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.

How we fit in to God’s plan – Time for Justice #5

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Philippians 2:5-13

In the last few weeks we have covered quite some ground:

  • We’ve seen that injustice has its roots in the human heart, in people estranged from a loving God, in the sin of the human heart
  • We’ve seen that God cares deeply for the victims of injustice
  • We’ve seen that he hates injustice, and how he uses the strongest language to describe his feelings towards that injustice
  • And last week we have learned the surprising truth that his plan is to use his church to deal with the injustices of our world
  • On Good Friday and Easter Sunday we will see how the cross of Christ changes everything, and how the glorious reality of the resurrection impacts the church’s calling.
  • The week after we’ll be nailing it all home.

What we want to look at today is the question of how. How do we fit in with the plan of God? What is it we are to do? It’s a challenging question. And to get into this I want to tell you a story…

How do we fit in with the plan of God?

Once, when I was a little boy, maybe four years old, we visited my grandfather in a neighbouring town. Television had only been in Australia for 5-6 years. And because we lived so far away from the place of broadcast, anyone who wanted to receive the TV signal needed at least a 15 meter TV antenna. That meant no one could get TV on the sly. As soon as that huge antenna went up, your neighbourhood knew you had TV. My mother, who was especially good at noticing things, would sometimes see a new TV antenna and say “Ooh, they’ve got TV!”

So, we are at my grandfather’s house, and the next door neighbour had just had her TV installed. We knew this because my mother has seen the antenna. So after lunch, Mum asked whether me and my older sister wanted to go next door and look at the TV. We were pretty excited about that. So, guess what we did? We raced next door, sat on the front lawn and stared at the 15 TV antenna. It was great! For the first few minutes. And really, we had no idea that inside the house there was a box with a screen with pictures and sound! Imagine that: we thought the experience was all about looking at the antenna. We had no idea there was more to it. There we were: content to sit in the front yard staring at the TV antenna. Yet is there a sense in which, with regard to our faith, it sometimes feels we’re doing just that: staring at an antenna, but wondering whether there’s more to it.

Why do the glorious realities of the Gospel sometimes leave us feeling underwhelmed?

Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being so incredibly blessed. We live in a beautiful country, in a wonderful city, we have so much: good health, reasonable income, leisure time, capacity to do whatever we choose. Might this work against us?

We know the truth. We have been given forgiveness in Christ. We have eternal life in his name. We have the fullness of grace. But too often it doesn’t feel like fullness. Why do those glorious realities sometimes leave us feeling underwhelmed?

If we look at Philippians 2, we know it’s not because of any lack in Jesus Christ or his work:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11, NIV)

Jesus is the greatest expression of God’s saving plan. His suffering and death, his glorious resurrection, the fact that he is seated at the right hand of God shows his glorious victory. His name is above every other name! And Paul says this wonderful God will bring the work of his son in his people to a flourishing finish:

“[Being] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, NIV)

This God is working the life Jesus into us day by day:

“for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13, NIV)

This God who directed all history toward the coming of his Son, toward the cross, toward the open tomb, who had Pilate, and Herod, and the executioner all doing his will; this same sovereign God is now working in you to bring the fullness of Christ’s life to expression! And it’s no surprise Paul continues, ‘now, you Christians, you church, you keep working out what God is working in.’

When he says ‘keep working out your salvation’ he’s not talking about mere mental activity, like when you work out the square root of 144. And he’s not talking about the sort of working out you do at the gym.

When Paul says ‘work out your salvation’ he’s saying bring your salvation to full fruitfulness, bring it to full expression in everything, put it into effect entirely and thoroughly. He’s saying: Don’t stop until the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom flourishes in the totality of new community together and the entirety of your individual lives. And he even tells us what that will look like:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12, NIV)

There it is again: we know Jesus, we worship Jesus, we live for Jesus … but this fear and trembling, where is that? What is that? Gotta say: I read those words and I get this sense that I am looking at the TV antenna, and thinking there’s probably more to it. This fear and trembling – what is that?

Well, it’s not a fear of punishment. The Bible makes it clear: Jesus has dealt with that, and there is no more condemnation for those who are in him (see Rom 8:1).

Fear and trembling arises from a profound awareness that God is bigger, more powerful, gloriously greater, more disturbingly wonderful than anything we can imagine. Fear and trembling flows out of a deep sense of our own insignificance. An awareness of our profound dependence on the Lord and his mercy. Fear and trembling is living out the unnerving adventure of grace. It is intentional witness and new life which confronts the dark forces of our world. This fear and trembling cannot be manufactured. On the contrary, it comes when we are so unsettled from expressing Christ’s new life entirely and thoroughly that we can do no other but fear and tremble as we follow. Paul mentions fear and trembling as a normal experience, but is it our normal experience? Is it yours?

Now, there are plenty of Christians around who will say if you lack fear and trembling it’s because you haven’t been baptised with the Holy Spirit, or because you don’t speak in tongues, or because your not prospering, or because you don’t have enough faith, or some other reason. IN response, we need to remember how Paul reminds us the Holy Spirit is given to every follower of Jesus when they believe (Eph 1:13-14). But here’s the thing, every believer has the Spirit, but that Spirit can be quenched and his work stifled (see Eph 4:30).

By the same token, a life of trust from a person who follows Jesus, who obeys and honours him, when someone seek to do that with a full heart and in all things they will increasingly find the Spirit challenging them to a more determined and courageous Christianity. Obedience matters.

Paul is describing Christian life with edge. A living for Jesus which on a regular basis is passionate, courageous, stretched, and demanding.

Could it be that we do not often feel fear and trembling because we love our comfort, our privileges too much?

Could it be that this preoccupation with ourselves prevents us from entering into the fullness of life, from living our faith on the edge, and so there’s no fear, and little trembling?

Could it be that we’re looking at the antenna, and not living what Jesus calls ‘the deeper realities’?

IJM’s Gary Haugen sums it up well:

This is, I believe, a voice of divine restlessness. This is a voice of sacred discontent. This is the voice of a holy yearning for more … This is the moment in which we can see that all the work that God has been doing in our lives and in the life of the church is not an end in itself; rather, the work he has been doing in us is a powerful means to a grander purpose beyond ourselves. … This is the critical transition—when we who have been rescued by Christ come to understand that our rescue has not been simply for ourselves but for an even more exalted purpose. Indeed our own rescue is God’s plan for rescuing the world that he loves. 

[Just Courage]

We have not been rescued from sin and death so we can take it easy. God has worked his salvation into us so we can work it out, so we can put it into effect entirely and thoroughly. So that we can live new life with edge, with a sense of scary adventure, with fear and trembling. So we can serve God’s purpose (v.13). So we might will (that is, decide and choose) and act (that is, behave and do) the very things he has purposed in us.

The grander purpose the Lord has for us is that we enter into his heart for justice. Not a new program. Not a means to make people more busy. But a working out of what God has worked in, and a pursuit of the things which are close to the heart of God. The things Jesus calls ‘the weightier matters.’

So, here at Gateway we are embarking on a deepening of our strategic vision. The plans follow something of the material outlined in Jim Martin’s “The Just Church

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Encounter

We want to start a group, or a number of groups, that we might call ‘justice learning communities’. Everyone in these groups will be committed to working through key sections of God’s word which deal with justice, mercy and compassion. These  learning communities will prayerfully sit under the word. They will spend much time in prayer as they will work through some key books like

These groups will not be academic or merely intellectual. They will be prayerful, united, and desiring a deepening understanding of God’s call to be his people of justice. We will take some time to do this. Maybe 6-12 months. We will ask God to open our eyes, and to speak to us powerfully. We won’t want to assume we know the answers. We will be asking him daily to lead us to the right outcomes.

Explore

As we continue this learning, the time will come to start developing a justice task force, a ministry group who will

  • Ascertain the key needs around us in Cockburn. They will identify areas where people are vulnerable, they will work to unearth any injustice in our neighbourhood
  • Look also to wider contexts in Australia and beyond where the Gateway Church Family might be able to express the mercy and justice of the Kingdom of Jesus
  • See what resources we have: what are the gifts, skills, opportunities, passions and interests here in our church community?
  • They will then seek to match those resources to needs identified locally and beyond.

