Identity: The Helmet of Salvation

Eph 6.17 (with Eph 2. 1-13)

Paul identifies things we need, in order to survive and thrive in our world. He’s been likening these to the soldier’s kit in these verses. Wrap yourself up in truth, let it Nurture you. Put on righteousness to guard your heart, so you Express God’s character; Underbind your feet so the Gospel of peace defines your Walk. Hold the shield of faith: Lean on Jesus. These are ways we need to do to live, in the power of he Spirit, letting God transform us. Paul begins fresh here, with a new verb, a new sentence structure

“Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit…” This week we look at the Helmet of Salvation. The sword of the spirit will be next week. The verb “Take” is not the same as the one used about the shield of faith. That was about picking up the shield. Here, it is literally “Receive the helmet of salvation (as a gift)”. Welcome what God offers you. it’s there, in front of your nose. Receive it!

So what is this “Salvation thing?”

In Eph 2. 1-13, Paul talks about what it means to be saved. It implies:-

  • being rescued from death and brought to the safety of new life. (v. 1-5) Jesus is the resurrection and the life. His victory over death changes everything. Apart from him, we are all not just facing death, but dead already: helplessly adrift morally and spiritually. But he has saved us us from that death, and given us life, through Jesus’ death resurrection. We are not just looking forward to Heaven. We are already seated there. (v. 6)
  • from effort and self-improvement, to the gift of new creation. (v. 8-10)
  • from outsiders to insiders (v 10-13) The Christians in Ephesus , as gentiles, were looked on as outsiders by the Jews. If they wanted to know the Jews’ One God (and many did) they were still outsiders and often treated as such.

Salvation means new life. It means new hope. “I’m gonna live forever!” It means new power. I can live differently, because I am a new creation, God’s handiwork. And not only has he re-made me, he’s already made the good stuff I can do. It means new identity. I am no longer an outsider but fully accepted by god. I have a whole new identity.

If you have never really trusted Jesus, you can receive that gift of salvation today, right here and now. The people in Ephesus Paul wrote to, had already received that salvation! God offers it to you and all you need to do is receive it in trust and surrender to Jesus.

But if the people in Ephesus had already received this Salvation (as Paul says in Ephesians 2. 1-13), how can he then say “receive it” when he’s talking about putting on the armour?

Paul uses an unusual form of the word “salvation” in Ephesians 6. 17. (For those who are interested it is soterios, instead of the usual soteria). And that suggests it is “Applied Salvation.” It’s that thing the God has done, of moving us from death to life, from earth to the heavenly places, from futile gut-busting effort, to knowing his power; it’s that thing he has done that makes us a full member of God’s family, with a transformed identity and a transformed life. It’s all that, applied in our lives to enable us to move in God’s power. The salvation Jesus gives us, impacts our lives in so many big and small ways, time and time again. Receive salvation, worked out in your life.

Paul is deliberately referencing Isaiah 57. 17 which uses the same, unusual word as the Greek Old Testament. Remember who was the first person to take the breastplate of righteousness? The Lord (Isaiah 59. 17) Well, along with the breastplate of righteousness, God wears the helmet of salvation. He goes out to apply his salvation as he rescues his people. And here’s an interesting thing. In the Hebrew language in Isaiah, the helmet of salvation is – listen carefully – Kova Yeshua. Does part of that sound familiar? Yeshua, Jesus, God in human form, is our salvation.

God put on Yeshua, Jesus. He sent his eternal, only begotten Son into the world. He entered our world in Christ, to deal with our sin and bring us into God’s Kingdom. In the battles we face, we are to receive applied salvation. Applied Yeshua. We are not just “Saved” we are “being saved” and it is still a gift from God. So today, receive salvation afresh. What bit are you missing out on? What bit of salvation is not being applied in your life today? The assurance of eternal life, or that your sins are forgiven?. Receive it. The power to live for Jesus? Receive it. The assurance of sonship, of your new identity? Receive it. Afresh. Today.

Leaning on Jesus: the shield of faith

Ephesians 6. 16 with Hebrews 11. 32 – 12 .3

Exercise: either leading someone blindfold around the room, falling backward into someone’s arms, or sharing something about yourself – maybe something embarrassing – but nothing too intimate or personal. The catcher, the leader, and the listener, have to play by the rules: no dropping the other person; no bumping them into something, and no telling what they have told you.

That is an exercise in faith. In trust. So who or what were you trusting? The person: the catcher, the leader, the listener.

Faith

In this text, “faith is the confident trust in and receptiveness to Christ and his power that protect the whole person.” (Andrew Lincoln) Faith in other words is trust in a Person not belief in a concept, or an idea. And faith is not an energy or force that makes things happen: even in the story of the withered fig-tree, when Jesus says faith can move mountains he tells his followers “Have faith in God” (Mark 11. 19) It’s always that way. Paul talks about faith a lot. In almost all of his letters, he at least once defines that faith as “Faith in Christ”. Faith means trusting the real person called Jesus. It means saying to Him, “I believe you are real. I believe you are God’s Son and died for me. I believe you are able to look after me in all I am going through. So come Lord Jesus, journey with me and work out your wonderful plan in my life.” And Paul says that faith is like a shield…

The shield

Roman Shield picture
Roman shield. Public Domain image

In Ephesians 6, there is no word for “belt” and no word for “shoes”. But there is certainly a word for shield. It is the Greek word pylum or (Latin scutum), the large shield 1200mm tall x600mm wide (4ft x2ft6in), made of wood with a thick coating of leather and a metal band to strengthen the edges. This chunky piece of equipment was carried into battle along with the rest of the soldier’s kit. It protected most of the body: head chest, and thighs. It could be used to link the soldier with his fellows in a manoeuvre called the testudo or tortoise, which allowed a whole platoon to advance under a hail of arrows or stones. Before battle, the leather coating was soaked in water – to repel burning missiles. So it took some carrying. But it could be used either individually or together and having a “Boss” (a big piece of bronze) in the middle, it could do some damage to the enemy as well

That gives us some ideas as to how we are to use our faith in the big fight we have against the bad stuff in our world: how to lean on Jesus and what to expect as a result.

We use faith both individually and together. And both as a form of attack and defence. And with it, you will be able to douse all the burning arrows of the evil one.

The fiery darts

So what are these flaming arrows? Fire was regularly used in ancient warfare; and it was as brutal then as it is now. People defending a fort would throw down boiling water, or red hot sand (particularly vicious). On the attack, catapults, crossbows or longbows could be used to propel burning arrows, bolts or javelins. These were designed not only to injure but cause panic, which resulted in soldiers throwing away their shields.

