Characteristics of the ideal world leader

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If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring … there’d be happiness that no one could end … my world would be a beautiful place … if I ruled the world*.  Except that actually it would probably be a total disaster.  Because there is so much I don’t know.  And unless I suddenly developed immense magical powers, there’s so much I can’t control.

We’ve been looking at what the Bible REALLY says;  it says that God is the one in control.  You may think, “Well, if God’s in control, you can keep God.  Look at the poverty and violence and broken relationships, look at the droughts and floods and tsunamis and earthquakes.”

Yes.  So what else does the Bible say?  That people are free to choose who they obey.  God gave good laws to the Israelite people, that reflect his character and values.  He told them that he would be their ruler, all knowing, all powerful, all good.  Everything that human beings aren’t.

But the people wanted to be more like other nations.  They wanted their own, visible, head of state.  They wanted a king.  God agreed, on condition that their king and all the people continued to follow God’s laws, treating God as their ultimate King.

It didn’t go well.  But God promised that at the right time he would appoint a King who is fully human, but also fully obedient to God;  fair, honest, powerful and good.  This King will rule not just one nation, but the whole world;  and his kingdom will never end.

When Jesus was born, angels announced:  God will give him the throne … and … his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32-33)

*From the song by Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ornadel

Ten plagues that set a nation free then; one swap that sets us free now

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I wonder if something has you trapped.  Something you desperately would like to escape from.  Television and Facebook are full of advertisements that promise to set you free from all kinds of prisons - domestic violence, addiction, debt, unemployment, physical or mental illness.

A man in the town of Capernaum, beside Lake Galilee, was trapped;  his body was paralysed (Mark 2:1-12).  His friends heard there was a powerful healer in town, so they took him to see Jesus.  But Jesus realised immediately that the man was imprisoned in something far worse than a broken body.  He was locked up by his sin – his decisions to rebel against the God who made him.  So instead of healing him, Jesus told him, “Your sin is forgiven.”  Then Jesus healed his body as well, to prove he had the authority and power to forgive a person’s sin.

Some 1300 years earlier, Abram’s descendants (by this time known as the Israelites, or Hebrews), had become a trapped nation, slaves of the Egyptians.  But God had not forgotten the promises he made to Abram, to make him a great nation, that would bring blessing to every people on earth.  Ten plagues finally convinced the Egyptians to set their slave workforce free, to serve and tell everyone the good news of the God who rescued them from slavery.

When Jesus was executed on a cross, his follower Paul says, “our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”  (Romans 6:6).  People who follow Jesus are free now to serve him and tell everyone the good news that our God died to release us from sin.

Three better reasons to look after the planet

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For centuries – probably millennia – people have done what they thought was going to improve the environment, for the benefit of their own generation, and for those that follow after.  It was the wealthy ruling classes who took responsibility in past times;  but recently it’s become normal to see caring for the planet as something everyone needs to work on together.

Not all the strategies of the past have been helpful;  experience and research have shown that some practices have been downright destructive.  And there’s a tension between human ambition and environmental care:  getting rich is quicker if you don’t worry about long term effects on the environment;  and our western way of life, where we take conveniences, comforts and luxuries for granted, is very costly to the planet.  Some people care more than others, and some are more willing to make sacrifices for the planet than others.

Does God have anything to say about this hot topic?  Actually, he’s way ahead of us.  Firstly, the Bible states that God created everything that exists – the universe is his.  Secondly, this wasn’t some project God made, and then handed over.  He continues to love his creation intensely, and actively sustains it.  And thirdly, the book of Genesis (written some 4000 or more years ago) records that God appointed humankind to care for his creation, and live harmoniously with it.

It’s an immense honour, and responsibility;  it is indeed everyone’s job.  We are individually, and collectively, answerable to God for how we treat his universe and every living thing in it.  Choosing to abuse the planet for selfish motives, or ignore the damage that’s happening, puts us out of step with God.  But loving it, and striving to live in harmony with it and its Creator, is exactly what God intended for us.

