A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

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There is a park across the street behind our church property with a playground in it. As our children have grown up over the years, we have spent a lot of time at that playground. It has been amazing to watch our children move from the playground’s simpler elements to attempting the more difficult parts until they were able to confidently play on all of the equipment.

Every time our children would attempt a new part of the playground we could see that it was a kind of trial for them. They weren’t sure about whether or not they could get through the obstacle to the other side. So my wife and I would walk with them through it. As adults, we are too large for the play equipment so we would stand outside it with our hands reaching inside, either holding our children’s hands to keep them steady or with our hands in a position to catch them if they lost their balance or fell. Trusting that their parents were with them and ready to catch them gave our children the confidence they needed to put one foot in front of the other and work their way through the obstacles to arrive at the destination they were hoping to reach.

We all face trials in our lives. From one perspective, some might seem less threatening or easier to find our way through, but when we are confronted with these trials, like our children on the play equipment, they can all appear daunting, threatening or scary. These trials might be caused by the restrictions in place because of COVID-19. They might be ongoing concerns like problems with our physical or mental health, relationship breakdowns, addictions, loneliness, or whole range of other things. Whatever the trials might be that we’re facing, when they are in front of us or we are in the middle of them, they can cause a lot of fear, anxiety or dread as we wonder how we will ever get through them. In my experience, just about everyone faces a trial of one kind or another at some time in our lives. For each of us, these trials are real. For each of us, like my children on the playground, these trials or obstacles in life can be scary!

It’s our natural tendency to either think we have to get through these trials on our own, or to keep telling ourselves that we can overcome them. However, that isn’t always true. I have seen people get overwhelmed by particular trials in life because they took them on by themselves and then found that they were too big or too difficult for them. It is sort of like one of my children trying to get through a part of the playground on their own, and then realizing half-way through that they can’t do it. That is when we can realize that we need help. Hopefully that is also when we start looking for help.

When Peter wrote to Christians who were suffering serious trials for their faith in 1 Peter 1:3-9, he encouraged them that they didn’t have to try to get through on their own. A big part of having faith as Christians is trusting that whatever trials we might be facing or going through, Jesus can and will help us. As the Son of God who entered the world as a flesh and blood person, Jesus knows the trials and challenges we face in life because he has been there before us. In his suffering and death, Jesus went through more than I can ever imagine, even experiencing total abandonment by his heavenly Father. However, Jesus continued to trust his Father’s promises to get him through and the Father kept his promise to his Son by raising him to new life on the morning of the resurrection. What that means is that now our crucified, risen and ascended Jesus stands outside our trials, sort of like my wife and I stand outside the play equipment, but is still able to reach in to hold us as we go through our trials.

The faith the Holy Spirit gives us is that Jesus is with us in our trials, but he also stands outside our trials, so he can hold us in his nail-scarred hands, keep us safe, and carry us through our trials until we can stand securely again. In 1 Peter 1:7 we read that our faith is being tested and purified through our trials as we learn to rely on Jesus, to trust in him, and as God grows us in the confidence that Jesus is with us and he will get us through our trials in his resurrection power.

This faith gives us hope. No matter what trials we may be facing or enduring, we can find hope in the faith that Jesus has endured his own trials in his suffering and death, and that he came through them in his resurrection. In the same way, we can live in the hope that he can and will do the same for us. Peter describes this as a ‘living hope’ (v3 NIV) because the one in whom we hope is alive! This hope gives us life! We can hope in Jesus because he endured his own trials in his suffering and death. We can hope in Jesus because he is risen from the grave and holds us in his nail-scarred hands. Because Jesus is alive, his Spirit will keep this hope alive in us so we can find life in the middle of our trials through faith in his resurrection for us.

Whatever trials we might be facing or going through, we don’t have to do it alone or in our own strength. My children wanted to show that they could do each part of the playground on our own because we like to think we can do anything. That’s part of our human nature. All the while, though, my wife and I would be ready with arms outstretched and hands wide open, ready to catch them if they fell or steady them if they lost their balance. All we asked was that they trusted us.

I think God wants the same. We don’t have to do life on our own. As we trust in Jesus, who stands outside our trials and reaches in to hold us in his nail-scarred hands, we will find everything we need to put one foot in front of the other, take one day at a time, until Jesus brings us through our trials to safety. This faith gives us a living hope, as we trust in our risen Saviour and hope in him who was dead but is now alive again. This faith will give us hope that makes us really alive!

More to think about:

  • What trials are you facing in your life right now?
  • When you face trials of any sort, do you tend to want to get through them on your own? Or do you look for help? Why do you think you do that?
  • Do you think of faith more as agreeing with the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection or trusting in the crucified and risen Jesus to get you through your trials? How might each of these look in a person’s life who is going through trials?
  • How important do you think it is to have a ‘living hope’ right now? How do you think faith in Jesus might be able to give you that ‘living hope’?
  • God gives us hope when we exercise basic spiritual disciplines like listening to his Word and praying to him. If you don’t already, how might you start doing those this week?
  • Do you look to Jesus for help as your last resort or first option? What difference might it make to your life if you went to Jesus as your first option?

Standing Firm (Luke 21:5-19)

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A few months ago I read an article online about an Australian doomsday prepper. A doomsday prepper is a person who believes that a catastrophic event of some kind is coming soon and is preparing what they need in order to survive it. Usually being a doomsday prepper involves buying a property in a remote area far away from a major city, constructing a bunker or another kind of retreat to live in, stockpiling food, water and other supplies necessary for survival, and keeping a few weapons handy, just in case.

When we read the news headlines, sometimes I wonder if doomsday preppers have a point. There are armed conflicts on most continents. There are protests and other forms of serious political unrest going on in various cities around the world. The effects of climate change appear to be causing flooding, droughts and destructive storms across the globe. In this past week New South Wales endured some unprecedented bushfires, and the fires in Queensland look like they could continue out of control for some time yet.

