Craving Pure Spiritual Milk

Reading: 1 Peter 2:1-3, Psalm 34

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This is my little grandson, Cedar Rae Groenenboom. Today he is six and a half months old.

He has grown quite a lot. When we was born he was a scrawny little runt. Now, he looks like someone has slipped him into a Sumo suit. Just this last week he sprouted two front teeth. When we skype, he smiles at us. He’s sitting, clutching, started on solids. He is smarter and more handsome than any other child on the face of the earth.

All that growth happens naturally. Just feed him, and he packs it on. As followers of Jesus, we also a called to growth. And it would be good if our growth were as easy and as automatic as Cedar’s. But that is not the case.

Pure Spiritual Milk

God’s word says

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,” (1 Peter 2:2, NIV)

What is this ‘spiritual milk’ and what is ‘growth’?

It’s at this point our ‘bible eyes’ kick in. These are the eyes that read something, assume you know what’s being referred to, and read on, without giving too much thought. So, we read verse 2, and think ‘right: that’s talking about reading the Bible, and hungering for God’s word…”

And we think it’s then calling us to a range of activities that centre on the Bible. Things like

  • Bible reading and personal devotions
  • Listening to podcasts: download great preachers onto your phone or tablet, and you’ve got iWorship and iGrowth anywhere as you drink your pure iMilk
  • Great reading: good Christian books. Seen Tim Keller’s latest? Looks like a cracker
  • Attend worship: sit under the word, get some great preaching under your belt

Now all these activities are good, obviously. And we should be doing a lot more of them. They are relevant to what this verse calls us to. But it’s only half right to suggest they are the totality of what is commanded here.

The problem – if you can call it that – is that they do not actually make us grow. They are a means to growth, for sure, but they do not bring us growth themselves. The distinction is important. Because there is only one thing that actually brings us growth. One thing that makes us alive. There is only one that saves, and it is Jesus.

That’s what Peter is saying here: crave Jesus. Crave him so much! Crave him because relationship with him is the only way you can grow, and live, and have the wherewithal to be people of hope in a hostile world. Crave Christ!

Christ alone both conceives and sustains the life of the new birth. They are to crave the Lord God for spiritual nourishment [Karen Jobes: 1 Peter]

As I said the distinction is important. Why?

  • Because we can read the word, love the word, but miss the ultimate Word, miss Jesus
  • We can enjoy podcasts, but we can love the speaker, even worship the speaker, more than the Jesus he speaks about
  • We can read good Christian literature, but miss the One which gives ultimate meaning to the story
  • We can love worship, love the singing, love prayer, love the act more than worship for the one true audience: the Triune God. [This is the one sole reason for any and every worship war: people lose sight of Christ, and make the form of worship their functional idol – but that’s another sermon]

Crave pure spiritual milk. Crave Jesus. Crave the life only he can give. Crave him above everything else. Only he can bring you life. Only he can bring you growth.

Crave it

Which brings us to the primary command of this passage:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk

The picture is of a newborn: she seeks the breast instinctively, eagerly, incessantly. She won’t rest until she’s sated, and then she’ll slip into blissful milk coma. Crave like that.

Consider the overwhelming urge for a favourite food, we call that a craving. Two of the most craved foods in the western world are, of course, chocolate and crispy bacon. Unhappily, bacon has recently fallen out of favour as it may ever so slightly increase the risk of cancer. Dark chocolate, however, is known to contain substances that attack free radicals, and so reduce one’s risk of cancer. So it turns out if you eat bacon, and then have chocolate for dessert, even everything will be ok. [Actually, I have basically made this up, and the paragraphs above is only anecdotal, and is not supported by any scientific evidence whatsoever]

But we know about craving: It’s urgent. Overpowering. And you’ll want that desire to be satisfied.

So, taking into account what I’ve said before, this command is calling us to crave Jesus. To crave his life. To crave his grace.

Does ‘craving’ along the lines of what we have discussed in any way describe your attitude to Jesus?

The question is: Does ‘craving’ along the lines of what we have discussed in any way describe your attitude to Jesus? Does that describe what was in your mind when you walked into this place of worship?

I just want to honour Jesus!
I just want to be drawn into his love and grace!
I want to be nourished by Christ!

That’s what God is saying to us today: crave Jesus! Only he can nourish you, and bring you growth! Your growth in Jesus, growing up in him, becomes the criteria by which all your attitudes, actions, and shared life are evaluated.

Does this help me see Jesus more clearly?

Does this help me love Jesus more dearly?

Does this help us follow him more nearly?

This is why Peter starts negatively. Because if you want to grow in Christ there are a number of things that will stunt your growth:

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (1 Peter 2:1, NIV)

  • Where maybe someone would say they love the church, but they gossip behind the scenes.
  • Or where they celebrate someone’s giftedness, but in their heart they are green with envy.
  • Or they make out they are people of integrity, but are actually engaged in shonky practices or secret immorality.

