Spend Less (Matthew 3:1-12)

AC_icon-spendless_red

As our congregation continues participating in the Advent Conspiracy to help us prepare to celebrate Christmas, the second theme we’re looking at is to Spend Less. I did some homework to find out how much we spend at this time of year and discovered that last year Australians spent $25 billion. That works out to about $1,325 per person across our country.

I was stunned when I found that statistic. What makes it even more extraordinary to me is when we look at it in the context of people who are in need around the world. For example:

  • More than a billion people in the world live on less than a dollar per day
  • 2.8 billion people, almost half of the global population, live on less than 2 dollars per day
  • Every day, 30,000 children under 5 die from avoidable diseases
  • More than a billion people don’t have access to healthy water
  • 20% of the global population have 90% of the wealth

(Source: www.atd-fourthworld.org/who-we-are/faq/how-many-people-living-in-poverty-are-there/)

Closer to home, as I sat down at my desk last Friday to prepare this message, I received an email telling me that ‘one in six Australian children and young people are growing up in poverty.’ Whether we look globally or on our own doorstep, there are people in need who would benefit from at least some of the $25 billion we spend on presents, food, decorations and other things at Christmas.

It makes even less sense to me that we spend this amount of money at Christmas when we listen to the teachings of the person whose birth we are celebrating. When we read the gospels and what Jesus said about money, he said things like:

  • “You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Matthew 6:24)
  • “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6:20)
  • “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” (Luke 12:21)
  • “Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven!” (Luke 12:33)

We can spend a lot of time discussing exactly what Jesus meant when he said these and other words like them. Some people take them more literally, while others argue that Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point or speaking metaphorically. No matter how we might interpret Jesus’ teachings, there can be no doubt that Jesus challenges his followers to think carefully about the place money has in our lives and the importance we give to material possessions. It can be easy for us as more affluent Christians in the developed world to skip over what Jesus says about money, but we need to be listening to Jesus and wrestling with the meaning behind his words if we are going to find and share the life he promises us.

Jesus identified strongly with the poor because he knew poverty. When he was born, his parents lay him in a manger, a place which contained straw for the animals to eat, and not in a soft, comfortable bed. By the age of two, Jesus and his parents fled their home to Egypt as refugees. During the three years of his ministry, Jesus was basically an unemployed homeless person who survived on the generosity of others. He was crucified as a slave with no clothes, money or other possessions. After his death, Jesus’ friends laid his body in a borrowed tomb.

The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus embraced poverty in order to provide us with the riches of God’s grace. He wrote,

‘You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT).

Paul uses financial language to tell us that Jesus gave up everything we might think is important so that we can become rich in our relationship with God. Everything in creation belongs to Jesus because he created it with the Father and the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus gave it all up to live in poverty and die with nothing so that we might become rich in God’s grace. Some like to think that Paul means financially rich, but he more likely means that we can become rich in the things that money can’t buy. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we become rich in God’s love as he gives us his perfect and infinite love. God makes us rich in hope as Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope of a better tomorrow. God makes us rich in joy as we celebrate the presence of God in our lives through Jesus. God makes us rich in peace as we find peace with God and with others through the forgiveness of sins, and peace in ourselves as we trust God in every circumstance of life. God makes us rich through Jesus in ways that money can’t buy, and in ways that will last beyond death for all eternity.

The challenge of the Advent Conspiracy to spend less isn’t about making us feel guilty for spending money at Christmas. Firstly, it challenges us to look beyond the consumerism of the society we live in and our own desires for more stuff to the greater need that exists in our own country and around the world. It then challenges us to share some of what we have with others who need it more than we do.

The second challenge of the Advent Conspiracy is to ask ourselves what really matters to us at Christmas. Are we trying to fill our lives or the lives of others with stuff so that we don’t have to deal with the deeper needs we have within us? Do we get caught up in the spending frenzy because that’s what we think gives our lives value or meaning? Or are we willing to admit that we have deeper needs which presents or possessions can’t satisfy? What if we could find what we need in Jesus who became poor to make us rich in hope, peace, joy and love? No matter how much we spend, I haven’t met anyone yet who have found these in what they buy. The promise Jesus gives us is that he gives them to us for free.

The gospel reading for Sunday tells the story of John the Baptist who calls people to repent (Matthew 3:1,2). Repentance doesn’t mean feeling sorry for the wrong things we’ve done. It means making changes in our lives and moving in a better direction. Maybe this Christmas, John is calling us to repent by changing the way we spend. Maybe John is calling us to look for what our hearts need in relationship with Jesus, not in the things we buy or the things we want. When we find what our hearts need in Jesus, then, maybe, we can spend less on stuff that doesn’t last, and share that with others who need it more than we do.

