Growing in Repentance
Throughout the seven letters to the churches in Revelation there is a constant call to repentance from Jesus:
Repent and do the things you did at first. Revelation 2:5
Repent therefore! Otherwise I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. 2:16
So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely unless they repent of her ways. 2:22
Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. 3:3
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 3:19
Repentance is an important part of the Christian life. When Jesus began his ministry he preached, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Entrance into the kingdom of God is marked by repentance. Our new life in Christ begins with repentance. It is a change in the way we see lordship – that I am not the king of my own life, but Jesus is the true king of all and so Lord over my life. It is this shift in thinking that leads to a new way of living. The Christian life then becomes one of turning away from my own self-rule and then bringing my life under the submission of Christ.
A simple way to think of repentance is as a change of mind that leads to a change of life. Repentance begins with the mind – the way we think, our patterns of thought, our system of values. The mind is what steers our lives for good or ill. Our actions flow from our thinking. The idea is seen where Paul says, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” (Romans 8:5) It is why throughout Scripture it talks about the renewal of our minds which leads to a change of character and behaviour, such as Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”
There is a difficulty in this. Our minds are broken by sin, our thoughts corrupted, our values tainted. One of the ways sin works on our minds is to blind us to its presence. It can be hardest to see sin in our own lives. It is hard to clearly identify sin in the shape of our thought patterns, particularly when the very means of identifying sinful ways of thinking is the very thing that is broken by sin. And indeed we can have very deepset ways of thinking of which we are unaware. They are thought patterns we have inherited from our families, our culture, our education, which are imbedded in our minds, remaining unquestioned and unchallenged. It can be the values we inherit from our family by which we measure our worth – such as by education, successful careers, having a family. It can be the patterns of thinking within our culture – independence, materialism, hedonism. It can be things we are taught, sometimes implicitly – science has nothing to do with God, your worth is measured by your exam scores or work place assessments. Such patterns of thinking have deep roots and impact what we say, what we do, how we react in situations. Repentance means identifying these patterns and changing the way we think so it is in line with the gospel. It is to put to death the old self corrupted by sin, be renewed in your mind, and put on the new self, created to be like God. (Ephesians 4:22-24)
This is not something we can do on our own. We need the Spirit of God to open our eyes to such patterns of thinking and then to work his change in our lives – by his word, by other Christians, through the trials of life – to bring our thinking in line with the gospel. David at the end of Psalm 139 prays,
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
It is as we practice repentance in our lives that we will grow more dependent on God’s grace, more thankful for his forgiveness and become more like Christ.
Are You a Theologian?
How do you answer that question? Many of us might quickly answer, “No.” We hear the word “theologian” and think of men in dinner jackets and long beards with shelves filled with book, who spend all their time thinking about esoteric questions about God. We think of academics and teachers. But when it comes to ourselves – no, we are not theologians. But the question is misleading because the reality is, we are all theologians. We all have a view of who God is and what he is like. So perhaps we should rather ask – are you a bad theologian or a good theologian?
A theologian is someone who studies theology. Theology is the study of God coming from the Greek words ‘theos’ (God) and ‘logos’ (word). It is about a knowledge of God – who God is and how he works. It is knowledge about the world God has created and how he has made us. It is the knowledge of how God saves us and where this world is headed. To be a theologian then is to be growing in our knowledge of God. There are a number of reasons why we should all as Christians be endeavouring to grow in our theology.
- As Christians, we have a relationship with God. It should be our desire then to know more of what he is like. Too often these days, people try to make God fit the way they want him to be. They ignore parts of God’s character that they are uncomfortable with. But to grow to know someone, is to grow to know their character, what they love, what they enjoy, what makes them angry, what makes them sad. In theology, we look at God’s character and who he is. In our Great Truths series we spent three sermons looking at God’s character including God as a Trinity and his Holiness.
- Knowing God also means we come to know ourselves better. John Calvin writes: “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” (Institutes of Christian Religion 1.1.2) It is then that we can answer questions like “Why do we exist?” or “What is the purpose of my existence?”
- Looking at the world and ourselves, we can see everything is not the way it should be. We find the diagnosis of that problem in the Bible, and in theology, we talk about it when we consider sin and spiritual death and the original sin of Adam and Eve. It is important that we understand the problem, because only then can we know what is needed for a solution.
