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

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Attention to Jesus: “Lifted up…”

Attention to Jesus: Lifted up He draws people to himself

Talk 1: “LIFTED UP” Reading: John 12: 20 -36.

We continue our theme of PAYING ATTENTION TO JESUS with a verse from John’s Gospel:

John 12:32 “ I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”

One simple sentence, but a vast array of interwoven themes and concepts about Jesus. I have time only to draw our attention to a few.

First what did Jesus actually mean by the phrase “when I am lifted up” This was an important phrase as John records Jesus using it three times in his Gospel. (see later)

His hearers knew exactly what he meant: look at v. 34:

the crowd spoke up, “ We have heard from the law that the Christ will remain for ever, so how can you say” the son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

They knew it meant death by crucifixion, which was totally incomprehensible to them. Why? Because they believed the Messiah would not die. (they were ignoring the prophecies that spoke clearly of the suffering of the Lord’s servant.) Also death by crucifixion was the most excruciating torturous method of execution the Romans reserved only for common criminals. Roman citizens like Paul were beheaded.

Even in his death Jesus identified himself with the lowest of the low. Again this death was prophesied.

But the death of messiah was prophesied. Isaiah 52:13 -53:12 speaks graphically about the suffering and death of the Lord’s servant:. An important passage which includes most of the themes surrounding the death of Jesus, and also points to the resurrection.

Isa 52.13 says “raised and lifted up”. Jesus in using this phrase calls his hearers to this passage. in v 14 his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness…. This happened to Jesus through floggings, and crucifixion. Then v15 uses the word “sprinkle”…. Jesus blood is a powerful symbol of victory, cleansing, healing and forgiveness

redemption, healing , taking our punishment. See Isa 53 v 4, 5, 6. he was “not guilty” v8,9 (Jesus was sinless); yet his grave was with the wicked and with a rich man

(v 9) ; and verse 11 hints at resurrection following from all the suffering.

So We know death was not the end for Jesus. He rose again on the third day. We cannot pay attention to Jesus without studying in depth his crucifixion and resurrection because they are “one inseparable event”, Bruce Milnesays, “in which Jesus achieves the glory of God”. They are central to the Gospel.

Paul declares: we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Jesus death on the cross brings healing, deliverance, salvation, forgiveness and cleansing.

Jesus first mentioned being “lifted up” in John 3: 14, 15: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

He is referring to Numbers 21: 4 – 9. The people of Israel were being justly punished for their rebellion.. or sin. They had spoken against God and moaned and complained. God sent a plague of venomous snakes. The people repented ,admitting they had done wrong. So God told Moses to raise up a bronze snake on a pole so when the people were bitten they could look at it and be healed and live.

Likewise we come under God’s judgement for our sin.. the wrongs were think and do..Jesus invites us to look at him lifted up on the cross dying for the wrongs we have done. We look at him, repent and live.

So if we repent we receive salvation: we are rescued from the punishment of God, by Jesus who took our punishment on himself. We receive forgiveness. We are cleansed from the wrongs we have done and receive new life .

The Scriptures point out that in his sacrificial death, Jesus identified himself with the lamb sacrificed at Passover …The festival when the Jews remember how God delivered them from slavery. In Exodus we read how the Israelites were to kill a lamb and place the blood on the lintels of their homes to save them from the angel of death who was going to bring about the death of all the Egyptian first born males. (the final plague to make Pharaoh let Israel go from slavery). Like the Passover Lamb, Jesus saves us from death and slavery to sin.

Jesus also identifies with the unblemished lambs sacrificed daily in the Temple for the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist declared: Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”

The writer to the Hebrews compares Jesus death on the cross to the lambs sacrificed daily and their blood sprinkled to bring forgiveness. Jesus, the one and only unblemished lamb of God, offered himself once and for all to bring us forgiveness to atone for our sins so we can enjoy a new life of restored relationship with God.

1 Peter 1.18 says “you were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

1John 1:7 says “the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin”

It’s important to note that this victory is not only for us as individuals. Scriptures state clearly Jesus overcame all evil in his crucifixion and resurrection :

1John 3:8 the reason the son of God appeared was to destroy the devils work.

John 12: Now the prince of this world will be driven out.

Let’s look more closely at the context of our verse in John 12. When I am lifted up …

Some Greeks were going with the Jews to worship at passover. They were God-fearers attracted to Jewish religion. They wanted to see Jesus., not in the Zacchaeus sense of shinning up a tree to get a glimpse of what Jesus looked like, but the meaning is they wanted to get to know him, to discuss with him build a relationship with him.