I can understand how a doomsday prepper could look at these and other events around the world, and conclude that something big is coming which we need to prepare for.
Doomsday preppers are nothing new. Over the last two millennia of Christian history, there have been people who have looked at events around them and come to the conclusion that the world as they knew it was about to end. Often, they have used the words of Jesus to back up their fears. For example, in this Sunday’s reading from Luke 21:5-19 we hear Jesus say,

‘Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and there will be famines and plagues in many lands, and there will be terrifying things and great miraculous signs from heaven.’ (vv10,11 NLT)

On a global scale, we could easily think that Jesus was talking about our own times with what we’re reading about in the news. Then Jesus brings things a little closer to home when he says,

‘But before all this occurs, there will be a time of great persecution. You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers.’ (v12 NLT)

If anyone says that following Jesus means having fun, they haven’t read him very closely. Here and in other places Jesus warns us that being his disciple will mean suffering persecution. This won’t just come from wider society, but from even our closest relationships. Jesus continues,

‘Even those closest to you – your parents, brothers, relatives, and friends – will betray you. They will even kill some of you. And everyone will hate you because you are my followers.’ (vv16,17 NLT)

So far this isn’t sounding like good news for Christians. From what Jesus is saying, it sounds like a time was coming when there will be catastrophic destruction, and his followers will suffer persecution and rejection from even those who were closest to them. From an historical perspective, Jesus’ words were fulfilled when the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70, and when Christians were persecuted by various Roman emperors in the first century. However, many also interpret Jesus words as referring to what will happen in the days leading up to his return at the end of time. This interpretation has led groups of Christians to behave like doomsday preppers over the centuries, as they abandoned their homes and families, went to isolated places, and waited for Jesus to return.

What’s significant about Jesus’ words, however, is that he never wanted his followers abandon the world. Instead, Jesus wants us to remain in the world, even if it is difficult or challenging. He says that when we are persecuted and stand trial in front of secular leaders, we will have the opportunity to tell them about him (v13). When we see the signs of Jesus’ return and are questioned by people who don’t know Jesus, God is giving us the opportunity to tell them about Jesus and the goodness of God we encounter in him. It is really important that we don’t see the end of the world as a threat to be afraid of, but an opportunity to witness to God’s love and grace for us to embrace.

Jesus also tells us not to worry about what we are going to say and how we will answer the accusations people will make against us because he will give us the words to say (vv14,15). There is always value in learning more about how to share our faith or to defend what we believe. However, when we are so immersed in our faith and so grounded in the good news of Jesus that it becomes part of who we are, when people ask us about him we can answer from a deep, personal encounter with and reliance on his message. This is more than having the right arguments about Christian teachings or doctrines. The words that Jesus will give us will come from the Holy Spirit through a deep, committed relationship with him and our own personal experiences of living as his disciples.

When we are living in the reality of the grace God gives us, we will be able to stand firm and receive the life he has promised. The words the New Living Translation interpret as ‘standing firm’ can also mean ‘patient endurance.’ As we wait for Jesus, not knowing exactly when he will return (see Mark 13:32, Luke 12:40), Jesus wants us to persevere in the hope that when he comes again he will fulfil all of his promises to us. The events Jesus describes in this passage will make it hard for us to remain faithful to him. However, when we are standing firm in the faith we have, that God is with us in all the circumstances and events of life, no matter how bad they might be, and that Jesus will come again to make everything wrong in the world right again, we will receive the perfect and eternal life that he promises us.

We can think of doomsday preppers as living their lives in fear of what might be coming. As God’s people, we don’t need to live in fear! Instead, as we wait for Jesus’ return, we can interpret what we see around us as opportunities to point people to the life-giving grace of God that we meet in Jesus, and to share the hope we have with others. As we live as people who look forward to Jesus’ return, standing firm means trusting that Jesus has taken the world’s brokenness on himself, he is making all things new in his resurrection, and he will bring a life that will never end to all who trust in him.

Be Still (Psalm 46)

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Adelaide has started experiencing some warmer weather in the last couple of weeks, reminding us that summer is just around the corner. When the temperatures start to rise, a lot of Australians head to the beach to cool off. While we’re enjoying the surf, we also need to remember what to do if we find ourselves in trouble. If something happens that we can’t swim back to the beach, we’re taught to raise our arm to signal for help and call out to the surf lifesavers or someone else on the beach. When that person comes out to help us, the best thing we can do is to do nothing. When someone swims out to save us, we need to relax, be still and let the rescuer carry us to safety.

Doing nothing requires a lot of faith. Our natural instinct is to do anything we can to keep our heads above water. Especially if we are panicked or terrified of drowning, we want to do whatever it takes to save ourselves. To stop what we’re doing and rely on another person means we need to trust that they can and will get us to safety. Being still in another person’s saving arms is only possible when we believe that they can save us and we trust that they are able to rescue us.

This natural tendency to want to do something to get ourselves out of difficult situations can be seen in almost every aspect of our lives. When troubles of any sort come our way, or when difficulties or struggles occur, we usually look for something we can do to fix things or make them right again. It’s like getting into trouble while swimming at the beach – our natural instinct is to want to keep our heads above water and sort things out for ourselves.

The person who wrote Psalm 46 knew what it was like to experience ‘times of trouble’ (v1 NLT). His world must have been collapsing around him as he describes earthquakes, mountains crumbling into the sea, oceans roaring and foaming, and mountains trembling as the waters surged (vv2,3). Whether we interpret these events literally or figuratively, they represent the chaos which this person was experiencing in his life. From where he stood, it looked like his world was falling apart!

However, in the middle of this chaos and confusion, the writer of Psalm 46 was not afraid. He trusted in God as his refuge and strength, a fortress into whom he could retreat and find security and safety. His relationship with God gave him the stability and shelter he needed to live in peace and hope. Like a lifesaver who swims out to a person in trouble at the beach, the writer of Psalm 46 looked to God to keep his head above the waves, hold him in his arms and bring him back to safety. He trusted that God would use the power he has to end wars, break bows, snap spears and burn shields (v9 NLT) to protect and care for him in the middle of his troubles.

