Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?

God’s Great Story and You – Part 4 … What is a Christian?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1, click here for part 2,  click here for part 3.  And here is the final part:

What is a Christian?

The name was originally an insult – a “mini-Christ.” But today the word gets used in so many ways. To really understand what a Christian is, we need to be clear what Jesus invites people to be and what he offers to people.

A follower of Jesus. Jesus invited people to become his followers. That is, to become like apprentices, following him, learning from him, copying him, becoming like him. A Christian is a follower of Jesus.

The problem is that naturally nobody really wants to give up their lives and live for Jesus. Take the example of Nicodemus in John 3. Nic was at the top of the religious, social, economic and cultural totem pole, as it were. He was highly educated, influential, wealthy and successful. But when he came to Jesus to talk about the kingdom of God, Jesus told him that they couldn’t have that conversation until Nic was born again. He literally told the teacher of Israel that he hadn’t even started living as far as God was concerned. In the same passage Jesus says that where the Spirit of God is, you can see the effects (but the implication is that Jesus saw no effects in Nicodemus!)

The bad news for every human is that we have sinned, which means we are guilty and need forgiveness. More than that, we don’t have the Spirit of God uniting us to God in the way we were designed to be connected. And there is more, our hearts are hard, cold and dead toward God.

The good news is that Jesus came to die on the cross, to rise from the dead, and to offer us the solution to these, our deepest problems. Because Jesus died and rose, we can have our sins forgiven, we can have the Spirit of God come to live within us, and we can have our hearts transformed so that we start to love God and want to live for him. When we accept the offer of forgiveness and new life from Jesus, this is called salvation, or being born again.

In light of this amazing offer, what is a Christian?

A Child of God. The Bible speaks about this new life in terms of both birth and adoption. A Christian is someone who has been both born into and adopted into God’s family. We have the Spirit of God within us, meaning that we gradually grow to resemble the character of God and look more and more like Jesus. (But we are also desperately flawed and while we may look nothing like our God at times, our status is secure with him!)

Part of the Bride of Christ. The Bible speaks of Christians as the bride of Christ. This is an amazing image in that it speaks of the closest union possible between Jesus and his followers. The millions of people who have trusted Christ and accepted his offer of forgiveness and life are not just an army of servants, but actually constitute his bride. We are united to him by his Spirit, and we are his most treasured beloved.

A Christian is someone who knows they are not good enough and that they deserve the righteous judgment of God. A Christian is someone who believes that Jesus was who he claimed to be and believes that Jesus fulfilled the mission his Father gave him when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. A Christian is a forgiven sinner, more than that, they are a child of God, part of the bride of Christ, brought into a close and personal relationship with God through Jesus.

A Christian is a follower of Jesus – someone who is both transformed and in the process of being transformed. Christians are works in progress, but works in progress with absolute confidence – not in themselves, but in what Jesus did for them that first Easter, and confident that whatever this life may throw at them, the embrace of Jesus is waiting at the end of this chapter of our story!

God’s Great Story and You – Part 3…Why Does It Matter To Me That Jesus Rose?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1, click here for part 2.  Here is part 3 of the series:

Why Does It Matter To Me That Jesus Rose?

In part 2 we saw how Jesus’ death on the cross achieved so much for us. But in order to see that his sacrifice had been accepted, that his victory had been won, that his mission had been accomplished…Jesus did not stay dead. The hero of the story walks out the tomb victorious and history has been completely changed by that fact.

After Jesus died on the cross, his followers did not assemble to plan the greatest ruse in history and spread a fake rumour about Jesus conquering death. They went into hiding as they mourned his death. They were shocked to meet him again. They didn’t see a ghost, or get a vague apparition. This was not the vain hope of Elvis fans that the king might still be alive somewhere. No, the risen Jesus purposefully met with them and rocked their worlds forever.