What is REALLY in the Bible? Part 2

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Why are we here?  Where do you go to discover the meaning of life?  How do you find out what your purpose is?  Christians have come to realise that the answers to those questions are to be found in the Bible, and particularly in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ (he’s the one who gives Christians their name).

But the Bible isn’t like other books – when you open it up there are people and places with names you can’t pronounce, poems that have no rhyme or rhythm, wars and droughts and lies and cheating, biographies, family trees, and instructions about what animals should be sacrificed and when.

How do we make sense of it?  Many people just stick to the bits they find clearest – usually that’s the New Testament, which starts about three quarters of the way through.  There we find information about Jesus, and what he said and did seems relatively straight forward.

But even there, sometimes Jesus says something that seems quite innocent, and suddenly everyone around him is furious and throwing stones at him.  And when you look at the rest of the New Testament, there are more people and places with strange names, and then there is Revelation – which seems to be straight out of some CGI fantasy.

Last week we saw that the Old Testament explains why the world is both beautiful and terrible, and records the promises God has made about fixing up the mess.  This week we continue our overview of what’s in the Bible with a sketch of the New Testament, which will provide a framework for understanding how God’s promises have begun to be fulfilled, where history is up to in that process, what is still to come, and how you and I can be part of God’s solution.

What's really in the Bible?

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I wonder what your first experience of the Bible was?  If you’ve had any experience of it, of course.  Is it a familiar friend now?  Or when you think about the Bible, is it all a bit mysterious?  Musty and dusty and only ever viewed from outside?  Or maybe a bit of both - you’ve got familiar and comfortable with some parts, but others are wrapped in mist.

As a kid staying in motels on our annual trip to civilization, I used to pull the inevitable Gideon Bible out of the bedside table and try to read it.  I was fascinated by those opening words:  “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”  In fact, the Bible was pretty interesting for about four chapters.  After that, not so much.  Lots of names I couldn’t pronounce, and all the action seemed to stop.

We had a Ladybird Book of Bible Stories at home – that was pretty good, but I never spotted any connection with those first four chapters of the Bible.  Scripture lessons sent out along with my regular schoolwork from the Correspondence School in Sydney were OK;  but every week the ‘activity’ was copying a black line drawing of Jesus doing something, and colouring it in.  I hated colouring.  And I hated copying the pictures, until I realised I could trace them so they actually looked like the originals.  (My mum said that was cheating).

None of that set me up very well for getting a handle on what the Bible is really about.

This week we start a series that’s designed to put the pieces together. We’ll uncover the structure that holds the Bible together, and we’ll find that it makes up one great, glorious, joyous love-letter from God to the people he has created – a love-letter to you and me.

Unity and Love

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This weekend it’s Part 3, the last of three talks looking at the prayer Jesus prayed the night before he was arrested, put on trial, and executed. This is the part that tells us all the rest still matters to us, today, 2000 years later

In John 17:19-18:1, Jesus says that his prayer isn’t only for the tiny group gathered that night, but for everyone who will come to believe in him.  Jesus was praying for you and for me.

Am I right? Are you disciple of Jesus?  How can you know? Jesus says they’re the ones who receive his words, and recognise that he came from the Father, because he was sent by the Father.  They  receive his words, accept them as the words of God, and obey what he taught. That’s it - that’s what a Christian is.

What does he pray for us?  That we may be ONE—one with each other, today.  One with the disciples who have come before us, and will come after.  And one with Jesus, who is one with the Father.

Our unity with Jesus and with each other protects us from the Evil One, and keeps us in his kingdom and in eternal life.  And this, he says, is what will tell the world that Jesus came from the Father—when his people are united so firmly that we can’t be torn apart.

