God’s Word Rains Down (Isaiah 55:10-13)

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Just before Christmas last year, a devastating fire started in the Cudlee Creek area in the Adelaide Hills. It burnt out more than 25,000 hectares of property including homes, sheds, vehicles, and other property. I like to ride my motorbike through that part of the Adelaide Hills and when I saw the areas that had been burnt out, I was heartbroken. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who are still struggling to rebuild their lives after the fires.

It wasn’t long after the fires that the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the focus of our nation shifted. As we find our way through the pandemic, please continue to remember and support those who are still trying to recover from losing homes, property, and livestock since the fires in the Adelaide Hills and other parts of Australia earlier this year.

I was able to get up to the Hills a few months after the fires. We had had rain in Adelaide and there was a dramatic difference in the countryside. I could still see clear evidence of the fires in the charred landscape and burnt trees, but it was changing. The rain had brought new life to the fire-damaged areas of the Hills. Green buds were starting to burst through. New life was growing because of the rain that had fallen. Trees and plants that had looked dead were starting to come alive again because of the life-giving rain.

This is the picture Isaiah gives to describe the difference God’s word can make in our lives (Isaiah 55:10-13). The good news of forgiveness in Jesus raises us from death in sin to new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4,5). We hear this promise in the New Testament reading for this Sunday: ‘now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1)! This is good news for all people! When we were dead in sin, just like the trees that had been burned out by the fires in the Adelaide Hills, God sent his word of forgiveness and new life for the sake of Jesus to us like rain, creating something new within us. As the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said, just as God sends rain to bring life to the dry, fire-damaged countryside, he also sends his life-giving word of the gospel to create new life in us.

God’s word also works changes in us when we are struggling with the effects of sin in our lives. We can feel dry, burned-out, or damaged for lots of different reasons. It might be because of something dramatic or tragic that we have experienced, like a bush-fire tearing through our lives. Maybe it is trying to cope with all the uncertainties or changes we have been experiencing which can drain us like a long drought. Life has a way of wearing us down in lots of different ways, and we can feel lost, empty, or lifeless in one way or another.

When we read or listen to the Bible, we discover stories of people who struggled in their own lives for various reasons. I know that they lived a long time ago in cultures that are very different than ours, but the basic human condition hasn’t changed. We all need to find a sense of who we are. We are all looking for a place to belong where we can discover our self-worth and value. We are all searching for purpose in life, a reason to get out of bed, and to find meaning in our lives. People throughout the ages have wrestled with the challenges of life and with finding God in the middle of their struggles and questions just as we do.

As we read their stories and the words they wrote, we can also find God’s promises for us. Just like God provided for them, he can and will also provide for us. As we reflect on the ways in which God was at work in the lives of people long ago, he will also show us how he has been, is currently, and will continue to work in our lives for good. The miracle and mystery of God’s word for me is that, as I read it, I find God speaking into my life right now. Sometimes it takes effort to make the connections, but they are there when we look for them. Whatever is happening in our lives, God’s word speaks God’s promises, the good news of Jesus, to give us life like rain on a dry and burned-out countryside.

This new life shows itself in lots of different ways, just like the new, green shoots are clearly evident on the charred, black branches and stumps of a burnt tree. The prophet Isaiah describes these changes as ‘producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry’ (v10 NLT). The new life that God creates in us through his word isn’t just for our own benefit. It is also for the benefit of others. Just like the seed the rains produce will help the farmer provide more crops for the future, and the hungry can be fed by what the rains produce, so the life God creates in us will help and bless others for years to come.

When we live in the reality of God’s promises to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works through God’s word to produce in us the kind of fruit that Paul describes in Galatians 5:22,23 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When the Holy Spirit is producing these kinds of fruits in our lives, they will be seen like new green shoots on a burned black tree. People will see something different in us as God’s word and the good news of Jesus changes us to be more loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. Just like the seed and bread, this gives us good things to offer others as we follow the way of Jesus in faith and love. We can’t make these changes any more than a tree can decide to produce new shoots after a fire. But when God’s word falls on us like rain and we live in the reality of God’s promises and the good news of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will be at work, creating new live within us and making that new live visible in our relationships with others and our community of faith so they can encounter God’s goodness in us.

Some people don’t like standing in the rain. There might be several good reasons for that, but I can also understand our natural human tendency to not want to stand in the words God speaks to us which rain down on us to give us life. If you are growing through a time in your life where you are feeling dry, burned out, empty or maybe just struggling for any reason, and if you live in the Adelaide area, I encourage you to go for a drive in the Hills. Look at the countryside devastated by the fires at the end of last year. See the new life that is bursting out from the charred, blackened trees and vegetation. Remember that it was the rain that gave the countryside new life. In the same way, God gives us new life through his word as it rains down his promises and goodness on our lives.