For instance, one of his followers, Mary Magdalene, met him on that Easter Sunday morning. She didn’t look up and recognise him until he spoke her name. That moment of recognition was powerful and deeply emotional. Then Jesus said something amazing, he told her that he would be going back to ‘‘my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Jesus always spoke of God as his Father, but this is the first time he spoke of him as ‘your Father…your God.’ Jesus’ death on the cross had achieved what it was meant to achieve, and the resurrection confirmed it … God and humans could now enjoy a reconciled relationship! (See John 20:11-18)

That evening Jesus came to ten of his disciples and filled them with joy. He told them that he would be sending them out to continue his mission from his Father. But one disciple was missing. Thomas heard their report, but he was sceptical. He wanted proof. You probably should too. After all, claims of Jesus rising from the dead are nice, but we can’t live our lives and head into eternity based on fact-less claims. The next week Jesus came to them again, this time Thomas was there. Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas for wanting proof. Instead, Jesus invited him to come forward and touch for himself. This was no ghost, no apparition, no vision. This was Jesus literally raised from the dead. We can’t touch him like that today, but we can investigate the evidence and test the fact of Jesus’ resurrection just like any other fact of history. In fact, if we do we will find the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. (See John 20:19-29)

Because Jesus rose from the dead, this means that the claims of Jesus, and the teachings of Christianity, are built on the foundation of a fact that can be tested. We are not asked to blindly believe in fairy stories. The Christian faith is founded on fact.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, God has confirmed that all Jesus aimed to achieve on the cross was successful. He had paid for sin and satisfied the justice of God. He made a way for humans to come to God and defeated the enemy of our souls and death itself!

Because Jesus rose from the dead, death need no longer be the end of your story. Every other religious figure could teach his followers, but all of them ended up dead and buried. Jesus rose from the dead and so is in a category of his own. If he conquered death himself, then he can conquer death for his followers too.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, it means that this life is not all there is, but also that this life really matters. Christians have been willing to not only live for Jesus, but also to die for him, knowing that there is a life to come that gives great hope in this disease-ridden and violent world. No matter what happens, nothing can take away the hope of a Christian that reaches joyfully beyond suffering and death to the hope of being home with Jesus and more fully alive than ever.

At the same time, because Jesus rose physically, it means that human life is incredibly valuable. The world is not yet made right, but we can fight for what is right and good as we wait for God to purge sin and selfishness from this world and renew the wonderful creation again!

God’s Great Story and You – Part 2…What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this CoronaVirus crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1.  Here is part 2 of the series:

What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

The symbol of Christianity is a cross. It may look shiny and perfectly shaped on a necklace today, but two thousand years ago it was a symbol of execution, agony and shame. Nobody would ever choose to die exposed and humiliated on a Roman cross. But Jesus did. Why?

The simple answer to that question would be that Jesus knew it was the mission given to him by his Father in heaven. But still the question remains, why did Jesus have to die?

If Jesus’ death was somehow significant, let’s begin by asking why is there death at all? Death was not part of God’s perfect design for this world. In the beginning God created everything as an overflow of that generous love and kindness that exists within the relationship of the Trinity. He created a world that was both diverse and unified, a world of abundance and colour and vibrant life. And the pinnacle of God’s creation was the creature made in his relational image—the humans. Male and female, diverse but unified, ruling everything as God’s representatives. It was so so good, but sadly that didn’t last long.

God did not force his creatures to love him. So when opportunity came, they desired to pull away from God’s good rule and try living as independent mini-gods, setting their own rules and living for their own desires. In that moment, as God had warned them, they discovered only the inadequacy of their own nakedness. Turns out humans separated from God are not the super-beings we would like to be. Curved in on ourselves we become black holes of selfishness, draining the life from everything around us as we ourselves have lost God’s life within us.

What did God do in the face of this rebellion and mess? He promised to send a human to rescue us and defeat the enemy who had led humanity into this living death. For centuries the Old Testament unfolds the story of God’s anticipated deliverer who finally arrived that first Christmas just over 2000 years ago.