Doubts?

So what are these burning arrows? I was brought up to think they were simply doubts. I used to think this verse meant that when doubts come (and they do) we need to turn up the volume of our faith, to drown these things out. I no longer think that’s right. Rather, as we face our doubts, we affirm what we know to be true about Jesus and about our relationship with him. Faith isn’t believing the opposite of what the facts say. It is holding all of the facts together. And doubt isn’t the same as unbelief. Peter once walked on the water with Jesus, but when he looked at the wind (Matt 14. 30) he forgot the facts he already knew about Jesus. (Fact: waves are made of water, they can knock you about and drown you. But also fact: he had already walked on the water and Jesus was still doing so.) But Peter wasn’t bothers by the waves: it was the wind that made him panic. (Doubt can be irrational!) It wouldn’t have been faith to say “There are no waves!” But it would have been unbelief to say “Jesus can’t help me right now!”

Here the burning arrows represent every type of assaults devised by the evil one. And he loves to use arrows: things that come upon us suddenly. That includes doubt. But it includes lots of other things too. Things inside like that bad thought, that panicky fear,or despair, that loss of control, of temper or appetites. Things outside: that image, that temptation, that wrong teaching or criticism or direct attack.

Faith enables believers to resist and triumph over such attacks, so that, whether they are internal or external, they don’t make us panic and throw everything overboard; they don’t disrupt our relationship with Jesus; the difficulties may or may not disappear, but they don’t destroy us on the inside. They bounce off or are doused by the shield of faith. Faith takes hold of God’s resources in the midst of the onslaught of evil and produces the firm resolve which douses anything the enemy throws at the believer.

Some of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 and 12, changed their circumstance through their faith. Others simply found the strength to face the bad stuff.

Take it with you

We need to carry our faith with us all the time. That confident trust in Jesus. It may feel wobbly in our hands. But in reality this faith thing is solid. It can’t be pulled out of shape. Paul says, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have entrusted to him…” (2 Tim 1. 12)

So we pray for healing, but we trust in Jesus in such a way that if he doesn’t heal, we still know we can rely on him. And we will come and ask him for healing another time, for another person. Once a man came with his poorly wee boy to the disciples for help, but they couldn’t do anything to help. Then Jesus arrived and spoke to the man, and encouraged him to have faith. The man answered “Lord, I believe, help me overcome my unbelief”. Sometimes faith is simply the ability to say that to Jesus.

So take the shield of faith. Take it in your hands, pick it up again. Feel its weight, its solidness, the coolness of the damp leather. Determine for yourself that in all that happens, you will lean absolutely on Jesus, because he is solid, reliable, and utterly good. And that faith in him, will make you able to survive whatever the enemy throws at you.

© Gilmour Lilly February 2020

Walking: Ephesians 6. 15

Walking: Feet fitted with the readiness of the Gospel of Peace.

See also Isaiah 52. 9-14, Luke 10. 1-9

How do we walk through a world that is big on dangers and small on signposts? In a world where just this week we have had news of of the Coronavirus outbreak, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and frightening increases in certain violent crimes in our cities? Fires in Australia and a swarm of locusts 37 miles long and 23 miles wide in Kenya. In a world whose environment is falling apart, a world with so many divisions and prejudices and inequalities. How do we walk through this jagged and slippery and scorpion infested terrain?

Roman soldier’s footwear. Author unknown. Shared under Creative Commons 3 license

We need the right shoes! Or rather, the emphasis is on the feet not the shoes. We need beautiful feet! Paul is deliberately referencing Isa 52. 7, which we sang earlier in the service and which will help us understand what Paul means. Paul speaks about having our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. And “fitted” literally means “under-bound” which is a perfect description of a benefit a Roman soldier derived from wearing the official army boots which were like hobnailed sandals!  Tough thick leather soles bound on to the feet and lower legs with thongs. Footwear like that was tough & hard-wearing for marching and fighting, but cool enough for a hot climate. It’s ever so practical and everyday. You weren’t ready for duty until you had under-bound your feet. So here’s something else we need to carry with us every day in 2020. If we are to walk safely and effectively through our world we need to have her feet “under-bound” with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

So I’m not talking about the Ministry of silly walks (We had to have a Python reference in the week Terry Jones died!) There are three things that need to affect the way we walk among people in our world. Readiness, Gospel & Peace.

  1. Readiness… for whatever comes. The word means prepared, available for use, properly equipped, standing by for action. I used to think this meant “readiness to tell the gospel of peace”: and that’s part of it, but not the whole story. The NIV is right: it’s readiness that comes from the Gospel of Peace… What has the Gospel done to you? How has it affected you? I know we need to rest: as I was preparing this after a late night and an early start (I woke at 4.30 and couldn’t get back to sleep!) one of my readings was Psalm 127: “It is in vain that you rise early and stay up late, eating the bread of anxious toil.” (I laughed at God’s sense of humour!) I know, and don’t want to underplay, the importance of waiting on the Lord, quietness, silence, and soul-care. Iit’s vital, not optional. But we need soul-care not so that we can have super-pampered souls. We need soul-care because we are called to mission and service. Jesus took the twelve off on retreat after a time of busy mission. Does the Good News result in your being a slouch or a servant? Readiness comes from the Gospel!
  2. Gospel: what does “Gospel” mean?  It means Good News. What was and is the Good News? It begins with “Our God reigns!” (Isa 52. 7) It continues in Jesus’ own ministry with “The Kingdom of Heaven has come!” (Lk 10. 9) and then after the death and resurrection, it shouts “Christ (the Messiah, the King) died for our sins, was buried, and raised” (1 Cor 15. 3) and “Christ in you (gentiles) the Hope of Glory!” (Col 1. 27) The Good news inevitably leads us to the Kingdom, the rule of God. There are not multiple Gospels. Paul is clear about that in Galatians 1. So you can’t separate the Good News that “Our God reigns” from the Good News that Messiah died for our sins and rose again. The kingdom has come. That is Good news for lost people. It is good news for a broken world. Is your life affected by the Good news? Is your Gospel good news?
  3. Peace. Again, in the Old Testament, peace, Shalom, is an idea of cosmic harmony. (And for Jewish people it still is). It is the idea that, when God’s people are looked after by God, everything is at peace: the nation has peace instead of constant wars. The people are at peace with one another, with their land, and the created order is at peace with itself (lions eating grass like cows, children putting their hands into snakes’ nests and not getting bitten, in Isa 11. 6-9, and 65. 25). Peace is both Vertical & horizontal.