Knowledge of Jesus had moved beyond the Jews. This meant it was time for Jesus sacrifice. The hour had come. Jesus refers to a grain of wheat that has to die, not be a grain any more, so there can be a harvest. Jesus gives a challenge to us v25, 26. Fruitfulness is costly. It is in dying to self that we become life givers.

Bruce Milne (The Bible Speaks today, John’s Gospel, p. 187) says “ through a combination of inward struggles, trying circumstances, opposition from enemies of the Gospel, and our wrestling with God-permitted weaknesses, we, like Paul, are to learn to ‘die everyday’ (1 Cor 15:31). The seed must perish for the harvest to be produced.” See also 2 Cor 4 v 10,11

The second part of our verse says I will draw all men to myself.

What did Jesus mean?

Look at John 3:14 and John 3:16….

Jesus death requires a response. “Whoever believes in Jesus…”

The death of Jesus overcame all evil and personal sin to give everyone the possibility of redemption.

Jesus death by crucifixion testifies that he is the Christ, the son of God. That’s the message of the second “lifted up” text in John 8:28: When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be”

Jesus draws everyone to himself as they contemplate the cross. They realise that Jesus is the son of God.

All are invited to come to the Cross. All need to respond.

In The concluding verses of John 12, Jesus invites people to believe in Him,

the light of the world, for darkness is coming when it will be too late.

Milne says that like John the Baptist before him Jesus plainly informs us that without repentance from sin there can be no salvation.

Peter summarises like this: 2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

So we need to come to the cross – not just once in our lives but daily, in our quiet times with God, and at the Communion table. We need to receive forgiveness and healing. We need to remember that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

© Pam Lilly October 2019

Talk 2: The Centurion Mark 15. 33-36

So loads of people were “lifted up”… Even the day Jesus was crucified, two others were as well. But they didn’t draw people to them.

By contrast, when Jesus died, the staff sergeant in charge of the execution party, a hardened soldier who had in all likelihood seen men die and quite possibly had seen men crucified, was amazed… He exclaimed “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Possibly he heard the Jewish leaders saying “if you are the son of God, come down from the Cross!” But would he understand exactly what they meant by that? Maybe all he meant was “Surely this man was a son of God”,  a demigod, a superhero like Hercules, somebody with super powers.  That wasn’t the whole truth. But it was good enough for a start. This was no ordinary crucifixion. This was no ordinary criminal. This Jesus guy was in no sense ordinary. He had superpowers. There was something different about him. That much the Centurion recognised.

Mark knew, of course, that Jesus is the Son of God. He was in no doubt. One of the themes of his Gospel is how various episodes in Jesus life cause people to ask, “what kind of guy is this?” So he picks up what the Roman Staff Sergeant says, and lays it out there to be understood by his readers: lifted up on the Cross, Jesus revealed himself to be God the Son.  

Even if the Centurion hadn’t got there yet, something was making him curious. He was on the journey. Something was drawing him to Jesus. In fact we know from Pam’s text that it was Jesus who was drawing him to Jesus. (Legend tells us that the centurion became a Christian, and accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury in England. That’s not a Biblical story; but it is perfectly feasible that a Centurion could be posted from one end of the empire to the other. And it is highly likely that having seen what he saw, this centurion did become a believer.)

So what made the difference?

Not the phenomena… Not the external evidence, the earthquake and the fact that the curtain in the Temple was torn (the Centurion could be excused for not knowing that detail.) But the internal evidence. It was the way Jesus died. There was a supernatural thing, the loud cry and the comparatively early death which together suggest that in fact Jesus was uniquely ready to face dying: uniquely ready to go. He had done what he came to do. He had died the criminal’s death. Rather than having his body run down into increasing weakness through blood loss, sepsis, multiple organ failure, heart failure, asphyxiation, he surrendered his life into his father’s hands while still strong enough to shout.

I reckon that what the staff sergeant saw in the death of Jesus was:

  1. Surrender and sacrifice. Jesus said “Nobody would take his life away from him, but “I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10. 18) And on the cross he says “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23. 46)
  2. Victory, assurance and confidence John tells us another thing Jesus said from the cross. “It is finished” (John 19. 30 ) In no sense was that an expression of despair, implying “I’m finished, done for” Rather it was a shout of victory: Finished: I have done the work I came to do. Sin is atoned for!”
  3. Grace and dignity. The other Gospels give us details that Mark misses out. Like, when Jesus was being nailed to the cross he called out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34). And as he hung on the cross, the two who were crucified with him insulted him. But then one of them changed, and asked Jesus to help him: Jesus answered, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23.42). The centurion saw all of that: how on the cross Jesus dealt even with his torturers and critics, with grace and forgiveness.