It should remind us of what he said earlier in the evening - that people will know this motley mismatched crew belongs to Jesus, if they love one another, the way Jesus loves them. And how does he love them? So much that he was OK with being executed for no crime, if it means he can share eternity with us. That’s a lot of love.

How are we doing, you and I? Are we united with Jesus and with each other, with a bond that can’t be broken? Are we loving each other, the way Jesus loves us.?

- Katie Peken

Strangers in the world

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There’s a battle going on:  not over who owns what land, or who controls essential resources or whether this or that ethnic group should have economic and political self-rule.  But it’s more vicious and dangerous than any battle ever reported in the news.

It is all about ownership, and all about belonging:  who do you and I belong to?  The Creator who loves us, or the Evil One?  And where do we belong?  In this world, or in heaven with the Father and the Son?

In John 17:10-19 Jesus prays for the people who belong to God the Father.  The Father gave these people to Jesus;  they heard his word, and accepted that Jesus was truly sent to them by the Father.  Now, they no longer belong to the world.  Their citizenship has transferred, and while a letter or an email may still find them at the same address, in fact they are now foreigners, living in a foreign country, longing for home.

Now that Jesus is about to leave the world and return to the Father, Jesus asks the Father to protect his people;  not from accidents or illness or poverty or injustice;  not from rejection, persecution, prison, murder, or torture.  He prays that the Father will keep us safe from a far worse threat:  he prays that the Father will protect us, so that we will be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. 

Because the most deadly threat we face is that we will lose connection with Jesus, like a branch lopped off the trunk of a vine;  and that we will fracture from each other, instead of loving each other as Jesus has loved us.  That we will stop trusting Jesus, give up obeying his words, and give ourselves back to the Evil One.

- Katie Peken

Glory on earth, glory in heaven

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On Passover night, Jesus celebrated with his students, his disciples.  He knew that in a few hours, he would be arrested and unjustly executed, and he took this opportunity to warn the disciples about what was about to happen.  In John 17, Jesus finishes by praying out loud.

What we learn is a summary of who Jesus is, and what he came to do – it is the basics of Christian faith, from the lips of Jesus himself.

And what does he say?  That Jesus is God the Son, who was with the Father from before the world began, and shared the glory that belongs to God the Father.  The Father sent him into the world, and gave him authority over all people, for a very specific purpose:  so that Jesus could give eternal life to everyone the Father gave him.  Jesus completed his mission;  and in so doing he brought glory to the Father.

How can people have eternal life?  They have eternal life if they know the Father, who is the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the Son he sent into the world.  Jesus came to tell people about the Father – to reveal him to us.  When we believe that Jesus came from the only true God, and when we accept and obey the things he taught, then we have eternal life.

Years later the writer of this gospel was given a vision of Jesus as he is now, and records what Jesus said to him:  “I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

Jesus exists outside of our time and culture;  what he taught us is timeless and trustworthy.

- Katie Peken

A priceless gift

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On 20th July 1999 and in the presence of some 20 people, I presented our son with a precious family heirloom. The occasion - his 21st birthday and the heirloom, a gold pocket watch, exquisitely engraved, given to my grandfather A. L. Bain on 2nd November 1898. It was passed on to my uncle who in turn gifted it to me.

Our son thanked us for the gift and said, “Dad, could you look after it for me?” So almost 20 years later this Bain heirloom lives in a locked cabinet rarely seeing the light of day.

Whilst I understood our son’s reasoning and know one day he will take and treasure the heirloom, that incident and item at the centre of my story reminds me of the precious good news of Jesus Christ. Often it is locked up in the filing cabinet of our reluctance, fear or inability to share the gift of Jesus’ redeeming love with others.

Writing to the Corinthian church Paul says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to 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 5:20-21).

I ask myself then, what kind of ambassador for Christ am I? Do you?

Mahatma Ghandi is one of the most respected leaders of modern history. A Hindu, Ghandi nevertheless admired Jesus and often quoted from his Sermon on the Mount. When missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”

Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many or you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” How tragic!