In the New Testament, that promise is fulfilled in Jesus. When Jesus comes he proclaims the Shalom of God: healing the sick is not just something Jesus does to draw a crowd. It is a sign that God’s Kingdom has come because it is part of God’s Kingdom. (Lk 10. 5-8) And When Jesus comes, he is looking for people of peace: people who are hungry for that sense of harmony and obedience to God.

So when Paul reflects on Jesus, he says things like “He is our Peace.” (Eph 2. 14f; Col 1. 19-21) For Paul, peace with God, results in peace with each other, across dividing walls of hostility. And for Paul and many like him, the greatest, tallest division was that between Jews, and everyone else. The Jews believed themselves to be God’s uniquely chosen, loved, favoured people. They were privileged to have a law that showed them how to be clean. And they believed that everyone else was far away, outside God’s family, and dirty to boot! In Christ, Jew and non-Jew are reconciled. And then, when God makes everything new, at the end of time, the leaves of the tree of life bring healing to the nations. (Revelation 22.2)

So we need the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace. We have peace with God, and that is good news! We understand what it is to be bridge-builders over the grand canyons that divide people, to be reconciled to each other with all our differences, and to be seeking the cosmic harmony, the shalom that God gives, not just for one nation but for every nation, the whole world that God loves. And that is good news. The good news is about peace with God and each other. The kingdom brings peace. The good news is peace and the peace is good news.

And that readiness, is readiness to walk together at peace and under God’s rule. It is readiness to live in our broken world, in a way that reflects the life we have received in response to the Good News of peace. To walk together, and among people, as peacemakers, grace-bringers, Kingdom-seekers, hope-stirrers, joy-sharers and care-givers.

© Gilmour Lilly January 2020

Expressing God's character: Righteousness

Eph 6 14: “put on the breastplate of righteousness”.

We are to put on, to clothe ourselves, with the armour of God: to wrap truth around our waists. And to put on the breastplate of righteousness. That’s our text for today. So what is “righteousness”, and how does it keep our thinking and deciding safe and healthy?

William Tyndale
Public Domain image

The English word was actually first used by the Bible Translator William Tyndale, who adapted the existing word “rihtwis” or right-ways. But I kind of wish he hadn’t: “rightways” says it simply and accurately:

“Righteousness” means justice or moral rightness, or the fulfilment of the Law. Doing what God wants. It means being “rightways” in our relationship with god and our dealings with others. And what does God want? Sacrifices? Religion? Sabbath-keeping? Rituals? There were times when God’s people thought that stuff would swing it. They seemed to think (as we do sometimes) “God must be really into religion: he must really like sacrifices, and hearing our hymns or praise-songs, and to see people fasting.” But God’s not that petty and small-minded. He says “I hate your festivals ….” (Isa 1. 14)

  • Amos 5. 24. Let judgement run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream 
  • Micah 6. 8. God requires righteousness in us.
  • Isaiah 57. 15-17 says “The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head.”

So God is the first person to arm himself with a breastplate of righteousness!

But in the end, our righteousness is insufficient to God’s standard. It’s filthy rags (and that means menstrual rags, used sanitary products: its a crude and disturbing image of ritual and literal unclean-ness (Isa 64. 6). And yet, still, in the time of Jesus, people thought they could get God in their side, by doing things for him: the trivial things like sacrifices, hand-washing, Sabbath-keeping. But true righteousness is not legalism. It’s bigger than that. Jesus had a problem with people who thought they were so good. He says “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter God’s Kingdom.” (Matt 5. 20) And when Jesus was criticised for befriending Matthew (who as a tax-collector was seen as a “bad guy”) he said “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9. 13).

Paul builds on that by distinguishing between our own righteousness, and the righteousness that God gives us when we trust in Jesus. Everything else (including our own righteousness) is garbage, compared with having new life and God’s righteousness. (Philippians 3:9) Righteousness, he says, is God’s gift (Romans 5:17) God has dealt with our sin through Jesus and sees us as new people in him. But there is more to it than just a legal transaction, cancelling our debt. Paul also says “Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness (Eph 4. 24). There has to be a transformation. There certainly was in Paul’s life.

Let’s imagine a big lad called George. On Saturday night, he gets into a fight beats a guy up, and disappears before the police arrive. On Sunday morning, he comes to church and is gloriously saved. The pastor tells him that Jesus has wiped his slate clean. Later that day, the police catch up with him, and he’s arrested.On Monday, he is in the magistrates court, charged with GBH. How does he plead? Guilty or not guilty? Clearly guilty.

Fast forward ten years or so. After prison,George, has got his life together, got a lot of prayer and counselling. He eventually went to Bible college and became Pastor of a lively church. One day, one of the other leaders of the Church gets a phone call, from a newspaper reporter. “Hello, we hear your church has a violent criminal as your assistant minster.” if I got that phone call, I would want to say “No we don’t. George has a story to tell, but these days he’s a gentle giant who spends his time caring for people, praying for the sick, and telling them about Jesus.”

That’s what Paul is talking about. Righteousness is both a transaction and a transformation. It isn’t George’s own righteousness that please God. It isn’t his own righteousness that makes him a gentle giant: it’s god at work in him. Right actions spring from being counted righteous. Without the transformation, the transaction is meaningless: it’s a legal fiction.

So how is righteousness a breastplate? Well, what parts of the body are threatened if there is no breastplate? Mainly the heart and lungs. Today we know that the heart is about blood circulation. But that doesn’t help us understand the breastplate of righteousness. Nor does our idea of the heart as the place where we feel emotions. In the Bible, that was further down, in the bowels! The heart was the thought to be the place where we think and desire and decide. And Paul says “put on the breastplate of righteousness. …” A Roman breastplate was either made of large segments, small scales or chain mail, covered the body from neck to waist, protecting the heart and lungs very effectively. Neither a sword or dagger, not an arrow, javelin or stone, was likely to penetrate the breastplate (though you could get nasty and painful bruises unless you had a good thick padded shirt underneath)!

Righteousness, God’s gift of righteousness that transforms the way we live, protects our thinking and choosing. It is part of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 6, Jesus and warns us against worrying about food and clothes or the future. He says in  Matthew 6. 33, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [that we need and worry about] will be given to you as well.” He also says “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be” (v. 21) Michel Green entitles this whole section  “Jesus examines our ambitions.”  He says “our ambition as disciples must be to put God and his Kingly rule at the top of our list of priorities and we shall find that God takes care of the necessities of life.

And Paul says something similar in Romans 14. 17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The context there is the fact that some in the Church believed it was wrong to eat meat that had been used in pagan sacrifices. Others were OK about to eating whatever they wanted. The kingdom, Paul says, is not about rule-keeping or about upsetting others by deliberately breaking the rules. It is about being committed to please God by treating each other right.

