Climbing Down (Philippians 2:5-11)

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We can use ladders in lots of ways – for example when we are cleaning the gutters, painting a house, or getting a ball which your child has thrown onto the roof.

Ladders can also be used as a metaphor for getting ahead in life. We can talk about climbing the ladder of success. We hope that our football team will be higher on the ladder than other teams. We can also use the picture of a ladder to describe a person’s journey towards heaven, paradise, nirvana, enlightenment, personal fulfilment, or any other name for the ideal spiritual state.

Almost every spirituality, philosophy or system of human thought that I’ve come across in my life has the goal of climbing a ladder to a higher level of being human. Religions as well as secular humanist ways of seeing life aim to rise above where we are and move upwards towards something better. The goal of a lot of people’s lives is to be upwardly mobile, climbing whatever ladder we think is important, until we reach our objective.

When the Apostle Paul describes the incarnation and life of Jesus in Philippians 2:6-8, however, he points to a person who moves in the opposite direction. When billions of spiritual or religious people over the course of human history and in our own time have been trying to work their way up the spiritual ladder, Jesus, the one who was with God since before the creation of the world, left the comfort and safety of heaven and moved down the ladder to meet us where we are.

Paul tell us that Jesus began his downward journey by not thinking of ‘equality with God as something to cling to’ (v6 NLT). Jesus’ attitude is so very different from our natural tendency to either want to play God, or to look for the divine within us. Instead of trying to hang one to God’s glory and power, Jesus journeyed downwards as he ‘gave up his divine privileges’ and ‘took the humble position of a slave’ (v7). Paul’s use of the word ‘slave’ here is important because slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder in ancient culture. When Jesus became human, his entry point into the human experience was the bottom rung of the ladder. Then Jesus continued to move downwards as he humbled himself even further by ‘dying a criminal’s death on a cross’ (v8). Jesus’ downward journey hit rock bottom as he suffered the most painful and shameful execution which was reserved for the lowest of the low in Romans society.

Jesus moved in this downward direction and endured suffering and a shame-filled death to meet us where we are and to give us the promise of something better. He knows that we can never climb the spiritual ladder to be where God is or to reach heaven. It’s not just because we can’t do enough good or do it well enough. Our whole orientation is wrong. Jesus taught us to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love others like we love ourselves. If we are trying to climb the spiritual ladder for our own benefit, then we are not doing it in love for God or for others, and we have failed form the start. For all our efforts, we get no closer to our goal.

Jesus fulfils God’s command for us by loving us enough to sacrifice everything for us and descend the ladder from heaven to meet us in our human experience, and loving God by trusting that he will raise him up. Jesus embraces us in himself by taking on our humanity and becoming one with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to climb the ladder because Jesus meets us wherever we are, no matter how low or down we may be feeling.

Having embraced us as members of his body, Jesus displayed perfect faith in our heavenly Father by trusting that he would raise him up from the darkest depths of human existence and bring him back to where he belonged. In verse 9, Paul writes that ‘God elevated him to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names’ (NLT). In his resurrection and ascension, God the Father honoured Jesus’ faithfulness by lifting him up to his rightful place at the top of the ladder again. When we are united with Jesus through faith, God also raises us up with Jesus as members of his body. We don’t have to try to work our way up the ladder because the Father has raised us up with Jesus from death to life eternal (see Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1). This is the essence of the Christian faith: to trust that Jesus meets us where we are, embraces us in his own body and carries us upwards into the presence of almighty God for ever.

Paul introduces this passage by writings that we ‘must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had’ (v5). To trust in Jesus means following him down the ladders of life in the faith that our heavenly Father will lift us up again. The basic human problem is that we still want to work our way up the ladders of our lives. Especially in our relationships with each other, which is how the NIV translates verse 5, we tend to want the upper hand, to be in control of what happens and how things are done, and to see that we get our own way, even if it is at the expense of others. The way Paul says we are to live in our relationships with sisters and brothers in Christian community, however, is to follow Jesus in the opposite direction by serving others, looking to what benefits them even if it comes at our own personal expense, to give up our power and control and do what gives others an experience of Jesus’ downward movement into our lives through grace and love. As members of the body of Christ, we need to be placing ourselves below others in the faith that that is where we find Jesus and that God our heavenly Father will raise us up with him.