If you seriously crave Jesus, you won’t have any part in those things. Why? Because knowing Jesus and growing up in him becomes the criteria by which everything is evaluated.

So, think about how you are nourished, with others, in Christ.

  • This is why we have Home Groups. Think about why you go. The goal is not to know more per se. The goal is not to connect with others per se. The goal is to see Jesus, to know Jesus, to share Jesus, to encourage others in Jesus.
    • Are your discussions drawing you deeper into Jesus?
  • Think about Bible Reading. Many struggle here. Want to know why? Sometimes it’s because we are not praying to see Jesus in his word – who does that? Who prays that simple prayer “Lord, as I read, help me to see who you really are, nourish me with the life only you can give.” There are some steps you can take with others to see Jesus more clearly in his Word
    • Start a discussion group around that goal. Do it online. People spend hours on FB – why not online Bible discussions? A place where you can chat with others specifically about what you’re reading and how it reveals Jesus. A few suggestions
      • Faithlife.com – this is good online Bible software, developed by the Logos group. If you get the app, you can make comments right out of the Bible Reading app into your online community
      • Join Gateway Online Community and join the discussion
    • Facebook: If you must use Facebook, why not follow Gateway’s Advent readings. These readings will lead you through Old Testament and New Testament passages that will focus your mind on the coming of Jesus into our world. Seriously, there is so much Christmas rubbish out there, and we are so busy, it would be a smart thing for us all to do this. It’s like taking a pure spiritual milk chill pill…
  • Sunday Worship. Craving Jesus should be the frame we have when we meet with our Christian brothers and sisters, although it rarely is.
    • What were you actually thinking about when you were driving to worship today? Some where thinking about the stress at home to get ready, others thinking that they’d rather be somewhere else – is it any wonder worship does often do it for us? Most of the time we get the worship our hearts expect, and that ain’t often good for us or glorifying to God
    • If ever there was a Sunday morning prayer, or something to pray while you’re driving to worship, it is “Lord, be my focus. Let me worship you. Honour you. Pray to you. Give to you.” That is a prayer for true Christ-centred worship, right? When that is our attitude, we don’t even have to pray for blessing, because when Christ is at the centre, you cannot help but be blessed in the worship you bring.
  • Crave times of thanksgiving together. We need to find times to tell the stories of how God has blessed us. Or share how the Scriptures have comforted you. Or celebrate how Jesus has forgiven you! Why is it that we do not often hear people speak of their challenges, their burdens, their joys and victories, and how Jesus impacts on those experiences?

As these things draw is into Christ, they are mother’s milk! Crave it! Desire it! Seek those opportunities. Let’s do what we can to turn this church into a powerhouse of nourishment.

Grow up in your salvation

That’s the thing: we want to grow!

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,” (1 Peter 2:2, NIV)

We’ve tasted the goodness of God’s glorious grace in Jesus, and we want to grow! In terms of New Testament language, growth in Jesus is always something we do with others, and it is always angled toward maturity.

That is,

  • the full expression of Christ’s character in my life, and
  • the full expression of God’s will for community in the church

For any Christian and for any church this is challenge and privilege. Challenge because we have to let go of stuff that is less important to do that which is supremely important. It might be letting go of some TV time to get to a Home Group. Or letting go of some luxury items to give intentionally to the church. Or letting go of my selfishness, so I can sensitively listen to others, encourage them and pray for them. Or managing my time differently so I can meet with others, and we can together draw one another into a deeper walk with Jesus. As a church community, it might be letting go of some traditions that keep us from growing up in our salvation.

But it’s also a privilege, because when you start to grow up in your salvation, when you’re working it out with fear and trembling, when you get this sense of growing together, of sharing together in new community, it’s brilliant! When we move toward greater spiritual health, when we’re praying for one another, working together toward better ministry and mission, when we’re driven to depend on Jesus more – together – there is no better place, so more stimulating community than the church!

Paul gave his life to the goal of a mature church:
“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28–29, NIV)

You probably know Paul was a man of great learning and spiritual depth. But even he knew that on his own he could never reach the maturity God desired for him. His prayer is his admission:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:16–19, NIV)

The only way we will grow up in our salvation is with one another, seeking pure spiritual milk, Christ himself. And then to seek the very things that draw us deeper into him, together.

As we read in Psalm 34, we’ve tasted, and we know the Lord is good. Today, God is calling you to grow up into Christ. To be nourished by Him.
Don’t stop at the first taste… You need to let go of some things. And you need to embrace Jesus, and start doing things that draw you deeper into him.

You are not alone: He has given his Spirit who will empower you to change, to grow, to be nourished by Christ.

You can taste it, right? That desire to grow, that overwhelming urge to have a more Christ centred life, that hunger to be in a wonderfully restored community, bringing to expression the life Christ himself has put in you. May Christ himself satisfy us as we crave this life in Him together.