The righteousness of God, his Holy Spirit’s action to transform us, arms our hearts, protecting us from desiring all the wrong sort of things. It is a righteousness, living right-ways (as a gift from God) that enables us to be uncompromisingly committed to the Kingdom of God. What do we need to do? Simply put it on. Receive the gift of righteousness. Agree to the transaction that God offers, to count you righteous and co-operate with the transformation that enables you to live “rightways”.

Amen

Ephesians 6 v 10-13

2020 Vision: Hope and Reality:

I couldn’t resist the temptation to cal this talk “2020 Vision”. But what does 2020 vision mean? It means seeing reality clearly and accurately. During the Vietnam war, a US Navy pilot called Jim Stockdale became a prisoner of war, held by the Viet-Cong in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” camp. When he was released he went on to rise through the ranks eventually becoming an admiral, and he gave his name to the “Stockdale Paradox”. That, put simply, means holding both hope and reality together. Through his years as a POW, Stockdale remained hopeful: he never doubted that he would eventually be released and that his experience would be used for his good and the good of others. But he saw others lose hope: he said these were the optimists: they told themselves they would be out by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again. Stockdale said that these guys “died of a broken heart”.

There is both hope and reality in our reading.

Hope. (Orientation) God is strong , and he wants you strong. (The Message). Paul uses 3 words for strength or power.  “Be empowered in the Lord and in the force of his strength.”   Our hope is in God. In who God is and in what God can do.  God’s power is a big theme in Ephesians. Today Jesus is “seated at the father’s right in the heavenly places” and is “head over everything for the church” . Today all the forces of evil are under his feet. (1. 20ff)

And it’s also about what we can do with what God can do.  When someone is going through challenging times, you might say “be strong, dear!”  But that’s NOT what Paul says. But the command “be strong” literally means “be empowered”. It’s a verb that is both active and passive. So it’s not just about being tough. It’s about receiving God’s power for yourself. Actively letting God empower you (CEV).

So we start with hope.  It’s a hope that’s based on what we can do with what God can do.  But can we in reality, hope for 2020 to be any better than 2019? 

Reality.   (Disorientation) There are challenges to face in 2020.  Whistle a happy tune (from the King and I) won’t cut it. In lots of ways, the world is messed up and in lots of ways the Church has messed up… Our church, like many others, is struggling numerically, financially and missionally: we aren’t easily able to reach our community with the gospel.  We’ve lost the sense of a common language with our neighbours. We have become complacent about mission. We have developed a habit, like a tic, of saying “nobody’s interested any more!” You know the sort of thing I mean: “How many people go to your church?” “Oh, not so many, people just aren’t interested in the Gospel these days!” Yes, the world is changing. That is true. But the other half of the equation is that we have stood still, culturally. As the world has changed, we have stayed the same. And in doing so, we have changed the Gospel. Because we have made it into something irrelevant.

Those challenges are bigger than us. They are about movements in society: about principalities & powers in high places. In a fallen world, everything is broken. Paul’s explanation for all of this is …“our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.” (J B Phillips translation)

This world and all of its institutions, are under the sway of the enemy. The enemy has been busy, sowing the seeds of modern secularism, for many years. And in fact those seeds were sown and did pretty well, in the soil of “Christendom.” We can’t turn the clock back to a Golden age when everyone went to church, because there never was a Golden age. The strings the devil pulls are not always the obvious ones like secularism or challenging family values but also the subtler ones like  prejudice, division, suspicion, and exploitation.

The enemy has been sowing seeds in the Church too. A paganism that is tolerant of dishonest racist regimes, because they “defend the faith”. A false belief that the programme we have always followed must have God’s blessing on it because it worked in the fifties, or the seventies or eighties or nineties. A false belief that all we need is a shiny new programme. The Church, as an institution, has to guard itself against the ways the enemy infiltrates organisations. And that is not always about false doctrine. Sometimes it is just about lack of motivation, inability to change, hopelessness, or clinging to the past.

The Battle is not just about survival as individual believers or churches. It is about the Mission. It is “the fight to set men free” (as H E Fosdick says in his hymn “God of Grace & God of Glory”). Paul talks about weapons that “demolish arguments that set themselves against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10.5). The battle is about mission. And mission will always be a battle.

The reality is that the ministry of the Church is contested at the highest level by the Enemy! That needs to be soberly accepted. Not dismissed as superstition. Not obsessed about so it takes us into areas of unreality or paralyses us with fear.

Vision. (Re-orientation) The right response, them, is this: we put on, clothe ourselves in the whole armour of God: For the next 7 weeks we will be looking at that armour: 7 things we need to take with us into 2020, and they are all connected with Jesus. And they spell out NEW LIFE:

  • Nurtured by the Truth
  • Expressing God’s character. Righteousness
  • Walking among people with the Gospel of Peace
  • Leaning on God in faith
  • Identity as a child of god. Salvation.
  • Focus on mission with the Word, in the power of the Spirit.
  • Expecting movement as we pray

Those are not a vision for 2020. They are simply things we need to take with us into 2020.

So what’s my “2020 Vision“?  The thing that God intends to use to show his wisdom to the principalities… is the Church,  (3.10) Paul speaks of God receiving glory, now, in Jesus,and in the Church. (3. 21) So that’s my “2020 Vision”: it is glory in the Church, showing God’s wisdom to the principalities and powers.

My 2020 vision is for us to be a Body. Paul talks about the Church as a body eleven times in Ephesians,

  1. Ephesians 1:23:”which is his body”
  2. Ephesians 2:16: and in one body to reconcile both of them through the cross,
  3. Ephesians 3:6: “Members together of one body,
  4. Ephesians 4:4: There is one body and one Spirit,”
  5. Ephesians 4:12: works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
  6. Ephesians 4:15: to become the mature body of Christ.
  7. Ephesians 4:16: From him the whole body, grows and builds itself up in love, a
  8. Ephesians 4:25: all members of one body.
  9. Ephesians 5:23: Christ is the head of the church, his body.
  10. Ephesians 5:29: they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church
  11. Ephesians 5:30: for we are members of his body.

And these eleven references have two themes: “one Body” and “Christ’s body”!

So my 2020 vision is to be one body, where we care for each other and for the lost, and do life together. And to be the Body of Christ, expressing His life, his core values, his character, and his conduct. To be a healing community where we are reconciled to one another; and where we bring the healing and reconciling news of Jesus to our world.

Our strength is in Christ. Our armour is Christ. Our vision is Christ. And there is hope for 2020.