So what do we take out of this?

Firstly, Jesus is truly wonderful! It is in his crucifixion that we see his glory most clearly. “Hallelujah, what a saviour”

Secondly, if we lift him up, let people see in our lives, something of his sacrificial love, his victory and his grace… if these things are Him in us, he will draw people – all sorts of people, like this Roman centurion – on their journey to faith in him.

© Gilmour lilly October 2019

The Values of Jesus

Luke 19:10: The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost

Part 1: Telling the Story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10, also Luke 3:1-20)

Jericho

Once upon a time, in an ancient and distant land, far far away, there was a city called Jericho.  And in that city, there lived a man named Zacchaeus.  Jericho was an incredibly rich city.  Sitting close to the bank of the river Jordan the land was fertile and produced plenty of healthy produce.  There was plenty of locally grown food, spices.  And locally manufactured wines and perfumes to enjoy and to trade.

Herod also had a palace there and that added to the importance and prestige of Jericho.  It was a busy and bustling city as a result of its location and importance and Zacchaeus liked that.  But he also liked it because the city had made him wealthy and comfortable.

Chief Tax Collector/Wealthy

He had bought the right to collect taxes on behalf of Rome for Herodian Jericho, and so he was the CEO of the Jericho tax-collectors.  He was able to gain wealth simply by getting a cut of what the other tax collectors made. When they charged extra Zacchaeus made more money too.

One of Zacchaeus’ own roles was to set the tax at the customs tax centre.  Jericho was an important place for the trading of goods as the trade route between Roman ruled Judea and Herodian ruled Perea went through Jericho.  Because of the importance of this customs route Zacchaeus was able to set the tax quite high and this added greatly to his wealth.  So, Zacchaeus was really quite rich without even really doing much work. 

Rejected: The people

Yet his life was difficult.  He was rejected by everyone.  Having stuff and being rich could ease the burden of rejection a little bit, and so buying stuff was one way in which he could find comfort.  Folks in the tax business in general were rejected by all the residents of Jericho because they hated Rome and felt like they were over-charged.  Zacchaeus was especially hated as the tax CEO.

Rejected: Religious Leaders

But the tax-business, and those who worked in it were hated and rejected the most by the religious leaders, particularly pharisees: Actually, he didn’t really mind so much being rejected by these people because they were arrogant, boring, and boastful anyway.  They dressed in special, elaborate clothes and boasted about themselves.  Even their prayers were loud and boastful about how good they were.

Short

But even worse than being rejected by the general residents, and the religious leaders, was the sense of being disrespected by his own employees.  He was short, and being short is never easy.  He felt looked down on both literally and metaphorically.  When you are short people just automatically and subconsciously see you as weak; and they find it hard to show any kind of respect.  It’s just a thing that there seems to be no way round.  People naturally value and respect tall people; and those who are short tend to get over-looked and undervalued.  People are rarely influenced by a short person.  It’s actually a bit like people look at you like you’re a child.  A child in need of protection, and guidance, rather than as a fully grown adult quite capable of looking after yourself and being a guide to others.

As a short leader Zacchaeus often felt the need to express himself by being loud and over-bearing in order to stop people walking all over him.  He would demand respect, sometimes quite angrily, when he was looked down on. 

John the Baptist

A few years ago, however, some of his employees had started treating him differently.  They had gone to see some religious guy called John down by the river Jordan.  After they had come back, they had started collecting less tax from the people: which meant that he was getting less money too.  That had made him angry and he had demanded they continue to give him the same amount of money as they had done before.  But these same guys had also started treating him kinder and with more respect than they had done before. After a while he had become interested in what had changed them; and so Zacchaeus had asked them loads of questions.  It seemed John had been the exact opposite of pretty much every other religious guy, ever.  Rather than being elaborately dressed, boring, and boastful, shunning everyone who didn’t meet their standards, John had been wild and unkept, humble; and, most importantly, welcoming to everyone. He preached about being kind and sharing with those in need.  His preaching had also pointed away from himself to someone else who would come after him – someone who would take away everything wrong in the world, and who was to be greater than John.  John baptised people in water when they accepted his preaching; but the one whom John said would come after him would baptise in fire.  That sounded both dangerous and intriguing.