Engage

The third stage will see us prayerfully and intentionally start to respond to the various needs identified in the first two stages. In reality, this will be the hardest work on the justice journey. But it is what we are called to do.

They may be much risk as we respond to the needs around us, and we bet go into it with our eyes wide open. We don’t only need to see clearly the work that needs to be done and the resources we have to do it. The most important thing is that our eyes are fixed firmly on the Christ who is exalted above all things. He is the One on whom we depend. He is the One who lives in and empowers his people. He is the One who is with us always, even to the very end of the age. This being so, he is also the one in who is with us in our times of fear and trembling, who enables us to live his new life with faith and edge and courage.

My prayer is that we will all be changed in this process of growth and discovery. My prayer is that this justice journey will change our church, and lead us more into the maturity the Lord calls us to. Will you share that prayer that with me? It’s true, it may be a hard and difficult work. But Jesus is on the throne! Jesus is the Risen King. And the last thing any of us would want to do is keep looking at the antenna when deeper life and greater realities await us.

Please indicate how you want to engage with the justice journey by taking the brief survey below:

God’s Plan to Address Injustice

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Read: Luke 10:25-37

It seems you don’t have to talk about Christianity for too long before someone says, ‘One of the issues I have with God is that there is so much evil in the world: Why isn’t he doing something about it?’

Does God have a plan to address injustice?

We’ve been looking at issues surrounding injustice for the last four weeks, and the question we’re dealing with today is that very question: Does God have a plan to address injustice?

On the road to Jericho

One day, a lawyer asked a question of Jesus: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what the law taught, and the lawyer’s response is well known:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27, NIV)

‘Great answer’ says Jesus. Do that and you’ll be fine. But the lawyer knew that giving an answer and living an answer were two very different things.

Think about it: ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ Who can do that perfectly? So The law expert wanted the matter clarified: ‘and who is my neighbour?’

The parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ answer to his question. And while we might not realise it, this parable is also the answer to our question: what is God doing about injustice?

But before we get into that, Let’s observe that there are two aspects answering the question of what God is doing about injustice. First, there is what we call the ‘not yet’ aspect: The ‘Judgement Day’ aspect.

He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4, NIV)

Rev 21 & 22 tell us a day will come when every evil act, every abuse, every agent of oppression, every person who does injustice or turns a blind eye to it will answer to the living God. On Judgement Day God will forever end all injustice. But we are not there yet.

Second, there is a ‘Now’ aspect. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us what the ‘now’ aspect is. We read,

…“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30, NIV)

The victim was a Jew. A priest and a Levite, both brother Jews to the victim, to our surprise pass by on the other side. Then along comes a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans. Samaritans hated Jews. Typically, neither would have regarded the other as their neighbour.

Do you see what Jesus is doing? See where he’s pushing?

The lawyer wanted to justify himself. That is, he wanted Jesus to say ‘your neighbour is your brother’; or at worst: ‘your neighbour is your countryman’. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus says your neighbour is anyone, anyone who needs your mercy. Anyone in need.

In this parable, a great injustice has been committed. A man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. His own countrymen ignore him. And the question that interests us right now is: What was God’s plan to address that injustice?

Well, of course, God’s plan was that the Levite address that injustice. And his plan was that the priest address that injustice. But they both rejected God’s call. And then along came this despised Samaritan. Like the others, he was the plan. Unlike the others, he obeyed, showed mercy, used his donkey, spent his money.

your neighbour is anyone, anyone who needs your mercy. Anyone in need

What is God’s plan to deal with injustice? His plan is to use us! When injustice is going on, and you know it, and you see it, you are the plan to deal with it.

God’s plan has not changed

God’s plan is to deal with injustice by using his people. His plan has never been any different. The oft quoted Exodus manifesto reveals how when God’s people obeyed him and kept his 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 …” (Exodus 19:5–6, NIV)

Jeremiah 22 and Isaiah 1, show the Lord expects his people to address injustice around them. It was his plan for his people then. The question is does the New Testament teach it is his plan for his church, for you, for me, for his church to do it now? Does Jesus clearly teach this?

Let’s cover some of that data:

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16–18, NIV)

It’s clear: Christians know God’s love, and this places them under an obligation to help a brother or sister in need. In doing this we clearly follow Jesus’ example.

“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8, NIV)

It’s clear: Because you are a Christian, you have an obligation to assist family and relatives in need.

“In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”” (Acts 20:35, NIV)

As Paul farewells the Ephesian elders, he does not just tell them about their responsibilities to guard the flock from false teachers. He clearly says they have an obligation to help the weak.

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:10, NIV)

Here we see how the circle of responsibility widens: it’s not just fellow Christians in need that the church has to care for, nor to their responsibilities extend only to their family. God’s people are called to do good and to address the needs of all people.

Can you see the emphasis? You are God’s plan to address need inside the church. You are God’s plan to address need outside the church.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,” (Matthew 25:35, NIV)

Christ’s people don’t just render assistance to the ones they know and love, but even to those who are strangers. As one scholar observes:  to ‘those who were enemies politically and religiously.’

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16, NIV)

You are the salt of what? Your Family? You are the salt of your friends? You are the salt of the people you know and love? You are the salt of people who are like you? No. None of that. You, church, are the salt of the earth. It’s hard to think of a context wider than that. You are God’s plan on the earth.

“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11–12, NIV)

Peter writes to this church, people who are salt and light, and he says “be this kind of people, do good, live good lives, even amongst pagans. In the context of 1 Peter, God’s people were called to live good lives toward those who were persecuting them. That is an astounding command.

So: What is God’s plan to address injustice? You and me. Us. Church, together. We are the plan. We see from the above that this teaching is consistently reflected and embedded in the witness of the New Testament. And when it comes the the emphases in Jesus’ ministry, I can do no better that quote Timothy Keller. In Generous Justice he writes:

While clearly Jesus was preaching the good news to all, he showed throughout his ministry the particular interest in the poor and the downtrodden that God has always had.

Jesus, in his incarnation, “moved in” with the poor. He lived with, ate with, and associated with the socially ostracized (Matt 9:13). He raised the son of the poor widow (Luke 7:11–16) and showed the greatest respect to the immoral woman who was a social outcast (Luke 7:36ff). Indeed, Jesus spoke with women in public, something that a man with any standing in society would not have done, but Jesus resisted the sexism of his day (John 4:27). 51 Jesus also refused to go along with the racism of his culture, making a hated Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:26ff) and touching off a riot when he claimed that God loved Gentiles like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian as much as Jews (Luke 4:25–27). Jesus showed special concern for children, despite his apostles’ belief that they were not worth Jesus’s time (Luke 18:15). Lepers also figured greatly in Jesus’s ministry. They were not only sick and dying, but were the outcasts of society. Jesus not only met their need for physical healing, but reached out his hand and touched them, giving them their first human contact in years (Mark 1:41; Luke 5:13). He called his disciples to give to the poor in the strongest and most startling ways, while praising the poor for their own generosity (Mark 12:42–43). His own mother prophesied that he would “fill the poor” but turn the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). Yet Jesus also showed true justice by opening his arms to several classes of people who were not just poor. He ate with and spoke to tax collectors, the wealthiest people in society, yet the most hated, since they acquired their gains through collaborating with the Roman forces of occupation. The first witnesses to Jesus’s birth were shepherds, a despised group considered unreliable, yet God revealed the birth of his son first to them. The first witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection were women, another class of people so marginalized that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court. Yet Jesus revealed himself to them first. The examples are too many too enumerate.

So it is very clear indeed: Jesus’ teaching and ministry shows the absolute depth of His commitment to address the injustices of his day and reflect the compassion of his Father.

The How and the Why

In fact, Christians have no way of understanding God’s plan to address injustice, or their own part in it, outside of Jesus.

We need to remember this. Too often the church and Christians have been guilted into compassion. But guilt is such a lousy motivator. It may lead people to conform, but it never changes the heart. All guilt gives is more brokenness.

we take responsibility for God’s plan because in God’s plan, Jesus has taken responsibility for us

So, what is our motivation to join this plan of God? To be his means to address our world’s injustice? Well, we take responsibility for God’s plan because in God’s plan, Jesus has taken responsibility for us.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6–8, NIV)

The Gospel ends every argument about whether people will accept compassion in the right frame of mind, whether they deserve it, or whether they will abuse the grace extended to them.