When we stand in the reality of God’s word through faith in Jesus, it doesn’t only bring new life to us. It produces good for the people around us as well.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Do you like standing or walking in the rain? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever seen fire-damaged countryside after rain has fallen on it? Describe what you saw and your reactions to it.
  • Share your thoughts on Isaiah 55:10-11. What do you like about Isaiah’s words? What do you find difficult or challenging about this text? What is a promise from God that you can hear in these verses?
  • In what ways might you be experiencing the effects of sin in your life? Are you feeling dry, burnt out, damaged, or possibly even lifeless in some way? Explain why…
  • If God can give new life to trees and plants that have been affected by fire through the falling rain, do you believe that he can give you new life through his word? What do you find hard about believing that? What difference might it make to your life if you could believe it?
  • How might God bless people around you by giving you new life? What difference could it make in their lives?
  • How will you stand or walk in God’s word this week so it can rain down on you?

You can watch a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/GSO7ALkwWMU

God bless!

Setting Our Sights (Colossians 3:1-4)

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When I went to camps as a teenager, I loved going on night hikes. We felt a real sense of adventure as we headed off in the dark down unfamiliar country roads, trying to dodge potholes, tree branches and other obstacles and we attempted not to fall, trip or get lost along the way.

While it was fun walking in the dark, we were still relieved when the lights of the campsite would come into view and we could see our destination. Knowing where we were heading made the walk easier. We could see the endpoint of our journey and it gave us the hope of being warm, safe and sometimes even dry with a cup of hot Milo to enjoy. Being able to see the lights of our destination helped us get through the darkness that surrounded us.

This year we won’t be able to gather in worship at sunrise on Easter Sunday for our annual dawn service. I’m disappointed about that because it’s a highlight of the year for me. There’s something special about getting up in the dark, and meeting together outside in worship as the dawn breaks and the sun rises. It is a way of connecting with the first Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and were greeted by the angels with the good news of the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).

For the women and men who followed Jesus, the news of his resurrection from the dead was like light bursting into a dark place. They had been grieving Jesus’ death since Friday. They must have felt lost, confused, uncertain about the future, and afraid of what might happen next. In their darkness, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection must have been as welcome as the morning sunlight. It gave them hope. It gave them joy. It gave them purpose. The resurrection of Jesus gave them life!

In our own time and place, a lot of us can feel like we are in dark places too. Everything that’s happening with the COVID-19 virus is upsetting our regular way of life and generating uncertainty about the future, fear, anxiety and worry. In addition to these, many of us are also coping with illness, grief, disabilities, mental illnesses, addictions, broken relationships, and so much more. I can understand that at times life can feel like a night hike which seems to go on without end as we struggle in the dark from one day to the next.

The message of the resurrection of Jesus is still good news for us today. When we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we don’t just remember something that happened two thousand years ago on the other side of the world. The resurrection isn’t even just about going to heaven when we die. Instead, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection casts life-giving light on our lives right here and now.

In Colossians 3:1-4, the Apostle Paul writes,

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (NLT)

The way Paul talks about Jesus’ resurrection is significant because he writes that we ‘have been raised to new life with Christ’ already! Through faith in Jesus we are united with him in his death and resurrection. The life of the risen Christ is God’s gift to us by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith. No matter what else is going on around us or within us, we carry the life of the risen Christ in us. That shapes and determines our reality.

Paul encourages us to set our sights on Jesus and the new life he gives to us. Like seeing the campsite lights when we were on our night hikes, the light of the angel’s words helps us see where we are going. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection helps us to see our destination. Its light also helps to illuminate our path through life so we can see each step we take a little more clearly. When we set our sights on the risen Christ and look beyond what’s happening in us or around us to see the future Christ has for us, it helps us find our way in this world.

It doesn’t mean that we ignore the realities of this world, that we pretend they don’t exist or try to escape from them. Setting our sights on the reality of heaven doesn’t mean that we deny or minimize the difficulties and challenges of this life. What it does mean, however, is that we see them from a different perspective. When we set our sights on where we are going and the future God has for us, we can see through our current struggles or problems to a better tomorrow in the faith that Jesus is carrying us there. That makes it possible to put one foot in front of the other, following Jesus into a better future, in the faith and hope that the source of our lives is the risen Christ. Faith in Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t ignore or escape from the darkness of this life. It gives light to our path so we can be confident that Jesus will get us through.