The Greatest Injustice (Time for Justice #6)

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Reading: Gal 3:13John 19:17-30

A sermon for Good Friday

There is a reason why many are happy to call today good, and that is because for many, these next few days are about a long weekend and chocolate eggs. As Christians, of course, we want the focus to be on the Cross and the Open Tomb. But these days that is a minority view.

One of the reasons people don’t want to consider the real meaning of Good Friday is because it is about an execution. There is quite some discussion about execution in Australia at present, with the fate of Chan and Sukumaran being played out before our eyes. And on that, while I want justice to be served, I find the prospect of an execution almost impossible to contemplate. Howe much more crucifixion. This barbaric sentence was employed to install terror in people and to depict the curse of the executed.

The Old Testament says

“… anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:23, NIV)

The Curse of the Cross

“Good Friday.” Odd language because this day is really about a curse. That very word is used three times in Gal 3:13

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”” (Galatians 3:13, NIV)

But the curse does not only come through crucifixion. We are under a curse because we do not keep God’s law perfectly.

“Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God…”” (Galatians 3:10–11, NIV)

That’s the power of the curse of sin in fallen humanity. We cannot find acceptance with God, we cannot access his life and love on the basis of what we do, or don’t do, or how we live, or anything else.

this day is really about a curse

No one knew that truth more than Paul. He was fed the power of obedience in his mother’s milk. He had lived his whole life, to a point, believing God would justify him because of his exemplary life. But here he is saying no one is justified through obedience to the law. And if he with his blameless life lived under the law’s curse, what hope is there for us?

Well, this short verse tells us despite the curse there is hope. But it’s not a hope which arises from ourselves. There is hope because Good Friday says the curse was dealt with another way:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”” (Galatians 3:13, NIV)

It does not say “Jesus took the curse for us” – that would be bad enough. It says “he became the curse for us”. Jesus became punishment for us. He took our place. Jesus took into himself God’s wrath – which was reserved for us. He satisfied God’s wrath once for all. On the cross, Jesus became sin for us so powerfully that he absorbed it totally and dealt with it conclusively.

The prophet Isaiah says

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4–5, NIV)

And in another place Paul says

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV)

He did not only die a cursed death. He became your sin, died your death, and bore your curse.

There will be some who push back at this. It’s natural. We are confronted here, not just with our fallen nature, but with the reality that we’re powerless to restore it. And with the reality that we needed an innocent, sinless, magnificent, true God, true man, Jesus, to become the curse for us. This is the disturbing reality: We are totally dependent on this Jesus for life.

He became your sin, died your death, and bore your curse

Confronted because: who wants to admit their dependence on anyone? No one likes to do that because it runs against our pride. We resist because, deep down, we think we can still get things sorted ourselves.

What foolishness.

But if you think about it there is one context when we will gladly accept our own powerlessness: and that is when we’re facing certain death. Imagine you were on that Germanwings plane, and you see the captain trying to break into the cockpit. You know if he doesn’t get in, you’re dead. No one is going to say to the captain, “sit down, you’re making us all feel bad.” You will never say that, because if he doesn’t get in there you’re on your way into side of the mountain

Imagine a different scenario: that the pilot did get into the cockpit, overpowered the Copilot, and saved the day. Do you think the papers would be full of people offended that this one guy had saved them? Of course not! They’d be cheering him on! There’d be ticker tape processions! He’d get a medal for bravery! Every passenger would sing his praises! No one would ever forget what he had done! He would be proclaimed as the victorious captain! The saviour of the ship!

When Jesus went to the cross and became your curse, He saved us from a greater enemy than a suicidal pilot. He has saved you from a worse fate than ploughing into the French Alps. When he became our curse on that terrible cross, he saved us from a Christless eternity, and he saved us for life that never ends! Paul uses a special word to describe this rescue.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”” (Galatians 3:13, NIV)

Paul is using slave market imagery, where slaves were lined up and sold to the highest bidder. He’s implying that someone has come along and purchased our freedom. His point is that we have been bought by the blood of Jesus! And we have been bought completely! And we have been bought for freedom! For transformed life! There has been a change of ownership: you belong to Jesus! You are no longer at the mercy of the fall, your sin, your guilt or the curse. Christ has set you free!!

The (In)justice of the Cross

But there’s something else we should see about this redemption. We understand from the above the core of the atonement is that Jesus was punished in the place of the guilty.

Isaiah the prophet:

“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7–9, NIV)

And Peter, speaking to the very people who crucified him, says

“…you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23, NIV)

We have spoken much about injustice these last weeks. Here’s the question: Could there be a greater injustice that the totally innocent and righteous son of God being put to death by sinners and rebels, for sinners and rebels??