In which direction is your life heading? Are you looking for upward mobility with a greater sense of power and control over your life? Are you trying to find a closer connection with God, or looking for the divine within? If we are trying to move up the ladder in any sense, we run the risk of missing Jesus who heads in the opposite direction.

As we walk with Jesus through the events of his suffering, death and resurrection next weekend, we witness his downward movement into the darkest depths of human existence. That is where we find God. When he finds us there, and when Jesus makes us one with him, then our Father promises us, just as he promised his Son, that he will raise us up.

So don’t be afraid to look down…

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The Suffering Son (Hebrews 5:5-10)

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One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over my years of ministry is, ‘Why do people suffer?’ For a lot of people, including Christians, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then it would seem to make sense that God would not want people to suffer and would get rid of evil in the world.

I am not aware of any place in the Bible which gives a philosophical explanation for why God allows suffering in the world. It just assumes that there is suffering because of the existence of sin. However, the Bible does talk about the reality of suffering and God’s relationship with people in our suffering.

For example, in Hebrews 5:8,9, we read that Jesus learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering so that he could be ‘the source of eternal salvation’ for all who obey him. There are some key words in here that really deserve a message in themselves to understand what is being said because each of them can be understood in a few different ways. However, one way we can interpret what’s being said is that, as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he was learning to trust in his Father in heaven. This is what Paul calls ‘the obedience of faith’ in Romans 1:5 and 16:26 – that ultimately God wants us to love and trust him more than anything else, and that trust will show itself in the way we live our lives. When Jesus went to the cross, all he could do was trust that his heavenly Father would hear his ‘prayers and pleadings’ as he asked his Father to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7). Even as he died, he was still trusting that his heavenly Father would keep his promises and raise him to life as he promised in the Old Testament (see Psalm 16:9,10).

This ‘obedience of faith’ then ‘qualified’ Jesus ‘as a perfect High Priest’ because it completed the task that God had sent him to accomplish. The Greek word used for ‘perfect’ is not so much being morally flawless, which is how we can sometimes think about perfection, but instead more about being brought to completion or reaching a goal. Jesus was made perfect through his suffering because God completed him as our saviour and high priest as Jesus trusted his heavenly Father fully in the middle of what he was suffering. Jesus reached his goal by experiencing the full weight of suffering in our world so that, when we are suffering, we can go to him as the one who has suffered more than we could imagine but has also trusted our heavenly Father in ways that we can’t.

To obey Jesus, then, means to trust him like he trusted our heavenly Father. We all suffer in some way in our lives, to one degree or another. However, our society sees suffering as something that should be avoided at any cost, so we spend much of our time, effort and money trying to avoid suffering and pursue happiness. We do that in lots of different ways – relationships, material possessions, life experiences, entertainment and social media, even involvement in church can be a way of avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness.

When we look at the suffering of Jesus, however, especially through this text, we get a different perspective on suffering. When we suffer, Jesus suffers with us, which means that God suffers with us in him. God’s answer to human suffering isn’t to rid the world of suffering, but to become part of human suffering and share in our suffering with us. Whenever we suffer in any way, Jesus, the Immanuel – God with us – suffers with us as well. So we are never alone in our suffering, not matter how alone we might feel.

In the same way that Jesus learned the obedience of faith in suffering, we can also learn this same obedience in our suffering through faith in him. When we are experiencing pain or suffering of any kind, it can feel like it’s all out of our control. To learn the obedience of faith in our suffering means to trust God with those things that are out of our control and causing our suffering, just like Jesus did when he suffered. This is where we find an important aspect of faith: trusting God in all circumstances, even when it seems like he is a long way away.