Jesus was God’s rescuer, sent to stand in the gap between a good God and a rebellious humanity. He came to reveal God’s goodness to us, but more than that, he came to do what we could not do for ourselves and make a way for us to come back into relationship with God.

One time Jesus told the story of two men: a righteous religious man and a nasty traitorous tax collector for the occupying forces. Both of them went to pray. The righteous religious man prayed a prayer full of pride, describing how good he was in comparison to others. The traitor stood off at a distance, beat his breast in desperation and pleaded with God for mercy. Literally, he asked God to provide the kind of sacrifice that would cover for his sin, the kind of sacrifice that took place inside that temple every day. Jesus shocked his listeners by declaring that only one of these men went home justified, or declared righteous, in God’s eyes. And it wasn’t the “good” guy—it was the desperate sinner. (See Luke 18:9-14)

Fast forward a few stories and we find another tax collector (See Luke 19:1-10). This one is called Zacchaeus and he wanted to see Jesus, but couldn’t because he was short. He ended up climbing into a tree for a secret vantage point. To his shock Jesus stopped and spoke to him. The crowd hated Zac. But Jesus rescued him from their anger by showing kindness to him. Zac was blown away by Jesus’ kindness and his life was changed at the tree.

Later in Luke’s gospel we find that Jesus travelled to another tree, the cross outside Jerusalem. There he voluntarily died, taking the anger not only of the crowd, but also of God in heaven, against the sins of humanity. Jesus died hanging on a tree to set us all free from the righteous judgment of God against sin, to buy us out of our slavery to sin, to win a decisive victory over sin and death, and to reconcile us back to God.

Jesus offers us all a great exchange. He wants to give us all of his righteousness, goodness and life, in exchange for all our sin, wrong, death, shame and brokenness. He is willing to take our great debt on himself and die—in fact, he already did.

5 Post-Lockdown Regrets

The initial novelty of lockdown has worn off.  Now people are settling into this new normal and understandably longing for it to end.  Pastorally we are probably being drawn to people suffering with grief, loneliness, marital difficulties, financial hardship or mental health struggles.  But even those who seem to be doing well need to be shepherded.

What regrets can we all anticipate already and pre-empt with changes now?

Lockdown initially stirred feelings of concern and uncertainty at levels that are rare for most of us.  Some commented about how helpful this time could be, and how they don’t want to come out of lockdown without being changed in the process.  Now as we settle into the rhythm of it, that internal sense of having our world shaken may start to fade.

As I spoke with a good friend yesterday, we were pondering how lockdown does not create new spiritual or emotional issues for us.  It is the kind of pressure that merely reveals issues more blatantly.  So now is a good time to anticipate how we will feel coming out of lockdown.  Why?  Because now we still have time to make adjustments.

Some will emerge grieving.  The very nature of the pandemic means that many will lose loved ones during these weeks.  If you have not lost anyone yet, don’t just cross your fingers and hope you won’t.  As Christians we can do more than just avoid spreading the virus.  Be sure to get close to the One you will need when death does strike closer to home.

Some will miss the simplicity of lockdown.  I don’t think this is as simple as extroverts craving interaction while introverts love pottering around at home, although there may be some truth to be found there.  So much of life is stripped away right now that some people are discovering joy in time with family, or in time spent in the garden/yard, etc.  For some who emerge untouched by personal grief, the lockdown may well be remembered fondly.

But many will emerge saddened by missed opportunity.  I don’t mean the missed opportunities in “normal life” that we are missing by being at home.  I mean the unique opportunity this time is presenting to us, but that we may miss.  How much time are we not spending travelling, commuting, running errands, watching sport, participating in activities outside of work, church ministries, etc.?  And for those furloughed from work – how many hours a week does that add?  When does life ever present us with extra tens of hours in a week, for week after week?  How easily those cumulative hours have already filled with other things!

Here are five post-lockdown regrets to anticipate and act on now:

1. Bible time.  In the busy swirl of “normal” how often do we say, “I was just too busy to read my Bible”…?  Don’t emerge from lockdown saying “Actually, I regret to announce that I have discovered I just don’t have any real appetite for what God has to say.”