The interesting thing is the verse from Acts 20 also says:

“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23, NIV)

Jesus’ death was no accident. No unfortunate chain of events. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge meant the cross was the right place at the right time. God planned all along that your curse would be conquered. He planned all along that your sin would be taken away. He deliberately steered the course of world events to that very place on Calvary, so his Son would die in your place and end forever the power of the curse to rule your life. God used this injustice to satisfy the claims of his justice which demanded your sin be punished and your curse conquered.

We learn two things here. One is how in prodigious grace God ensured his own justice was satisfied by his own dear son, who willingly gave himself to the injustice of the Cross. The other is how the God we worship can conquer the greatest injustice through his Son. Calvary tells us that nothing is ever out of control. Nothing.

We may wonder what we can do to address injustice. The doers of evil might threaten and terrify God’s people, as they did with chilling brutality this last week in Garissa, Kenya. But our sovereign God can transform any injustice and use it for the good of his people.

The Cross is evidence that in the hand of the Redeemer, moments of apparent defeat become moments of grace and victory – Paul David Tripp

So: Good Friday? Absolutely. The greatest injustice has become the most wonderful redemption. Our curse is gone. Our guilt is atoned.

Today, the one who became your curse is calling you to trust him. To turn to him. This Jesus intends to rule your life, and he is calling you to bow the knee.

He has removed every barrier between you and the Father.

All that remains is for you to live in the grace and freedom Jesus has won for you.

Time for Justice #3 – God Hates Injustice

Reading: Isaiah 1:10-17

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Before we get underway, I’d like to recommend a couple of books to challenge and extend you:

The Just Church – Jim Martin Martin begins with a few stories which underscore the need for Christians to think seriously about justice issues. Martin’s approach is deeply rooted in Scripture, and he takes good time to step us through the Bible’s teaching on justice related matters. The final section of his book is a very helpful strategy for a church to commence their justice journey. Martin is sensitive to the unique context of every local church, and rather than impose a series of outcomes, his generalised strategy will enable each local church to use their unique resources and context to advance the Kingdom of Christ.

Generous Justice – Timothy Keller Wow! This book. If ever you wondered how, and whether the Old Testament injunctions could be properly and graciously applied to churches in the 21st century, you will hungrily and gratefully devour Keller’s book. Keller’s characteristic well reasoned, deeply scriptural approach motivates the reader to respond to injustice in the light of the Cross of Jesus. I am so thankful for this book!

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What can’t you stand?

I can’t stand rap music. Some love it, even thrive on it. Not me. Can’t stand it.

I can’t stand tepid, weak, insipid coffee: like Starbucks. I was kind of happy when Starbucks folded in Australia. There seemed to be something good and right about that.

I can’t stand it when Perth drivers don’t know how to merge. Despite a speed limit of 100 kmh on most freeway onramps, some people – typically Honda drivers – dawdle along at 70kmh down the onramp, and then when it comes to the merge point they get the jellies and slow down even more. What is it with that anyway? Can’t stand that.

This week, I saw that one of my Facebook buddies had been in the habit of packing noodle snacks for the little bloke’s play lunch. One night as she was emptying the lunchbox she found this note:

No guessing where this little guy is coming from...

No points for guessing where the little bloke was coming from.

So, yes, there are a number of things I can’t stand, and I find them really irritating. But when you hate something, your response is one of intense hostility and deep aversion. You hate. You abhor. You are appalled. You detest.

All my kids will tell you that whenever they said they hated something, I’d caution with: ‘hate is a strong word.’ I’d encourage them to verbalise their feelings differently. And I think that when I use it of stupid drivers, or rap music, or pathetically coffee, I was either cheapening the word, or elevating pathetic coffee to a status it clearly did not deserve. So, I wonder how often in life we have actually felt things strongly enough to really hate them in a way that would do the word some justice.

What’s going on?

Surprisingly, right here God says there are things that he hates. And most astonishing of all, back in Isaiah’s day, he hated his people’s worship:

“When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.” (Isaiah 1:12–14, NIV)

How can this be? What is going on?

Valid question. And what makes it all the more pertinent is the apparently lavish nature of this worship from God’s people. There are thousands of sacrifices! Rams, and bulls, and lambs, and goats, and fattened animals! All considerably more extravagant that what was required. So some impressive worship going on. Awesome worship. Everything looked right, powerful, and awe inspiring.