This is also how God shapes us and perfects us as his holy people. When we find the grace to trust God in the middle of our suffering, he moulds us into people who are able to be his presence in the world. When we suffer, we can find God with us in our suffering through Jesus, and then we can become the presence of God in the lives of others in their suffering. God can use the hurts and pain we experience to bring us closer to him in a relationships of faith so that we, in turn, can bring hope and comfort to others who are suffering as well. In the same way that God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust him and complete him as our saviour, so God can and will use our suffering to teach us to trust him in all the circumstances of life, to grow our faith in him, to equip and then send us to bring his good news of peace and salvation into a suffering world.

None of this means that God inflicts suffering on people. Suffering is part of living in a fallen and broken world, and because we fail to love each other in the way God wants us to. Suffering isn’t God’s fault, but he doesn’t stand by doing nothing while we suffer either. The life and death of Jesus shows us that God is intimately involved in our suffering, as he suffers with and for us. In his creative power, God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust his heavenly Father and to perfect him as our great High Priest and saviour. When we suffer, then, we are never alone. God uses suffering to teach us to trust him as the one who is with us in our suffering, to grow our faith in him, and to equip us as his agents of peace and hope in a suffering world.

Dressed in Joy (Isaiah 6:1-4,8-11)

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There are a few people I have spoken with over the last month who have told me that they’re not doing Christmas this year.

In a way, I can understand why they don’t what to buy into the ‘festive’ season. These are people who have been doing it tough for most of the year, are suffering in one way or another, or who have experienced serious tragedies. The idea of trying to have the ‘happy’ Christmas that we see in the media is the furthest thing from their minds as they deal with the difficulties they are experiencing.

However, in another way, this is why Christmas is such an important event for us as disciples of Jesus. When Jesus was born, he didn’t enter into a perfect Christmas like the media portrays. Jesus wasn’t born into an ideal family surrounded by all the trappings of an affluent lifestyle. Instead, he was born into brokenness, suffering and pain. He entered into our messy existence in order to give us something much better than a superficial happiness that we can pursue by consuming goods, services or relationships.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and comes into our lives to give us a deeper joy.

There is a big difference between the happiness the media presents and the joy God offers. Being ‘happy’ is kind of like eating a Christmas lolly or sweet – it’s good for the brief time that it lasts, but when it’s gone it leaves us wanting more. So we consume another lolly, and another one, and another one in the vain hope that if we consume enough, we will finally find lasting happiness. Joy, on the other hand, is like a massive gob-stopper that we can enjoy all day. It is there with us wherever we go, through the good times and the bad, providing us with something that is lasting, real and a lot more satisfying.

God’s promise to us in Jesus isn’t a shallow, temporary ‘happy’ feeling, but a deep, lasting, real sense of joy in all the circumstances of life.

We read about the joy Jesus gives in the words of Isaiah 61. Jesus read this passage in the synagogue in Luke 4:14-21 where he said, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (NIV). Jesus fulfils the Prophet’s words as he comes to us to give us joy in his salvation. Isaiah is packed full of good news for us, and each line contains almost a full sermon in itself. Here’s what Jesus brings us:

  • good news to the poor – Jesus brings good news to all who are impoverished or needy in our hearts, minds or spirits; what follows expands on this good news for us
  • to bind up the broken-hearted – Jesus can heal hearts that are broken with the perfect, infinite love which he shows us in his suffering, death and resurrection
  • freedom for the captives – Jesus’ love sets us free from the things in life that trap or bind us, such as sin, death and the devil’s power
  • release from darkness – we all go through dark times, and people I’ve known who suffer depression have described it as a darkness over them, but Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12), comes to free from the darkness
  • the year of the Lord’s favour – in the Old Testament, a Jubilee year was when Jewish society was reset as debts were forgiven, land was returned and slaves set free (see Leviticus 25); now is the year of the Lord’s favour as Jesus puts things back the way they were meant to be
  • to comfort all who mourn – Jesus defeats death through his crucifixion and resurrection so even as we mourn the loss of loved ones, we can still find comfort in the hope that life goes on beyond death for all who die in faith
  • provide for those who grieve – we grieve when we suffer loss; Jesus provides for us when we grieve the losses we suffer; he doesn’t always give us what we want, but always what we need
  • a crown of beauty instead of ashes – another Old Testament reference to grief, mourning and repentance (see Job 2:8, Jonah 3:6 NLT); Jesus replaces ashes with the honour of being children of the King of all Kings
  • joy instead of mourning – in the middle of life’s struggles, challenges and tragedies, we can still find a sense of joy in Jesus’ promises by the power of his Holy Spirit
  • praise instead of a spirit of despair – this joy results in praise as we live in the good news of what God has done, is doing and will do for us in Jesus