2. Prayer time. Again, normal life can so easily squeeze out times of extended prayer, or even any prayer at all.  But with hours added to our weeks, are we finding ourselves to be Daniels normally thwarted by the modern world, or actually just not very prayerful?  That too can be changed now.

3. Fears Revealed But Unaddressed. So much of “normal” life and busy activity insulates us against deeper feelings like fear – we are often simply too distracted.  Don’t emerge from lockdown simply having discovered a fear of death, or of change, or of financial lack, or whatever, but without having gone to God for help to process that fear.

4. Being a Taker More Than a Giver.  “Normal life” may have filled your week so full that one volunteer role at church felt like you were giving a lot.  Don’t emerge from lockdown and realize that you did even less during these weeks.  Inhaling multiple series of a show on Netflix is no achievement.  If you only consume, it will feel empty.  What can you do for others, now?  Practical help?  Prayerful support?  Personal encouragement?  Pastoral concern? (That also applies on social media – don’t just moan personally or politically, don’t simply purvey time-wasting opportunities, instead look for ways to build others up.)

5. Idols Still Standing.  God has stripped away so many things that may have stood as idols in our lives, even without us realising it.  Are you craving clothes shopping, or live sport, or travel, or hobbies, or socialising?  Maybe this lockdown is letting us see the flashing lights of warning on our personal dashboard.  When lockdown ends, will we hold these privileges with a looser grip and more gratitude toward God for every blessing?  Or will we rush to bow at the feet of our dear missed idols that could and should have been smashed during this unique time?

Feel free to add more to this list of anticipated regrets we can adjust now.  The bottom line is really this: Some will look back on lockdown with a deep sense of regret at having missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow closer to God.

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Here is the latest video playlist … Bible highlights from 2 Corinthians:

And a short sermon highlight that may be encouraging (originally preached several weeks before lockdown began, but increasingly relevant)…

5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

The Resurrection Matters Now

The Resurrection is at the very heart of the Christian faith.  After Jesus died in our place, bore the penalty for our sin, triumphed over the forces of evil and revealed the humble and sacrificial love of God for the world to win our hearts and our trust, then on the third day he rose from the dead: conquering death, vindicating the sacrifice for sin, and establishing a new hope for us all.  What is that hope?  Since Jesus is the firstfruits from among the dead, there is the promise of more resurrection to come –  ours!

Because of Easter our lives are changed.  We are no longer under condemnation, because Jesus was condemned in our place.  We no longer fear death, because Jesus has proven that death is defeated.  We are no longer living in darkness and confusion about God, because we know just how much he loves us, how far he would go to redeem us and how absolute is his victory over all that is against us.

But as another Easter comes and then fades away, I wonder if the present implications of the Resurrection have gripped me as they should.  I can look backward and forward, upward and outward, but are the Easter effects leaving the present me essentially untouched?  That is, I can think back to the first Easter, forward to the return of Christ, upward to heaven and outward to the world, but what about me here and now?  What difference does the Resurrection make to me, now?

Certainly, Easter is a past historic event with glorious implications for my future experience beyond death in this world.  Of course, Easter means that I have the certain expectation of being accepted by God rather than condemned, and it gives me a message to share with a needy world around me.  But is Easter all about past and future, heavenly status and evangelistic witness?

In what sense is my moment by moment experience of life marked and shaped by Easter?  Is the present effect just gratitude for heavenly blessings and my hope for the future?  Has Easter just changed my standing before God, and my ultimate destination beyond this life, but left me essentially a grateful anticipator of a better future?  Or has Easter actually done something in me now, something more than just stirring gratitude and hope, important as both surely are?

