Love (Hebrews 10:5-10)

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To select the texts for my messages during the season of Advent this year, I went to each Sunday’s readings and looked for each week’s theme in them. The text in which I found the word for the day became the basis of my message.

I found Hope in Psalm 25:5 – ‘Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.’

The word Peace was in Luke 1:78,79 – ‘Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.’

There was Joy in Isaiah 12:3 – ‘With joy you will drink deeply from the fountain of salvation!’

The theme for the Fourth Sunday in Advent is Love. However, when I read through the readings for this week, the word Love isn’t actually mentioned. I thought about using a different reading which actually mentioned Love, but that seemed like taking the easy way out. So I decided to look for where the kind of love that God has for us in Jesus is talked about in the readings for the day and base my message around that.

Most of the time when I listen to people talk about love, I hear them describe love as a feeling. We can talk about love for our spouse or partner, our family, possessions or even chocolate as the way we feel about them or the way they make us feel.

When the Bible talks about love, however, it doesn’t usually talk about a feeling. Instead, a biblical perspective of love can be understood as what someone is willing to sacrifice for the one they love.

We find this kind of love in Hebrews 10:5-10, especially in verse 10 which says,

God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. (NLT)

We can find God’s love for us in this verse in a number of ways. The first is in what God the Father was willing to sacrifice for us. God the Father gave up his child when Jesus left the safety of heaven and entered our world as an infant. I can only imagine what it will be like for my children to leave home and go out into the world on their own. It must have been a whole lot harder for our heavenly Father when his Son left heaven to enter our world because God knew the suffering and pain that he would go through in his earthly life. Out of love for us, however, our heavenly Father was willing to make that sacrifice for us.

It would be hard enough when our children leave home, but to lose a child must be one of the hardest things in the world to endure. I’ve known a number of people who have experienced this tragedy, and I have seen the grief and pain it causes. When we look at the life and death of Jesus from this perspective, then we can see the depth of God’s love for each of us. God’s love for us is so great that he sacrificed his Son in order to open a new way for us to become his children. Every one of us is so important and precious to our heavenly Father that he willingly gave up his Son so that we can be restored in relationship with him as his holy people.

The second way we can encounter the love of God in Jesus’ sacrifice is by seeing it from the perspective of the Son of God. Jesus knew that the offerings which were sacrificed in the Temple during ancient times couldn’t bring us back into relationship with God. Jesus knew that the only way to overcome what kept us apart from our heavenly Father was for him to offer his life as a sacrifice for us on the cross. We encounter the love of God in Jesus when he sacrificed what he wanted for himself and followed the will of the Father. He did this by entering into our humanity, going to the cross and dying in our place so we can be made holy, washed clean and made right again through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ love for us is so great that our relationship with our Father in heaven is more important to him than his own life. I don’t think this kind of love made Jesus feel particularly good. It wasn’t a love that was based on feelings. Instead, the love of God we encounter in Jesus is defined by and expressed in what he was willing to sacrifice for us in his birth and life, in his suffering and death for us.

It is important, then, that when we hear the Bible talk about love as sacrifice. For example, when Jesus teaches that the greatest command is to love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, and to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28), he isn’t just talking about how we feel about God and others, but what we are willing to sacrifice for them. Another example is in John’s gospel when Jesus gives his followers the new command to love each other in the same, self-sacrificing way that he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). He even says that people will know we are his followers when we practice self-sacrificing love for each other (v35). Paul’s letters are full of practical examples of what this self-sacrificing love looks like as the early followers of Jesus practiced it in community with each other. In the end, the way of Jesus is about following him in being willing to extend God’s love to others by sacrificing for them.
In everything we do as the people of God, whether as individuals or as a congregation, being part of God’s mission in the world means extending his self-sacrificing love to others. We do this by practicing a form of love that looks to what’s best for others, no matter what it might cost us. That’s not an easy road to walk, but Jesus knows that because he has walked it ahead of us.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, it’s important to remember that what’s at the heart of our festivities is a love that cost God everything. As we encounter this love in the birth of Jesus, and as we remain in this love through faith in him, his love will shape us into people who are willing and able to love others in the same way.