But things are not always as they seem. For with all this impressive worship there is a dark and sinister reality:

“…Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1:15, NIV)

“…evil deeds …doing wrong.” (Isaiah 1:16, NIV)

v.17 Justice is not sought, oppressed not defended, fatherless ignored, widows neglected

v.21 murderers dwell in Jerusalem, once a city of righteous

v.29 pagan gods worshipped

The Lord looks down on his once loved city, his treasured people, his own possession, his Kingdom of priests (see Exodus 19:6). He sees their worship, the reality of their lives. And he can’t stand it:

“Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies— I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.” (Isaiah 1:13, NASB95)

Notice that last phrase: “I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.” This is the point of this entire passage: On the one hand they were presenting what looked to be glorious worship. But at the same time God’s people were

  • ignoring the vulnerable
  • oppressing the weak
  • siding with the violent
  • neglecting God’s commands to live in right-ness as his treasured covenant people

And God’s word was clear: I cannot endure the fact that you allow iniquity to coexist with the worship

How ignoring injustice affects God

What the Lord says here is actually some of the strongest language we ever hear from his lips. And in a similar vein to last week, the level of divine emotion is off the charts:

  • I have had enough, I have no pleasure (v.11)
  • Stop this, It is detestable to me, I cannot bear it (v.13)
  • I hate it with all my being, I am burdened, I am weary (v.14)
  • I hide my eyes when you pray (v.15)
  • I am not listening, I will not listen (v.16)

Let that sink in.

There is what appears to be awesome worship in the house but in the eyes of God it is appalling and offensive and detestable. These people, this worship is nauseating to God. He cannot bear it. It’s an atrocity. An outrage. Have you ever thought such responses could be possible of God?

Think about it. You can have:

  • the best worship band
  • the most powerful, competent, and passionate preacher
  • the most accurate exegesis
  • a theological heritage of the finest pedigree
  • an auditorium seating thousands, filled several times each week
  • giving and tithes to the extent that hundreds of thousands of dollars come in every week

But if that church, those Christians, are neglecting the vulnerable around them, if they are allowing injustice to thrive, all that good looking ministry and worship becomes odious to the Lord. Friends, God hates injustice. And one thing he hates more is when his people wilfully and purposefully ignore injustice around them:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear iniquity mixed with the assembly. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.” (Isaiah 1:13–14)

It is interesting to look at other places where God says he hates things. And really, there are not that many places. Here’s a sample:

“You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:31, NIV)

– God hates human sacrifice

“Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the Lord your God, and do not erect a sacred stone, for these the Lord your God hates.” (Deuteronomy 16:21–22, NIV)

– God hates the worship of false Gods

“The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.” (Psalm 11:5, NIV)

– The Lord hates it when people love violence. The Lord hates what ISIS is doing, right?

“For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.” (Isaiah 61:8, NIV)

– He hates robbery and wrongdoing

And here in Isaiah 1 he says he hates it when injustice lives in the midst of his people.

We may sometimes think that injustice is the kind of issue that only some churches and some Christians need to deal with. Maybe those who have special insight, or special skills. Or we guess instances of injustice need not be a concern for the whole church. For our church.

But would you say the same about robbery? Or idolatry? Or violence? Or ritual sacrifice of children? God detests all these things. The same word for ‘hate’ is reserved for them all, injustice included.

God hates injustice. He hates it so much that when he looks down on this worship – and remember, it may have looked great to the observer at the time – The Lord didn’t see the response of a beloved Covenant people. It was so repulsive, such an offence to his holy character, he saw something else:

“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” (Isaiah 1:10, NIV)

When God’s people ignore the cries of the vulnerable, when they neglect the doing of justice, it is as appalling and heinous as pack rape, multiple incest and paedophilia. Because that’s what was going on in Sodom & Gomorrah.

The Challenge

Now, maybe it’s the same with you: the clear implications of this teaching leave me very uncomfortable. I spoke a few week’s ago that for a long time in my ministry, God’s call to justice was not even on my preaching radar. I thought it was enough to have responsible theology, good exegesis, a healthy church, an evangelism program, and do things decently and in order. But this passage, and the many, many other passages in the Old and New Testaments, where the Lord calls his people to be a people of justice and righteousness and compassion simply cannot be ignored.

And – this passage in particular – is a sobering reminder that if God’s people neglect this call, pretty much everything else they do moves from what might appear to be awesome to what is actually appalling. Last week we saw the confronting reality of how denying justice was to deny the covenant.

That’s why it’s time. Time for justice to become part of our DNA, a recognised mark of a healthy church. To be a people of compassion and justice is simply part of what it means to reflect Christ, to build disciples, to develop healthy community, to mission our city. It’s part of God’s desire for his church.

But – you might ask – can these passages about Israel in 700BC be applied to the church in 2015? Can we really just transfer that command and application into a totally different time, place, and culture? We’ll be looking at that more closely next week…

The truth is, we cannot look at our theological pedigree and divorce it from our ethical responsibilities. We cannot lean on our confessional heritage in isolation from expressing compassion and seeking justice. It is impossible to have orthodoxy without orthopraxis: impossible to have right doctrine in isolation from compassionate and just practice.

we cannot expect our theological pedigree to relieve us from our ethical responsibilities. We cannot lean on our confessional heritage in isolation from expressing compassion and seeking justice

We in the reformed evangelical family need to learn this. Perhaps our doing so might even be the beginning of a new reformation, a powerful Word driven, Spirit empowered renewal of the church and of ourselves (more about that in the next weeks).