Let’s briefly chase the present significance of the Resurrection in the New Testament:

When John the Baptist announced Jesus’ arrival he pointed to two aspects of his mission.  Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  And Jesus was also “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  This is shorthand for the full expectation of the New Covenant promises in the Old Testament – Jesus was the one who would deal with our guilt, paying the penalty for it and carrying it away that we might be free of condemnation.  And Jesus was the one who would bring about an internal change in us by giving us the Holy Spirit to stir a new liveliness to God within us as our hearts are transformed and we enjoy not only the new status of being forgiven, but also the new experience of being adopted into God’s family.

Later in John’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that his departure would make possible the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7), and subsequently reveals in prayer what eternal life actually is: “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  To be truly alive we need not only to have our guilt forgiven, but also to experience the very life of God himself, which is only possible through the renewed presence of the Holy Spirit in us.

After Jesus rose and later ascended, we come to Acts 2 and Peter’s explanation of the apparently drunken behaviour of the believers.  This was not drunkenness, this was the promised pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  How was this possible?  Because Jesus who had been crucified did not remain in the tomb, but rather than experience decay he rose and now was able to give the Holy Spirit.  For Peter, the giving of the Spirit was only possible because Jesus had not remained in the tomb.

My fear is that I can too easily miss this Easter reality and settle for a past, future and heavenly salvation, while missing the present reality.  Yes, Jesus has represented me, died for me, forgiven me, and given me confidence that death will not be the end of me.  But more than that, because he rose it means that I am no longer living simply a flesh-life with an added heavenly future.  Instead, I have the Spirit of God dwelling in me now.  So, Paul could say in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

Is that life that the Spirit gives simply a future grant, or is he speaking of a present tense new gift of life?  Doesn’t the fact that Jesus is alive today mean that I am not living my life alone, but in fellowship with him?  Do I not get to join Jesus in his mission to the world, and in his relationship with his Father?

When Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote about Romans 8 he referred to our union with Christ as “the ultimate doctrine.”  How true this is!  When Jesus rose from the dead it was not simply to prove that the offering had been accepted, nor to simply demonstrate victory, nor to just establish hope, also it was also to make possible our present union with him by the Spirit.  The Resurrection of Jesus has massive here and now implications!

Because Jesus rose from the dead that first Easter, it means that I can enjoy relationship with him now, not just in the future.  Because he rose from the dead I can know not only that my status is changed in heaven’s records, but I can know the love of heaven now, as it is poured out into my heart by the Spirit that has been given to us (Rom.5:5).  Because Jesus rose from the dead, I don’t just speak to needy folks out there, I can also see the stirring of my own heart in the daily experience of union with Christ.

This Easter let’s celebrate all that the Resurrection of Jesus means for us, not only in our anticipation of the future, but also in our experience in the present.

Our Bible Experience

Maybe your new year Bible resolutions have already started to fade?  What we really need this year is not a renewed habit.  What we really need is to unleash God’s Word into our lives and experience all that God wants to do in us.

If our experience of interacting with God in our Bible times is going to really count for anything, then it has to be in the context of real-life struggles that the Bible has something to offer us.

Psalm 143 is a great passage to ponder as we think about our Bible experience this year.  It starts where life is at its toughest, then goes on to describe David’s experience in such an illuminating way for us.  Actually, Psalm 143 is not one of those passages that speaks directly about the Scriptures.  What it does is speak of David’s experience, which can also be our experience as we engage with God through the Scriptures.

In the first four verses David is crying out for God to answer his prayer, but to do so in faithfulness and mercy.  He doesn’t want God to be acting as judge, otherwise he, like all of us, would be in real trouble.  David is troubled by his own sin, and also by opposition from the enemy (see v3).  Verse 4 describes a wiped out David – a man with nothing left to give.  Sometimes that is where we find ourselves: either through our own sin, or the opposition of the enemy, we feel like we have had the stuffing knocked out of us and our spirit faints within.  David writes that his heart is devastated, or laid bare.  He feels like he has nothing left to give.

And so what do we do when life hits us like that?  Where do we turn?  Do we look within, or turn to a philosophy, or throw ourselves into a career or hobby, or perhaps just numb the pain with a substance?  The world really has nothing to offer us.  Of course, as we all know, we should turn to God.  And so from verse 5 David’s experience is described in such a way that it can reflect what our experience could be as we engage with God through the Bible.