  • If we can grasp what God can do there is hope!
  • If we can grasp the whole armour of God, there is hope!
  • If we can grasp that Biblical Mandate there is hope!

© Gilmour Lilly January 2020

Luke 1. 67-79

Zechariah: Praise for the coming of Messiah

Zechariah’s back story: “His (the 8-day-old John the Baptist’s) father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied….” Zechariahs’s back story goes like this: Born into a priestly family, and married as a young man, he and Elizabeth (we heard about her a fortnight ago) grew old childless. Until the day when, on duty in the temple, the angel Gabriel came to him and announced that Elizabeth was going to have a child in her old age: not only that – but this child would prepare God’s people Israel for the coming of their Messiah. “Your prayers have been answered Zechariah. Prayers apparently unanswered over the years. Prayers for your nation.”

And how did Zechariah respond? “How can this possibly happen? Don’t get our hopes up. It’s too late for all that! We’ve accepted the situation – sort of.” Maybe that’s how you or I would have responded. And for nine months, Zechariah had been struck literally dumb. Not a word. (Maybe God didn’t want his negative talk to dent Elizabeth’s faith!) It was a humbling time, a time of isolation, and a time for deep reflection on God and his word. So maybe it didn’t do Zechariah any harm.

Anyway, Elizabeth got pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy and eight days later in a Jewish family was circumcision day, the baby’s first big public appearance. When the priest asked, Elizabeth wanted to call him John – the name the angel had given Zechariah for the boy. But everyone started to argue, so they asked Zechariah. He wrote on a wax tabled “his name is John”. Then he got his speech back, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and this prophecy – this inspired song of praise – is what came out.

I want to begin by encouraging us. So you’ve wasted nine months – or nine days or weeks or years, in neutral because of unbelief. Or it seems like God has wasted nine or 59 years of your life by withhold his blessing. God can still fill you with his Spirit. God can still speak to you and through you.

Zechariah’s Song. Blessed Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited (seen, overseen or supervised) and made ransom for his people.

  • It’s rooted in history. ”Blessed Lord, the God of Israel” is a direct quote from the Greek version of Psalm Ps 41. 13. It’s rooted in the awareness that Israel has of being a nation. It is good to know and understand what our back-story is, who we are and where we have come from. (And incidentally, it is impossible to be a Christian, take the Bible seriously, and be anti-Semitic, because Jesus was Jewish. But Jesus challenged what was wrong in Judaism, so as Christians we don’t have to approve of what Jewish people do or of everything the nation of Israel does.)
  • In contrast to Zechariah’s previous unbelief, (and in contrast to the temptation to be sentimental about becoming a dad for the first time!) his prayer is full of faith. Now that the baby has been conceived and born, Zechariah is able to believe that this is the beginning of something: the angel said John would prepare the way for Messiah. Against all odds, John is here in Elizabeth’s arms. So God is going to send Messiah! God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David”; it’s as good as happened.
  • It’s about salvation: and that is never just from political enemies but from spiritual enemies as well: it includes the forgiveness of sins (v. 77)
  • It is full of purpose. Salvation, the coming of messiah, the new salvation season that the brings, Rescue from enemies is intended to enable God’s people to serve him without fear… (v 74f)
  • And it is personal. You my child… Zechariah’s task and purpose for the next however many years is to get this wee boy ready to prepare the way for Messiah.

Zechariah’s problem. Can you spot it? Let me give you a hint: Who is the salvation for according to verses 69, 71, 74? “Us!” and who are the “Us” that Zechariah is talking about? Israel. Descendants of Abraham. That “rootedness” the nationhood, history and promises, leaves this prophecy sounding very insular. It’s all about “Us.” Howard Marshall notes that this song “Does not take the gentiles into account.” But it’s worse than that. It divides the world and its population into two. “Them” and “us”. There’s “Us,” the ones God has made promises to; and there’s “everybody else, our enemies, those who hate us.” And for me that is a problem . Why?

  1. Because it misses out on the place of the “nations” in the ancient promises. John’s work was to prepare for the day-spring to come from Heaven. (v. 78) the same word is used for the sun or a star “springing up” and for a plant or shoot “springing up”. So v.78 reflects back to Isa 11. 1-10, which talks about a root springing from David’s family, so that even the natural world is at peace, the earth is filled with the glory of God and the nations will come to him.
  2. It fails to anticipate that in fulfilment, Messiah brings the Kingdom of god for the

Zechariah’s prophecy. The Messiah’s light will shine on “those who live in darkness.” Can you think of another prophecy that speaks about those in darkness? Isa 9. 2. “Those who live in darkness have seen a great light.” Zechariah doesn’t understand this, but Luke, writing the story does. “Those in darkness” are the gentiles. Zechariah’s prophecy is one of those ones that makes more sense after the event than before it. whole of the world. The Messiah’s light will shine on “those who live in darkness.”

Jesus, the Jewish Yeshua and Messiah, was perfectly clear that he was the lamb of God that takes away the sin of he world. That his Kingdom was to bring healing for the whole of creation. That among the saved there are to be a great crowd that nobody can number from every tongue and tribe and nation.

God speaks to and through Zechariah despite his brokenness and failure. To this elderly Jewish Priest, and new dad, God speaks a Jewish message about the Jewish Elijah who would make a people prepared for the Jewish messiah. But that Messiah was the saviour of he world.

So when God speaks – by the Spirit, through the written Word, or through the prophetic word, he begins where we are at. But he never leaves us there.

Like Zechariah and John, our roots, our identity, our history are important. Especially in times of radical change we do need to know who we are. But God’s purposes are always bigger than we expected.

© Gilmour Lilly December 2019

Luke 1. 39-45

Elizabeth : “Blessed are you”

Foreword: the Story… or stories!!!

Mary had her story of an encounter with the angel Gabriel. And Gabriel had already told Mary about Elizabeth’s miracle. (v. 36) And it was to Elizabeth and Zechariah that Mary went with her immensely challenging story of angels miracles and Messiah.

And Elizabeth had a back story… Sixty or seventy years old.  Childless, then miraculously pregnant after the angel Gabriel had visited her husband in the Temple… So this elderly lady was already heavily pregnant.