For now, let me ask you:

Are you hungering for a faith that is alive? For an expression of Christianity that overflows with life, with love, with Gospel reality, with God’s power? A faith and life that God would regard spot on and wonderful? It’s no secret: God has already told us how to find that:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27, NIV)

Church, a living faith is grounded in and remains faithful to the Gospel. We must honour our heritage, and guard the good deposit handed down to us by the apostles in the Word. But if we leave it at that, at our beliefs, at faith, and do not allow Christ’s Spirit to reform us, renew us, and shape our lives, we might get some great worship going down, but we’d be in danger of making the same grave mistake, committing the same repulsive sin as God’s people in Isaiah 1.

To me, that would be unthinkable. And to our gracious Lord, unimaginably abhorrent.

Who are we, really? Aren’t Christians people who, through the dying and rising of Jesus, have been reconciled to God? Who once were not his people, but have now through the blood of Christ become the people of God?

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV)

What glory! We have received untold compassion of Christ, true? He shed his precious blood for us!

“… he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5, NIV)

John the Apostle’s words are a glorious punch in the air, right? “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! …” (1 John 3:1, NIV)

His Spirit has opened our hearts, and our eyes, and our minds. This Jesus lives in all who call on his mercy and look to him in faith. And he calls us to express his mercy, to have it overflow from our lives into the world around us. This Risen Jesus has a plan to address the injustices in our world and around us.

In the coming weeks we’ll be listening to the Word as it leads us from the Cross of Christ to a compassionate response to the injustices around us.

Time for Justice – The Origins of Injustice

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Leviticus 19:13-15
Ezekiel 22:1-16

The six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday have typically been known as the season of Lent.
Traditionally, it’s a time when people to go without certain things, traditionally meat. Fish was permitted on Friday.

More recently, people choose to do other things: drinking only water, give up Facebook, not eating bread, giving up something else they like. Whatever it might be, the point is your fast from those things, and the hunger that ensues, draws you to focus on your hunger for Christ, and the life he brings through his death and resurrection.

OK. But if that’s the case, why is the focus for our six weeks of Lent focussing on injustice? What has that got to do with hunger for Christ?

Two things. One: Jesus’ people are people who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6). Two: there are 27 million slaves in our world today. And you can bet they are hungering for the justice of the Kingdom of Christ.

For us and for them, hungering for justice during Lent makes all the sense in the world.

Why this, and now?

The statistics of injustice are confronting and overwhelming. I said before there are an estimated 27m slaves in our world today. That’s more slaves than were extracted from Africa over the entire 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade.

If someone comes to your home and attempts to burgle your property, you dial 000 and the police come. The moment you see the police cars, you’ll be relieved. In so many parts of the developing world, however, police do not give rise to feelings of safety, but fear. In those places the police may be your worst enemy, one of the biggest threats to the safety of you and your children.

In our world today, mainly in developing countries, there are 4 billion people who live outside the protection of the law. In Peru, 47% of women have been victims or rape or sexual assault. There are a plethora of horrifying statistics like that. Truth is, injustice is an everyday reality for billions of people in our world.

What is injustice? Injustice is when someone uses their power to take from others the good things God wants them to have: their life, liberty, dignity and the fruits of their love and labour

For the last 7-8 years I have been reading more and more about this issue. It’s been wonderfully encouraging to see the good work of Compassion, World Vision, A21, Common Grace, and International Justice Mission of course. But interestingly, for the last 7-8 years I have been asking myself why, for all the years before, I had been oblivious to the pervasive reality of injustice? My guess is it’s not too different for you.

If we are people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, why have we not much engaged with the dark reality of injustice?

One reason might be that over the last two centuries there have been movements in various churches to engage with these issues, but not always from the point of view of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes, these efforts have been more about political change and structural reform. Sometimes these efforts have confused working for such change with doing the Gospel. In other cases social activism has been confused with the Gospel. The result may be something like a ‘social Gospel’ or liberation theology.

The church has sometimes reacted to this by retreating from the call to justice, and instead left it all to government and NGOs. IN such times the church has tended to just concentrate on spiritual realities. So in many cases evangelical and reformed churches forgot about injustice altogether.

And thinking about it, I never heard a single sermon about injustice in the first 25 years of my life. And for the first 20 years of my ministry, I hardly ever touched the subject. I say that to my own shame.

A scriptural concern

There are good reasons why such neglect is unacceptable.

One: People are suffering, laws are not upheld, violent people are not being brought to justice, and people like us are in a position to do something about it…

Two: the biggest reason why it’s time for justice is because God calls us into this work. You can say a lot of things about injustice. God only has one word for it: Injustice is sin.