Because

  • I was not in the right frame of mind for the love of God in Jesus.
  • I did not accept him as I should have.
  • I regularly abuse the privilege of grace.
  • Only in Jesus do I become the righteousness of God.
  • Only through Jesus does my status move from rebel to regenerate.
  • The Gospel gives me the only motivation I need to engage with God’s plan.

But Jesus is not only our motivation. Jesus is our means, our capacity, our ability to respond. He lives in us through his Spirit, the deposit guaranteeing what is to come. Christ in us! Do we need more? It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me! This incredible reality means we have Jesus’ resources at our disposal as we engage with God’s plan!

“I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13, NIV)

Jesus is my motivation. Jesus is my means. And Jesus is my message. As we are God’s plan to address injustice, let us remember that we cannot divorce what we do from who we are in Jesus Christ. Faith and actions go together. Gospel work with Gospel words. It’s not enough to aim for mere changed circumstances. What we’re presenting is that God changes people through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The greatest agent of change in the world is the human heart ruled by Jesus Christ.

The greatest agent of change in the world is the human heart ruled by Jesus Christ.

Now that doesn’t mean that before we help anyone we have to share the gospel, or get them signing off on ‘two ways to live’, or something like that. But as Jesus himself did, the works become a context to speak his words.

When the message comes without actions, it will lack traction. When actions come without the message, people will not understand the gracious God who is reaching out to them through his son.

God has a plan to address injustice. God has made it clear: through Jesus we are the plan, and God does not have another plan. So, how do we do this? What will we at Gateway Community Church actually do to engage with God’s plan? Do we have a plan? That is what I will get specific about next week.

For now, for this week, pray this

“Lord, open my eyes to how I can be part of your plan.

Open my eyes to how we at GCC can engage with your plan.

Open our eyes and our heart to

the people we need to see,

to the situations we need to address,

to the dark places,

the broken lives,

where the light of your Gospel needs to shine,

and where the love, grace and forgiveness of your Son will bring healing.”

God Hates Injustice: Group Study Questions

Read Isaiah 1:10-20

  1. Discuss some of the things we typically say we hate. How many of those things are on the same level as injustice? What conclusions can you draw about this?
  2. Looking through this passage, what sort of actions and behaviour from God’s people lead to this strongly worded complaint to his people?
  3. Any worship anyone brings is only ever acceptable through the grace of God in Jesus. Can such grace overcome the situation outlined in Isaiah 1? If so, what explains Yahweh’s strong words to his people? Why doesn’t he just forgive and be done with it?
  4. “It is impossible to have orthodoxy without orthopraxis: impossible to have right doctrine in isolation from compassionate and just practice.” – Discuss
  5. Share a few stories of people who have seemed to get the balance right between great theology and compassionate practise
  6. Share your thoughts on the significance of Isaiah 53:4-6 and 1 John 3:1 for your pursuit of justice in your local context

 

These questions are relevant to “Time for Justice: God Hates Injustice” from Gateway Community Church, March 08, 2015

 

 

 

 

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.

Christmas: ATime To Receive & Share the Good News

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Read Luke 2:8-20

Our fascination with Christmas time will often have its roots in our childhood memories. I have so many memories of childhood Christmases:

• Waking up at the crack of dawn, and often to my parents frustration, before, the crack of dawn to see what was under the tree

• The fragrance of the real pine Christmas tree, or the eucalypt one that sometimes took its place. The warmer it got, the better the aroma

• Christmas Dinner: it didn’t matter how hot it was, there’d be roast lamb, roast pork, roast chicken, fast vegetables, gravy, appelmoes.

• The desserts: Aunty Margaret’s Trifle was a culinary feat of architectural proportions. A layered affair of jelly, cake, custard and cream. Aunty Margaret had perfected her weapons grade custard to such an extent that it could repel any spoon. The cake layers had been immersed in enough sherry to the extent that it could send you over the blood alcohol limit (not that there was one back then). There was, of course, an adults trifle, and another for the kiddies.

When I think about those things, I have no trouble thinking that Christmas is the best time of year!

But wouldn’t it be odd if you would ask someone how their Christmas has been, that they would say “it’s been ordinary.” Ordinary food. Ordinary presents. Ordinary company. When we say something is ‘ordinary’, it is not a compliment.

Ordinary people

But consider this: The announcement of Jesus birth was made to shepherds. In that culture, shepherds were worse than ordinary. They were regarded as dumb, dirty, and dishonest.

Dumb: because they were uneducated. Dirty: because their constant handling of animals and all that entailed rendered them ceremonially unclean. Dishonest: because many shepherds had a healthy taste for mutton, and they tended to stow a few too many of the master’s jumbucks in their tucker bag.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night…” (Luke 2:8–9, NIV)

These are the people chosen to make the first announcement of the coming of the King. This is where God starts. God starts with ordinary people.

It makes sense: If Jesus’s coming was announced to academics, only a minority of the human species would be able to penetrate the metaphysical implications of the incarnation or comprehend the potential consequences for one’s Sitz im Leben.

Imagine if it were announced to politicians: they would take way too long to say it, and still not get to the point or answer any questions, and then they would tax you for the privilege of listening.

But God announced his Christmas good news to ordinary people so that ordinary people might live by it

There’s some Christmas take home right there: Christians should be normal, ordinary people. We should get rid of all our holy jargon, all our look down your nose religious expectations.

Instead, Christians should be people who show that new life comes to expression not only in faith, but in changed behaviour and gracious attitudes. Isn’t worshipping Christ the new born King and honouring Jesus the normal life God has created us for?

It may be so that many Christians seem removed from the rest of society. It is not uncommon for Christians to be isolated and somewhat aloof. General society does not regard Christianity as something people would normally be engaged with.

But when you think about this passage, and the shepherds, and how ordinary they were, We see that Christians should be the most ordinary people of all. Living a normal life. A transformed and reformed life, and that their life, attitudes and behaviour should be seen by others and most desirable, most normal of all.

Why? Because God has entered poured his grace into their lives and opened their eyes to his glorious plan in Jesus.

Extraordinary News

This is what happens here: To these ordinary people came an extraordinary announcement:

“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11, NIV)

“The Town of David” signified the child would be a king in the line of King David.

“Saviour” meant he would be a rescuer, a redeemer, like Joshua and Samson, that he would lead his people to a great victory.

“Messiah” or “Christ” said he would be a mighty ruler who would bring the new age of the Lord and return Israel to her former glory.

“Lord” signified that this child to be born was the covenant Lord, Yahweh, himself. God in the flesh. The Holy One. The Ancient of Days who had come Himself to uphold His holy covenant of grace.

 

Admittedly, the shepherds and the people back in the day probably would not have well understood what these things meant. They would have expected the Saviour/Messiah to win a military victory and to get rid of the Romans.

Little did they know that Jesus would defeat the darker power of sin and the fall which bound the human heart, darkened the human mind, and brought death to the human soul.

Jesus’ extraordinary birth did not fit the typical expectations or royalty. No royal robe. No Prime Ministerial limousine. No red carpet. No security detail (unless you count the chickens the donkey, and the all too prevalent octopus).

All we see is a young mother. A confused father. A stable. A manger. And a mob of dumb, dirty, dishonest shepherds.

Would you entrust your newborn to that environment? No, you would not.

But this is what Jesus did for you. To become your King. To become your Saviour. To become your Messiah.

At Christmas we celebrate a profound reality: the Triune God sent his eternal son to take on a human nature. Almighty God, lying in a manger. The creator, born in a shed. This Christ child would grow up and become the lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world.

The birth of this little baby Jesus is a breathtaking statement of grace, isn’t it? Jesus is the Christmas gift which towers above them all, doesn’t it?

Any gift you receive today was bought with money. The gift of life Jesus brings can never be paid for.

It’s a gift of forgiveness, promised in his birth and secured in his Cross.

It’s a gift of grace: this love of God comes freely. You cannot pay for this kind of grace, all you can do is receive it in thanks.

It’s a gift of new life: this Jesus still enters human hearts, and starts his work of transformation. No one is beyond the pale.