All God asked of him was to be still (v10). In the same way that the best thing we can do to help a lifesaver get us back to the beach is relax, be still and do nothing, when God speaks in Psalm 46 he tells us to be still and trust him. The good news of Psalm 46 is that when we are experiencing times of trouble, when our world is falling apart, when our natural instinct is to either save ourselves or try to fix things, God asks us to be still and trust that he will take care of it. This isn’t easy for us because we feel like we need to do something, but this is one way we can understand grace: God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He just asks us to trust him. This ‘being still’ involves letting go of things that are out of our control, relaxing when troubles cause us stress or anxiety, and trusting that God can and will bring us through our troubles to a better place.

God does this for us in the person of Jesus. To use the lifesaver analogy, when Jesus was born as a human baby, he dove into the surf of human existence. Throughout his life, and especially in his suffering and death, Jesus joined us in the troubles, worries and pain of life in this world. Jesus’ life and death was him swimming out to meet us and wrapping his arms around us, no matter what we might be going through. Jesus’ resurrection is the way he carries us back to the safety of the beach. His triumph over sin, death and the power of evil carries us through the difficulties and traumas of this world to the safe and secure place of God’s presence in a new relationship with him. That is why Psalm 46 repeats the declaration that ‘The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress’ (vv7,11). God swims out, meets us and carries us in his arms to safety through Jesus because he has already won the victory over the waves and storms of life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now he asks us to relax, let go, be still and trust that he will carry us to safety.

There are times in life when faith calls us to be active, especially in our love for each other. Psalm 46 teaches us, though, that there are also times in life when faith means doing nothing and trusting that God will work things out for us. There have been times in my life when I’ve experienced troubles that my natural reaction was to try to fix things or try to make them better. My efforts only resulted in making things worse. When I listened to the word of God telling me to ‘be still’ I relaxed, let go and trusted God to work things out. That was when things started to improve as God displayed his grace by doing what I couldn’t.

What is happening in your life right now? What troubles are you facing? If life is good, please remember to thank God for his blessings to you. However, if you are going through times of trouble, if there are things which are causing you stress, worry or anxiety, is it possible that God is asking you to relax, let go, be still and trust him? The promise of Psalm 46 is that through Jesus, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is there with you and the God of Israel is your fortress. So you don’t need to be afraid. God is always ready to help in times of trouble.

Be still, and know that he is God.

Persistent in Prayer (Luke 18:1-8)

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When I was serving as a pastor in Lutheran schools, there were times when I would be teaching a class and students would ask me for things such as going to their locker, getting a drink, sitting with their friend, and so on. If my answer was ‘no’ it usually wouldn’t take long before they would come and ask me again. If my reply was still ‘no’ they would come back to me again and again in the hope that I would give them what they were asking for. I wondered sometimes whether my answer of ‘no’ was interpreted as ‘not now, but if you come back enough times you’ll get what you’re asking for.’

These experiences in the classroom, and more recently as a parent, helps me to understand the perspective of the judge in Jesus’ story. The widow kept coming back to him, asking him for the same thing, until she got what she wanted. The big difference between the widow and the students in my classes was that their requests were usually for things to make their life easier or more convenient. The widow in the story, however, was asking for justice.

We don’t know exactly what the ‘justice’ was that the widow was asking for from the judge. What that does, though, is give us room to read the injustices that we experience into Jesus’ story to help make it our story. In some way, though, the widow had been wronged. Something had happened to her or been done to her which was unjust and not right. She was looking for someone to make the wrong she had experienced in her life right again. Her desire for justice was a hope that someone with more authority than she had would do for her what she couldn’t do for herself and make right the wrongs that had been done to her.

There are times in our lives when we can probably identify what she was going through. We all witness or experience wrongs of one kind or another. This is because the world is not the way God intended it to be. When we read the creation story from Genesis 1, at the end of each day (however you want to interpret that period of time) God saw that what he had created was good. When we look at the world now, though, it seems a long way from that goodness. We can see conflicts and natural disasters happening all over the world. Closer to home, our nation is suffering from social, cultural and environmental wrongs. Our relationships can go wrong for a range of reasons, either what we have done or has been done to us. Even within ourselves, there are things that are wrong that might not be our fault, but still take life from us and from others. Wherever we look, we can see that there is something wrong with the world in which we live.

This wasn’t how God intended life to be, so in Jesus he did what was needed to set the wrong things right again. This is one way we can understand the biblical role of a judge. When we read the Book of Judges from the Old Testament, we can see that they were not people who sentenced offenders in a court of law. Instead, the Old Testament judges were people God raised up to right the wrongs that were being done to God’s people. This flows from an understanding of God as judge, who makes the wrong things in the world right again through his justice, grace and love.

Ultimately, God establishes his reign of justice in the world through Jesus. When he was born, he entered this world-gone-wrong and took its wrongs on himself. Jesus embraced everything that is wrong with us, our relationships and our world on himself, and takes it to the cross where he puts it all to death. This is one way of understanding the idea that Jesus takes away the sin of the world – he overcomes all that is wrong with this existence in his crucifixion, even death itself.

Jesus then restores us and all creation to its original state of being good and right in his resurrection. When Jesus was raised to new life, he triumphed over the wrongs of the world and set things right again so that we can live in right relationships with God, ourselves, other people and all of creation. This is what is called ‘the righteousness of God’ – his gift to us of making everything that is wrong in us right again through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can also call this God’s justice as Jesus removes the wrongs that infect us and all creation and fills us with God’s goodness.