- The Bible presents to us God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, and theology brings it all together to consider who Jesus is, how he rescues us, but also how what Christ has done applies to us. This means understanding his death and resurrection, as well as the personal applications to Christians in regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification.
- Theology also brings together what the Bible says about where we are headed – the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgement and the New Creation.
Theology, that is, a knowledge of God, should not just be an academic pursuit. It is for those who take God seriously and should be practical. It is not only something to know but something to live. It needs to take root in our minds and hearts and transform our characters and actions. Who, after contemplating the holiness of God, is not challenged by God’s call to holiness: “Be holy as I am holy”? Who, after considering the horrible depths of sin, is not driven to the Saviour? Who, after looking at Christ, is not spurred on to live a life of faith, love and thankfulness for all God has done?
We are all theologians, we all have a knowledge of God, for some of us it is more complete than others. So we should all be seeking to grow in our knowledge of God and to correct poor views of God. We should seek to be good theologians not for knowledge’s sake, but to know our God more and live lives that seek to please him and love him.
If you are looking for a starting point for reading theology, two books I use are:
J.I.Packer “Concise Theology: A Guide To Historic Christian Beliefs”
R.C.Sproul “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith”
Reconnecting in a Disconnected World
This week, I’ve had phone trouble. It happened on Wednesday afternoon. The landline phone rang. I picked it up, “Hello?” Then I heard the person on the other end saying, “Hello? Hello?” I say, “Hello? Can you hear me?” Then they hung up. This person called twice more. I could hear them. But they could not hear me. We were disconnected.
The communication was not getting through.
It left me feeling frustrated.
Our world is becoming an increasingly disconnected place. I have heard it said that one of the biggest issues in our society is an increasing amount of people disconnected from society. They spend most of their time connected online using social media and staring at a computer screen, so that face to face communication becomes difficult and confronting. This can lead to things like unemployment and depression. We have a need for real face-to-face human connection. But many feel a disconnection.
But when we are honest, we can feel a deeper disconnection, a disconnection with God. We can feel like God is hidden from us. Our prayers feel like they bounce of the ceiling. We wonder if God exists. We feel somehow God does not like us. Dark thoughts often echo in our heads, “How can God love me? How could he forgive the things I have done?” God seems distant from us, unattainable. We have been disconnected.
This is why Easter is such good news. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, God ends the disconnection between us. There are three ways God ends the disconnection between us and him.
First, in Jesus we see that God is there and he loves us. Paul says in Colossians 1:15 that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God”, that means when we look at Jesus, what he’s like and what he does, we are seeing God’s character on display. We see that God is loving and merciful and wants us to know him.
Second, in Jesus we see that God forgives us. One of the worst ways to feel disconnected from someone is because one person wrongs another and the other is not willing to forgive or seek reconciliation. But God is not like that. We have wronged God and deserve his punishment, but God acts to forgive us and reconnect us with him. He sends Jesus to die on the cross in our place, to take away the punishment we deserve and restore our relationship with him. Peter says it this way, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” 1 Peter 3:18
Third, Jesus rises from the dead so we need never be disconnected from God again. The ultimate disconnector is death – death ends relationship. It is impossible to talk with a person once they are dead. The Bible also talks about a spiritual death that is a permanent disconnection from God. But Jesus ends death’s disconnection. He rises from the dead, and so gives new resurrection life to all who trust in him.
And so Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, 57:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting?”
“But thanks be to God!
He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
God ends our disconnection for those who turn from their sin to trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. He reconnects us with himself to enjoy his love and live with him forever. But he also helps to end the disconnection we can feel with one another. He renews and restores relationships and connects us to his people, to be a part of his community, to love and be loved by all who share in Jesus Christ. But if we do not trust in Jesus, we are left permanently disconnected, in the dark and alone.
Do you feel disconnected?
It is Jesus who reconnects us with God and makes us a part of his community.
Trust in him.
Living the Life of Jesus
Last year when we visited Ballarat, one of the highlights was watching a number of pantomimes put on at Sovereign Hill and Kryall Castle. The boys were right there in the action, yelling out from their seats, “Watch out behind you!”, or arguing with the actors, “Yes it is.” “No it’s not.” Or even a “Boo!” to the villain and an “Awww!” to the tragic victim.
There is something about live drama that draws us into the action of the performance on stage. The actors lay hold of our hearts. We laugh, we cry, we hope our way through the play. The gospel is live drama performed on the stage of history. Except it is not an act. It is not pretend. It is real it happened. God stepped into history. He became one of us. He died on the cross. He rose from the dead. All before the watching world. This is the gospel of Jesus. And it draws us into the drama.