It’s a gift of new beginning. For even the worst, Jesus grants a fresh start.

The gifts we have received today, even the best, will not last forever. This gift of Jesus is the best because it’s a gift of life that lasts forever! Money can’t buy you that kind of love, friends. All you can do is receive it.

The only ‘ordinary’ response

How did these ordinary shepherds respond?

First up: they believed the angel. They received the announcement of Jesus’ birth in faith, and they hurried off to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus.

Secondly: They run off to Bethlehem to find the baby in a manger. After they find him, and tell their story to Mary and Joseph, they are filled with worship, they praise God, and glorify him for what they have seen and heard.

This is what happens, right? When God reveals his glorious grace to people they cannot stop themselves from worshipping! When people see who Jesus really is: they have to worship!

Check it out: One of Luke’s favourite concepts is how people marvel and are amazed at Jesus. Shepherds were amazed. Mary and Joseph were amazed when Simeon prophesied about Jesus (2:33). The teachers in the Temple were amazed at Jesus’ understanding as a 12 year old (2:47). The people are amazed in the synagogue when Jesus speaks to them as he starts his ministry (4:22) … and on it goes.
Jesus just keeps amazing people with his grace, his love, his selflessness and his life.

Sometimes I think we have lost our ability to be amazed at the Gospel? Does anything amaze us anymore?

I think when we actually stop to think about the reality of the Christmas Gospel, the humility he has willingly adopted, for us, all we can do is be amazed at the grace of God in Jesus.

But here’s the thing: they don’t merely hold this as a personal and private truth. The shepherds worship by telling others:

“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (Luke 2:17–18, NIV)

When we know the depth of God’s love, and how he has lavished this love on us in his son, we just have to share the good news.

I know: You will say to yourself that you can’t do it, that you don’t know enough, you will worry that you won’t have the answers.

But remember these shepherds. What were they? Dumb. How did people view them? Dirty and dishonest. But 2000 years later, we are still reading their words.

The Bible tells us spreading the word is not just what we say. What we say must work with how we live. The world yawns at Christians who say much but live little. God spews at that kind of hypocrisy. But he is delighted when his people live out the fullness of their faith, even in the most trying circumstances:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:9–12, NIV)

That’s the Christian life God delights in. That’s the Christmas message he wants us not only to speak, but also to live.

Today, more than ever, our country needs a Christmas like that, and Christians like that. People who speak and live the good news.

Ordinary people, living and speaking the extraordinary message of God’s grace, love and life in Jesus.

This is what God calls us to be this Christmas: people who believe the message of Jesus. Place your trust in the one who came to ordinary people. Receive the life and grace he brings to you. Receive it as a gift.
Allow yourself to be amazed at this gift of life in Jesus. Let the wonder of God in the flesh, the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord wash over you.

This was done for you, for all who call on his name. Amazing grace!
And this Christmas, spread the good news. When you get together with others, talk about Jesus’ birth. Talk about the wonder of it all at the supermarket, at school, with your friends, at the pub. Share this extraordinary news with the people God has placed around you.

And may the good news of the Saviour, Christ, The Lord, resound all through the earth.

A Time to Reconnect: a Prelude to Christmas

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This sermon was originally preached by David Groenenboom at Gateway Community Church on Sunday December 19, 2014 as part of the Making Sense of the Silly Season series

Reading: Matt 1:18-25

It was only a few weeks ago that I started my sermon talking about how the world seemed more of a dark place. I referred to riots in Ferguson, MI, and I talked about the ISIS terrorists.

And now we come out of a week where

• three are dead after the Sydney siege
• 132 children – children mind you – are butchered in a Pakistani school
• 8 children from one family are murdered in Cairns

How do we celebrate Christmas after a week like that?

Immanuel

Matthew’s advice is to remember that Jesus is God with us.
“…an angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).” (Matthew 1:20–23, NIV)

It wasn’t just that Jesus’ birth was a miracle, as Mary was a virgin, or that both she and Joseph were fallen people. It was more that Jesus was born into that world.

There were terrible things happening in the day Jesus was born. Herod the Great was a wicked ruler, killing all the male children in Bethlehem under 2 years old in pursuit of the infant Jesus. Those in authority, typically, were not seen as people who were on your side. Routinely, they were people to be feared.

We read that people were waiting for the consolation of Israel. This was largely because there was a lot to be consoled about. The world was not an easy place. But this is the world Jesus came to.

And it is why the Christmas message is good news:

God is not waiting for you to become holy,
To read your bible more
To live a better life
To love perfectly
To have stronger faith

Jesus’ birth expresses a comforting truth: God is with us! For God’s people, no greater blessing can be conceived than for God to dwell with them.

Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah saw this coming to pass. Speaking of the day Jesus would be born, he wrote:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1–3, NIV)

A bit over a century later, Ezekiel had a vision of a gloriously restored Israel, and a holy city, whose name will be ‘The Lord is there.’

Then, some 60 years after Jesus’ death and rising, the Lord reveals the same vision to the Apostle John. He sees a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem, and the defining characteristic of this restored world is that

God’s dwelling will be among his people,
and he will dwell with them,
they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them and be their God.

So, when Gabriel says ‘they will call Him Immanuel’, it is not so much another name, but a statement of fact. It was a sign that the words of the prophets and the expectation of the people that God would dwell with them would at last find their fulfilment in Jesus.

Immanuel, Jesus himself, is the greatest proof that God has not forsaken his world. God had not forsaken them. God has not forsaken us.

The Divine Motive

Isn’t that a comforting thought? God has not left us alone! God has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ! Wat we want to do us understand the purpose of his presence. And on that, the Bible gives us two very succinct statements:

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15, NIV)

Secondly,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16–17, NIV)

Do you ever find yourself wondering what God is like? What he is really like?

There’s reason to say, of course, because we are mortal human beings that we will never be able fully to understand God or plumb the depths of his nature. But on the other hand, while we cannot fully know, we can truly know. And e can truly know the things God reveals things about himself.

Jesus came to save: God’s nature is about saving those who are undeserving. God is about grace.

And Jesus came as an act of divine love. God is about love. Loving a world where people are perishing, where they deserve condemnation.
He sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for sin, to save the world, not to condemn it. This has always been God’s intention.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they use their energies. Steve Smith, Australia Cricket Captain, when he’s not hitting Indian batsmen all around the cricket ground, spends a lot of his waking life training. Sharpening skills, improving fitness, he focuses all his energies toward that time when he’s out in the middle. Everything he does is directed toward that one great goal.

Think of the way God spend his energies. From the very first thing we read in Genesis, to the very last thing revealed in Revelation, we see God causing life to abound, and after the fall, restoring his creation.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He gave of himself to bring his world into existence. Like grace before its time, he was happy to spend his divine energy bringing life and beauty to light.

Then, when Jesus was born as Immanuel, we see him expending his energy reclaiming his world, bringing love and rescue to undeserving people.

And on the day Jesus returns to consummate the new heavens and the new earth, he will again be bringing life, love and grace but then so perfectly and eternally that all evil, and everything that opposes his rule, will forever be cast out.

Immanuel: God with us

We need to know what this means, and what it doesn’t mean.

What it means is that Jesus as Immanuel was not an afterthought.
Immanuel is the revelation of the Lord’s one plan to love his world,
to save his people by grace, and restore his creation through this child whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.

Christianity is, simply, good news. It is the news that something has happened as a result of which the world is a different place [NT Wright].

The something that has happened is Jesus: God with us.

What it does not mean: we should not understand the birth of Immanuel to mean that God thinks everything is OK with our world, for God knows, everything is not OK. And we should certainly know that after the events of this past week.

God is grieved and angered at the sin of those who not only live outside of faith in Jesus, but who bring violence, bloodshed and untold grief to our world.

The events at Martin Place, Peshawar, and Cairns are profoundly confronting and distressing. They show the depth of the fall, the reality of human rebellion. How we weep when we see these things, yet as we do, we remember that God will call all who bring evil and violence and death to account when he judges all the earth.

This is why God calls everyone to turn to him, to have faith in him, to love him and trust him.

When they do, they will meet him not as Judge, but as a loving Father who has already had the claims of his justice satisfied through Jesus Immanuel.

