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?
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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…

A Way Out (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

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There are a range of ways in which we can think about temptation. The advertising industry uses temptation to entice people to purchase products such as chocolate, tuna fish, body spray, and even fabric softener by making them sound a bit naughty or risky.

This could be because the main way people think about temptation is being lured into doing something wrong or something we shouldn’t do. I think most people understand temptation mainly in terms of behaviours or actions, either actively doing something we know is wrong, or not doing something we know is right. We normally think of temptations being about what we do.

Paul talks about the temptations the Israelites experienced during their 40 years in the wilderness in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. When we look at what they went through as Moses lead them out of slavery in Egypt towards the land God had promised them, we can see another dimension to temptation. At the heart of the wrong they did was something deeper. We read in Numbers chapters 13 and 14 that, when the Israelites were faced with the possibility of entering into the Promised Land, they didn’t believe that they would be able to defeat the people who already lived there (Numbers 13:31-14:4). The reason they wandered through the desert for the next 40 years was that they failed to trust that God was able to do what he said he would.

Paul says that the temptations we face in our lives ‘are no different from what others experience’ (v13a NLT). Like the people in the stories throughout Bible, we all face essentially the same temptation. The contexts might be different, but the common theme that runs throughout the temptations which Adam and Eve, the Israelites, and even Jesus himself faced is that they challenge us to ask if God can really be trusted to do what he says he will. This is the same temptation we all face. God promises us to love us, forgive us, make us new and give us a life that is stronger than death, all for the sake of Jesus. However, we can be tempted to ask if these promises are true, or whether or not God will actually do what he says he will. If faith is what gives us salvation in Jesus, then the greatest temptation is to not believe in the goodness of God which he promises us in Jesus and through the words of the Bible.

When we’re tempted to give up on God, we can find three pieces of good news, in 1 Corinthians 10:13. The first is that God is faithful. To be faithful means to be trustworthy. Married people who are faithful to each other keep the promises they made to each other on their wedding day. Faithful people are those who do what they say they are going to do. God is faithful because he keeps the promises he makes. We can see this throughout the story of Scripture. Even though people do the wrong thing, break their promises to God, or fail in so many ways, God never breaks the promises he makes. Even when God promises that his Son will not decay in the grave (Psalm 16:9,10), God keeps his promise by raising Jesus to new life. God may not always keep his promises in the way we expect or when we want, but the whole story of Scripture tells us that God is faithful and always does what he says he will.

The second piece of good news in 1 Corinthians 10:13 is that God ‘will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand’ (NLT). This is different from saying that ‘God will never give you more than you can handle’ because if God’s purpose for us is that we learn to trust him, then sometimes we need to be challenged beyond what we can handle. However, God’s promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13 is that when we trust him, no matter how we might be tempted to wonder if God really can do what he says he will, he will never allow more to come our way than what we can bear. The story of Job in the Bible show us this. Like Job, we can wonder why God lets things happen to us, but we can always trust that God is faithful and he will never allow us to experience more than we can handle. Instead, God uses the situations we face to bring us closer to him and form us into people of faith.

This leads us to the third piece of good news in this text – that God will always show us a way out so we can endure. Just like an exit sign in a darkened room will guide us out if there is an emergency, when trouble comes and we are tempted, God will always provide a way to escape. Sometimes that will be an obvious way out of a particular situation, like an illuminated path on an airplane. At other times we might need to look harder to see how God is leading us. If the ultimate temptation we face is to not trust that God will do what he says he will, then the way out is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. As we follow Jesus to the cross, we see someone who was tempted in every way, just as we are, but who never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). When Jesus was in the desert at the start of his ministry, in the garden before his arrest, or facing death on the cross, Jesus never stopped trusting that God would do what he said he would. Even when he felt like God had abandoned him, Jesus trusted that his Father was faithful and would keep his promises to him. This faith was vindicated when God raised him on the third day to a life which is stronger that death. Jesus is our way out when we are tempted because he shows us that God always keeps his promises. If he did that for Jesus, then he will do that for you too!

Temptations will come in lots of different ways. At their heart is the temptation to not trust that God can and will do what he says he will. God is faithful – the stories of the Bible show that. He will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can stand – Jesus shows us that. God will always give us a way out so we can stand strong – that is the way of Jesus who loves us enough to die for us, and whose trust in his heavenly Father gives us everything God promises us.