One way we can listen to these words from Isaiah is to ask where we are in them – are we in need, broken-hearted, trapped, in a dark place, mourning or grieving a loss? Then we can look at what Jesus brings us through his presence with his by his Spirit – good news, healing, freedom, favour, comfort, as he provides for us in our need and crowns us as his nation of royal priests (1 Peter 2:9). These promises become the source of joy for us who believe, as Jesus becomes one with us in his birth and gives the fullness of God’s goodness to us, no matter what our circumstances might be.

I would love for us as Jesus’ disciples to find a better way of celebrating the birth of Jesus. It seems to me that one of the reasons people don’t want to celebrate Christmas when they are hurting is that, as church, we have bought too much into the world’s idea of a shallow, ‘happy’ Christmas. How could we celebrate the birth of Jesus and with a joy that is deep, lasting and real, while still taking seriously the reality of suffering in people’s lives?

The good news we can celebrate this year and every year is that Jesus is born into our broken, painful, messed up lives where we experience suffering, tragedy and grief. Jesus comes to give us the promise of something much better. The birth of Jesus is good news for us, no matter what our circumstances might be. And this good news can help us find a real and lasting sense of joy which will last for ever.

More to think about:

  • What do you enjoy or not enjoy about the Christmas season? Why is that?
  • Do you think there is a difference between being ‘happy’ and experiencing ‘joy’? Why or why not?
  • How can the birth of Jesus give us joy, even if we are not feeling happy?
  • Read Isaiah 61:1-3. Is there anything that describes what you or someone else may be going through this Christmas? Spend some time explaining why.
  • What does Isaiah promise to people who may be experiencing what you’re going though? Discuss how the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus can bring us joy in these circumstances.
    (If you’re finding that particularly hard, contact me & I’ll see if I can offer some help…)

Blessed are the Persecuted? (Matthew 5:1-12)

Matthew 5v10 blessed are the persecuted

A couple of weeks ago I was at a breakfast for local Christian ministers and pastors. Two guest speakers were also there to talk to us about their efforts to stop the change of marriage legislation in Australia. The language they used, which reflected a lot of the language I have heard coming from the conservative Christian right during this campaign, was very war-like. They talked about battles, winning, trenches, fighting, control, and so on. They also shared stories from countries who have allowed same-sex marriage, and warned us that religious freedom of Australian Christians will be lost if this legislation is changed.

Over the last few months, as I have listened to Christian brothers and sisters who are opposing the change of our legal definition of marriage, I have become increasingly concerned that their campaign has been about generating fear. My concern was reinforced as I listened to the guest speakers warn us that if same-sex marriage is allowed in Australia, our religious freedom will be lost, pastors’ messages will be censored, our children will be corrupted and Christians in Australia will become a persecuted minority.

Christians have enjoyed a privileged position in European society since Emperor Constantine made practising Christianity legal in the Roman Empire in about AD313. Before that, Christianity was an underground movement. Jesus’ followers sometimes even worshipping secretly in catacombs where the Romans buried their dead. Early Christians regularly suffered persecution as their worship of Jesus as Lord brought them into conflict with the decree of some Roman Emperors that their subjects were to worship them as gods.

During this time, Christians didn’t talk about fighting for their rights, or winning battles to influence their society, or controlling the government. Instead, their language reflected the language of Jesus, such as in the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. Here Jesus talks about being humble, thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, being pure-hearted, and working for peace. The language of Jesus and the language of the gospel is not about winning battles or controlling political processes. Instead the language of Christ and of the gospel is peace, humility, grace, love, and sacrifice.