Mary greets Elizabeth. “Greeting” was a lengthy and formal thing where what really mattered was the message that the visitor brought. Gabriel’s greeting to Mary was “Hi, favoured one chosen by God. God is going to be with you”! Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth was therefore likely to be something like this: “Hi Elizabeth. I have news. I have been chosen by God to bear God’s son who will be the Messiah.” That is quite a mouthful for a thirteen year old girl to blurt out as soon as she walks in the door! How on earth is Elizabeth to respond to this? Does what she has experienced enable her to have faith? If that faith faltered for a moment, something else happened…

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her baby leaped in the womb. Not an ordinary fetal movement. The intention is NOT to say that by coincidence the baby moved (that would be a sign in itself) or even that the baby responded to his mother’s intense emotion, but that the baby himself felt joy in his spirit that he expressed in the only way he could.

Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit activity is a significant feature in Lukes Gospel and on particular in the birth narrative. And she shouted out something: shouting loudly was a mark of inspired utterance and public praise.

The point.

A skilled story-teller, or historian like Luke, tells his story with a sense of purpose… It’s annoying when a story is put into a biography for no particular reason, or perhaps just because it is a funny story. The narratives of John and Jesus, of Mary and Elizabeth are clearly parallel. The same angel is involved in both. Both are about miraculous births which herald the in-breaking of God’s wonderful kingdom. They could be parallel but independent; kind of co-incidences. But this episode binds them both together. They are not independent stories; they are part of one story. Or, to put it more sharply, despite her miracle, despite her joy to become a mother, to bear a child in her old age… despite all of that, what is most important to Elizabeth at this point in time, is this: “Why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (v. 43). It is Jesus. It is her Lord, that matters. Her story is bound up with the Story of God, the story of Messiah coming into the world, the story of the coming triumph of God’s Kingdom.

And so, out of the joy of having her story joined to the story of God, the story of Messiah, she shouts at the top of her voice, this amazing blessing. It’s not quite a song: it’s not poetry but “high prose”: memorable like Churchill’s wartime broadcasts or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

The Problem

Hearing her elderly cousin speak, bless, prophesy in this way may have startled Mary, but this Blessing is just what Mary needs at this point in time…

‘Blessed are you among women.” Blessed is “eulogemenos”, which literally means well spoken of. To “bless” someone is to speak well of them or to speak good things into their life. She needed that. How would the women and men in her own neighbourhood speak about the young girl who got pregnant before she was married? How would Joseph speak about her (before God spoke to him?) Her parents? Her friends? What would people speak into her life? But this lovely old lady says “Blessed are you among women!”

What a healing for Mary, what an inoculation against the poison that would be thrown at her. She’s believed. She’s valued. She’s well spoken of. She has good spoken into her life. Isn’t it good to bless other people?

The difference…

“ …and blessed is the child you will bear!” That is kind of obvious, though Mary’s firstborn would be spoken of badly too, at times. But He is blessed. He is the one supremely for whom we give thanks to God. Thank God for Jesus. And it is because of Jesus that Mary is blessed. Not because she is anything special. She is just an ordinary teenage girl, who happens to have listened up in the Synagogue, knows the Scriptures (by hearing not reading!) and is able to believe what God says to her, and pay the price. Elizabeth finishes off her speech with Blessed (this time the word is “makarios” happy, enriched or enlarged) is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’

And listen, it is because of Jesus that you and I are blessed as well. And it is because of Jesus, that the blessing can spread, like runny honey, across the surface of our community, to touch the people we touch just as the blessing leached out and touched Elizabeth, then Mary….

And Mary sings : that’s the song that Dawn will be exploring next week. But I just want to finish with this. How good to be able, like Elizabeth, to bless someone, in such a way that they in turn can sing. In such a way as to call the song from their heart. Maybe we can’t sing a song. But maybe we can bless someone who can and will.

When our story is joined with the story of Jesus, the Spirit comes. The anointing flows. God shows his power. We can all be blessed because of Jesus: because of who He is. We can all speak out to glorify and praise Him. And we can all speak blessing into the lives of other people.

Dialogue: what’s the good news?

Mark 1. 1-15; Colossians 2. 9-15

We have taken a lot of time to talk about

  • Blessing other people.
  • Relying on the Spirit: receiving and releasing his power.
  • Eating together
  • Attending to Jesus, and
  • Dialogue that is listening, gently challenging, telling the story of God and our own story, through everyday conversations.

Now, we’ve been learning that “One size doesn’t fit all” and that we must listen rather than simply dumping our message in people’s head-space. But I want to finish off with this question: What is the message? If someone says “Yes, I do want to get to know God better,” or “what is the core of your Christian message?” then what do we say? “Come to Church on Sunday and our Pastor will explain everything!”? I want to give you the tools to answer the question for yourselves. What do people need to know, what do they need to respond to, in order to connect in a living way with the Christian faith, and be “saved”?

Mark opens his Jesus story, by telling us us this is the “beginning of the Good news about Jesus.” And a number of times, in the very first chapter, Mark talks about the “Good news of the kingdom of God.” People were to be told, “the Kingdom of God/Heaven has come near you!” Two-thirds of mark’s Gospel, is about the things Jesus said and did that show what the Kingdom is like. The other third, is about the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. How he died and why.

The first thing to say is rooted in this idea that “The Kingdom of God has come near!”

God is good, he is love, his plan in creating the world was for good. He sees a broken world and it is not the way he wants it to be. So in order to sort it, God made promises to specific people, (the family that became Jewish nation). From the start, the reason he did this was not just for their own benefit but so that the whole world might benefit. As time went on they came to understand these promises to be about the “Kingdom of God”: God’s rule on the earth. God’s rule instead of the other Kingdoms: the kingdom Caesar, the Kingdom of darkness, the Kingdom of “me.” And through the coming of Jesus, those promises were fulfilled.

Saying “The Kingdom of God has come near” means that, despite everything that isn’t the Kingdom of God, despite everything that is the Kingdom of me and the kingdom of darkness and fear and despair and death, God has not forgotten about his world. He plans good for the world. And he keeps his promises. Jesus shows us all that. And by the life he lived and the things he did, he shows us what the Kingdom of God is like: healing for the broken, justice for the oppressed, challenge for the oppressors.

And the second thing to say is about how “Jesus died for our sins”.

Before it happened, Jesus interpreted his death as “a ransom”, a costly sacrifice made to set other people free. (Mark 10. 45) And after it happened, Paul said that the bill for our sins was “nailed to the Cross” (Col 2. 14) and that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15. 3) and rose again. That’s important, because it lifts what Jesus did above and beyond the sacrifices that young men and women made on the battlefields of the Somme, the beaches of Normandy, or the deserts of Iraq or Afghanistan. When thousands had died in the trenches, thousands more came to take their place. No one death was, by itself, a triumph. But the death of Jesus utterly defeated death itself: so we are saved from our sins by Jesus death and resurrection.