We set our sights on heaven’s reality by reading God’s word and listening to what the Bible has to say to us. Story after story tells us how heaven’s realities broke through into different people’s lives so they could live in the light of the goodness of God and the life Jesus gives through his Holy Spirit. As we read or hear their stories and the ways that setting their sights on heaven’s realities made a difference in their lives, God will provide us with what we need to set our sights on our common destination. That’s when we will find the help we need and the courage that comes through faith in the risen Jesus to keep going.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

This message was good news for the women when they went to the tomb as the new day was dawning all those centuries ago. It was good news for Jesus’ followers as it drove away the darkness of fear and uncertainty. It is still good news for us as we experience the darkness of life in this world in a lot of different ways. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is a light in our darkness, showing us where we’re are heading, giving us a destination to hope for as we live in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and his victory over the darkness.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even tried to find your way in the dark? What was it like for you? How did it help to have light to help you find your way?
  • As you look at the world around us at the moment, where do you see the darkness of fear, worry or uncertainty? Where do you experience darkness in your own life?
  • How do you think the good news of Jesus’ resurrection can bring light to the darkness we are going through at this time?
  • How do you react when you hear Paul say that ‘you have been raised to new life with Christ’ already? What sounds good about that? What is difficult to believe?
  • How might you see what’s happening around you or within you differently if you look at it from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection and the reality of heaven?
  • What might you do different today in the faith that the hardships you might be experiencing will pass away, but the life of Jesus in you will last forever?

From Nothing (Romans 4:1-5,13-17)

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Whenever people make something, we need something to make it with. For example, when I make breakfast, I need cereal, toast or juice. If I was to make a picture, I would need paper, paints and something to be the subject of my artwork. If I was going to make a cake, I would need ingredients such as flour, milk, eggs, sugar, and so on. If I was going to make a Lego model, I would need the bricks and a good set of instructions to complete it.

Our human experience tells us that if we are going to make something, it needs to come from something else. You can’t just make something from nothing – it just isn’t part of what we know.

But could you imagine being able to make something from nothing? What do you think it would be like to be able to think of something and then bring it into existence when it hadn’t existed before?

This is the creative power we can see God working throughout the Bible. From the beginning, God created the world out of nothing. The actual text of Genesis 1 talks about the earth being ‘formless and empty’ (NLT and NIV) but the idea is still the same. In the beginning, God created light and life and everything that exists where previously there had been nothing.

We can see God’s creative power at work throughout the biblical story. We can see it in Abraham and Sarah, who were well past the age of having children. However, God brought life out of Sarah’s dead womb and gave them Isaac, whose descendants became the nation of Israel. We can see it in the Old Testament stories when God saved his people. He took hopeless situations, broken and messed up people, and gave them deliverance, freedom, security and a future. Stories like Moses, Joshua, the Judges, Samuel, David and more all show us how ‘God brings the dead back to life and … creates new things out of nothing’ (Romans 4:17 NLT).

We see God’s creative power most clearly in Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus brought life out of death and created new things from nothing by healing the sick, purifying the unclean, forgiving the guilty and raising the dead. Jesus’ resurrection was the greatest display of God’s faithfulness to his promises and his life-giving power as he defeated the power of death over humanity by raising his Son to new, eternal life. When we look at the empty tomb of Jesus, we can see how God brings life out of death. God reaches into the deepest and darkest places of human existence to speak promises of life, hope, love and light. These promises do what they say. They raised Jesus to new life, once and for all showing that God’s creative power is stronger than death, stronger than nothingness, and brings into existence a new reality of light and hope and joy and peace and love and life! God creates all these and more where previously nothing had exited at all.

We have these stories so we can also receive the promises of God through them. If God could bring life from death and create new things from nothing for the people of the Bible, then he can do the same for us. In a world which tells us that you can’t make something from nothing, the gospel of Jesus tells us that God can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and that God has the creative power to bring new life from what is dead, and to create good where there has been nothing at all.

This is the good news of salvation for us in Jesus. When we were dead in our sin, God created the new life of Jesus within us by the power of the Holy Spirit through the gospel (Ephesians 2:4,5). When we were distant from God and turned away from him, God spoke his promises into our cold, hard hearts to create something new and living. The good news of the redemption of Jesus is that God creates new life in us where previously there was nothing through his promises of forgiveness and new life in Jesus. Through the faith the Holy Spirit gives, we receive what God promises us by believing them. That’s why Paul writes, ‘the promise is received by faith.’ (Romans 4:16 NLT). When we hear God’s promises of forgiveness and new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus for us, the Holy Spirit creates the faith that we need to receive exactly what God promises us – forgiveness and new life as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased.

God continues his creative work which he began at creation by bringing into being things that haven’t to this point existed in us. When we have no hope, God creates hope. Where there is no joy, God creates joy. Where there is no love, God creates his infinite and perfect love within us through Jesus. When we have nothing good within us, God creates the goodness of Jesus within us through the good news of Jesus and the creative work of the Holy Spirit. Where there is no life and we just feel empty inside, our God ‘who creates new things out of nothing’ creates new, eternal life through his promises of the gospel of Jesus. If there is a part of our lives which looks like there is nothing or something is missing, our God who spoke all that we see into existence at the beginning of creation can speak whatever we need into existence so we can live in the reality of his creative power and love.