I remember hearing of man who read one of the four gospels for the first time. As he reads, he is captivated by Jesus – a man who did wonderful miracles, who spoke the truth of God, who restored the outsider back to God and into community with others. His heart leaps. He has found a Saviour. The one who returns us to God. But then he reaches the crucifixion and he is heart-broken. He sees the one who gave him hope, now stretched out on a cross and killed. And he weeps and weeps and weeps because his Saviour has been taken from him. Until he reads the resurrection – and is left speechless, amazed, exultant – Jesus lives!
The gospel of Jesus Christ draws us into the action, to not only be those who look on, to not only be those who benefit from what he has done, but to participate in the drama, to take the stage of our own lives with the gospel as our script, to live out the life of Jesus again in our own lives. Last year, when we looked at the letter to the Philippians together, this is what struck me, and God keeps bringing it to mind. We are to live out the life of Jesus again in our lives. Paul writes it this way:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,
Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped, but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross.
We are not only to be those who are loved by Jesus, but to love like Jesus. We are not only to be those who are forgiven by Jesus, but are to actively seek reconciliation and give forgiveness to the people God brings into our lives. We are not only to be those who are served by Jesus, but who take on the very nature of a servant like Jesus.
Even in writing these words, I become animated, like the crowd in a pantomime, yelling out at the actors – “Praise God!” But it’s one thing to sit in the audience and shout out comments, it is another to take to the stage and follow the script. There is a tendency in our hearts to go off script, to write our own lives rather than to live out the life of Jesus. It is a struggle to live as a servant.
We can continually challenge God’s script for our lives as given in the life of Jesus in the various situations in life: in the heated exchange with our spouse where we refuse to back down because we are convinced we are right, when we avoid certain people because we do not like them or struggle to relate to them, in refusing to help around the house because it is my “me time”, in not assisting others in need because I am not prepared to bear the cost it takes to help them.
We will find our deepest joy and greatest wonder in living out the life of Christ in these situations and every moment of our life. It is an invitation to participate with Father, Son and Spirit in the drama of redemption, and lay our lives down in service to one another. We will grow in our maturity and relationship with God. We live looking ahead to the final curtain, our promised resurrection, so that when we have lived, laying down our lives for others, God will raise us up from the grave to live with Christ in unending joy and wonder.
Are we taking the life of Christ as the script by which we live out our lives?
A Christmas Reflection … What’s in a Name?
She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:21
When you look at a baby that has just been born, do you wonder what that child will grow up to be? I have two sons. I remember holding them both when they were born and thinking just that. Where will life take them? What will they do? No one could tell me what the future holds for my sons. No one can tell what they will grow up do be. But for Jesus it’s different. When the angel speaks to Joseph he reveals the future of Mary’s baby. And it is all in a name.
Names have meanings. Some parents give names to their children because they like the name. For other parents, the definition is important, the name has meaning. Here, before Jesus is even born, he is given a name with meaning: “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “The LORD saves.” This name describes who he is and what he will do. He is a Saviour, a Rescuer. The name describes his purpose on earth – to save God’s people.
But what do we need saving from? The angel says we need saving from our sins. What exactly is the problem here? No one is perfect, we all slip up sometimes, but as long as we are good people, that’s okay isn’t it? The problem with this kind of thinking is that we are starting at the wrong place. We compare ourselves with one another and we think, “I’m not doing too bad. I’m pretty good.” But when we consider ourselves, we need to look at ourselves in relationship to God, and that is a whole other story. Think about it this way. You are a shepherd and you look at your sheep. Among the sheep is one sheep that is whiter that the rest. It stands out from the flock. But when you then take that sheep and put it in the middle of a field of freshly fallen snow, that sheep looks dirty, filthy. We are like that sheep, among others we look fine, but when we come before God we are morally dirty and filthy. Sin is an offence against God. It is a breach of his holy commands. We deserve punishment for our sin.
Let’s think a little more about sin. Often we think of sin as the bad things we do or the good things we don’t do, and while this is true, it goes further than that too. Sin is a condition of the heart. It is like a computer with a faulty processor so that the computer is unable to run the programs it is designed to do. It might do a few things right, but most of the time programs crash and freeze. Such a computer needs a whole new processor. Sin is a condition of our heart, and while we might do a few good things, most of the time we can find ourselves ignoring God and doing what we think is right rather than what God says is right. We need a whole new heart. And that is where Jesus comes in.