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 1:8–2:2, NIV)

Responding to Immanuel

When Gabriel said Jesus would also be called Immanuel, he was declaring God’s plan, right from the beginning, to dwell with his people. This Jesus, God With Us, enters this world as it is, but he is not prepared to leave it that way. The life, birth, sacrificial death, and rising again of Jesus Immanuel demonstrates that.

In days like these people will sometimes wonder whether God cares or knows what is happening. You know, you cannot conceive of the birth of Jesus Immanuel without knowing the love, grace, and saving heart of God, the deep love that he lavishes on people. You cannot celebrate the bible’s message of Christmas without being deeply moved by Immanuel.

The God who is with you.

Even before you knew it.

Even before you had any idea.

Since the beginning of time, God has planned to dwell with you. And now it’s time for you to respond to him. Here’s how:

Repent: that is. Come under Jesus’s rule. He is your King, Lord and Master. Turn around and start walking his way. Acknowledge the wrong in your life, and ask him to live in you, rule your life, and restore you.

Reconnect: Worship God with all you are, and in all you do. Love him with all your heart soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbour as yourself. Obey him every day. Bring his new life to expression. Commit to Worshipping Him with his people more than you do at present.

Trust him: when terrible things happen, remember he is with you. He’s Immanuel, he is with you always, even to the end of the age. There’s much we don’t understand about this, but we are comforted that he is with us and we are not alone.

Pray: Lord, help me bring your life. Help me believe. Help me trust. Help me bring the comfort of the Gospel to others. When there is much darkness, let your word be a lamp to my feet and a light to my path

Love: Show grace to all, even your enemies. Let Jesus’ Spirit move you to compassion. Help the broken. Befriend the lonely. Protect the scared. Bring his grace and love to all who are in need.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

Jesus, Immanuel, is for you. Who can be against you?

Jesus, Immanuel is with you, you are never alone.

Jesus, Immanuel, is in you, dwelling with you. Now in his power and by his grace, bring his good news to your world.

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:18–20, NIV)

A Time for Rescue

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Reading: Matthew 1:18-23, focussing on Matthew 1:23

People think carefully before naming their children. We tend to go by how a name sounds, and what’s popular at the time. Back in the days of the NT, people chose names that were more like a prayer.

Nathaniel: gift of God.

Simon: God has heard

Jesus – or Yeshua (the Aramaic name we have anglicised into Jesus) is not such a common name in our part of the world. But it certainly was at the time Jesus was born. The name ‘Jesus’ expressed a parent’s prayer of hope and expectation that God would purify his people and save them from oppression.

Parents who used that name remembered a great deliverance from Pharaoh in Egypt, and they prayed something like that would happen to free them from the domination of Rome, and return Israel to its former glory.

‘Jesus’ expressed a parent’s prayer of hope and expectation that God would purify his people and save them from oppression

So the name ‘Jesus’ was a common enough. What was uncommon was the events surrounding his birth. Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah and Elizabeth, not only announcing the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, but also that he would prepare the way of someone even greater.

Interestingly, with Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary & Joseph, their children were not named by the parents, but by God.

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”” (Matthew 1:21, NIV)

Give him the name “Jesus”. It was more than a prayer: it was a profound revelation. A statement of divine truth. A proclamation of God’s action:

‘…he will save his people from their sins’

It is as if God pulls back the curtain on our little world, and reveals his plan to Mary and Joseph. God has been at work since the beginning of time to bring this moment to pass. God’s reality was about to break into our world and nothing will ever be the same.

Call him ‘Jesus’. He will save his people from their sins.

There is a problem…

That single sentence helps us make sense of Christmas. It brings us to the nub of the problem with our world, with us, with humanity. This is the issue: sin is a reality. But who wants to know about that? It’s like we are in some form of cosmic denial.

Look at it this way: Back then, the people of God saw their biggest problem as contextual. Like Israel in Egypt, they thought that if they could just get rid of the latest Pharaoh, Caesar, and if they could just follow God’s law, everything would be OK.

So there were zealots, ancient religious fundamentalists, who did whatever they could to get rid of the Romans. They never succeeded.

And there were the Pharisees: religious leaders devoted to the law of God, who believed that if only God’s people would respect and obey the law, God would then intervene, defeat Rome, and return Israel to her glory.

Neither of these groups were dealing with the core issue. Both of them had missed the point that the problem was more insidious and deceptive.

sin is a reality

All through the Old Testament, Israel seemed consistently to miss this point. They often neglected the reality of personal and corporate sin, and externalised the problem.

If we could just get out of Egypt.
Then, if we could just go back to Egypt.
If we could just get rid of the Canaanites.
If we could just have a King like the other nations.
Then, if we could just get rid of this King.
And on it went.

Had they missed what the Lord had said all along? The problem has its root in the human heart. There was an uncleanness of heart and soul which needed to be removed, symbolised in the ancient act of circumcision:

“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” (Deuteronomy 10:16, NIV)

That this was something God would do for them:

“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6, NIV)

Hundreds of years later, he was still calling them to return to him and change their lives:

“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it.” (Jeremiah 4:4, NIV)

Surprisingly, they never did it. Sin had made them so blind to their own fallenness that they were incapable of dealing with it themselves. But this faithful God stuck by his word, and promise a rescuer who would come and save them completely:

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:2, NIV)

The Lord himself was promising to do the most astonishing thing:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:25–27, NIV)

He Himself would act to save, to cleanse. He would do something which could change a person at the very core, the damaged core, of their being. Jesus would save his people from their sins.

You know why? You know why he was always calling his people away from sin, and promising that he would deal with it?

Because God hates sin.

He hates it because it turns people away from him.
It wrecks lives.
It destroys families.
It makes people addicted to their own pride.
It wrecks his world.
It brings alienation and separation to every sphere of life and relationship.

But such statements are not popular in our day and age.

So, how do we respond to the idea of sin today?

I think our response is much like the people at the time of Jesus’ birth, or of Israel in Egypt. We think all we need to do is educate people better. Develop better policy. Change a government. Earn more. Eat less. See what we’re doing? We externalise our problems just like Israel. And no one wants to know about the sin of their heart, or a fallen humanity in open rebellion against God.

Many people laugh at those who are serious about sin. They say it’s an oppressive idea. A hangover of some Victorian morality. A relict medieval spirituality. But they cannot account for the fact that after all our advances, all our technology, all our opportunity, things are still a mess. And even amongst the most well educated, the best provided for, those with all the capacity, relationships still fail, people are still violent, their world is still a mess.

This is sin: the arrogant determination of humanity to live without God, independent of him, indifferent to him, and be their own master. Our world is in open rebellion against God, and his justice needs to be satisfied.

Jesus is the rescuer

This is why the Christmas message is good news! Jesus is the Rescuer! The Saviour!

But could Mary possibly have known how this would come about?

Who would have expected God to become a human being, to take on the human nature?

Who would have expected him to make himself vulnerable, powerless, and dependent on the very people who were his enemies?

Yet, in taking on the human nature, Jesus submitted himself to people who hated him. I know, it sounds harsh to speak that way about Mary, but she and Joseph were as fallen, and in need of rescue, as anyone else.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6–8, NIV)

Isn’t that remarkable? Jesus was born with a mission: to save his people. To redeem his people. To do what needed to be done to bring people back to God and deal conclusively with the sin which had bound the human heart.

Jesus was not merely going to rescue from some foreign oppressor, a Rome, an Egypt. This little child to be born would rescue people from the sin that bound their heart. This Jesus would break the dominion of the evil one over the people of God.

This is how much God hates the sin that controls the hearts and minds of people. He hates it so much, so powerfully, so profoundly, that he would send his one and only Son as a tiny helpless baby to be the rescuer. Your Rescuer, your Saviour, and mine.

Give us a wave!

That’s how we make sense of the silly season: we see it as the Saviour’s season! We see it as the annual announcement that Jesus saves people from their sin! His incarnation and birth leads to his crucifixion and death! The manger leads to the cross!

Jesus has come to rescue you from the sin which binds your heart, from the brokenness in relationship with God, from the guilt all this brings, from the wrath which God has for it all. Jesus is your rescuer!