Reverend Michael Bain is our speaker this Sunday at South West Rocks.

Mending the world: Pain comes before joy

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It’s been an eventful evening:  Jesus and his followers have celebrated the annual feast of the Passover together.  In the middle of the meal Jesus took on the clothes and the duties of a slave, and washed his students’ dusty feet.

He’s said that one of them was going to betray him to the religious authorities (who for months have been looking for an opportunity to get rid of this infuriating threat to their previously absolute influence over the Jewish population).  And Judas has slipped out to tip those religious authorities off - though the rest don’t know that yet.

Then Jesus has spent the rest of the night warning them that their confidence is about to be badly shaken.  He’s going to leave them.  But he will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth to them, and in fact Jesus and the Father will come and live with them, and in them.

This weekend we read John 16:16-33, where Jesus sums up – you won’t see me, then you will see me.  His disciples are confused.  He explains: you’re going to experience deep grief;  but then you will be full of joy.  Like a woman giving birth to her baby, the same event that will give you such pain will also produce the very outcome you are longing for.

The outcome of their grief will be a joyful new day – when they can speak directly to the Father in heaven, and he will do what they ask, because they love Jesus, and recognise that he came from the Father.  They will be asking in Jesus’ name, with his authorisation, in accordance with his will.

Til then, their confidence and commitment are fragile;  he assures them, and also us, that whatever trouble we face in this world, he is in charge.  No one can overcome him.

- Katie Peken

Jesus sends the Spirit of truth

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Evangelical Christians (in Australia) have a tendency to be rather quiet about the Holy Spirit.  Some have said that our God is Trinity:  Father, Son and Holy Scripture.  But Jesus says the Spirit’s role is vital to God’s great plan for the world.

 In John 15:26-16:15, Jesus tells us that the Spirit’s work is to tell us about Jesus, and guide us into all truth – about Jesus, and about what is yet to happen.  He will bring glory to Jesus, by passing on the truth about his identity and his kingly authority.  The Spirit speaks to us on behalf of the Father, and to the Father on our behalf.  He provides proof that God is just and fair;  and assurance that the day is coming when through Jesus, God will put an end to injustice and to the ‘prince of this world’ – the evil one.

In Acts 2:1-6, 14-21 communication is at the core of the Spirit’s role.  The roaring sound of a whirlwind brings the neighbours running;  when they arrive, they hear ordinary folk speaking fluently in their many languages.  The Spirit unravels the curse of the Tower of Babel, and people of many nations can understand each other, and better still, communicate with each other the truth about God.

Peter leaps up to explain:  God promised that before the End, when every enemy will be destroyed and God’s people will be shown to be right about him, a time would come when every one of God’s people would have free access to his heart and his thoughts.  That time is now!  

Of course, the implication is that the End is next.  Between that day and now, it’s time to be on mission – inviting people to follow Jesus, from every nation and language.

Chosen & appointed to bear fruit

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It shouldn’t surprise us that the relationship within God who is Trinity, three and one, is more complex than relationships between one human and another.  Or that the relationship between Jesus and his Church, and between Jesus and any one member of his Church, is more complex than the relationships we are familiar with.  So Jesus draws on a whole range analogies to help us understand what we need to know.

In John 15:1-25 Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”  It’s a reference to Isaiah 5 (and other parts of the Old Testament), where God uses the image of a vineyard to represent the nation of Israel;  the vines were the people.

Jesus says, ”I am the true vine” - I’m the Israelite who gets it right, who produces the healthy fruit my Father, the Gardener, is looking for.  But in Jesus’ analogy, people who believe in Jesus aren’t separate additional vines, we are the branches of that one true vine.  As long as the branches stay connected – ‘in the vine’ - they also will be able to produce the healthy fruit God is looking for.  But if they lose that connection, they are dead, they can’t produce anything of value.