As long as we live in this world we will still encounter its wrongs in one way or another. That is why Jesus encourages his followers to ‘pray and never give up’ (v1). The widow in his story kept asking the unjust judge for justice because she believed that he could make the wrongs in her life right again. Jesus is encouraging us to believe that God is good and just, that he can and will bring about justice for us as well. Jesus is contrasting the character of the unjust judge with our just God and saying that if the judge in the story ended up providing justice for the widow, how much more will God bring justice for us when we look to him for it?

Where do you see or experience the injustice of this world? In what ways are the wrongs of this world robbing you of the life God has for you in Jesus? God can and will bring justice to the world and to our lives. In Jesus, God embraces all that is wrong with us and our world and makes us right again through his grace.

When we believe that, when we trust that good news, then asking God to set the wrong things right again will be a natural thing for us to do. Things are what they are, but they don’t have to continue to be that way. In Jesus, God makes all things new and sets things right again. This faith gives us good reason to always pray for God’s justice to reign in us and never give up.

Our Faithful God (2 Timothy 2:8-15)

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Lots of people make us promises. For example, people who are close to us might make promises to us such as they will be home at a certain time, take the bins out, pick up groceries from the shops, and other every-day things. Then there are people and organizations in our wider society who promise us big things like secure and profitable superannuation investments, a more attractive appearance, a better quality of life if we purchase their product, and so on.

What happens, though, when people don’t live up to their promises and fail to be faithful to us and to their promises? What does that do to our ability to trust others? How, then, does that influence our ability to trust God? If we find it hard to trust the people around us who we can see and touch, how much harder is it to trust in a God that we can’t physically see or touch?

Faith in God and God’s promises to us in Jesus doesn’t come naturally to us. That’s why faith is the first and most important gift of the Holy Spirit to us and the primary work of the Holy Spirit in us. It’s only by the grace of God working through the dynamic power of the Spirit of God that we are able to trust in the good and gracious promises God makes us in Jesus. That’s why I never judge anyone who is struggling with faith. Especially in a world where we can be skeptical and cynical about what the promises people make to us, trusting in God’s promises to us can be really difficult for us.

A promise from God Paul gives us in 2 Timothy 2:8-15, however, is that God is always faithful and can be trusted. There are a few different ways we can understand the word ‘faithful’ but when I read 2 Timothy 2:13, as well as different places in the Bible, I hear ‘faithful’ meaning two main things. Firstly, being faithful means that God always keeps the promises he makes to his people. Secondly, faithful also means that so we can trust God to do what he says he will.

It’s a similar way of understanding faithfulness in marriage. When two people are married, they make promises to each other. To be faithful in marriage means both keeping the promises we make to our spouse in our wedding vows and trusting that our partner will keep her or his promises to us. Being faithful, like keeping any promises including the promises we make to God, can be difficult. We can struggle to be faithful to the promises we make for a whole range of reasons, just like it can be hard for us to trust in the promises others make to us. God understands that, but is doesn’t change his faithfulness to us.

The whole story of the Bible tells is that God is faithful. God makes promises to his people all the way through Scripture. The greatest promises God makes is that he would send a Saviour to free the world from sin and restore creation and everything in it to its original, perfect state. Ultimately, God keeps his promises and shows that he can be trusted in the person of Jesus. Through his life, death and resurrection, God fulfils his promises to liberate us from sin, to restore our relationship with him as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased, and give us a life that is stronger than death.

That is why Paul wants Timothy, as well as subsequent readers of his letter including us, to ‘always remember that Jesus Christ … was raised from the dead’ (v8 NLT). The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate good news for us because it gives us God’s promise of life with him now and forever, and shows us once and for all that God can and will always keep his promises. We can trust that God is faithful because he has done what he said he would when he raised his Son from the grave, never to die again.

Because God has been faithful in keeping that promise, he will also be faithful in the other promises he gives us throughout Scripture. The main promises we hear throughout the Bible are the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God, but there are so many other promises that he gives us as well. There are too many to mention here and now but God promises to us include love, joy, peace, hope, comfort, courage, and so much more. It is so important for us as God’s people to continually be in his Word by reading our Bibles because as we read the stories of Gods faithfulness in the past, they help us to trust that God will also be faithful to us. By remaining in God’s promises, the Holy Spirit will give us the capacity to trust in God’s promises to us. Then, when it gets hard for us to believe God’s promises and trust that he can do what he says he will, the promise from 2 Timothy 2:13 will always be there for us – that even if we are unfaithful to each other or to God, God remains faithful to us because that’s who he is. God always keeps his promises. If God says he will do something, he will do it. God is faithful, just as Jesus’ resurrection show us.

This week, I encourage you to open God’s word and listen for his promises to you. Sometimes they’re not easy to find, but through careful reading and ongoing reflection or meditation on his word, God’s promises are there for us. Imagine what life could be like if we were trusting those promises, and living like what God promises us was true. Even if they are hard to believe, still God tells us that he will do what he says, because he is faithful!

More to think about:

  • Do you usually find it easy or hard to trust people when they make promises to you? Can you explain why that is?
  • What are some of the promises you hear from God through his Word?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to trust God’s promises to you? Why is that the case for you?
  • I’m suggesting that Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God will always keep his promises to us? What is your reaction to that? Would you agree or disagree? Can you explain why…?
  • Paul writes (v13) that even if we are unfaithful (we find it hard to trust God and his promises), God remains faithful to us (and will still keep his promises to us). What questions, reactions or thoughts do you have to that? Do you find it easy or difficult to trust that promise? Why?
  • What difference might it make to your life if you were able to live like what God promises you is true?

Learning to Pray (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

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Good communication is vital for any healthy relationship. If our connections with each other are going to be constructive and life-giving, we need to be communicating well. This means both talking and listening to each other.

Our relationship with God works the same way. If we are going to live as God’s children and find life in our relationship with him, we need to be communicating with him. This happens in two ways: by listening to what God says to us in the words of the Bible and by talking with him in prayer. That is why these are the two most basic spiritual disciplines for disciples of Jesus: learning to listen to what he says to us through his Word and talking with him in prayer.