Anyone here ever been rescued? Here’s my story:

I think Catherine, our oldest daughter, was about 10. We were at Dodges Ferry in Tasmania. There’s a huge inlet to the north east, with a tiny mouth into Frederick Henry Bay. We were in a kayak, and the tide was running out. We were only a few hundred meters from the shore, when I noticed that even though we were paddling toward the beach, we were actually slowly getting further away. I worked my incredibly toned and sculpted arm muscles harder… but to no avail. And then, behind us, I heard a motor boat…

What do you think I did?

I put my hand up and signalled that we were in some trouble. They approached us and threw us a line, and towed us safely to the beach. That was just the greatest gift. It saved a father and his daughter an unelected trip to Antarctica…

See, you only start thinking about rescue when you run out of options. When you have nothing. When everything you are doing is not helping at all. You only need rescue when you’re powerless. It’s then that you put your hand up, and call for help.

Surely we have seen enough of human history, of the newsfeed, of our own experience to know that we need help. We need rescue. We need Jesus to save us from our sin.

Isn’t it time to put your hand up?

Call to the rescuer?

No other options will work.

Now is the time: To Call out to Jesus, who will save you from your sin. To acknowledge your own need. Your own brokenness. He’s here! He’s here! He’s here to rescue!

It’s serious. You are in the kayak, and you’re going backwards. You’re in the rip, and you can’t fight it. You’re powerless. And if you don’t get rescued, if you don’t get saved, you will die. (There is a whole other side to this: what response he requires from you beyond asking for his rescue – that is next week…)

For now: Put your hand up!

Put your hand out!

Give us a wave!

Your Saviour is powerful.

Your Saviour is capable.

Your Saviour is keen.

And on the cross, his selfless sacrifice did everything necessary to rescue you. And today He promises to enter your life, cleanse you from your sin and guilt. To give you a new heart. A new beginning so powerful it is called a new life. And he calls you to return to him, to confess your sins, and your need of his grace and rescue, to come under his rule, to walk his way, to live his life, to follow and obey.

A Time to Trust

Read: Luke 1:26-38

When you arrived here this morning, you probably greeted a few people with a ‘G’day’ – or a more formal ‘good morning’… You might have asked talked about the past week, or the weather, or commented how busy the shops are becoming, bemoaned the problem of local parking, etc.

And there are things that we do not easily talk about. One of them would be our fears. Fears about our health, our job prospects, a relationship issue.

Fear

While this passage covers a number of areas, I want to start by talking about fear.

Our passage says the Lord sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth to reveal his plan to Mary. Gabriel was a mighty angel. He had appeared to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, a few months before. Around 500 years before that he appeared to the prophet Daniel.

Daniel, Zechariah, and Mary were very different people. But they had one thing  in common: when Gabriel appeared their response was one of fear and dread.

Daniel: “As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. …” (Daniel 8:17, NIV)

Zechariah: “When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” (Luke 1:12, NIV)

Mary: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:29, NIV)

Why is Mary so troubled?

Well, she is probably somewhere between 12-14 years old, and she’s being told she will have a baby. That bothers us a lot, but in that culture it was common for girls that young to be married. Also, Mary was a virgin. She had never slept with a man. Even though this was an ancient community, everyone of knew how babies were made. And Mary had done none of that – so, what were people to think?

This turn of events created a social and moral problem for Mary and Joseph. In today’s Nazareth, this situation would mark a young woman as a target for an honour killing. So even though there have been many social changes between now and then, this news would have been enough to bring dread into any young woman’s life.

The most obvious reason, however, for Mary’s deep trouble, for Zechariah’s fear, and for Daniel’s terror is the reality of their own fallen humanity coming face to face with the messenger of the Living God.

Such fear has a long history.

The very first book of the Bible tells us when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and decided that they and all humanity should live independently of him, they ended up cowering in fear. The very last book of the Bible, Revelation, tells us of the Apostle John, who fell down like a dead man when met the risen Christ (Rev 1:17).

The many pages in between show a consistent pattern: when people come face to face with the living Lord, they are gripped with dread. This fear does not simply have its origins in the fact that we are mortals and the Lord is divine, but in the more uncomfortable truth that we are sinners and he is holy. The holiness of God provokes terror in fallen people. As the Scriptures say, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31, NIV)

But Mary’s fears are grounded in more than the state of her fallen soul before the messenger of a holy God. They’re also grounded in the astonishing content of Gabriel’s message:

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:31–33, NIV)

Mary was probably illiterate. But she knew enough to know that Gabriel’s words described only one person: the promised Messiah, the Saviour the people of Israel had been longing for for thousands of years. Gabriel was saying God was going to do something directly in her life. Do something to her.  Is it any wonder she was deeply troubled?

But notice Gabriel’s response: “Do not fear, Do not be afraid…” (v.30).

Notice also that when Zechariah was startled and gripped with fear, Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid…”

When John the apostle came face to face with the Risen Christ: “he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid” (Rev 1:17, NIV)

So, this is what the Lord says to people gripped with terror: “Do not fear, Do not be afraid.”

Do you know this?

Do you know that God seeks to take your fear away?

Your dread of his presence? Your fears about his work in your life?

That’s what happened with the prophet Isaiah. He saw the vision of the living Lord, and he cried out in fear. But an angel cleansed his lips with a coal from the altar. All pointing forward to the day when a greater cleansing would be won. When the Jesus here promised would go to the Cross,

where his blood would be shed,

where the sins of all who trust him would be cleansed,

where the guilt of God’s people would be purged,

where the condemnation we deserve would be conquered so completely.

The Easter story explains why we have a Christmas story.

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14–15, NIV)

This past week many Australians have been thing about death. We have seen a young cricketer cut down in his prime by a freak accident. Phillip Hughes’ death shows us how fragile we are. How quickly life can be snuffed out. It reminds us that death is our enemy, and a fearful one at that.

But the good news is that Jesus, the child who would be born to Mary, is now the end of fear because his death was the end of sin. We have to engage in a little mental ‘time travel’ but the reality is  Gabriel can confidently say ‘Do not be afraid’ because

Mary’s own fear

will in years to come 

be driven out 

as the nails 

are driven into 

the one she would soon 

bring into this world.

Faith

But there’s more here than ‘do not fear’. Those very words are a call to faith. Gabriel explained how Mary’s pregnancy would come about:

…“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”” (Luke 1:35–37, NIV)

There must have been much that Mary did not understand. From how it would all happen to what it all meant. Even so, she displays a beautiful faith and humble submission:

““I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.” (Luke 1:38, NIV)

Mary’s humble faith finds its ground in Gabriel’s last words: ‘no word from God will ever fail’, or as some translations say, ‘nothing is impossible with God.’ Here, God’s ‘word’ is more than mere information. His ‘word’ is his declaration, a statement, an assertion, a pronouncement, a promise. It cannot fail because the Lord who speaks this word is the One who is Sovereign Lord who reigns over all.

For us, the sovereignty of God’s is a core belief. But it still challenges us. We are challenged, not merely by Gabriel’s appearance, but by what he reveals: Mary will conceive miraculously and her child will be the Son of the Most High God.

It challenges us because it runs against what we call the laws of nature. But as one writer says

The laws of nature are not chains which the Divine Legislator has laid upon Himself; they are threads which He holds in His hand, and which He shortens or lengthens at will. [Van Oosterzee]

This all powerful, all sovereign God has nature conform to his will. It is not the other way around. This God has all reality and its processes at his disposal. So Mary’s humble acceptance of his will for her can be explained in the context of his love and his almighty power.

Follow

And this is where the rubber meets the road for us, who thrive on the predictable. We expect everything to happen today just the way it happened yesterday. We think we live in a closed system where nothing can ever change. And we go through life looking at all the things that bother us believing it will never be any different.

We might believe God is out there, but we imagine he’s locked out of our reality, and cannot change anything. Or us. Too easily we have bought the lie that God and how he works must conform to nature and its laws.

So we tend to imagine that when things get bad for us, there’s nothing that can be done. Like we’re stuck in a system, and we can’t get out. What we forget is that this sovereign God works beyond our situation. We forget that he can use our circumstances beyond our limited vision. And so we tend not to think about how his sovereignty impacts on our fears.