We are sinners who have offended God. We deserve his punishment. Such a punishment means being shut out of God’s presence and not being able to know God’s love and goodness. But God sends Jesus into the world. Jesus grows up and as an adult he dies crucified on a wooden cross. He dies taking the punishment we deserve for our sin. He dies saving us from our sins. And three days later he rises from the dead, so we might have a new life. He then gives us his Holy Spirits so that we might have new hearts to live his way. Everyone who turns away from their sin and trusts in Jesus, God will rescue them from their sins and give them new hearts.
At Christmas time we remember how Jesus entered our world. We remember his birth and how he is announced by angels, praised by Shepherds and worshiped by Magi. But we cannot understand Christmas unless we know why Jesus came: so he might save his people from their sins. Christmas points us to the cross where Jesus died. It points to the empty tomb where he rose from the dead. It points to Jesus our Saviour who saves us from sin.
Are you trusting in Jesus to save you from your sins?
For there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ.
October 31st, 1517, a monk called Martin Luther walks up to Castle Church in Wittenberg, and nails a printed placard to the wooden door, according to the practice of the time. Upon it were ninety-five Theses for debate. Luther was driven by a pastoral concern in writing the document for papal abuses that were happening during his time.
Johann Tetzel, with authority from the pope, was collecting indulgences in order to fund the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. What were indulgences? For a sum of money, a person could receive an indulgence, which is said to release a departed soul from purgatory into heaven. The jingle Tetzel used in his declarations:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.
Now while Tetzel was not selling indulgences in Luther’s parish in Wittenberg, his own members were able to cross the border and purchase them. Poor parishioners were spending much needed money for food and clothing to buy an indulgence and hopefully release a dead relative from purgatory. Luther reacted with the 95 theses, a mix of concern and anger for the flock under his care.
In the theses, we read such statements as:
21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
This event was the spark that began the Reformation reclaiming the gospel from the errors of the Roman Catholic church, which taught that we have to contribute our own efforts to our salvation to be saved, and that the work of Christ is not enough to rescue us from sin but we need to participate in the sacraments, to pray to the saints, be a part of the Roman Catholic church and among other things.
From his study of the book of Romans, Luther was able show that a person is justified before God by faith alone in Christ alone; not by faith plus a person’s own efforts at being good, not in Christ plus the sacraments and the pope and all the saints. Luther demonstrated that Scripture taught, that by faith alone in the finished work of Christ, that we are declared as righteous before God. When we trust in Christ, God credits to us the righteousness of his own Son and clears the debt of our sin that stood against us.
As Presbyterians, we remember the beginning of the Reformation on the 31st October, where God’s glorious gospel was brought to light through such men as Martin Luther and John Calvin. It is also this gospel that we, and our world, so desperately need to hear, that the full remission of our sins is given by God alone through his Son who died and rose again. Christ did it all. Thank God, for the gospel and the doctrine of justification!
Further, next year it will be 500 years since Luther sparked off the Reformation, a cause for rejoicing for God’s goodness through many generations!
Purgatory was a place where souls not good enough for heaven would suffering the purging of their sins before they could gain access to heaven. The doctrine is entirely unbiblical and the only person who can bear the weight of sin is the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you want to read more about Martin Luther you can read “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther” by Roland H. Bainton. If you want to read more about the differences between Protestants and Catholics, read “Nothing In My Hands I Bring: Understanding the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs” by Ray Galea
What to Do with Islam
The world today is seeking to understand Islam, and failing. With the prevalence of terrorist attacks throughout the world and the violence of ISIS in the Middle East, we are presented with the faces of Muslim extremists as the culprits. Muslims in the West adamantly declare that Islam is about peace. Everyone is confused.
Our western culture does not deal effectively with Islam. Secularism can’t handle absolutes. By endeavouring to be accepting of everyone, it will not grapple honestly with some of the logical conclusions of the religion of the Koran. It is important to say at the outset that I am not generalising this to what all Muslims believe, but rather highlighting certain implications of Islam.
It comes as a shock to read the following in the Koran: Fight those who don’t believe in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, even if they are of the People of the Book (Christians)… Sura 9-29 (see also Sura 4-89; 5-33; 47-4). In the Koran, Muslims were to defend their religion with force. Mohammed, after he was forced to flee from Mecca, returned with a small army to take it by might. Afterward, Islam grew by the sword. The peace that Islam advocates is the peace of the conqueror’s victory.