Unfortunately, we haven’t always learned healthy ways of talking with God in the church. For example, as a young person growing up in the church, the main ways of praying I witnessed were formal, pre-prepared pieces of writing which were read by the pastor in church or by our Dad at home. I understand that there is a time and place for a more formal way of praying, but when Jesus talks about God as our loving heavenly Dad, there is also room for us to talk with God like our Dad in heaven who just wants to listen to what’s going on in our lives.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the young Pastor Timothy, he urged him to make prayer his first priority. That’s why he says, ‘I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people’ (v1 NLT). Prayer might be the first of a number of concerns that Paul is addressing in his letter to Timothy, kind of like the first thing on a list of things to talk about. However, these words can also mean that praying for all people is to be at the top of Timothy’s pastoral to-do list. It would be like Paul writing, ‘I urge you, most importantly of all, to pray for all people.’ This interpretation would show that Paul also regarded prayer as one of the most important things that Jesus’ followers can do. As we ask God to help us and other people, as we intercede for others, speaking to God on their behalf, and as we give thanks for all the expressions of God’s grace in our lives, we will grow in our relationship with God and bring his blessings to the people we pray for, our nation and its leaders, and the world in which we live.

One of the most important ways that we learn anything is by watching others do it. As we see other people modelling behaviours, actions and practices, we learn by watching them and how they do them. In particular, young people learn more from what we do than from what we say. If our actions are not consistent with our words, then they will learn more from what we do than the words we use.

When it comes to prayer, then, young people in particular, but also other Christians, will be learning about the importance of prayer in our lives and how to pray from the ways in which we pray. This is one of the reasons why it is important for us to be praying together as members of God’s family. Prayer is not just an individual thing. If we take that kind of approach to prayer, then other people might miss out on an important part of our relationships with our heavenly Father and each other. However, when we are praying together, we will be more like a family getting together to talk with their Dad in heaven. When we pray together in our homes, in small groups, and in our corporate worship, we will be teaching two really important things to the young in age and the young in faith. Firstly, we will be modelling that talking with our Dad in heaven is an important part of our relationship with him. Secondly, we will also be modelling good, healthy, life-giving ways to pray in which we are praying for all people, asking for God’s help, interceding for others and thanking him for all the good things he gives to us every day of our lives (1 Timothy 2:1).

Talking with God isn’t about getting the words right. I hope my children will see that just talking with me is more important than using the right words, and I believe God thinks the same when it comes to the ways we talk with him. Our first priority, then, as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased, and as followers in the way of Jesus, is to pray. God wants to be hearing what’s going on in our lives and in the lives of others. God wants us to trust him with everything that’s happening in our lives and in the lives of others. If you don’t know how to do that, or if you’re not comfortable in doing that, part of our church’s Discipling Plan is to help us grow as praying people.

Who can you be praying for this week? Try praying for a different person each day. Ask God to help them with what’s going on in their lives. Intercede for them by speaking up for them before God. Thank God for them being in your life and for the good God is giving to them and to you through them. We’ve actually stuck the four parts of 1 Timothy 2:1 – Pray for all people, Ask God to help, Intercede and Thank God – on our fridge to remind us. Maybe you could do something similar to help you develop the spiritual discipline of prayer.

However you do it, just talk with God, because it’s a vital part of our relationship with him and God loves it when his kids take the time to talk with him.

By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16)

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One of the toys our kids are currently collecting are small plastic pencil-top figures called Ooshies. There are two main ways to buy Ooshies. One way is in a multi-pack where you can see what characters you’re buying, except for a mystery Ooshie which is included. You can also buy single packs called ‘blind bags’ where you don’t know what you’re getting. In either case, buying Ooshies can be thought of as an act of faith because we are hoping for something good even though we can’t see exactly what we’re getting.

In some ways, this is the kind of faith the Letter to the Hebrews talks about in chapter 11. The author looks back at Old Testament heroes and shows how their faith meant that they lived their whole lives trusting in God’s promises to them even though they couldn’t see what they were hoping for.

Hebrews 11 teaches us some important things about the nature of Christian faith:

1. Faith is grounded and grows in God’s promises
The faith of the Old Testament people in Hebrews 11 was directed towards God’s promises to them. For example, God promised Abraham a land that his descendants would inherit. To Sarah, God promised a child. As Hebrews 11 looks back at the other Old Testament heroes, in every case their faith was connected a promise God gave them. It’s the same with us. Saving faith is always grounded in and grows from God’s promises to us in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, ‘faith comes from hearing … the Good News about Christ’ (NLT). For us and for our faith, then, hearing God’s promises in the Bible becomes vital to a living, active and saving faith.

2. Faith makes a difference to our lives
In every example that Hebrews gives, people’s lives were changed because of their faith in God’s promises. For Abraham the change was leaving his home and living in tents in the land God had promised him. The difference to Sarah’s life was having a child and becoming a mother at the age of 99. For the rest of the people in Hebrews 11, faith in God’s promises led to some sort of action. This is very different from an understanding of faith I come across sometimes which is more about intellectually agreeing with a church’s teachings or doctrines. Good teaching and doctrine are important in a church, but their purpose is always to point us to faith in God’s promises in the gospel which changes our lives.