 

Refuge (Psalm 91:1,2,9-16)

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During this season of Lent, we are focussing on learning to listen to the voice of Jesus, as we heard in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). This is an art we need to be learning as Jesus’ followers because sometimes God’s word is easy to understand, sometimes it can be more cryptic, and at other times it seems to run completely contrary to our human experience.

For example, the psalm for the First Sunday in Lent is Psalm 91:1,2,9-16. It makes some extraordinary promises about God keeping us safe and nothing harming us when we make God our refuge and shelter. The psalmist writes,

If you make the Lord your refuge, if you make the Most High your shelter,
no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your home.
For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go.
They will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.
You will trample upon lions and cobras; you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet! (vv 9-12 NLT)

On the one hand, the promises God gives us in this text sound fantastic! As a lifelong motorcyclist, I love the idea that God’s angels will protect me whenever I’m riding. An initial reading might seem like this psalm is promising us the assurance of a problem-free life where everything goes well and we are never going to suffer in any way.

Most of us know, however, that this isn’t always the case. The often harsh realities of human existence in this world can make it hard to believe what God seems to be saying to us in Scriptures like this. We can start asking questions like, are we suffering because we’re bad people or we’ve done something wrong? Can we really trust God’s promises to us? What is Jesus trying to say to us when our experience doesn’t match up with what we seem to be reading in the Bible?

In order to try to make sense of these words from Psalm 91 I would like to listen to them through two stories of Jesus – in his temptation and then in his crucifixion.

When the devil tempted Jesus, we read that he took Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem and told him to jump (Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12). The devil used Psalm 91:11,12 to try to convince Jesus that if he did, then God would keep him save and he wouldn’t get hurt. Jesus replied by telling the devil not to test the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:16). There is a way, then, in which the devil can use words like these to tempt us to test God rather than to trust him.

I think of it this way: I could theoretically ride my motorbike without a helmet, exceed the speed limit, run red lights and ignore the road rules, and say that Psalm 91 tells me that I can do whatever I like because God is going to protect me. That would be like Jesus jumping from the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is taking unnecessary risks, challenging God to prove himself. Jesus shows us that Psalm 91 does not give us an excuse to be irresponsible or reckless and expect God to keep us safe. God has given us the sanctified common sense to be able to work out what is reasonable and responsible and to be able to do it. So on the one hand, the promises of Psalm 91 do not give us permission to test God by behaving irresponsibly or recklessly.

The other way I would like to hear the words of this psalm is through Jesus’ crucifixion. I wonder, given his experience with the devil tempting him with these words, whether Jesus thought of them in the six hours he was hanging on the cross. Obviously we don’t know, but I wonder if Jesus thought about the verses from the psalm and the promises God was making to his Son through them.

When we view these verses through the lens of Jesus’ crucifixion, they could seem empty and false. How could God let this happen to his Son when the psalm promises that is angels would protect him? However, they can also be heard as words of hope. When we hear these verses in times of suffering, pain or loss, they can remind us that even though we are struggling or hurting, we can still find protection and refuge in God through Jesus. Sometimes this is what faith is about: trusting that God’s word is true even though our experience tells us something different. Faith is trusting that we can find refuge in God even when we’re hurting. Faith is believing that we can find shelter in God even when we’re struggling. Faith is hoping that we can find protection in God even when everything is falling apart. Faith is relying on God who is bigger than all of our pain, stronger than our suffering, who enters our human experience in Jesus and gives us something better in his resurrection. Faith isn’t believing that life is going to be perfect and pain-free as a Christian. Faith is trusting that God will give us shelter, rest and refuge even when everything is going wrong.

That’s why Psalm 91 ends with these words:

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name.
When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble.
I will rescue and honour them.
I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.” (vv 13-16 NLT)

These words assume that bad things will be happening in the lives of God’s people. We wouldn’t need rescuing if everything was good. We wouldn’t need protection if everything was easy. God’s promise is that when trouble comes we can call on God who will rescue us, honour us as his children, reward us with a life that is stronger than death, and gift us with the salvation Jesus won for us in his death and resurrection.

I understand that these words can be hard to hear, especially when we are suffering, grieving or in pain. Life isn’t free of troubles, but our troubles don’t mean that God has forgotten us or can’t be trusted. When we listen to words like Psalm 91, they remind us that our troubles are not the final word in our lives. They don’t give us permission to be reckless and irresponsible, like jumping from a high place without a parachute or bungy cord. However, in all the ups and downs of life, we have a God who can be trusted to protect us and keep us safe, even when we’re suffering, because that’s what he did for his Son.