In Jeremiah 22 we read the prophet’s words to a King who was building his kingdom on the broken backs of the poor:

““Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labour. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.”” (Jeremiah 22:13–17, NIV)

In Leviticus 19, we move from rulers to those who exercise judgement:

““ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:15–16, NIV)

A few verses on, and it’s clear that every person who knows the Lord is called to honesty, integrity and justice

““ ‘Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. “ ‘Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD.’ ”” (Leviticus 19:35–37, NIV) {Ephah – dry, 10-20 litres, Hin – liquid 4.4 litres]

God’s people were to show, in the fullness of their lives, what it meant to live as the people of the Lord.

“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”” (Exodus 19:4–6, NIV)

Their obedience to God’s law was an every day, all of life thanksgiving for their deliverance from Egypt. But more: God’s commands, his call to be holy as he is holy, are not merely a reason for his people to give thanks. They are an expression, a revelation, of his character

“I am the LORD, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45, NIV)

We may know that when it comes to holiness, Scripture always sees as being fully devoted to God’s service and consequently living a distinctly different life. As western Christians we need to relearn this. We seem strangely adept at making unbiblical distinctions to make discipleship less sacrificial.

Think about it: We will often make a distinction between a holy life – a righteous life – and pursuing justice. True? We see righteousness as our state before God, and justice as something that needs to be brought about in various life contexts. We see unrighteousness as a spiritual condition, and injustice as something that needs to be addressed politically or socially.

My point is that Scripture never makes those distinctions. When God calls us to righteousness, he’s not just calling us to merely an inner spiritual state. He is calling us to changed lives. Righteousness equals ‘Right-ness’ of life. A life which shows through changed attitudes, gracious actions, just values as well as a heart overcome by the mercy of God.

God calls his people away from injustice, to end injustice, because injustice is sin. Injustice is sin because it breaks the entire law. People who do injustice, people who ignore injustice, do not love God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength. People do injustice, who ignore injustice, can not love their neighbour as themselves, because they allowing lies, theft, sexual violence, and deceit to take God’s good gifts of life and provision.

This is why in Ezekiel 22 injustice is bracketed with idolatry (v.3-4), desecration of the Sabbath (v.8); adultery (v.9), gross immorality (v.11-12), and why injustice will be punished with judgement and exile (v.15,17-22).

There really is no other way to describe it: Injustice is an affront, an offence to the character of God. Injustice is sin.

Reflecting God’s character

Since injustice is sin, it has its roots in the fall and the alienation of people from God in sin. And if injustice has its roots in the fall, then the ultimate cure for injustice is the cross of Jesus: Jesus ruling the hearts of his people. Surely, as people who have come to know the love, mercy and grace of God in Jesus our greatest privilege should be to reflect his character and show his grace.

Look at the way Peter frames the call to holiness to a persecuted church:

“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:14–19, NIV)

The Cross, redemption in Christ, drives us to be holy as he is holy. The cross drives us to reflect God’s holy character. It’s time for justice. I am the Lord.

This is why, as our churches adopted our denominational vision in 2006, it included initiatives to ‘penetrate structures of society with the gospel.’ So, being a people of justice is not about introducing another program or ministry. This is about doing the very things God calls us to do. This is about reflecting God’s call to justice, our hunger and thirst for righteousness, right into the very DNA of how we equip, how we reach, how we grow. Right into our discipling, our community building, our mission to our city.

Living justly is one of the ways we flee from sin. Living justly is how we thank for God for everything he has given us in his son. Our God is the God of justice. When his people follow him, they must be people of justice.

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1–2, NIV)

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19, NIV)

So, there is good news today: people who hunger and thirst for righteousness can be loved, cleansed, forgiven, restored in the grace of Jesus. His work in them now, through his Spirit, is to transform them more and more so they reflect the character of the God who has rescued them:

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:5–10, NIV)

It is time for justice, friends. So, in these next weeks, let’s do this journey together. Let’s commit to prayer these next weeks:

• Open our eyes to your word

• Open our minds to the implications of the Cross and the resurrection for those who are bowed down through injustice

• Open our hearts to your mission, through you son, and give us the power of your Holy Spirit to rise to this call

Preacher, do your preparation. But remember: God may have other plans…

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Sunday, 0800

We were ready to go. I had carefully and prayerfully prepared my next sermon in “The Relationship Challenge” series. The manuscript was on the iPad. The Powerpoint loaded into Dropbox. I headed out the door and drove to Gateway ready for our 0930 service. I was relaxed and ready to go – a good thing after the previous week had been filled with a few additional diversions. I had prepared well and was ready to deliver this sermon, but as events unfolded it was clear that God had other plans.

As always, we met together with the elders and musicians for prayer before the service. Before we joined in prayer, Elder Mark mentioned an email he had received that morning. A person from Switzerland, whose son is working with a mission in Iraq… The email told how ISIS has taken over their town. ISIS was moving from house to house, finding the Christians, and asking the children in the families to denounce Jesus. When the children refused, they were killed. It spoke of the terror faced by Christian families, how in the face of such evil they had chosen to remain in their town to be the voice and hands of Jesus. The email asked us to join in prayer for the deliverance of Northern Iraq from ISIS, and for strength, courage and endurance for the Christians in the area, who were faced with the demand to convert, or die.