Jesus warns us that when we live faithfully to him and to the gospel, we will encounter persecution. In verses 10 to 12, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be mocked, persecuted, lied about and have evil things said about us for his sake. Throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament we are told that following Christ will bring us into conflict with the world, and we will suffer as the result.

Most of the New Testament was actually written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The authors of the New Testament were writing to encourage Christians who were suffering for their faith in Jesus, sharing the good news with them that in Jesus they had a Messiah who suffered for them, and who was suffering with them, but who has overcome suffering and death through his resurrection.

It should be no surprise, then, that we could face the reality of persecution of one sort or another in our own country when we follow Jesus faithfully in what is becoming an increasingly post-Christian culture. When we suffer for Christ’s sake and for the gospel, we are united in the suffering of Jesus who was insulted, harmed physically and abused, whose freedom was taken from him as he was arrested and crucified, and who was crucified because of who he is.

However, we do not just believe in a God who suffers with those who are persecuted for his name, but a God who has triumphed over the persecution by rising again from the dead and defeating the forces of evil. Throughout history, God’s people have suffered persecution without compromising their faith because they have believed that death is not the end for the people of God, but we have a life to look forward to that will be free from suffering and evil. When the Apostle John saw the multitude worshipping before the heavenly throne in Revelation, he was told that ‘these are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white’ (v14b NLT). For followers of Jesus, persecution does not end in defeat, but a victory that goes beyond what we imagine, a victory that is far greater than any postal vote or political process. This victory is ours because Jesus was victorious on the cross and through the empty grave. Jesus gives this victory to us through faith in him, and it is a victory which will last for all eternity.

It is vital, however, to listen to Jesus’ words that if we suffer, we need to suffer because we are Jesus’ followers. There are people campaigning in this postal vote who are saying that they are being persecuted who are actually fighting a worldly, political battle with worldly, political weapons. This is not suffering for Jesus’ sake. To suffer as a follower of Jesus means that we are living as citizens of his kingdom which is not of this world (John 18:36). The weapons God has given us to use are qualities like grace, compassion, humility, forgiveness and Christ-like love. As followers of Jesus, we are not to use fear or threats or intimidation to achieve our goal. Instead, we are called to return threats with prayer, insults with blessing, conflict with peace, and hatred with self-sacrificing love.

don’t know how the issue of same-sex marriage will play out in Australia. I don’t know if our religious freedoms will be eroded or if we will start suffering persecution for our faith. I don’t know what the future holds for us or for our children. But I do know that we don’t need to be afraid. I believe that Christ suffers with all and for all, and he calls his followers to be ready to suffer for his sake. I believe that when we are mocked or persecuted or lied about or evil things are said about us, not because we are arrogant or hardhearted, but because we love Jesus, then we can be glad because we have a great reward waiting for us in heaven.

Because ultimately, I believe that Jesus’ love is stronger than hate, God’s acceptance is stronger than political tolerance, and the life Jesus gives us will never end.

More to think about:

  • Would you consider Australia (or your own nation) a ‘Christian’ country? What do you think makes a country ‘Christian’ or not?
  • In the Beatitudes, Jesus says that those who are humble (v5), who hunger and thirst for justice (v6), who are merciful (v7) and who work for peace (v9) will be blessed. Whatever your views on same-sex marriage might be, how can you display these qualities when discussing the issue with others who hold a different view to you?
  • Jesus makes it clear that if we are to suffer, it needs to be for his sake (see v11). How is this different from suffering because we are harsh, condemning, or hostile in our language or actions?
  • There are some who talk about the postal survey being a battle that Christians need to win. How can the victory that Jesus gives us through faith in him help us approach this issue in a way that can build people up in faith and love?
  • If we lost our religious freedom in Australia and Christian start to suffer persecution, what do you think might happen to your faith? To the health of the church? How can we approach this possibility in faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13)?