Islam, like Christianity, is a worldview that encompasses all of life. It has an intimate connection with politics. Consequently, the West has become viewed by many in the Middle East as opposed to Islam. The ‘Christian’ West has been embroiled in the affairs of Muslim nations. They interfere with Israel and Palestine. They bankrupted Iraq with economic sanctions before invading it. After helping Afghanistan drive out the Russians, they left, leaving the war-torn nation to pick up the pieces. The involvement of the West has been seen as anything but positive. Most of these countries struggle economically and socially, and blame the West. The hardships and suffering in many of these countries is greater than we would ever face in the West.
Terrorists see themselves as defending their people and religion against an enemy bigger than their own countries.
We need to consider how, as Christians, we respond to Islam. Most people in reading these things become fearful, or even hostile. Muslims are viewed as a hateful, violent people. As our politicians fail to understand the roots of Islamic terrorism, Christians fail to understand the Muslim people. We don’t know what to make of their head scarfs or religious practices. We act as if antagonism against Christians is something new. (John 15v18-21)
The fact is that most Muslims are very sociable and hospitable people. They more readily invite strangers into their homes. They regularly share meals with whoever they meet. They enjoy close-knit families. There is much we can learn from them.
They are also people who need Jesus. Rather than condemning Muslims or being protective of our way of life, we need to act in love with the gospel of Jesus. We need to demonstrate to our Muslim neighbours the great love of Jesus Christ as we get to know them. Get to know why they do what they do. Listen as they talk to you about the things on their hearts. Share your own life with them. We will find that they are not so removed from us. And as you open your life to them, let Jesus be in all your words, so that by the gospel they may come to know the true life that is in God.
King Jesus and the Elections
The Federal election is fast approaching. What are you feeling as it nears? Perhaps you feel excited. You look forward to prospects new leadership might offer. Perhaps you feel disillusioned. You look at our politicians and it seems like there is no strong leadership. Perhaps you feel dismayed. Australia is a post-Christian nation, moving further and further away from the Christian values to which we hold. Perhaps you feel tired. It has gone on for long enough. You want it over and done with and out of the way.
One news article says Australians are bored, disappointed and contemptuous of our current politicians. Another article puts voters as feeling angry, anxious and betrayed. None of the leaders is a clear favourite and this election seems like it might be a heyday for minor parties to get seats in the Senate.
As Christians, we can feel that there is more at stake. We are concerned about changes to the definition of marriage. We want to see better treatment of Asylum seekers. We desire compassion and mercy to the vulnerable in our society. We are worried about the impact that implementing the Safe School’s Coalition material might have on the next generation. We wonder what is happening to free speech in our country. How do we navigate these issues in making our vote count? Where is our country headed? Perhaps one thing we can be feeling is fear. Fear for the future. Fear for our children. Fear of a loss of our freedoms.
What hope is there for our nation in this upcoming election? Thankfully there is hope, but it is not found with our politicians. Our hope is found with Jesus, because where Prime Ministers come and go, Jesus Christ is King forever – and no election outcome will change that fact.
You see can this truth in Acts 7, when Stephen is martyred by the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council – for speaking out in defence of the gospel. The council is furious at Stephen’s words, gnashing their teeth at him. Then we read:
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts 7:55-56
Stephen saw the reality of who is in charge. Even though these men were angry at him and stoned him to death, even though it looked like they were in charge and in control, it is not the case – it is Jesus who is Lord of heaven and earth, it is Jesus who rules from the right hand of God. The state might abuse its rights and oppose God and his people, but for all their evil acts they will not thwart God’s purposes. Nothing can separate God’s people from his love, not political pressures, persecution or even death (Romans 8:35-39) God will bring in his kingdom through the preaching of the gospel and bring us home to live with him forever.
We do not need to lose hope, we do not need to fear, because Jesus Christ is not dethroned by an election, he remains King forever and he is in charge no matter who is Prime Minister our and whichever party has the balance of power in the senate. They might govern well or they might govern badly. They might implement good policies or they might implement policies that are unjust, that lack compassion or tear into the moral fabric of our country. However they rule, it is Jesus who has the true power and we are to be faithful to him no matter what happens or what it may cost.