Searching for Jesus

Over the last few years Zacchaeus had become more and more impressed with the changed attitude of those baptised by John.  Herod and Herodias may have had John beheaded because they didn’t want to change their ways when John and kept challenging them.  But there was now a lot of talk about a religious teacher called Jesus. Some had even described him as John back from the dead.

Others said he was the one John had preached about that would be greater than him.  Zacchaeus had heard that Jesus had fed thousands of people with one loaf of bread and a few fish; that he walked on water; that he spent time with the weak and the lonely; that at his hands the blind could see; the lame could walk; the deaf could hear; and demon possessed people were returned to their rightful minds.  With all that – fire baptism seemed an actual possibility. 

Rumour had it that Jesus was going to Jerusalem and had to pass through Jericho.  He would likely be arriving the next day; and so Zacchaeus made up his mind that he would go to see Jesus.  Since he had missed out on the water baptism, perhaps he could have the fire baptism (whatever it meant) and be accepted into Jesus’ group of followers.  If Jesus looked like John, all wild and scruffy, then it was likely that, just like John had done, Jesus would not push folks like him from the tax trade away.  He felt ready to learn from him about how to be a good person and help change the world for the better.

Blocked

Even before Jesus had got to Jericho he had been surrounded by religious folks and ordinary folks.  Even though the Pharisees often disagreed with him he had become enough of a religious celebrity, that everyone wanted to be close to him.  Some wanted to hear him and listen to his strange stories, or ask him questions, or argue with him about what he said about himself and God.  Others didn’t care so much about his words, they just wanted to be healed of something.  Zacchaeus, however, just wanted to see him.  To see what he was like as a person – how he looked and how he dressed. 

But he couldn’t see him.   There were so many people crowding around Jesus, that he couldn’t see or hear a thing.  Zacchaeus tried to push through the crowd, but it was far too dense.  Each time he tried to push through he got crushed and had to pull back out again. 

Finding Jesus

After a while of tracing the crowd through Jericho, they came to a section of the city where there were no alley ways or paths off for quite some distance. There was no other way for Jesus to go but straight down the street – and further down the street there was a sycamore fig tree.  Jesus, in the middle of the crowd, would have to go by it.  If he was hidden up a tree, he could see Jesus from above and so the crowd wouldn’t be in his way.

  Zacchaeus had climbed many trees as a child: including that particular one.   Sycamore figs weren’t hard to climb, and even though he was an adult he reckoned he still had the agility to climb that one.  There were lots of branches, including some low to the ground.  He knew it was possible to get quite high in that tree and so be hidden from Jesus and the crowd, yet able to look down on Jesus.  So, he ran ahead, checked to see no one was watching him and climbed up the tree, high into the branches – completely unafraid of getting stuck up there as the key thing was just to see Jesus.

Finding Zacchaeus 

When Jesus reached the spot where Zacchaeus was hiding, high up in the tree he stopped right there.  He looked up through the branches and stared directly at Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus panicked, not knowing what Jesus was going to do.  How did Jesus even know he was up there?  Jesus spoke with kindness in his voice, and told Zacchaeus that it was really important that he, Jesus, spend time personally with him in Zacchaeus’ home.  And that right now, immediately, Zacchaeus should come down and show Jesus where he lived.      

Zacchaeus immediately trusted Jesus and was excited to welcome him into his home, to get to know him and his teaching and spend time together.  He got quickly down from the tree, his feet easily finding each next branch down.

Jesus was dismissing the crowd and heading off with Zacchaeus, the two of them side by side. But the self-righteous, religious crowd reacted with frustration and anger at Jesus, muttering about Jesus spending time with the wrong people.  They saw Zacchaeus as a no-good sinner who should keep out of the way of everyone else.

Zacchaeus wanted to prove them wrong, that he wasn’t an awful sinner, that he wanted to follow John the Baptist’s teaching.  He also guessed that Jesus already knew that and that Jesus had purposely sought him out to help him learn.  So, Zacchaeus stood his ground.  He told Jesus that he would give half of all his possessions to the poor.  He would share what he had as John had taught.  But not only that, out of all he had left he would return any money he had cheated out of anyone, and he would add tax – so that he would return 4x the amount.  He didn’t want to put his faith in possessions any more.  He wanted to put it in Jesus, and in living for the good of others, especially the poor and those left out.  To be honest Zacchaeus knew what it was like to be left out.  Jesus had not left him out, and he appreciated that so much he wanted to help others.