God’s Glory (John 1:1-14)

glory-to-god-in-the-highest-03Every now and then a gentleman comes into the church office asking questions about God and faith. I don’t honestly know whether this gentleman is searching for answers to his questions, or whether he is just looking for an argument. Whatever his reason might be, his questions are good and challenge us to search for a deeper understanding of God and the way he is at work in the world.

One question this gentleman has asked a number of times is one that has perplexed humanity for thousands of years – if God is all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then why are children and other innocents dying everyday all around the world from war, hunger, abuse, preventable diseases, and other evils. The assumption behind his question is that if God is actually all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then he would somehow eradicate evil and everyone, especially the innocent victims of human hatred and greed, would be able to live safe, happy, well-adjusted lives.

I can understand this gentleman’s struggle with the paradox of God’s love and power because I grapple with it on a regular basis in a number of different circumstances. The problem with simply getting rid of evil is that, if God were to do that, God would also need to get rid of human will which is often the cause of the evils in the world. We would end up with a God who controls people instead of a God who gifts people with freedom. People who have no will are people who are unable to love, and if God’s desire is that we live in loving relationships with him and with others (see Matthew 22:34-40 etc.), then taking away our will also takes away our capacity to love.

So instead, God deals with the problem of evil in a different way. Instead of magically getting rid of suffering in the world, God shows us his glory by doing something that we don’t expect and that no-one else could do – he enters into the suffering of the world as a child. God joins us in our suffering in order to meet us where we are and then give us the hope of something better in Jesus.

This might sound a little philosophical and a bit depressing for a Christmas Day message. We expect and look for Christmas to be light and happy most of the time. But that misses the real significance and power of the Christmas story. Jesus wasn’t born in a sanitized and air conditioned birthing suite. He came into the world by being born in a dirty, smelly, unhygienic cattle shed. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were shameful for their culture as his mother became pregnant before she was married to her fiancé. At the time, the people to whom Jesus was born were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire which kept control through brutal and oppressive violence. We can sanitize the Christmas story so much that we forget that God entered the world in humble way, immersed in shame and into the suffering of an occupied and oppressed people. The Christmas story is really a story of shame, dirt, and conflict.

We see God’s glory in this story because when we are suffering from shame, dirt or conflict, God is with us through the birth of Jesus to give us hope and peace, love and even joy. Jesus shows us the glory of a God who isn’t removed or distant from the realities of our lives, but he is right there with us, walking with us every step of the way, because he has been there before us in the person of Jesus. He doesn’t just leave us there, but, in Jesus, God promises us a life that is free from shame, in which we are made clean through his forgiveness and healing, and set free from the oppression of sin, death and all the evils of this world.

When this gentleman comes into the office, then, and asks where God is when the innocents are suffering and dying, I can tell him that in Jesus, God is right there with them. This is not an empty platitude to try to win an argument, but the glory of God at work in the world. In Jesus, God exercises his power by joining with all of us who suffer. He surrenders his power to meet us in the circumstances of our lives and then gives us the hope of a better life. We see the love of God as, in Jesus, God is willing to sacrifice everything, even his heavenly glory and his own life, to suffer at the hands of evil in order to free us from the power of evil. We encounter the glory of God in Jesus who meets us where we are, journeys with us to carry our shame, scandal and conflict for us, sets us free and gives us life that never ends.

Where is God when the world, or when we are hurting? In the birth of Jesus, God is right there with us.

More to think about:

  • Do you ever ask where God is when things go wrong or you witness people suffering? What has caused you to ask that question recently?
  • Are you able to reconcile the idea of an all-loving and all-powerful God with suffering in the world? If so, how do you do it? If not, what gets in the way?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering in the person of Jesus shape your thinking about God’s relationship with pain in the world?
  • If or when you suffer from shame, scandal or conflict in your life, could it make a difference to trust that God is with you in those times in the person of Jesus, and that he will get you through them? Can you explain why or why not?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering inspire us to walk with others who are experiencing their own pain?