But here’s the thing: that our most enduring growth happens in contexts which are the most difficult and trying?

Think of Saul, on the road to Damascus. A michelin star Pharisee. Zealous for the Lord. A persecutor of the church. But on that road he is met and saved by Jesus Christ. Jesus drew him into the very church he was persecuting. More: Jesus then commissioned him as apostle to the non-Jewish peoples: the very people whom that morning he had regarded as lower than dogs. Think of the sideways glances he would have received from the Christians he now sought to join. Think of the trust that needed to be built. Think of the rejection he may have felt in those early days. Think of the shame he must have felt for persecuting the Christ he now loved and worshipped. Didn’t his most enduring growth came in his most difficult days?

Or think of Peter. Out on a boat in the middle of the sea when he saw Jesus walking on the water toward them. He called to Jesus, and Jesus called him to come to him, walking on the water. Peter was pushed to he point where he had to decide whether to stay safe, or to get out of the boat and obey Jesus. Whether this all powerful God would stop him from sinking. Did you know: if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat? (Ortberg) Perhaps his most enduring experience came as he walked, then sank, then grasped the hand of Jesus.

Or think of his vision, some years later. He had followed the scrupulous food laws of the Jewish people as a sign of his faith all his life. One day God confronted him in a dream, revealing all food was good, and in the process that non-Jewish people were as much loved by God as the Jews.

So, this context of difficult and incomprehensible news for Mary also become the context for her to display faithful, trusting acceptance of God’s word. Her response tells us a lot about trust. It reminds us that Christmas is about trust. Whether we accept the word of the Lord to be with us, and hold us, wherever he might lead us.

So, no, we might not speak that much about our fears. But maybe we should. Maybe we should acknowledge them, and commit ourselves into the Lord’s hands, like Mary. I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.

This is important because here at Gateway God is calling us to a deeper trust.

A trust that he is with us as we follow Jesus.

A trust that he will hold us, even in situations which are difficult and trying.

We sometimes think it would be easier for us if Gabriel were with us to assure us. Gabriel is not here, of course. But the One whose birth he announced is!

Jesus is here! Do you trust him? Do you trust him as he calls you to step out in faith? The one who calls you is the powerful, almighty omnipotent Lord!

But like Daniel, Zechariah,  Mary, and the cloud of witnesses, the thing he is calling you to will probably not excite you. It will not be what you want. More than likely it will be something that you don’t want. Something hard. Something difficult. Something you would rather not do.

Are you with me?

You probably know what I am talking about:

That conversation you don’t want to have.

That ministry you’d rather not do.

That confession you don’t want to make.

That mission, church, that fills us with fear and dread.

Here’s the question: will you trust God? Will you respond as Mary responded? “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Will we step up and allow ourselves to step down?

You can trust Jesus, friends. You can trust him, and say, “I am your servant. We are your servants together. Let it be to us as you have promised.”

There are two reasons. One:

“For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15, NIV)

God’s grace is gentle. You can trust him. You can obey. And you can follow.

Two: because this little child promised to Mary, is now the King of all the earth. Wherever he asks you to go, whatever he asks us to do, he is with us.

“…All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:16–20, NIV)

Sex – The Relationship Challenge #1 – Eph 5:3-4

Reading: Eph 5:1-20, specifically vv.3-4

Couple

We’re into a new series here. We’re looking at how our culture, its current expectations and morality, impact on how we form male/female relationships. I want to say at the outset, this is not a series for marrieds only. The material we cover will be relevant for anyone thinking about relationships: for teens working out the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing, for young adults, for singles.

The Problem with Sexual Freedom

Today we want to start with sex. We want to start there because our culture is so obsessed with it.

Many would argue the sexual liberation that came in the 1960s was in large measure a good thing. It freed people from a lot of guilt and repression, and gave people the opportunity to explore the wonder of human sexuality.

But now we have inherited a problem: Sex is all around us. The human body – typically female – is placed beside all sorts of advertising to arouse interest and create the subliminal message that if you buy the product, she will be interested in you. That may sound ridiculous, but the advertising industry knows this is how it works. Check this sample from the UltraTune company.

Go to the movies, and you will be confronted with sex – unless it’s G or PG. Without serious discernment, people might think the Hollywood view of sex is just how it is and should be.

Sex sells music and media. Last year I went into the local Telstra store to buy a new phone. While I was waiting there was a clip playing on the DVD screen of a naked woman at a demolition site. Turns out, it was Miley Cyrus singing Wrecking Ball. My previous experience, limited as it was, with Ms Cyrus was her song ‘Achey Breaky Heart’ and Hannah Montana. But there I was in the Telstra Shop, trying to think about my phone, but thinking about stuff I didn’t want to think about. Miley Cyrus did not begin this trend. She’s following in the footsteps of Kylie Minogue, Madonna, and further back to Jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday. Sex sells. And it’s everywhere.

Melinda Tankard Reist, an Australian journalist and speaker, campaigns regularly against sexual objectification of women, pornography, prostitution, and the sexualisation of children, particularly in advertising. She has also written about the child beauty pageants, where on some occasions very young girls are primped with skimpy clothing, spray tans, full make up, and coached in pseudo sensual moves to impress the judges. Who would ever want their little girl to be presented like that?

And then there is the porn industry. Worth over A$2bn per annum, the proliferation of internet porn is having a terrible impact on relationships. Many of us might be horrified to know that kids typically get their first porn experience in their teen years through unsupervised computer use. It’s all just a couple of mouse clicks away.

Concerned researchers and therapists are saying the prevalence of porn is starting to change our idea of what is normal. A young person sees what happens on screen, and they can think this is the way sex is and should be done.

The trend towards the increased degradation of women in porn means we run the risk of becoming desensitised to depictions of sexual violence. We also raise the very real possibility that a generation of young men and women will come to view the humiliation of women as a normal part of sex…

[Sarah McKenzie, Why the New Porn is Hurting Women, SMH, Mar 02, 2011]

Other researchers talk about the brain’s neuroplasticity: how regular consumption of porn actually starts to remap neural pathways within the brain, so that the regular porn consumer wants more, and wants it more intensely than before.

Cambridge University neuropsychiatrist Dr Valerie Voon has recently shown that men who describe themselves as addicted to porn (and who lost relationships because of it) develop changes in the same brain area – the reward centre – that changes in drug addicts.

[Norman Doidge, Brain scans of porn addicts: What’s wrong with this picture? The Guardian, 27 Sep 2013]

Pornography is about violence and degradation of women. The porn lobby disputes this, but the research is out there about how so called porn stars are regularly subject to abuse and dehumanising behaviour. And when this is often the first experience of sexual behaviour a young person might have, you have to ask what impact that is going to have on future generations. I fear many of those bills are yet to be paid.

So while there may have been some advantages to sexual liberation, our sexually saturated society, the advertising imagery, the sexualisation of children, the objectification of women and young girls, the movies, the easy access and sheer prevalence of internet porn ought to trouble us deeply.

Here’s the reality: These lies about sex are wreck relationships, destroy marriages, damage children, and lock some men and women into destructive bondage.

How will we ever have a healthy view of sex in a world like this?

How can we ever prepare our kids for healthy relationship when they are up against that?

What are we to do?

Sex in Scripture

As Christians, we turn to God, and we listen to his word. The Bible presents sex as a gift from God, a perfect part of his creation. Before the fall, sex is beautiful and perfect. When God brought Eve to Adam, his alone-ness – the only thing recognised as ‘not good’ in God’s creation (Gen 2:18,20) – is gloriously overcome.

“The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:23–25, NIV)

We can see in these few verses that sex, and fulfilment, and marriage, and togetherness are all part of the same package. God designed relationship, and in particular marriage, to be the best context for sex. This makes sense: sexual intercourse is the greatest act of vulnerability a man and a women can ever undertake. They give themselves to one another in full nakedness of body and soul. God designed sex to be glorious, wonderful, and full of ecstasy. He did not intend it to be routine, like brushing your teeth or washing your face. This greatest act of human vulnerability requires the greatest context of God given security: faithful marriage.

