yourself as ‘God’s treasure’?
  • How can you use your money or possessions to bless the people around you this week?