Jesus said Zacchaeus was a son of Abraham, which for Jews meant someone who received God’s mercy and grace.  Jesus told Zacchaeus, and the others around, that he had come to seek and to save the lost. Save means to rescue.  He explained that his mission was to find and to rescue those like Zacchaeus, who felt unable to be part of what was going on with faith and religion. And especially those who climbed trees in an attempt to deal with that. 

Part 2: Luke 19:1-10, Luke 18:1-30, Ezekiel 34:1-6, 11-16

The story about Zacchaeus takes place in Luke chapter 19:1-10.  The chapter before it contains a collection of stories and parables that could relate to Zacchaeus and to how he was feeling.  It begins with the parable of the persistent Widow who continually hassles a judge until he gives in and gives her the justice she is after from her enemy.  The parable ends by saying that God will bring justice for those who continually cry out to him day and night in prayer.

The next parable concerns a pharisee and a tax-collector who are both praying in the temple.  The Pharisee felt that he was perfect and was thanking God that he was not a sinner; and that included thanking God he wasn’t like the tax-collector who was next to him.  He was proud.  But next to him the tax-collector was humble before God, acknowledging how imperfect he was, and his struggles with doing right.  He was asking God for mercy.

Following those parables is a little story about people bringing their babies and young children to Jesus for him to bless them.  The disciples try to block this from happening; they seem to want their rabbi to get on with some real work of teaching and doing miracles.  But Jesus said that the children mattered and that he wanted to bless them.  He talked of the importance of coming to him like a child.  Being a child has a sense of being humble and trusting and acknowledging a need to grow and learn, rather than attitude of pride and of thinking you’ve got it all together. 

Following that is a story about a rich man who wanted to follow Jesus, but his love of possessions was blocking his love for Christ, and so he couldn’t follow Christ with all of his heart.

The parable of the persistent widow represents Zacchaeus in his persistence to see Jesus, to see who he is and what he is about.  He doesn’t give up.  The pharisees and others who were part of the religious ‘in’ group were all crowding around Jesus.  They believed they had a right to be with him, but wanted to keep the likes of Zacchaeus with his tax related work away from him. 

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the tax-collector was humble and seeking mercy which is also rather like Zacchaeus.

And also, unlike the rich man in the final story of Luke 18, Zacchaeus was willing to let go of his trust in wealth and possessions. 

In a similar way to disciples who tried to block people bringing the young children to Jesus, the people were blocking Zacchaeus from getting to Jesus too.  He may have felt like a child in that moment, not allowed to be part of what the supposedly righteous adults were up to.  But Zacchaeus was humble enough to use child-like behaviour to see Jesus.  He climbed a tree and didn’t care if he would get made fun of for acting like a child.   

That was Zacchaeus’ quest to get to Jesus.  And Jesus too went on a quest to get to Zacchaeus.  Just like in the parable of the persistent widow Jesus responded to Zacchaeus by giving him justice and letting him into the centre of what was going on.  Like the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, it was Zacchaeus and not the religious folks who went home justified.  Like the children who were being brought to Jesus, Zacchaeus was blessed by Jesus because he came humble, like a child.  Jesus stopped the others from blocking Zacchaeus getting to him by going out to him.

The story of Zacchaeus ends with the words.  ‘The son of man came to seek and to save the lost.’  Zacchaeus represents the lost.  The lost aren’t those who have no interest in Jesus; they aren’t those who have awful behaviours and sins from which they must repent.   Rather, they are the ones who are blocked from getting in to see Jesus as a result of leaders: whether religious leaders, or political leaders.  They are the ones who are humble, and want to learn.  They are the ones who know they need mercy, forgiveness, and grace.

Both Zacchaeus and Ezekiel 34 talk about the seeking out of the lost.  And in both it is the Lord himself who seeks out the lost.  He seeks them out because those who should have been caring for the sheep have not cared for them properly, and as a result many of the sheep are weak or lost, and nobody cared enough to go and look for them and bring them back.   But these sheep are God’s people even though they are lost and no longer seen within the flock.  They are looking for a shepherd to guide them.  God himself will come and bring them back and shepherd them with true justice.  In the story of Zacchaeus Jesus is identifying himself as the Lord in Ezekiel who seeks out the lost, and then shepherds them personally.