We were all well prepared, but God had other plans…

It seemed right to us to read the email in full before a prayer of intercession. So we prayed that God would be with us, that Jesus would be honoured, and we went to start the service.

Elder Mark started the service reading from Psalm 107, reminding us of God’s faithfulness even in the hardest of times. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever…”

It was a good start, but it crossed my mind right there how this was leading in to a sermon on relationships. I let the thought pass…

First bracket of songs were done, and I was on the deck praying through some pastoral issues. After that, I started to read the email to the congregation. My intention was to pray again when I had finished reading. As once more I read about the grave situation of these Christian people, the deaths of little children, the evil of ISIS, I sensed the congregation was also burdened with their plight. I thought, ‘instead of me being the only one to pray, maybe it’s best just to let people from the congregation pray, and I will close the prayer when it seemed right to do so’. So I asked people to pray. Jason quoted Psalm 46, asking God not only to protect his people, but to change the hearts of those who were perpetrating such evil. Cam prayed, Jeremy prayed, Elder Mark prayed – and read from Rev 7 where those persecuted during great tribulation – the multitude of people in white robes – stood victorious and full of praise before the throne of Christ the Lamb.

Thinking about it later, it seemed that in a few brief seconds as someone was praying, I processed more than a few second’s worth of thoughts. My mind was drawn to Psalm 73: the dissonance between the writer’s deep faith and the ugly presence of evil, the tension that created in his mind, his lack of capacity to understand, his unshakable trust in the Lord’s faithful covenant presence.

In those few seconds I felt a strong conviction that I should leave my prepared sermon, and instead preach – right then – from Psalm 73. Rationale came quickly: It would certainly harmonise with everything else that was happening; it would speak directly to the burden of the email; it would address some of the questions people at Gateway may have had; it would point us right to God’s faithfulness; it would call us to faith in times of threat and uncertainty.

With the hymn writer George Croly, there were ‘no angel visitants, no opening skies’. But I believe God’s Spirit was leading me to do something very different. I had never preached without notes. I had never preached extempore. Such a thing would normally freak me out just a little. But while someone was praying, I looked up Psalm 73. I could see a sermon introduction, several points of teaching and application, clear lines to Christ, and a close. There it was. So I said “Lord, please led me, I am am in your hands.”

For the next 20 minutes or so, I preached a sermon on Psalm 73 which sounded a lot like any sermon I would write on Psalm 73, just that it had been written yet. My major points were

  • Evil is real and its presence is confronting and disturbing. We should not be surprised if we do not understand how evil might enter our lives vv.1-16
  • We will never be helped if we cut God out of the picture. The Psalmist was comforted by God’s presence v.17
  • It may look as though evil has won the day, but in the grand scheme of eternity God will bring justice to those who do evil. Martin Luther King Jnr once said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Rev 7 reminds us that human history, our history, is in the hands of a loving Saviour. The Lamb who is also the victorious King.
  • The Psalmist was comforted with God’s faithfulness, but there is no indication that his life circumstances changed. Sometimes, all we have, and all we can do, is to trust God and throw ourselves on his mercy. This helped the Psalmist, and it will help us
  • God’s faithfulness is seen in his presence. It is good for us to be near God (v.28), and even better that he remains near us. All through the Scripture we hear that glorious prepositional assertion: I will be with you. This was comfort for Abraham, for Moses before Pharaoh, for Joshua, for King David, for shepherds on a hill who heard of “God with us”, for the church facing a universe of uncertainty with the certainty of Jesus’ presence “I am with you always, even to the very ends of the earth” (Matt 28:20)

I am still amazed at how it all unfolded. I am deeply grateful that in the midst of such disturbing news, God answered the prayer that we would honour him and that Jesus would be glorified.

God is his own interpreter. He took the events of the day, the thoughts and prayers of our hearts, and led us to a place we did not think we would go, but at the end of the service we were very glad he had taken us there. God wanted the focus to be not just a sense of solidarity and loving concern for the grave situation of Christians in Iraq. He also wanted us to focus on the greater reality that Christ stands above it all, and even out of the most terrifying circumstances, he will ultimately lead his people to victory.

Did God do something different at Gateway yesterday? Yes. And no.

It was definitely a different experience for me, and I don’t know when and if that will happen again. But it was not a new thing for God: he is always with us, he is always present, he always blesses people who turn to him in faith. It’s just that yesterday he expressed that in a different way, and took us to where he wanted us to be, and not where we thought we were going to go.

As preachers, we make plan our work. We take our task seriously. We exegete, we research. We write and apply and then preach as best we can. These are excellent disciplines. But we always need to remember that our sovereign God is the sovereign God. On any day we need to be ready to follow should he make it clear there’s somewhere else we need to go, and something else we need to say.

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” (Proverbs 16:33, NIV)