God has determined that his rule is expressed in the preaching of the gospel for the salvation of all people (1 Timothy 2:1-6). So let us pray for a government that is wise and just and will allow us to keep on with God’s mission to proclaim the rule and salvation of Christ. And whatever happens, let us continue to tell our nation about Jesus, so all people have the opportunity to turn to Jesus and be saved.
Words. Words are important. What we say matters. There are many proverbs relating to speech:
A man finds joy in giving an apt reply – how good is a timely word!
Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
A perverse man stirs up dissension and a gossip separates close friends.
Proverbs 15:23; 16:24, 28
It is through our words we can give each other much encouragement, spurring each other on to love and good works, as it is written in Hebrews:
Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the day approaching.
In a conversation, I can find it really easy to talk about myself or my family, when talking with people. I can have something exciting to share or I can be the proud father. But when we speak with each other, we’re to think first about the other person and how we might speak to benefit them. We’re to be deliberate in the way we approach each other in conversation, asking ourselves, ‘How can I encourage this person? How can I speak words that are going to strengthen their faith?’
While there are many things that can be said at this point, an important part of encouragement is to ask questions and listen carefully. Ask them how they are going, how is their family and work. But as Christians, there are other good questions we should be asking each other:
1. How did you become a Christian? How have you seen God working in your life since?
It is wonderful to hear how God brought someone to know him in Jesus Christ, to hear how they heard the gospel and trusted in Jesus. Sharing with each other God’s work in our lives and his continual faithfulness is mutually encouraging.
2. How is your relationship with God?
As the people of God, it is good to speak about how we are being challenged by the word of God, or what we are personally learning about God’s character and his great salvation in Jesus Christ. Asking this question gives opportunities for people speak about struggles and doubts they may have as they strive to know God more.
3. How can I pray for you?
This is great when we follow up on it straight away, rather than waiting until we get home. Praying for each other immediately after or during a conversation brings God right into the midst of our life and words.
It is great to ask each other these questions after a service over morning tea or supper. It is, however, important to create further opportunities for conversational encouragement beyond the services. How about you take the opportunity during the week to meet someone for a coffee in a café or host a dinner with people from church, even organise for a group to visit the river or go for a bushwalk – and make it the focus to encourage each other, ask questions and listen, to build one another up in Christ.
Our Western world highly values freedom.
We are free to do what we want and be whoever we want. We are free to dress how we want, free to learn what we want, free to play whatever we want. We are free to be with whomever we want, free to have sex with whomever we want whenever we want. We are free to watch whatever we want, free to listen to whatever music we like, free to create whatever we want. We are free to eat what we want, free to drink what we want, free to smoke what we want. We are free to choose our identity, free to change our nationality, free to change our gender. We are free to teach our children whatever we want, free to raise our children how ever we want. We are free to believe whatever we want. Freedom is the prized ideal in the West.
In fact, these days there is only one thing you are not free to do – you are not free to tell someone they are wrong, you are not free to disagree or to say that a person cannot do something because it is morally wrong. Anything that limits a person’s freedom is what is viewed as morally wrong. Only if something we all think is bad – like rape, abuse, murder, robbery – is declared wrong, and even then some allowances can be made as in the cases of abortion and euthanasia. The ideal of the West is that my freedom be maximised to do whatever I want – and any dissenting voices are shouted down, even politically silenced. This begins to put other freedoms at risk – like the freedom of speech or the freedom of religion.
There is a problem with this idea of freedom where I am free to do whatever I want and be whoever I want. Freedom has two aspects – freedom from something and freedom to something. For example, a prisoner is freed from prison by the parole board to live as a law-abiding citizen, or a child is freed from the orphanage to belong to a loving family.
The new freedom we have in the West is a freedom from the “old” morality, freedom from the Judaeo-Christian ethic around which our moral consensus has been built. It increasingly detaches ourselves and our society from divinely established norms and ultimately from God himself. It puts humanity in the place of God so that each person is free to choose what is right and wrong for themselves. While this is freedom from a code of morality, to what does it then free people?
This freedom puts humanity above God – the one who gives us life and in whom we find meaning. To be free from God and what he determines is right is to be freed to death and meaninglessness. It is freedom to a state of separation from God that leads individuals and society to a state of despair because the world we live in finds no lasting purpose in itself. It logically leads towards anarchy as each person is free to determine their own right and wrong, and to follow their own wants.