With human rebellion in the fall, all sorts of estrangement dysfunction and challenge entered the picture. But even there, even in a fallen world, a husband and wife can enjoy sex gloriously and wonderfully. The Song of Songs is a celebration of the deepest love between a man and a woman, husband and wife. As they live under a gracious God, sex can be redeemed and transformed into something that fulfils a marriage and honours the God who gave it.

Not even a hint…

But that does not mean all is well. Even among God’s people, sex can be used poorly, wrongly, and destructively.

Paul wrote to the Ephesian church at the height of the Roman empire. These people were immersed in a culture as sexually saturated as ours. Temple prostitution, differing marriage practises, differing relational norms, meant Christians 2000 years ago were confronted with a challenging culture. So Paul wrote to this young church and called them away from sexual immorality.

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:3–4, NIV)

Those words may surprise us. He doesn’t just say ‘stay away from temple prostitutes, from the men women sexworkers. He doesn’t just say ‘marriage is the better place for sex’. He says ‘there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality.’

You can see the breadth of his intention right there in the context: lewd acts, smutty humour, filthy language. We would say dirty jokes, sexting, suggestive social media posts, porn. As people who are imitating God (Eph 5:1-2), that stuff has no place in our lives.

We should take note here. Some of the things you see on Facebook fit right into this category. Some of it from people who call themselves Christians. And some of it is from some of us. It doesn’t happen that often that I wince at something someone here has written, but it does happen. As followers of Jesus we should know better and we should want better.

But it’s not just social media, or puerile party humour, or the movies we watch. There is incredible pressure on Christian people to simply absorb the sexual culture, and forget about God’s call on their lives.

As I mentioned, sexual activity statistics in the church are not that different to people who do not have a faith background.

25% of young people in Gr 10 have engaged in intercourse

50% of young people in Gr 12

The troubling thing is that those figures are 12 years old…

Then there’s the issue of Christian couples moving in together before they are married.
Almost everyone else does it, so the pressures on Christian people to do the same are intense.

Many argue that cohabitation assists with developing compatibility. Interestingly, research does not bear that out. And it does not bear that out because the idea of compatibility as something that simply ‘happens’, or something that just ‘clicks’, is a myth (but that is another sermon in this series).

What people fail to understand is that sexual intercourse before marriage complicates relationships down the track.

Sex is spiritual. It affects you to the core of your being. It takes two people and bonds them so that, as the Bible says, they become “one flesh.” Even if you try to keep it impersonal, as a one night stand, that experience – that partner – will remain with you for the rest of your life. The partner won’t be a living, loving presence, however. The partner will hang on as a ghost. By ‘ghost’, I mean memories so strong that you can almost touch them – memories that interfere with your life.

[Tim Stafford, Worth the Wait]

Sexual promiscuity benefits no one. Speaking of the ‘look’ she developed in her Wrecking Ball clip, Miley Cyrus recently cited Irish singer Sinead O’Connor as one of her role models. She wasn’t counting on Sinead O’Connor writing a public reply [warning: language alert when reading full article]:

Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you. I needn’t even ask the question.. I’ve been in the business long enough to know that men are making more money than you are from you getting naked. Its really not at all cool. And its sending dangerous signals to other young women. Please in future say no when you are asked to prostitute yourself. Your body is for you and your boyfriend. It isn’t for every dirtbag on the net, or every greedy record company executive to buy his mistresses diamonds with.

This is why God commands “there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality among you…”

We know, this is not just a young person’s issue. That command comes to us all in Christ’s church

And you might say, ‘hang on, the church doesn’t own me!’

And you are right. The church does not own you. Neither are you owned and beholden to the expectations of the church community. They do not own you either.

But here’s the thing: Jesus does

Scripture says:

“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:18–20, NIV)

Jesus went to the cross to free you, not only from sexual oppression and messed up understandings of sexuality. He suffered in your place and paid the penalty for your sin and rebellion. And he did that to bring you into the fullness of life and relationship with the father (see Romans 6:4).

His call for you is not to assert your independence all over again, and rebel against his loving leadership, but to follow him and with his help restore his gift of human sexuality.

Redeeming Sex

Scripture says

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable,” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–4, NIV)

Or as Eugene Peterson translates

“God wants you to live a pure life. Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity. Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body,” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–4, The Message)

So, how do we redeem sexuality?

How would human sexuality come to expression in a way that delights the God who gave it?

The first thing to note is that Jesus has already paid the price and won the victory. In his death and rising, and with us submitting to his loving Lordship – in his power – sexuality can be redeemed and restored.

Scripture’s call to ‘put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature’ (Colossians 3:5) comes in the context of some of the most astounding verses ever to fall on our ears

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1–3, NIV)

As a follower of Jesus, you are not on your own in this. He lives in you. His Spirit is in you. And his desire is to draw you into life and lead you int his wholeness.

As a Christian, you express this new life by honouring God with your body and how you behave sexually.

First, negatively:

1. Set personal limits when with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Agree together to keep sexual activity for marriage. The greatest vulnerability requires the greatest relational security

2. Set personal boundaries. Commit to staying away from internet porn and other areas of temptation. Find an accountability partner who can view your history and ask tough questions. Consider internet accountability software.

3. If you’re struggling with internet porn, or any other form, seek help. Your pastor. A trusted friend. A counsellor. Most of all, seek the help of the Lord who gave his life for you on the Cross and who raised you to life in his resurrection. Do not waste time. Do not procrastinate. Do it now.

4. Everyone else may be doing it, doesn’t mean you must. Other people living together? Doesn’t mean it’s right or good or you need to do it. Other people drive irresponsibly. Other people swear. Other people steal stuff from their boss. Other people bend the rules on their tax return. Doesn’t mean it’s OK to follow their example. God’s word says, Don’t conform to the pattern of this world, but in Christ and in view of his mercy, be transformed by the renewing of your mind and your body (see Romans 12:1-2)

Positively:

5. Commit to respecting the beauty of the opposite sex. Respect him or her as a person beyond any sexual attraction or physical beauty. Recognise that primarily the thing that adds value to relationship is character. Not what you do, but who you are. Outward beauty fades, character will mature

6. Desire the better: what is holy and honourable. Commit to honouring God in your sexual behaviour (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4, Titus 3:1-11)

7. Recognise that sex is a part of love, and at the core of love is selflessness. If anything, Jesus reminds us that love is not about receiving, getting, but giving and blessing. For the Christian, sex becomes a way to give of yourself, not to get satisfaction

8. Do not be overcome by the evil around us, but overcome evil with good (see Romans 12:21). While we try to counter a sexualised and increasingly degrading sexual culture, we need also to create a better picture, a new model through Jesus’ Gospel. Through his good news we seek to reflect his new sexual good.

9. Is God calling you to change? Then confess to him. Turn around. Ask him, through the power of Jesus, to turn your life around. Seek his help above all, he will answer you

10. Finally, who of us can cast a stone? Who has not slipped, fallen, or intentionally rebelled? Who has not struggled with our sexualised culture, with porn, with lust, with the false intimacy offered by our world? We all stand under the Cross in need of grace and forgiveness.

Remember, our God is an exceedingly gracious. His love knows no limit. His faithfulness is everlasting.

The cross and the resurrection of Jesus remind us that God seeks to bring us to life, to give us new birth. Sexually, to have a new start.

Past sins are washed away. In Christ, there is no condemnation (see Romans 8:1-4).

Accept Jesus’ good news, and step into the new good of His Kingdom.

Recommended Reading:

Lewis Smedes: Sex for Christians. Written for the person who wants to think about sexuality and what it means for us as human beings. The date of publication may turn you off (reprinted 1994), but it needn’t. This book is widely recognised as the definitive statement of human sexuality from a Christian perspective. There are lots of more current works on dating, what a couple can do and what they should not, but I keep returning to this great book for its wisdom, grace, and deep appreciation for the things of God. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Best book on marriage:
Timothy Keller: The Meaning of Marriage. Cannot praise this book too much. A ranging discussion of the marriage passages in Ephesians 5, Timothy Keller never disappoints. If every married couple read this book and put it into practice, the world would be a different place.

If you’re thinking about what relationships are all about, H. Norman Wright’s “Relationships that Work – and those that don’t” is well worth your time. Wright is a long respected authority in marital therapy and counselling. His work is easy to understand, incisive, and wonderfully informed with Scripture.