This is why it is so important for us to be listening to God’s promises in his Word. God ‘brings the dead to life and … creates new things out of nothing’ through his promises. When we receive those promises by believing them and trusting them, we also receive what is promised. That is why this Lent, and throughout my ministry, I want to help people find the promises God makes to you in his Word so you can hear them, you can believe them, and you can live in the reality of God’s creative power in your lives.

I know that it makes human sense to say that you can’t make something from nothing. God’s word, however, tells me something different. It tells me that God has the power to do what I can’t – that’s why he’s God and we’re not. At creation, in Abraham and especially in his Son, Jesus, God brought the dead back to life and created new things out of nothing. He can do the same for us through the promises in his word by the Holy Spirit’s power.

So what is missing in your life? And how might God’s promises to you in Jesus create what’s missing in you?

Born Again (John 3:1-17)

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A couple of weeks ago I saw a movie called Fury about an American tank crew towards the end of the Second World War. At the start of the movie, one of their crew members had been killed and he was replaced by a recruit called Norman who was trained to be a clerk typist. As he was being introduced to the rest of the tank crew, one member, nicknamed ‘Bible’, asked him if he was born again. Norman looked a bit puzzled before answering that he grew up a Roman Catholic. So ‘Bible’ asked him again if he was born again.

It got me thinking – if someone asked me if I was ‘born again’, what would I say? If someone asked you if you were ‘born again’, what would you say?

The reason I ask is because the term ‘born again’ can be understood in a few different ways. For some, being ‘born again’ means having a particular conversion experience, displaying certain gifts of the Holy Spirit, or belonging to a specific branch of the Christian family. However, when we hear Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in this reading from John’s gospel, it sounds like his understanding of being ‘born again’ is broader than how we might understand it.

When each of our three children were born, it really hit me that life is a gift. None of us chose to be born, or worked for it, or made a commitment to be born. We talk about ‘giving birth’ because life is a gift that was given to us when we were born. In the same way, Jesus is saying here that the new life we have as God’s children is given to us by our heavenly Father. It comes from him as he begins a new relationship with us as his children.

This new birth is given to us through water and the Spirit of God (v5). We understand Jesus’ reference to water and the Spirit as pointing to baptism. This is where we believe God gives new life to us. We don’t make a distinction between water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit, but believe that in the gift of baptism, we are ‘born again’ as God’s children through water used with God’s Spirit in his word. That is why, in Galatians 3:26,27 Paul writes,

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (NLT)

Paul identifies here that in baptism we are made children of God and are ‘clothed’ in Christ’s righteousness and goodness. As baptised people, we have been born into a new relationship with our heavenly Father, given new identities as his people, and given a new life to live as God’s children.

Another thing that really struck me as I held each of our three children just after they were born was that they have a whole life to grow into. Birth is the start of something new, a journey that will take a lifetime and, by the grace of God, will continue after they leave this world and go on to the next. The new life we have as God’s ‘born again’ children is the same. Baptism is not just about a once-off event. Baptism is the start of something new that we grow into every day of our lives.

There are a lot of different ideas about what this life looks like, and what it means to live by the Spirit of God. Paul again gives us a good idea of what living by God’s Spirit looks like when he writes this in Galatians 5:22-25:

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! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. (NLT)

According to Paul, then, to live according to the Spirit of God as people who have been born again by water the Spirit, is to be growing in and displaying the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. It means producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our lives and in our relationships with each other. To live the new lives God has given us as his born again children is to be growing in these qualities every day, moment by moment.

This is the journey of disciples of Jesus who have been given this new life through water and God’s Spirit. As we continue to explore Discipleship, then, we can be thinking that

Discipleship is …
… following Jesus into the new life God gives us as his born-again children by the power of the Holy Spirit.

By following Jesus, we can learn how to live as God’s children who live by the Spirit and bring God’s goodness into the world.

If we think about being ‘born again’ as people who are given a new life to live as children of God, then being ‘born again’ is much broader than how some Christians understand it. Being ‘born again’ is about our identity as God’s children and growing into his gift of new life to us through Jesus by the power of his Spirit. The life of a disciple, then, begins at our baptism where this new life is given, as Matthew says (28:19), and is a lifelong journey of growing into the life the Spirit gives us.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If someone asked you if you are ‘born again’ how would you answer that person?
  • What would your answer say about how you understand what it means to be ‘born again’?
  • List a few words that describe the life of Jesus. If we think of birth as the start of a new life, what does it mean to you that his life is now your life? (see Galatians 2:20)
  • When we look at Jesus, we get a picture of what it means to live as God’s child. How might keeping your eyes on Jesus and following him help you grow into the new life God has given you as his born-again child?
  • If you had the chance to start your life over, what would you do differently? As a born-again child of God we are able to start every day fresh. How will you live your life differently today?