The Bible pictures this “freedom” in the world as slavery. It is freedom to do what you want, but ultimately you find yourself a slave to what you want, “enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). It is being a puppet to your own desires. It is how Woody Allen justified an affair with Mia Farrow’s daughter – “The heart wants what the heart wants.” This is ultimately a slavery to sin, as Jesus says in John 8:34, “everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Being mastered by what you want is to be mastered by the sin that has twisted and corrupted our desires so that we live apart from God.
It is only in Jesus that we can find true freedom. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin and from being a puppet to our own desires
and in so doing frees us to belong to God and be counted as his family. He frees us from the consequences of this false freedom, from being separated from God and being left without meaning, to a life and purpose that is defined by love and joy that is found in knowing God. Essentially, the freedom we find in Jesus is the freedom of belonging – we are significant, we have a place in this world, we are loved by God. God has made us to know him and love each other.
We can only truly be free when we live for the purpose with which we are created.
There is much that is declared wrong and immoral in our society, but a lot of it is borrowed moral capital from the moral consensus built on Judaeo-Christian ethics. The more society moves away from God, the less that society is constrained by this moral capital. Interestingly, one of the impacts of this is in the increase of laws to curb the free expression of sinful actions and behaviour.
Jesus no longer is centre stage at Christmas. It is hard to see him through the crowd of big jolly men in red suits and pine trees covered with all sorts of bling. It is hard to see him in the press of Christmas shoppers frantically looking for that last little gift and the presents stacked on top of each other. Maybe he is censored in misplaced efforts to be politically correct and tolerant of others – edited out of the school Christmas performance and kept off TV and radio. He is pushed to the sides, taken off centre stage, but every now and then we catch a glimpse of the Jesus story in the hustle and bustle of Christmas – a nativity scene tucked away in the corner of a shopping centre, a Christmas Carol playing for the desperate present-hunters, a slogan declaring “Jesus is the reason for the season.” To us, it does not feel right – Jesus deserves centre stage in our life and our society. What can we do to put him front and centre?
Strangely, having Jesus pushed to the margins at Christmas time, fits with the Christmas accounts we have in the Bible. His arrival on the stage of history is not among the people who make things happen, it is not among the merchants and the traders and the money makers, it is not among those who have piles of gifts and presents to give. Jesus appearance in the human world was not on centre stage, he enters in the wings and appears on the margins.
Jesus parents are from a little known village called Nazareth, its reputation inspiring one disciple to say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Jesus is born in Bethlehem because the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar, wanted to count how many people he had in his empire in order to tax them. At his birth, he is placed in a manger, because the town was over full of travellers and the stable was the only place for them to stay. When he is about 2 years old his parents are forced to take him and flee to Egypt, because Herod did not like the idea of any competition for his throne and so is out to have him killed. Jesus is from a poor family, who are shuffled around the country by Emperors and Kings who exert their rule and flex their might. In the human world, it is the powerful and rich who stride on centre stage – the Augustus Caesars and Herod the Greats of this world. They live in palaces and their decisions impact the lives of everyone under them. Jesus is among the poor and the insignificant, he’s at the margins with the powerless and lowly.
And yet, the Christmas narrative shows us something bigger at work, its momentum engulfing the great and the powerful. Jesus is not rich, but is counted with the poor and the downtrodden as Isaiah saw (Isaiah 53:3-4). By Caesar’s decision to have a census, Jesus ends up born in Bethlehem – yet this fulfils a higher purpose – for Micah the prophet reported years before that God’s King would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). When he and his parents are forced into Exile in Egypt, it fulfilled what was spoken by Hosea the prophet (Matthew 2:14-15). The events surrounding Jesus birth fit to a divine plan, so that even emperors and kings did what God had ordained centuries before. Jesus might be on the margins of our world, but he stands at the centre of God’s purpose and plan for his kingdom.
In Jesus, we see this world’s greatness turned up on its head. For here is the Son of God, marginalised by the powers and great ones of this world, and yet he stands at the centre of God’s purpose. He shows that what this world calls great, is not what God calls great, but true greatness is found at the margins, with the unpopular, the poor, the outcast and downtrodden. It is Mary who says, “God has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.
So when he came to Jerusalem, instead of a diadem of gold, a crown of thorns was thrust down upon his brow; instead of being honoured and exalted, he is beaten and led out of the city; instead of being seated on a throne, he is nailed to a cross and he dies with criminals. But then on the third he rises from the dead – the one who conquers death and is the true King of this world.