3. Faith generates hope
The big difference faith in God’s promises made to all the people mentioned in Hebrews was that it gave them hope. Using the examples of Abraham and Sarah, both of them found hope when they believed what God had promised them. For Abraham, the hope was that his descendants would have a homeland. Sarah’s hope was that her shame would be removed through the birth of a child. For us, too, faith creates and sustains hope in our lives. When so many people in our society are struggling for something to hope in, when we trust in God’s promises and bring that good news to others, faith in those promises will lead to a greater hope in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

4. Faith means trusting in what we can’t see
None of the people of faith in Hebrews 11 actually received what God had promised them. In verse 13 we read, ‘they did not receive what was promised,’ and again verse 39 states, ‘none of them received all that God had promised’ (NLT). This is the most difficult thing about faith – it’s trusting that something is real and living like it’s true even though we can’t see it and don’t fully experience it. This is especially hard in a culture which teaches that ‘seeing is believing’ and that if you can’t prove or have empirical evidence of something, then it doesn’t really exist. The very nature of Christian faith is that we hope for something and live like it’s true even though we can’t see it or prove it. The best we can do is look back at the ways in which God has kept his promises in the past. Based on that evidence, we can continue to hope that God will keep his promises to us in the same way that God kept his promises to all the people of the Old Testament. This is the purpose of Hebrews 11, and in fact all of the stories in the Bible: to encourage us in our faith. As we hear how God kept his promises to the people of the past, we can trust that God will keep his promises to us in the same way.

I have known people who say that living in the way of faith is easy because there are no absolute moral standards to reach and no rules that we have to follow. I disagree. Living by faith is much harder than a rule-based or self-help life because it asks us to trust God’s promises and live like they’re true, even though our experiences in life might indicate something different. Faith means hoping for what God promises, even though we can’t see it.

When I buy an Ooshie for my kids it’s an act of faith. We are hoping for something good, even though we can’t see what we’re getting. God makes us amazing, life-giving promises in Jesus. He asks us to trust him enough to live like what he promises is true, even though we might not be able to see what he promises us. As we read Hebrews 11 and look back at the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, God is showing us that he can be trusted so our faith can grow and we can bring the hope he gives to the people of the world, even when we can’t see it.

More to think about:

  • I’ve heard it said that everyone has faith – what’s important is in what you have faith. Would you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
  • What do you have faith in? Why do you have faith in it? What does it promise you? Can it actually deliver what it promises?
  • As you read Hebrews 11, which is your favourite Old Testament character? Why is that person your favourite?
  • I’m suggesting there are four things we can learn about faith from Hebrews 11. What was the promise your favourite character received from God? What difference did it make to his/her life? How did s/he find hope through faith in the promise? Why did s/he never see what was promised?
  • What are some promises God makes you in Jesus?
  • What difference might having faith in those promises make in your life?
  • How might those promises give you a greater sense of hope?
  • How might you be able to live like those promises are true, even if you can’t see them?
  • Who is someone you know whose life might change for the better through faith in God’s promises to them? How might you be able to share a promise form God with them this week?

Dynamic Faith (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

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The Apostle Luke gives us two versions of the story of Jesus’ ascension. One thing Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11 have in common is that both of them have Jesus promising his disciples that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit. Christians celebrate the ascension of Jesus because he returned to the presence of his Father in order to be with his followers around the world and throughout time, and to give us power through his Spirit.

We can understand the word ‘power’ in a few different ways. Coming from Adelaide, a lot of people immediately think of one of our local Australian Football League teams, Port Adelaide Power. When many people of my generation and younger hear the word ‘power’ we often think of governments or other authority figures who use their ‘power’ for their own benefit or to control others. However, when the Bible talks about ‘power’ it means something different.

The New Testament word for ‘power’ is the same word from which we get our English words ‘dynamic’, ‘dynamo’ and ‘dynamite’. It means strength or an active force which makes things happen. When Jesus promised his followers that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit, he was telling them that he would send them his Spirit to give them the ability or strength they would need in order to do the work he was sending them to do.

There is a lot we could discuss about the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, but right now I want to focus on the task Jesus gave to his disciples at his ascension. In both Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit was to give them what they needed to witness to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and to bring the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people.

It is significant that Paul also uses the word for ‘power’ when he talks about what the gospel of Jesus can do in a person’s life. In Romans 1:16 he writes that the good news of Jesus is ‘the power of God at work’ (NLT). In the same way, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes that the message of the cross is ‘the very power of God’ (NLT) for all who are being saved. These passages tell us that the Holy Spirit uses the good news of Jesus to work the power of God in us so we can be Jesus’ witnesses to the world.

The idea of witnessing to Jesus can be scary for a lot of Christians for a range of reasons. There have been a lot of programs and campaigns developed to try to help churches be more effective in our witnessing. I’m wondering, though, based on what Jesus says in the ascension stories, whether being his witnesses might be a lot simpler that we might think it is.

If the gospel is the way God gives us the Holy Spirit’s power, then it seems to me that living in the good news of Jesus would give us Holy Spirit power to witness to what Jesus has done for us. For example, Jesus says in Luke’s gospel that we will bring the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to receive this forgiveness through faith, then the Spirit would also give us the power to forgive others in the same way. Witnessing to Jesus, then, means forgiving people who have wronged us in the Holy Spirit’s power just like God has forgiven us.

We can witness to Jesus in other ways, too. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to believe that God loves us for Jesus’s sake, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to love others in the way Jesus teaches. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s grace for us in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to extend that same grace to others. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done for us, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to accept others in the same way. I could go on and on, going through each of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) or Paul’s definition of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a) to show how the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s goodness and the power to display his goodness in our lives and in our relationships.

The ways in which we live our lives and treat other people are much more authentic and effective ways to witness to Jesus than preaching on a street corner or knocking on doors. There will be times when we will be asked to explain why we live in ways that are different to other people (see 1 Peter 3:15) but even then Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say (see Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11). We really don’t need to stress about being Jesus’ witnesses because the Holy Spirit will give us the power we need in whatever opportunities God might give to us.

I would encourage anyone who is intimidated by the possibility of witnessing to others to start with the gospel. Where do we need God’s grace in our lives? Are we looking for forgiveness or healing? Are we lacking love, acceptance, hope or something else in our lives? When we find what we need in Jesus, in his suffering and death for us, or in his resurrection from the dead, God encounters us through the gospel, giving us his Holy Spirit and the power we need to witness to Jesus, not as a theological idea but as our lived reality.

Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said about the power of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, but that’s for other times. As we celebrate the ascension of Jesus, it is good for us to remember that we are witnesses to his grace and love in the world. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to both believe in his grace and to live out his grace in all our relationships.

That can be a powerful witness.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘power’? Does it usually mean something good for you or not? Explain why…
  • What comes to mind when you hear people talk about the ‘power of the Holy Spirit’? In what ways have people told you the Holy Spirit’s power is shown?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to witness to Jesus? Why is that?
  • What do you think about the idea that the way we live our lives can be a powerful witness to Jesus? Would you agree or disagree? Explain why…
  • Believing in the gospel does not come naturally for people, but we need the Holy Spirit’s power to believe. Would you agree or disagree? Give reasons for your thoughts.
  • Sometimes the most effective witness to Jesus we can give is how we treat people and by forgiving, loving, accepting and showing grace to them just like Jesus does to us. Do you agree that we need the Holy Spirit’s power to do that? Explain why…
  • To whom can you witness to Jesus by forgiving, loving, accepting or showing grace in some form to this week? Don’t forget to ask for the Holy Spirit’s power if/when it gets difficult…

‘Believe and Live!’ (John 20:19-31)

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How do you tell the difference between fake news and what’s real?

There was a time when people would read the newspapers in the good faith that what they were reading was a trustworthy reporting of the facts. With the rise of social media and ‘fake’ news, it is becoming harder and harder to be able to distinguish between what is real and fake news, between what is truth and what isn’t. So, when you read an article or news story online or in the paper, how do you tell if it is real, fake, or merely one person’s perspective of the truth to try to influence the reader’s opinion?

It would be easy for us to read John 20:30,31 and think this is an editorial spin or even fake news. John says that he wrote down the ‘miraculous signs’ of Jesus ‘so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name’ (John 20:31 NLT).

This is an extraordinary promise. John is saying that his reason for writing his gospel wasn’t so he could have a number 1 on the Jerusalem Time bestseller list. Neither did he write his gospel to justify Jesus after he had died a criminal’s death. John’s intention wasn’t to con anyone or use Jesus’ story to fund a multi-million-dollar megachurch. John states clearly that he recorded what Jesus did so that future readers could hear about the signs which pointed to Jesus being the Messiah who had been promised throughout the Old Testament. By hearing about what Jesus did, John’s hope was that his readers would put their faith in Jesus, and through that faith find the life that Jesus came to give us.

It is important to hear the connection John makes between the Word of God, faith in that Word and the life that God gives through that faith. In the opening verses of his gospel, John identified the Word of God with the person Jesus. The words he was writing point us to the eternal Word of God who became human in the person of Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses this Word to create, sustain and grow faith in the people who listen to it. That’s why it’s so important to be connected with God’s Word, as Jesus teaches with the analogy of the vine and the branch in John 15:1-17. We can only trust God’s promises when we are listening to his promises in his Word.

This faith which the Holy Spirit gives and grows through God’s Word results in a new kind of life in us. The New Testament gives us pictures of what this life is like. We might think of it as life which will last forever in heaven, but it is much more than that because it shapes the lives we are living now. It is life lived in full relationship with God, knowing him as our loving heavenly Father. It is a life in which we can know God and be fully known by God. It is a life that is defined by and overflowing with unconditional love. It is a life in which our identity, belonging and purpose are all defined by and lived in Jesus’ grace and love. Yes, this is a life to be lived forever in heaven but it is also a life to the full (John 10:10) which we can live now in faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

All of which might make John’s promise to us of life lived through faith in the Word sound like an editorial exaggeration, or even fake news. So how do we know? How do we know that what John is saying is trustworthy or not?

Sometimes, the only way to find out is to give it a try. I’m not talking about using intellectual arguments to try to convince anyone of the historical accuracy of the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Instead, I’m talking about verifying the validity of John’s claims by giving a life of faith a go and seeing if it makes a difference. Jesus didn’t come to just give us new information. He came to lead us into a new way of living, a way that is about trusting him and loving others. One way or another, every New Testament writer points us to this way – loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28), loving one another like Jesus has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12,17), living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6), or showing our faith through our works (James 2:18). It’s all pointing us to the way of Jesus using different language.

Maybe, then, the way of validating what John write is to live like what Jesus said is true and see if it makes a difference to our lives. Psalm 34:8a encourages us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (NLT). When a new product comes out at the supermarket, the only way to find out if it’s any good is to try it. Maybe finding out if John’s promise about finding life through faith in Jesus is fake news or not is to give it a go, to taste it and see if it really is as good as he claims it is. This means committing to reading God’s Word and learning to listen with others to what God is promising us. It means learning to pray to Jesus, trusting him with both the good and bad which is happening in our lives. It means committing to meet with other Christians in public worship around the meal Jesus gave us and in smaller groups where we can wrestle with the bigger questions of faith. It means committing to follow Jesus by trusting him in all the circumstances of life and loving others in the same self-giving, other-centred way that he loves us. Some people have called this a leap of faith. Others call it trying before you buy. It basically means giving the Way of Jesus a fair dinkum crack, embracing a life of faith, trusting what Jesus said enough to live like it’s true, and finding out for ourselves if the way of Jesus really does lead to a better life or not.

In a world of fake news, it’s easy to dismiss what John says for a lot of reasons. But what if it’s true? What if, by being connected with God’s Word, we can find a faith that leads to a better life? Is this something you might hope for? Is this something that maybe Jesus can lead you into? It’s a massive claim, but John wrote his gospel in the full conviction that by writing the stories of Jesus, people for thousands of years would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and through faith in him, would find a life which is full to overflowing of infinite, perfect love and is stronger than death.