What does it mean to remain ‘in the vine’?  Jesus says, his word has to remain in us.  We need to know what he has taught and commanded us, and live by it day by day.  When we do what Jesus has taught us, we copy what he has modelled for us, and we ‘remain in Jesus’ love’.

And what does that look like?  It looks like people who follow Jesus loving each other, the way Jesus has loved us.  Are we starting to see a theme here?

God will make his home with you

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Jesus, the ultimate leader, whose organisation is still going and still growing world-wide after nearly 2000 years, had a talk with his small group of followers just before the major upheaval: he was going away, and they couldn’t follow him.  

In fact, in John 14:23-29, it’s the night of his arrest, tomorrow he will be tried and publicly executed.

  Their commitment to him is very new, and the mission he’s given them is huge and difficult. What does he think his little band needs to hear, just now?

One of the disciples has asked: You say we’ll be able to see you, after you’ve gone; what about everyone else? His question is the opening for Jesus to explain why this conversation is relevant to you and me, nearly 2,000 years later.

Jesus says, his promise is for ANYONE who loves him.  People who love him, will obey his teaching.  So if someone obeys Jesus’ teaching, then the promise that Jesus will show himself applies to them too.  The Father will send the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus the Son, to live with them and in them always.  The Holy Spirit is the Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Advisor: the ‘paraclete’ in ancient Greek, one who speaks from close beside.  He will teach them everything Jesus has explained, including anything they’ve forgotten or failed to understand. New recruits won’t miss out because of Jesus not being there in the flesh;  in fact all his followers will be better off.

It was normal in first century Judea to say “Peace” to anyone you met, much as we might say “Hi”.  But Jesus says, my peace is different. It’s the peace of knowing that you are loved by God, living his way, living in harmony with him. The peace of knowing that he is with you always, his Holy Spirit has made his home with you.  If God lives in you, and you live in him, there is nothing to fear.

- Katie Peken

Jesus promises a direct line to God

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What is the ultimate good?  When you assess your own life, what do you want to be able to say about it?  When you think about your children, what is the absolute best you could hope for them?

I suspect there’ll be quite a few different answers to that.  Here are a few you might have heard: 

I want to be happy – that’s the main thing.  A life that’s fulfilled, to achieve the things that matter to me.  To be remembered with love when I’m gone.  To be as healthy as possible, as long as possible.  To see as much of this amazing world as I can, to experience everything, to always be open to learning.  To make a difference – spend my energy making this world a better place for the people who come after.  I want my kids to have the things I couldn’t have.  To set them up well, so they can do whatever they want.  To pass on good values to them – good work ethic, good attitude to family and friends.  For them to contribute to the community.  To find someone who encourages them to be the best they can be.

I’m sure you can think of others too.  But in John 14:1-21 Jesus is preparing his followers for his arrest, conviction and execution.  He tells them, trust me.  I’m going to come back, and take you to be where I am.  If that’s your goal, your ultimate good, fantastic!  But where’s he going?

He says, No one comes to the Father, except through me.  Jesus says, the ultimate good is for you to be where I’m going:  to be with the Father, with God, the one who created us and every good thing.  How do we get there?  Jesus says, I am the way.  Stick with me.

How does God demonstrate his greatness?

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When a leader steps down, usually one of two things happens to those who were following:

They are caught on the hop, with no succession plan;  so there is a time of regrouping, working out how to move forward.  Maybe someone steps up, temporarily or permanently, and the organisation continues, but often with a change of focus or strategy.  In fact, some leaders will deliberately resist putting a succession plan in place, because they see that change is needed, and realise they’re not the right person to set that new direction.

Other leaders do put a succession plan in place:  they train up new leaders, they prepare the new leaders and perhaps the organisation as a whole for the transition, they may even walk beside the new leaders for a while to make sure the new leadership is well-established and the organisation travelling along with health and vigour.

Today we begin a series of six weeks looking at how Jesus prepared his followers, for his departure as the on-the-spot leader of his new movement.  Our evidence is his friend John’s record of what Jesus told his followers, the night before his death.