I want to share five things that unleashing God’s Word into our lives might bring this year.  Before I do, a comment about Bible character envy.  Perhaps you struggle with this envy at times.  It goes like this: if I had David’s experience of defeating Goliath, or heard God’s voice on the mountain as Moses did, or met with the LORD as Abram did, then I would not struggle in my spiritual life today.  Really?

Perhaps we could reverse the situation.  Imagine we could travel through time and organise a conference for all the Bible characters to attend.  Imagine we could tell them that after their time, in the future the Messiah would come, and then his followers would write more books, and then all the books from the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the apostles, would all be gathered together and freely available in many languages. I suspect that would be a room full of Patriarchs and Kings and Prophets who would be jealous of us!

So what does unleashing the Bible into our lives offer us?

1. We are rooted in the reality of God’s greater story. In verse 5, David speaks of memory, meditation and musing on God’s past activity.  He had his own story, and he had the stories passed down from his ancestors.  And as we read our Bibles we will be lifted out of the one square metre of our own experience and struggles.  We will be reminded that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches across all centuries and all continents, from eternity past to eternity future, a story that is being written by God himself.  We need that because life has a habit of sucking us into the vortex of our own struggles.

2. We are reminded that our greatest need is God. In verse 6, David describes his awareness of his own great need.  His soul was like a parched land desperately thirsty for God.  Even in our greatest struggles, we have an innate ability to assume we are just being unlucky.  If God would just give us that promotion, or a lucky lottery ticket, or a perfect spouse, or a new spouse, or a new job, or whatever … if we could just get a fair set of circumstances then we would be able to succeed in life.  Really?  When we spend time in God’s Word we are reminded that actually what we need is not financial or circumstantial, it is profoundly spiritual.  We need God.  Desperately.

3. Our responsiveness to God is stirred by His steadfast love. In the beginning of verse 8 David refers to God’s steadfast love – perhaps the key theme of the Old Testament.  You can find references to this proactive, selfless, loyal love on page after page of the Psalms.  And as we read the Bible we are stirred to respond to that love as we see God’s faithfulness to his people, God’s self-giving for those he loves.  We cannot work up faith within ourselves, but as we glimpse God’s steadfast love, then a response of trust is stirred within us.

4. We are redirected to live our lives by God’s good Spirit. The second half of verse 8 speaks of being shown the way to go. In verse 10 David asks for God to teach him to do God’s will, and for God’s good Spirit to lead him on level ground.  When we are convinced of God’s favour toward us then the next step is not only trust, but also obedience.  It may be that unleashing God’s Word in your life this year will mean God takes you to levels of obedience you never thought possible.  Maybe areas of your life that you have tried and failed to fix, and now are ingrained in your rhythms of life, and you feel defeated and resigned to living with the secret shame…maybe that is where the light of God’s Word might shine in the coming days!  Trust Him, and be willing to obey.

5. We are revived by our encounter with God. In the final two verses, David is clearly concerned about his life.  So the request is translated as “preserve my life” in verse 11.  Essentially the “preserve” is supplied by the context, but what he asks for is life.  Whether asking for preserved life or revived life, God is the right person to be asking.  As we engage with God in His Word, the deep cry of our parched souls for life can be answered because God is a God of steadfast love toward us.

Don’t make this another year of Bible reading as an attempted habit.  Make it a year in which you unleash God’s Word into your life and you encounter God in the Bible as never before!

Resolved: Preach Christ

resolved2Here’s another resolution to throw into the mix as we head into another year.  How about making a prayerful determination to preach Christ, rather than the tempting alternatives?

Here are some tempting alternatives that are worth dumping in favour of Christ:

1. Don’t preach issues – It is tempting to be contemporary and to buy into the idea that what people really value above all else is contemporary relevance.  Of course the Bible is relevant and Christ is relevant, but that doesn’t mean your preaching should be salted with relevance like meat in a medieval barrel.  Some preachers are so concerned about being up-to-date that they lose sight of what they have to offer those sitting before them.  Relevance is important, but it is not the primary and central goal in preaching.