More to think about:

  • How do you tell the difference between real and ‘fake news’? How do you work out what can be trusted or not?
  • When you read John 20:31, does this sound like something that can be trusted or fake news? Give some reasons why you think that way.
  • Based on what you know of the Bible and/or the teachings of Jesus, what do you imagine the life that John talks about looks like?
  • Is this the kind of life you’d like to be living? Can you explain why or why not?
  • What might happen if you committed to learning to live in the way of Jesus by reading your Bible and talking with God in prayer every day, as well as meeting with other Christians regularly either in worship or a small group, for a month? What difference might it make to your life?
  • Are you willing to give it a go…?

A Face Like Stone (Isaiah 50:4-9a)

 

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Over the season of Lent, we have been focusing on listening to the voice of Jesus. It just makes sense that if we are going to follow Jesus as his disciples, we need to learn to hear what Jesus is saying to us.

The clearest way Jesus speaks to us is through the Bible. That’s why John calls him ‘the Word of God’ (see John 1:1-14). Jesus speaks to us through the stories of the gospels, the letters of the New Testament, and even the ancient writings of the Old Testament.

For example, we can hear the voice of Jesus in this year’s Old Testament reading for Palm Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a, which was written five or six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. As I listen to them in the context of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I can imagine him reflecting on these words while he waited for his friends to bring him the donkey, thinking about what lay ahead of him, preparing for the events of the coming week.

During his life, Jesus listened to God to learn ‘words of wisdom’ which ‘comfort the weary’ (v4). Jesus learned the will of the Father as God taught it to him ‘morning by morning.’ These words give us a picture of Jesus gradually learning God’s will for him as an on-going process through his life. This is very different from what I thought when I was young. I believed that Jesus just naturally knew what God wanted for him because of his divine nature. However, Isaiah’s words seem to be saying that Jesus grew in his understanding of his Father’s will as he learned to listen to God, just like we do. As God spoke with him, and as Jesus listened and learned, Jesus didn’t rebel or turn away from God’s will, but he embraced what God wanted for him and followed in his way.

Jesus knew that following God’s will would be difficult and hard. Verse 6 tells us that Jesus knew that it would involve being beaten, having his beard pulled out, being mocked and spat on. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the shouts and praises of the crowd, he knew that what lay before him was suffering and death. That’s why he ‘sets his face like a stone’ (v7). Knowing what was ahead of him, Jesus embraced the future he was walking into with a gritty determination to see it through.

We can think of what Jesus did as an act of obedience to his Father. Another way to see it is that he acted out of love for us. He rode into Jerusalem because he knew that the only way to restore our relationship with God and renew us as God’s holy people was to suffer and die for us. Jesus did that because he reckons you are worth it. He chose that path because you matter to him. Jesus did what was necessary because he learned by listening to God that God’s will is that everyone be saved and know the truth (1 Timothy 2:4) of his grace and love. The only way for that to happen was through his suffering and death, so he took the hard road out of love for us and every person who has ever walked this planet.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to suffer and die out of love for us and in the faith that God would help him. If we read this text as Jesus’ words, we can hear him declaring his faith that the Sovereign Lord helps him, he will not be disgraced, he will not be put to shame (v7), God will give him justice in the face of those who unfairly accused him(v8), and the Sovereign Lord was on his side even when people declared him guilty (v9a). Again, when I was young I thought that Jesus knew he was going to be saved from death because of his divine nature, so he had nothing to worry about. Listening to these words and looking at the struggle Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane, I now wonder if the only thing Jesus had when he rode into Jerusalem was faith in the promises of an ancient book. In these verses we can hear God telling his Son through Isaiah that he would not abandon him but would help and vindicate him. I wonder if, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he trusted in his heavenly Father’s saving help because of the words he had read. Jesus set his face like a stone and rode into suffering and death because he trusted that God would declare him innocent, no matter that the priests or crowd or anyone else said, by raising him from the dead.

These words are really important for us to hear. We all have our accusers – voices that come from outside of us or within us which accuse us of the wrongs we have done or the good we haven’t done. Our culture, the media, other people, even our own hearts, can accuse us by telling us that we’re not good enough, that we’re hopeless, that we don’t belong, that we’re too much of one thing or not enough of another. As we follow Jesus into Jerusalem we share in the promises God made to his Son. When we face accusations of any kind, we will not be put to shame because God has declared us innocent for Jesus’ sake. Because we are in Christ, and have been united in his death and resurrection through faith in him (Romans 6:4), God makes us new and calls us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). If this is what God says about us when we are in Jesus, then it really doesn’t matter what anyone else says!

As we listen to Jesus in the words of Isaiah 50:4-9a, we hear the words of someone who listened to God and who learned what God wanted from what he heard. We hear the words of someone who knew that God’s will involved taking the hard road which would lead to suffering and death, but who took that road because of his love for us, because we matter to him, and because he reckons we’re worth it. We hear the words of someone who did all that, trusting that God would help him, would not let him be put to shame, and would give him justice in the face of those who accused him. These are the words of Jesus who rode into Jerusalem, who suffered and died for us, who trusted in his Father who raised him to life, who brings us a word to comfort us when we are weary, and who teaches us words of comfort and hope which we can bring to others.

More to think about:

  • Do you generally prefer to take the easy way or the more difficult way? In what circumstances would you prefer to take the more difficult way? What does that say about what’s more important to you or what you value?
  • How does reading Isaiah 50:4-9a from Jesus’ perspective shape the way you understand these words? How does reading them from Jesus’ perspective shape your understanding of Jesus?
  • Do you think Jesus rode into Jerusalem more knowing what was going to happen or trusting in the saving work of his Father? What is the difference? How can the difference help us when we are struggling with our futures?
  • Do you hear voices accusing you in your life? How can the trust Jesus had in our heavenly Father give you confidence & hope when you face accusations from either inside or outside of yourself?
  • As we travel towards Easter, how can these words from Isaiah 50:4-9a give you a greater insight or appreciation for what Jesus was about to go through? Do they help you walk with Jesus? Do they help you trust that Jesus is walking with you? Discuss why…