Laying Life Down (John 10:11-18)

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While I was a full-time student, I worked a few jobs in retail. During our training for each of these positions, we were told that if we were ever to be held up, we were not to argue with the person robbing us but we were to open the cash register and give the money over. Each time the reason was the same: our lives were much more valuable than the money. The cash could be replaced, but our lives can’t.

Given the choice between putting our lives on the line to protect what was in our care and letting it be taken by someone who was threatening us, it makes sense to save our lives and let go of what we are looking after.

However, sometimes it’s not that simple. For example, a few months ago there was a shooting in a school in the USA. A security guard at the school was heavily criticised afterwards for remaining outside the building when he could hear gunshots inside the classrooms. I don’t know why he didn’t go in to confront the shooters, but I wonder if he was possibly following the instructions I received in my retail training – that you don’t put your life at risk because you can’t get it back.

We all have an inbuilt desire for self-preservation. What my retail trainers were telling me and what the security guard at the school in the USA shows is that our natural tendency is to want to save our lives, even if it comes at the expense of others. My intention is not to be critical or condemning, and I do not want to make anyone feel guilty for making a choice like this. Instead, I want to show that there is a stark contrast between our natural human tendency and Jesus, who willingly laid down his life for us.

Jesus makes this contrast in John 10:11-18 when he describes the difference between a hired hand who is employed to look after a flock of sheep and himself as the Good Shepherd. The hired hand follows my retail training by leaving the sheep when they are threatened by a wolf. The Good Shepherd, however, knows the sheep and values each sheep so much that he willingly lays his life down for the sheep.

When you stop to think about it, this is a pretty disturbing image. Jesus isn’t saying that the shepherd he scares the wolf away or fights it off. Instead, the Good Shepherd places himself between the sheep in his care and the wolf that is threatening them. He willingly lets the wolf kill him and, assuming the wolf is looking for something to eat, feast on his carcass so that the sheep can escape to safety. This is not exactly a child-friendly image. But Jesus is wanting to show us the lengths that he will go to for those in his care because he values each of his sheep so much. That is the way he values each of us…

This idea of sacrifice for others is deeply embedded in our Australian culture. Each year on April 25th we pause as a nation to remember the men and women of our defence forces who have died for our country in war. ANZAC Day is an opportunity for us to stop and reflect on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us so we can live in peace and freedom. It is an important part of our culture as a nation and vitally important that we honour those who have given their lives to protect us.

Even though we live in relative freedom in Australia, we still face threats which want to rob us of life. In the verses preceding Jesus’ words about being the Good Shepherd, he talked about thieves who come to ‘steal and kill and destroy’ the ‘rich and satisfying life’ (v10 NLT) that Jesus gives us. We all face wolves in our lives who want to rob us of life. Sometimes those wolves might be fear, guilt, anger or hopelessness. At other times they might take other forms, but their intention is still the same – to rob life from us.

That’s when the Good Shepherd steps in. He knows what threatens to rob life from us and he places himself between us and the wolves that threaten us so we can find safety and freedom through his sacrifice for us. When we are threatened by fear, Jesus our Good Shepherd takes the worst of this world’s evils on himself in his suffering and death so we can find comfort in his presence with us. When we are threatened by guilt, Jesus takes all of our guilt on himself and dies with it on the cross so we can find forgiveness in him. When we are threatened by anger or hatred, Jesus takes the full force of this world’s anger and hated on the cross, as well as our Father’s wrath, so we can find peace. When hopelessness approaches, our Good Shepherd who died for us comes to us as the One who is risen from the grave to give us his love and life which are stronger than anything we will face in this world. No matter what may threaten to rob us of life, Jesus our Good Shepherd steps up for us, and takes the full force of the threat so we can live in his protection, freedom, peace and hope.

He does all of this because each one of us is so valuable to him. Matthew ends his version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep with Jesus saying, ‘it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish’ (18:12-14 NLT). Each and every sheep in the flock is precious to the Good Shepherd. It can be easy for us to understand that Jesus would give his life for others, but often it can be more difficult to trust that he did that for me, or for you. This is the heart of faith: trusting that each of us is so precious, so valuable, so essential to our Good Shepherd that he would lay down his life for us so we can live.