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…

Loving Like Jesus (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

1 Corinthians 13 love 08
Central to the teachings of Jesus is the command to love. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus asking him which was the most important of God’s commandments. Jesus summarises the Old Testament law by replying that God wants us to love him with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). John develops this idea in his gospel when he tells the story of Jesus giving his disciples a new command: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). To make sure his followers get the point, John has Jesus repeating this same command twice more in 15:12 and 15:17.

Every book of the New Testament except one talks about what it means to love each other in the way Jesus taught at some point. The only book that doesn’t explicitly talk about Jesus’ command to love is the Acts of the Apostles. However, Acts has plenty of examples of how the early Christians loved each other in community and brought the message of Jesus’ love to the world. It is possible to read the entire Bible as an epic story of God’s love for people and the love it inspires for others.

While we might talk and read about God’s love for us in Jesus, we can still struggle with how that love looks practically in our lives. There are a lot of different ideas of how to follow Jesus’ teachings on love, and there are many ways we can show his love in our relationships. One of the most helpful passages in Scripture I have found that describes the love Jesus taught is 1 Corinthians 13.

One way this passage can help us love in the way Jesus taught is to read verses 4-8a with our own names substituted for the word ‘love’. Whenever I do that, it doesn’t take long at all before I start feeling very uncomfortable – usually around the word ‘patient.’ Replacing the word ‘love’ with our names shows us that we fall a long way short of loving people in the way Jesus wants us to. While this can make us uncomfortable, it’s not a bad thing because it shows us that if we are to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers, we need help to do it.

That’s where I read this passage again, but this time inserting ‘God’ for the word ‘love.’ We can do that because the Apostle John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16). God is the source, the embodiment, the fullness of all love. By saying that ‘God is love’ john tells us that God is synonymous with love. When we read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a from this perspective, it tells us a lot about the nature of God:

God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. God does not dishonour others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails. (NIV)

Even when we fail to love others in the way God wants us to, the promise of this text is that God never fails to love us. God is patient with us even when we lose our patience with others. God is kind to us even when we are unkind to each other. God is not envious, boastful or proud, but instead embraces humility to serve us. God does not dishonour us, but gives us the honour of calling us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God is not self-seeking, but seeks what is good for us even though it kills him on a cross. God is not angry with us and keeps no record of our wrongs, but removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. God rejoices in the truth of his grace and peace. God is always protecting us, always trusting us with his goodness and gifts, always hoping for the best for us, always persevering and hanging in there for us. Ultimately, God will never fail us because the story of the Bible shows time and time again that God never fails his people.

God loves us this way because of what Jesus has done for us. God loves us in the way 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a describes because he entered into our broken human existence, taking our humanity on himself in the person of Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we fail to live, loving people in the perfect way God wants us to. Jesus took our flaws, failures and everything we don’t do in 1 Corinthians 13 to the cross, putting our wrongs to death once and for all. Then Jesus rose to new life so we can live new lives united with him through the Holy Spirit. God loves us perfectly even when we fail to love the way he wants us to because his Son Jesus lives in us.

Paul writes that when he was a child, he spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. As he matured, though, he put away childish ways (1 Cor 13:11). This is the spiritual growth that God wants for all of us. The path to spiritual maturity comes through recognising that we fail to love the way God wants us to and finding God’s love for us in Jesus. As we repent of our failure to love by turning towards God who is the source of perfect love in Jesus, and trust in his love for us, the Holy Spirit works in us to mature us as Jesus’ followers. I know from personal experience that when we recognise our failures in loving God and people, and when we turn to God in faith, trusting in his love for us in Jesus, it can change us into people who have a greater capacity to love others on the way 1 Corinthians 13 describes, even people who are hard to love. When we are able to love each other as the Spirit enable us, then people will see that we are followers of Jesus (John 13:35) and God’s love enters the lives of others through us.

Just about everything I do as a pastor is to help people grow in their faith in God’s love for them in Jesus so they can become more loving people towards others. 1 Corinthians 13 has become crucial to my understanding of what the love Jesus taught looks like. In the end, when everything else we think is so important is gone, then these three will remain: faith, hope and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love, because that’s where we find the life-changing goodness of God.

Repentance Fruit (Matthew 3:1-12)

repentance-fruit-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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