First he explains that his leaving is actually how God demonstrates his glory to the world:  because the glory of God is his justice, his mercy and his love, and these are put on show when Jesus, the Innocent One, is executed in place of the guilty ones.

We will see that his method was nothing like the first approach to a leadership transition; it’s quite a lot like the second.  But Jesus’ method is different in a very significant feature:  he continued to walk beside the leaders he appointed;  and he continues to walk beside not only every successive leader, but even beside every follower, and every successive recruit.

Tough Love

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Have you noticed how people will catch on to a ‘sound bite’?  Someone makes a sweeping statement on facebook.  They’ve done no study of the topic, but they saw half a documentary, so now they’re experts, sharing their sound-bite with other people, who haven’t even seen a news item on it, but now they’ve read a post, so they re-post and comment, for others to read and believe and share.

Sounds a bit negative and cynical, doesn’t it?  Apologies.  But it’s true that for years, a popular sound bite has been misinforming people’s understanding of God.  Here it is:  “God is love”.  The sound bite is true;  if you want to understand love, God is the best one to learn from!

But instead of looking at God, many people have assumed that the sound bite is the whole story.  And instead of asking, ‘What does God say about love?  What do God’s actions teach us about love?’  they have attached their own definitions.

This week we ask what Jesus, God who became human, says about love, as he forms his new Kingdom.  Here’s a preview:  Love your enemy;  do good to people who hate you;  lend money to people you know won’t pay you back.  Love is crazy;  unwise, foolish, dangerous.  In fact, love is when you treat other people the way you would want them to treat you.  Love is how God has treated you and me.

Jesus asks us to become like him, representing God accurately in the world, and inviting more people to become citizens of his crazy, foolish, dangerous upside-down Kingdom.  We don’t do that by guessing what love is;  we do it by following Jesus’ teaching and example.  Jesus came, to die for people who hated him, so they can blessed by the God they didn’t want.

A team approach to changing the world

How do you think you would go about improving the world?  Where would you start?  What is the thing that most needs to be changed, to get things heading in the right direction?  And what would you do, to make sure that the world kept moving in the right direction when you aren’t here any more?

Truth to tell, all of us have one life that we can use to make that kind of difference.  Some people try;  and some make an impressive go of it, while others crash and burn, or fizzle out more quietly.  But one man has arguably made more difference to this world than any other.  That man is Jesus.  So how did he do it?

The gospel writer Luke tracks Jesus’ strategy for changing the world, and in Luke 6:12-26, he says that Jesus first took time out to consult with God.  Then he chose twelve men to be his ‘apostles’ – the ones he would send – before sitting down on a level place with a crowd of his ‘disciples’ – his students – to explain what they were signing up for.

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He told them that if they threw their lot in with him, they could expect to experience poverty, hunger, grief, and rejection – even to have people think they were evil.  If they suffered because of Jesus and his message, they could be confident of God’s eternal blessing.

But if they chose to turn their back on him, to put comfort, and full stomachs and popularity and good times ahead of him, then they could assume they had already received all the blessing they were going to.

Jesus sets the same choice in front of us now:  Are we willing to put him and his mission above our comfort, popularity, and happiness?    No?  Then be aware that the good times have a use-by date. Yes?  Then be joyful, be confident, because he has given you life to the fullest, life that will never end..

Why does Jesus keep breaking the rules?

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Over the past weeks we’ve been working our way through Luke’s gospel, and seen that when Jesus spoke, evil spirits and all kinds of diseases did what he said.  Even people who were surely under God’s judgement for dreadful sin were cured with a touch and word.

And Jesus even claimed that he could forgive people’s sins.  That really shocked people, because they knew that only God can forgive sin.  By definition, sin is about defying God, ignoring him, insulting, or disobeying him;  so how can a third party forgive it?  And yet all the evidence was stacking up, pointing to Jesus being a truth-teller.