It would be easy to go on at this point to how we should also give our lives for others, but I’m not going to do that. We know we should be willing to lay down our lives for others, but we still have this thing within us that asks what’s in it for me, or what do I get out of it, or what is it going to cost me? It is part of our natural human condition. That’s why Jesus’ love still amazes me. He knows us well enough to know that it’s not in our nature to be willing to give our lives for others unconditionally, but he still does that for us. For me. For you. That’s why he’s the Good Shepherd.

And that’s why I reckon he can be trusted and why he’s worth following…

Growing in Freedom (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

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Over the last year or so, people in our congregation have been discussing the future of our ministry with teens and young adults using Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) as the basis of our conversations. This resource presents 6 strategies that the FYI research has identified as central to effective ministry with young people. The chapter on one of these strategies, Prioritize Young People (and Families) Everywhere, begins with this question:

How much would you and your church give up to reach young people? (p196)

It’s an excellent question because it challenges us to work out what we value and where our priorities lie. If we are unwilling to give up what’s important to us, such as our time, money or expectations, what we’re doing or the way we’ve done things, then we send a clear message to our young people that we don’t value them. However, if we are willing to give up those aspects of our church culture which are important to us in order to reach young people with the gospel, then we are saying that we value our young people and they are important to us.

When we look at Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, what Paul was willing to give up for others constantly amazes me. Admittedly, he’s writing into a different context. Paul isn’t talking about ministry to young people, but about Christians whose faith allowed them to eat or not eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. However, the key point is that Paul didn’t tell one group that they were right and the others were wrong. Instead, he tells Jesus’ followers that what is important is what they are willing to give up so that others can be built up in faith (v1).

I have friends who are vegetarian or vegan, so the impact of what Paul is willing to give up for others might be lost on some. For most Australians, however, to be willing to give up meat so that another can experience the grace of God is a major sacrifice. I would find it incredibly difficult to permanently give up lamb chops, sausages, schnitzels or steak for another person. As part of my message last Sunday I asked people what they would find hard to give up. Some answers I received were things like coffee, chocolate, music, television, social media, and so on.

The point is that if Paul was willing to give up meat so that he wouldn’t be an obstacle to others in their faith, what are we willing to give up which might be an obstacle to our young people in their faith?

When we follow Jesus, he leads us to the cross where we witness what he gave up for us. Jesus’ whole existence was about sacrificing for others. He gave up his place in heaven to become one with us in this imperfect and broken world. He was constantly giving up his time and energy to serve others during his ministry on earth. Ultimately, Jesus gave up his whole life for us on the cross out of love for each of us so that we can encounter the grace of God through his sacrifice. When I look at this question from Growing Young from Jesus’ perspective, asking how much he was willing to give up for the sake of our young people, the answer is ‘everything!’ Jesus didn’t just give up meat or coffee, his time or a portion of his weekly earnings. Jesus gave everything up for us on the cross so that we can experience grace. That is how great his love is.

Paul’s willingness to give meat up for the rest of his life so that he wouldn’t cause other Christians to stumble in their faith was because he trusted in what Jesus had already given up for him. His actions were a natural outflow of God’s grace to him so that others could experience God’s grace through him. Because that’s a big part of what grace is – giving to another and for the sake of another person just because they need it, no matter what the cost.

Which brings me back to the original question from Growing Young: how much would we and our church give up to reach young people? When we are willing to give up what is important to us for them, we extend grace to our young people. When we are willing to sacrifice our preferences, our traditions, our expectations and our power for other people of any age, we are showing them the same grace Jesus showed us by giving up his life for us. This isn’t about giving young people what they want. My children think they know what they want, until something else comes along, and then they want that. Instead, this about surrounding and embracing our young people in a community of grace so they can experience the grace of God in Jesus through what we are willing to give up for them.

Because if our young people don’t encounter grace through giving relationships with their sisters and brothers in Jesus, the living, breathing body of Christ, then where will they?

That’s why growing in faith is a key element of our Discipling Plan. Part of what it means to grow in faith is trusting more and more in what Jesus gave up for us in his birth, life and death on the cross. As we grow and mature in our understanding of his sacrifice for us, we will also grow in our willingness to give up what is important to us so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationship with us.

Jesus gave up everything on the cross to extend God’s grace to us. Paul was willing to give up meat for the rest of his life so that others might find grace in him. How much are we willing to give up so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationships with us?