Jesus’ death and resurrection deals with the “Kingdom of Me” problem that we all have. It deals with the penalty of it. It deals with the power of it. I don’t think we need to go too far into how that works: it’s like someone taking someone else’s punishment. It’s like someone paying someone else’s debt. It’s like someone paying a ransom. It’s like someone dying while rescuing someone else from drowning. It’s like someone dying fighting someone else’s battle. It’s all these things and more.

And there is more. The third thing to say is that the Spirit makes us new.

When he preached the Good News for the first time on the day of Pentecost, Peter called people to respond and promised “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Faith is more than a transaction. It is a transformation.

Something happens in a person’s life. God moves in. Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians to deal with wrong ideas people had about keeping the “Law” and being “Circumcised” in order to be have new life. But as they have trusted in Jesus, that new life has already happened! Did you notice that in verse 10 he says “You have been brought to fullness in him”; verse 11, “circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands” and verse 13, “God made you alive with Christ” .

Theologically the coming of the Spirit is part of the “Messianic age”. John the Baptist says about Jesus, “I baptise you with water, but he (the coming Messiah) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1. 8). When the Spirit came, Peter says. (Acts 2. 17, quoting Joel 2. 28) “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” In 2 Cor 5. 17 Paul says if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here.” Literally “if anyone is in Christ – new creation.” Boom, by the Spirit, not only are people made new, but they become part of the whole new creation, the present-and-coming Kingdom of God.

So the good news is these three things:

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  1. The Kingdom of God has come near; God plans good for is world and keeps his promises.
  2. The King (Christ, the Messiah) died and rose again for our sins.
  3. The Spirit makes us new and causes us to live in God’s new Kingdom.

We need to respond to the Good News.

Paul, Peter, and Jesus himself all agree that this Good News demands a response. Jesus said, “Repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1. 15). On the day of Pentecost, Peter told people to “Repent and be baptised…” Paul mentions baptism in Col 2. 12 and says in Rom 1. 16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

Three simple, practical responses:

  1. Repent, which literally means change your mind. Turn around, walk in the opposite direction, as you decide to put God in charge of your life.
  2. Believe, the Good News. Trust that these three big statements are true: they may not be verifiable apart from a step of faith, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true.
  3. be Baptised. Take action to bring that commitment out into the open. Do you have to be baptised to appropriate the new life in the Kingdom? Paul would answer “No!” Well, actually, he wouldn’t understand the question; he’d say “How else are you going to take action to “close the deal” with God?

Malcolm Duncan says the Gospel “is not a secret, hidden transaction agreed at night between ‘me’ and God. It is public, it is pervasive and it is transformative. It pulls me into community. It works at the very centre of my being and the very edge of my life. It leads me out to a broken and hungry world and leads me in to the God Who comes to dwell within me in resurrection, life giving, life releasing power… [it] is the only thing that can rescue us from our own ruin in this moment in our history and propel us into a better future.

So that is the Good News. If you’ve never responded to it, I invite you do do so today, And if you have, I invite you to become familiar with these truths so that you can comm8unicate them easily when called upon to do so.

Dialogue about Jesus…“Your call!”

Colossians 2. 2-6

In prison, Paul got a visitor who brought news of the Church in Colossae. They were growing in their faith – bot some had got hold of some odd ideas about what God is like. This letter does two things that Paul reckoned the Colossian Christians needed. Firstly, it speaks about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us. He’s the image of the invisible God, he has made peace by dying for us on the cross. Secondly, it talks about how his followers should live their lives as people who follow Jesus. And part of that is about how they – and we – should engage in mission.

Paul speaks of three ways to engage in mission…

1.Prayer. Prayer is part of our calling. Committed/persistent, vigilant (wide-awake), thankful prayer. We can play our part in mission by praying for people who have a specific ministry or a specific challenge. Was Paul praying for an open door to let God’s word in to people’s lives, or to let God’s word flow freely and boldly from his own mouth?

2. Behaviour. Being wise in how we walk (walk around; in English we would say “go about”; behave) with (or in sight of) those outside. That should be a constant question on our minds as we go around: how does the way I live, the way I behave, impact people outside my comfortable circle as Christians? Of course we have to do what is right, not just what we think will be popular. But it’s worth asking “Do I sound smug? Do I talk a different language? Do I look grim? Does the way I live my life say something good or something bad about Jesus?”

3. Speaking. Conversation (v. 5) is “Logos” which means “Word”. A very ordinary word that becomes in the NT (especially in John’s Gospel) a very special word. It is the same word that Paul uses in verse 3 (“our message” literally “the word”). Conversations, the “word” spoken by ordinary people in ordinary life situations, can have exactly the same value as the “word” spoken by a great leader like Paul to a crowd in a city square. We all have conversations. How can we make sure they are mission conversations, dialogues about faith?

  1. Buying every opportunity. “Make the most of every opportunity” (v. 5) literally means “Buy every Kairos moment”. Kairos is a “time” word. But it’s not just any time: it’s the right time. There’s a right moment to bless someone; to demonstrate God’s love; to offer to pray for someone; there’s a right moment to talk about Jesus; there’s a right moment for telling your story. We need to buy those moments, whenever we see them, like someone at the Black Friday or January sales: we’re going to be first in the queue when the shops open, to grab that bargain. Don’t just theorise. Don’t be like Georgie Girl in the 1960s song, “always window shopping but never stopping to buy.” Be like a bargain hunter… Alert in prayer. Listening carefully, watching for the moment. Seize the moment! Carpe diem! (That’s Latin for “Sieze the day!”)
  1. Filled with grace. May your word, your “Logos” be always “in grace”, soaked in Grace. Grace-filled conversations. Talking about grace. Reflecting Grace. Grace (Charis) is more than God’s undeserved favour. It is beauty, kindness, favour, delight, goodwill, generosity. It is all that we are thankful for, all that we admire and are pleased with from God. Conversations filled with pointers to God’s gracious character. Michael Frost suggests that things like beauty, justice, creativity, compassion, are things that pertain to the Kingdom of God – so we need to make connexions with these gracious and positive things, in our conversations. These may be where some of the Kairos moments are coming from.
  1. Seasoned with salt. Why do we season our food with salt? To make it tasty! Now our conversation should never be dull, boring or insipid. What makes our conversation “seasoned” and interesting
    1. Asking questions and telling stories (as John McGinley says in “Mission-shaped Grace”). Asking at an appropriate time “Do you mind if I tell you how Jesus has changed my life?” or “Would you like to know God personally?” And telling a bit of our own story (without boring people or bragging about our amazing achievements!)
    2. knowledge of our culture, of literature, history.
    3. A genuine interest in other people. Dale Carnegie (of “how to win friends and influence people” fame) describes sitting listening to someone talking about themselves for half an hour or more at a dinner. Afterwards the person told someone else what a good conversationalist Dale Carnegie was. Carnegie hadn’t said a word! Most of us are actually quite interested in our own story! If you can be interested in someone else’s story, you’ll be interesting!
  1. Lastly, dialogue is just that. It is dialogue. We need to know how to answer everyone; and we aren’t answering if they aren’t asking, or if we’re not listening. And everyone means “each and every person”. Not just “everyone” as a kind of lump of humanity. But “each and every person”. What there isn’t in mission, is a “one size fits all” answer.