This week, in Luke 5:27-6:11, Jesus invites someone to join his team – but he chooses a man most people wouldn’t have considered – a traitor to his country, who made his riches out of his own people’s misery.  When Jesus goes to his home for a meal, the ‘good’ people are scandalised.  Jesus was meant to be a model of religious correctness – what was he thinking? And Jesus and his followers don’t look the least bit holy – they don’t spend hours on their knees, or say no to a schooner at the pub;  they don’t even observe the Sabbath (meant to be a day of complete rest), because they harvest grain for their dinner that day.

To cap it all off, Jesus heals a man’s shrivelled arm on the Sabbath, in the synagogue (the Jewish equivalent of church) – he did the work of a doctor, right in front of them!  How could such a disrespectful man possibly have been sent by God?

Jesus answers that they have misunderstood his mission, and who he is. He came to rescue people who need rescuing, not the ones who are already fine. He is the God who defines goodness and badness, the One who made the rules; he is not bound by human ideas of right and wrong.

Jesus: light for every race and nation

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It’s an extraordinary thing that what began as a tiny rag-tag group in an insignificant country swallowed up within the Roman empire, should have grown and persisted to the point that more than 2000 years later, all across the world, people set aside time to celebrate the birth of its founder.

Extraordinary from the perspective of people using psychology, sociology, logic, economics and so on to explain it;  but promised by God, centuries before.  In Isaiah 49, God speaks to his Servant, whose mission is to bring the people of Israel back into proper relationship with their God.  God says, “it is too small a thing for you … to bring back those of Israel … I will also make you a light for the Gentiles (the non-Jewish nations), that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Forty days after Jesus birth his parents take him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, which is what God’s law required.  His mother must be purified, and the baby must be consecrated to the Lord, because he is the first-born son.  That same day the Holy Spirit has prompted Simeon to go to the temple;  Simeon recognises that this baby is the One he has waited his whole life for:  he is God’s salvation, who will not only gather the people of Israel back to their God, but also be a light to every nation.

The shepherds told everyone what the angel had said about this baby;the Holy Spirit prompted Simeon to announce who it was who had suddenly come to the temple;if you and I know who Jesus is, we also have a responsibility to let people know.It is too small a thing, for Jesus to be worshipped by our little congregation!

The book of Job: What does God know about suffering?

God… may I ask a question?

God… may I ask a question?

You try to do the right thing.  You give money to a child who begs when you visit a third world country - but your kind action encourages a helpless, begging culture.  You visit a third world orphanage, unaware that those children are a perverted kind of tourist attraction run by a fat pimp.  The sewing machines your donation paid for rust in the rain for want of training and materials to maintain them.  Or the child you sponsor turns out to be hated by their community for being the ‘have’ in a village of have-nots.

I’m not trying to depress you, and I don’t want you to stop caring about people in need.  Be generous - do whatever you can to relieve suffering.  My point is that our knowledge is limited.  Life is so very complicated.  We can only see a small slice of what’s going on.

By Chapter 32 of the book of Job, Job’s friends have finally stopped trying to convince him that he must have sinned, to be suffering so terribly.  He is utterly convinced that he hasn’t.  In Chapter 32-38 another listener pipes up, a young man named Elihu, who has respectfully waited until his elders finished talking.

Elihu is a caricature of youth, full of passion, over-confidence, and black-and-white bluster.  Elihu offers himself as a messenger who speaks for God, and he’ll pray on Job’s behalf to God for forgiveness - if Job will only admit that he sinned.  Elihu accuses Job of being evil because he refuses to accept that the suffering God has inflicted on him is fair;  and he defends God, saying it’s unthinkable that God would do wrong.  Of course, Elihu is correct;  it is unthinkable that God would do wrong;  but Elihu forgets that there’s more going on than we can see; however comfortable it might be, there isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between action and outcome.

- Katie Peken