2. Don’t preach tips – Of course God’s way is the best way and lives gripped by the Gospel tend to work a whole lot better than lives lived according to the values of the world.  And yes, the Bible does include a lot of insight into living life, both legitimate and moralized.  But our job is not to be the weekly top tip provider for a people totally absorbed with successful living.  There should be a huge difference between our preaching and the self-help guru folks may pay a fortune to hear on Friday night.  The gospel will transform lives, but we are not called to be known as life coaches.

3. Don’t preach pressure – With all the best intentions we can easily undermine the work of the Gospel in the lives of those we preach to each week.  That is, we want them to be thriving spiritually and in life.  We know the damage sin can do.  So we will always be tempted to twist arms and pressure people to conform to an outward Christianity.  It makes church life easier if all messes are hidden and people act appropriately.  But pressure preaching assumes that listeners can fix themselves and that we can achieve God’s goals without any meaningful involvement from Him.  There will be moments where we seek to appropriately apply the pressure of God’s Word, but that is not what defines us as true Christian preachers.

4. Don’t preach yourself – Over the years our own flesh has this amazing ability to get used to being the centre of attention.  If you are naive enough to believe the polite comments you receive after preaching are objective evaluations of your ministry significance, then you can easily start to buy into your own hype.  Please don’t.

5. Do preach Christ – The Gospel is not a self-starting life-change program, it is good news that involves us introducing listeners to God in Christ.  Don’t preach self-help programs, or church programs, or Christian morality, or even Christianity . . . preach Christ.  Make 2015 a year marked by a weekly introduction to a heart-capturing Saviour!

10 Questions for Your Preaching Year Review

TenbAs we come to the end of another year, it is good to look back and take stock.  Be careful though, it is easy to do this in a way that isn’t helpful.

As you look back, don’t emphasize things like ‘what fruit has my ministry produced?’, or ‘which was my best sermon?’, or ‘whose life has changed the most under my ministry?’  These kinds of questions put your focus entirely on yourself.  Negative versions of the same questions still do the same.

The right way to look back is in conversation with God.  Here are ten questions that may help:

1. What am I thankful for in respect to the opportunities I have had to preach?  Whether you have preached a couple of times, or a couple of times a week. Whether it has been to one church, or to multiple groups, give thanks.

2. Where have I seen prayers answered in respect to my preaching?  Take time to reflect on prayers answered as you look back over the specific preaching opportunities you have had.  Were there some challenging sermon preps that came together as you prayed?  Did certain people hear certain messages?

3. Where might my prayers have been answered without me knowing during this year?  This is the important impossible one – what might have happened that you don’t know about?  A lot.  Ponder and pray about that.

4. What sermon preparation has most stirred my heart during this year?  A specific text, or a certain series?

5. What lessons does God want me to learn from what has happened this year? Lessons about preaching, about life, about ministry, about yourself, about Him?

6. What life change have I seen that I can give thanks for?  It could be gradual or sudden, salvation or growth. Give thanks for the privilege of being a part of what God is doing!

7. How has God protected my integrity during this year of ministry?  You could be out of the ministry right now. How has God guarded you from that?

8. How has my intimacy with Christ developed (or faded) during this year?  Don’t automatically self-evaluate. Ask God to search your heart and show you His perspective on this.

9. What should I be thankful for in terms of provision to allow my ministry?  Whether it is paid employment that allows you little time to prepare, but pays the bills, or ministry-related income that makes it possible . . . give thanks.

10. Is there anything else that I should give thanks for as I finish my review?  Family support? Key friends? A mentor? A preacher you look up to and learn from? A book that has helped?  Challenges that have shaped you?  Take time for God to bring to mind whatever has been missed in the earlier questions.  Gratitude is the critical ingredient in a truly faith-driven ministry.  Give thanks.