We need to engage people in grace-filled conversations. that are seasoned with good stories and genuine interest in others. All of us are called to that ministry of the word. And all of us are called to back that up with prayer and with practical, loving kingdom lifestyle.

© Gilmour Lilly November 2019

Dialogue about Jesus

Reading: John 3. 1-15

So this guy was about the best you could be in the Jewish world: Pharisee (Serious about the Bible); member of the ruling council; and a respected teacher – one of the top guys. He comes to Jesus at night. Maybe he doesn’t want to be noticed. He has a reputation to think about. Maybe he wanted time for a decent conversation. Staying up late to study was a sign of devotion: it cost him extra effort and extra money for lamp-oil. Coming at night, was a kind of statement: “I take this faith thing seriously.” Maybe even “I have a sense of urgency about this question!”

And, interestingly, he expected the same of Jesus. He wasn’t expecting to find Jesus is his jim-jams ready for bed! He calls him “Rabbi!” and he expects him, like a good rabbi, to be a serious scholar who is ready to engage with his questions late in the evening. (That raises a question and a challenge for us. Are we “open for business” when people want to come and engage with us? Or do we expect people to know when we are there and come along? Are we genuinely available to dialogue with people who have genuine questions?)

He begins by recognising Jesus as a Rabbi and perhaps more than that: a “Teacher from God”, possibly a prophet. As a Rabbi, Nicodemus knew about the promises of the coming Kingdom of God, and expected that one day, some time, God’s Kingdom would come. Although he hadn’t mentioned it, the coming “Kingdom of god” must have been very much on his mind. And now Jesus was was doing these signs of the Kingdom. This dynamic young man, performing the kind of miracles that were the evidence of the promised Messianic Kingdom, who was he? What could he learn from him?

The door was actually open for the answer, “Nobody really sees the Kingdom of God unless they’re born again. It starts with a personal miracle of new birth.” Jesus is responding appropriately and sensitively to the situation and the individual who has approached him. The Kingdom is here. It’s at hand. it’s just the other side of this thin veil. You can see it if …. you make a fresh start, a new birth, one that is just as definite and real as physical birth, and one that comes from God. A transforming encounter with God is a present possibility, not just a future promise.

If you think Jesus’ answer is abrupt, think again. If you think Jesus is just jumping in with this message he has to share you’ve not understood Nicodemus. Jesus is direct, yes. But deeply and graciously pertinent to where Nicodemus is at.

Nicodemus replies… “Oh yes, I’ll have some of that! But… is it possible? I mean, I’m knocking on a bit. I can’t go back into my mother’s womb. I’m too old to change. You’re not talking about physical birth, obviously. But changing me, getting rid of my old habits, is just about as unlikely as going back into my mother’s womb.”

And Jesus answers in effect, “No, I’m not talking about physical birth. To get into God’s Kingdom, you need to be born not just of water (natural birth, or else baptism, the human and visible sign of coming to God) but of Spirit. The thing that is born of the flesh, is flesh. What is born by coming out of a physical body, is a physical body. The thing that is born of the Spirit, is spirit. The life that results from the working of the Spirit is a new spiritual life. The ruach – the wind-and-breath-and-spirit of God – does his mysterious, wild life-giving thing.

This statement delivers so deeply from Old testament scripture and theology. The law written on people’s hearts. The Spirit of God dwelling in people’s lives…. Look for example at Ezekiel 36. 25-27. cf. Isa 59. 21; Joel 2. 28f; Jer 31.33f Gone are the days, Nicodemus, of staying up late, wistful reading history and law and poetry, and figuring out what to expect from Messiah. The Spirit wants to breathe this new life into your heart. All of you Pharisees need to be born again. (Indeed, every human being does!)

“So how can this be? It fits with the old prophecies – but how does it happen?” It’s like too much to take in!

“It’s simple. I’m surprised you’ve missed this, you being a big-name theologian an’ all”. You have knowledge you should be drawing on to help you. If talking about things that happen on earth (even if they start with God) doesn’t make you believe, how will you believe if I talk full-on about what happens in Heaven.

Is starts with me, Jesus says. The only person who can tell you about heaven is someone who’s been there: the Son of Man. Think of Moses lifting up the brass snake: what did people need to do to get healed, but believe enough to look? I’m going to be lifted up to heal people’s spirits. Everyone who believes in me will have this new spirit-birth to eternal life.

It happens when you believe, Nicodemus. It happens when you believe. Through faith you can have a new birth, a new spiritual life from God life in the spirit. An eternal life. A life within the Kingdom of God both in the present age and forever. The kingdom starts with a personal, existential, transforming encounter with God by the Spirit.

Conclusion

That’s the tone of the conversation. It is a dialogue. It is gentle, responsive, loving, challenging, clear, and so, so breathtakingly alluring and poetic and beautiful. It is informed, intelligent. It constantly makes points of contact with what Nicodemus already knows. And it is challenging. But it isn’t driven, aggressive, argumentative, or anti intellectual. He was right – not only in his teaching, but in this reading of Nicodemus.

Have you experienced this new birth? If you haven’t, I invite you do enter that new life today. It’s a possibility, through Jesus Christ, by faith. Here’s a prayer you can use.

Creator God, I know that today I am outside your Kingdom, looking in. And I see good things there. I know that I need a new birth, into a new life. I know it needs to come from you. So today, I put my trust in Jesus who died for me. Please send your spirit into my life to make me a new person, and the new life you give me, I will live for you, for ever.

And if you have, I challenge you to be prayerfully ready to enter dialogue, the way Jesus did, the next time someone raises the subject with you. And I challenge my self with that too. Here’s a prayer for us to use:

Thank you Lord for the gift of new life in your Kingdom. I commit myself to living my life in such a way that the good things of the Kingdom can be seen in me. And I commit myself to engaging in genuine, patient, loving dialogue about that Kingdom. Please equip me by your Spirit for these challenges.

© Gilmour Lilly October 2019