 

A Giving Culture (Luke 6:27-38)

Luke 6v38 give & receive 07

What do you think is more important in life – what you give or what you get?

When I posed this question to our congregation last Sunday, people replied in a variety of ways. One person said that while we know the ‘right’ answer is that giving is more important that getting, life isn’t always that simple. When we start thinking about ‘giving’ or ‘getting’ things can get a little complicated and the balance isn’t always easy to find.

This is an important question for me because I tend to hear more talk around the church about what we get than what we give. For example, I hear people asking how we can ‘get’ more people into vacant leadership roles, or ‘get’ people to fill the empty spaces on our rosters, or ‘get’ people to increase their financial giving. I regularly hear parents or grandparents whose children or grandchildren have disconnected from church asking how we can ‘get’ them back to worship. Even when we do talk about giving, it seems that the conversations are largely about what we’re expecting people to give to the church!
There is a big difference between these conversations and the teachings of Jesus. When we listen to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading (Luke 6:27-38) for example, I hear Jesus talking a lot more about giving rather than getting. He teaches us to give:

  • the kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a to people with whom we are in conflict
  • good things to the people who hate us
  • blessings to people who might curse us, or say bad things about us or to us
  • prayers for those who hurt us
  • the other cheek if people slap us across the face
  • our shirt if someone demands our coat
  • to anyone who asks anything of us, and to not try to get back what people take from us

Jesus continues in verses 32-34 by saying that if we love people who love us and only do good to people who do good to us then we are no different from anyone else. Then, in case we missed it the first time, Jesus goes on to teach us to give:

  • love and good things to our enemies (again!)
  • loans without expecting to be repaid
  • compassion and mercy in the same way that God gives us his compassion and mercy
  • freedom from judgement and condemnation
  • forgiveness to those who wrong us

Jesus concludes this part of his teaching by saying that when we give to others, our gift will return to us so that we receive a lot more than we gave out.

If we read these teachings of Jesus through a ‘getting or giving’ filter, Jesus seems to be a lot more concerned with what we give than what we get. Each of these describe an outward flow of grace from the person who is ‘willing to listen’ (v27) to Jesus and live in the way he teaches. Whether the gift we are offering is love, goodness, blessing, prayer, compassion, physical possessions or forgiveness, Jesus is challenging us to see the needs of the people around us and be ready to give to others whatever their need may be.
Adopting this other-focussed, giving attitude does not come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is more towards what we get than what we give. For us to prioritise what we give over what we get is something that God’s Holy Spirit needs to be working in us as we come into relationship with the giving God and receive everything we need from him through faith.

We can see this in Jesus’ teachings in places like verse 35 where he says that when we give without expecting a reward, then we ‘will truly be acting as children of the Most High for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked’ (NLT). Jesus points us to the nature of God who gives generously to all people, whether they deserve it or not. God gives us what we physically need as our Creator. (I know this opens up the question about people around the world who are in need. There are no easy answers to this problem, but I need to ask if problems like poverty are God’s fault or humanity’s for not sharing what God has given us with those in need?) God gives us his life through Jesus as our Redeemer so we can have a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God gives us the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier so we can live in union with God in the life of the crucified and risen Christ. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we can see that God’s nature is to give everything he has and everything he is to us as a pure gift with no strings attached.

What amazes me is that God doesn’t give to us expecting anything in return. Instead, God asks us to live out our identity as his children and give witness to his giving nature by giving what he has given us to others. When we trust that God will give us everything we need for life in this world and the next, and when we believe in the extreme generosity God has shown us especially in the gift of Jesus’ life for us on the cross, then giving to others will just come naturally. Giving to others grows out of the faith that we have a God who gives everything to us and promises to give to us more than we need for the sake of Jesus.

There are times in our church when people talk about ‘getting’ others to do things or things from others when I’ll ask them to rethink that from a ‘giving’ perspective. Some might say that I’m just playing with words, but I believe that the language we use goes a long way in communicating what’s at our heart. If we are to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, it’s important that we use the language of ‘giving’ much more than the language of ‘getting’.

So I wonder, to whom could we be giving this week? I have found it very helpful to read this passage slowly, asking myself who are my enemies to whom I can give love, who hates me to whom I can give good, who might be cursing me that I can bless, or who has hurt me for whom I can give prayers, and so on. When we are connected with the giving nature of God through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, then being giving people, living in mutually giving relationships as a giving community will show in everything we do and say.