Zacchaeus was classed as a sinner by the pharisees, which basically meant that he was a religious outsider because he didn’t meet a set of standards that had been defined by his social-religious culture.   We too sometimes have a tendency to judge by our own standards.  Christianity can subconsciously put up barriers that block people out from seeing Jesus.  We can, without realising it, have a set of standards that we believe people should conform to – or others think they need to conform to in order to be part of a church.  It may be barriers in regard to a dress code, or barriers in regard to traditions, or barriers in terms of values and expectations in relation to patterns of behaviour or thinking.  But Ezekiel 34:16 says that the Lord shepherds with justice.  Real justice. 

The positive of the message of Ezekiel and of Zacchaeus is that we can trust that God will seek and save all the lost sheep, irrespective of the barriers that are set up by those who are crowding around Jesus.  He makes a way for those who are persistently seeking after him to get to him.  He will bless those who humble themselves, and those who approach him with an attitude of smallness and openness to learning, like little children.  In fact, he sought out and rescued each one of us who are followers of Jesus.

The challenge of the message of Ezekiel and of Zacchaeus is that God does entrust the care of his sheep to human shepherds.  Jesus went out to the tree, he made himself available directly under it, and made it an important part of his mission that he should spend time with Zacchaeus. 

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago.  One of the things the speaker said there was this: ‘The church does its best work when it is on the margins.’

The work of God means caring for and leading the lost: those on the margins of society.  We can get caught up in habits of focusing on the benefits the choice sheep can bring us, and forget to go out to those who feel rejected and failed by religion, or by the countries’ leaders, or even by those around them.  We need to figure out how to go out to the margins and work there with the lost.   A key value of Jesus is that he came to seek and to save the lost, Therefore, it needs to be a key value of ours too as missional churches.

Attention to Jesus: Teamwork

Mark 1. 16-20; Mark 3. 13-18; Mark 6. 7-13.

Main text: Mk 3. 14: “So they could be with him and and so he could send them out.”

Jesus is announcing the Kingdom of God: the way God acts as King in the present and will do (more fully) in the future. He claims authority, not just as a Rabbi, but as Messiah, God the Son. We’ve seen how he reaches out to broken people. So how does he build his team?

First, he calls them, to come to him. For Peter, Andrew, James and John, this was a re-run of a previous encounter, which kind of involved them in a larger movement of disciples. Jesus had said “follow and become something that right now they aren’t. (v. 13. cf Mk 1. 17: “Follow me and I will make you become – cause you to become – fishers of men”) And when they had responded the first time round, they responded immediately. The qualification that they show for being Jesus’ disciples, is that they follow him. He is not looking for literacy or learning but for commitment. That made Jesus different from the Rabbis.

So discipleship is a process. Jesus calls and calls again. His call is to follow and become. It is to gather round. He calls his disciples rather than letting them pick him. That made Jesus different from the Rabbis.

Then, he appoints them. And from the group of disciples, he appointed twelve. Now twelve is an important word for Jewish people: their community had always consisted of twelve tribes, descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. So when Jesus takes twelve from the larger number of Disciples, he is making them a community, an obedient “People of God”, the pillars of a whole new way of being God’s people. Luke (and some versions of Mark) add “whom he designated Apostles”. All of us have been appointed, made part of the people of God with our specific part to play (matched with our gifts) in the life of that people.

Then, thirdly, he walks with them. He called twelve “so they could be with him”. He accompanies them and they accompany him. The first purpose of their appointing is to be with him. This process of making some guys (even the right number) into the kind of rocks that can be foundational to the Church, takes time. This process of turning Galilee fishermen into Kingdom fishermen, people who engage in the Kingdom activity of patiently bringing people into Jesus end-time harvest, takes time.

The focus of what he teaches is Himself. That made Jesus different from the Rabbis. Jesus’ focus was on who he is, what he does, and how he does what He does. His method of teaching was through presence. Journeying together. Lots of conversations. Asking questions, listenable to answers as well as giving his own answers.

But it was also through example. He is not simply teaching from books but “with authority.” That made Jesus different from the Rabbis. He did stuff. So the Twelve experienced life in the new community that Jesus was building. They saw how he lived; they saw him handle an embarrassing visit from his Mum. They saw him heal the sick, raise the dead, drive out the demons, feed the crowds, and calm the storms. They saw him pray. They saw that the “Son of man had nowhere to lay his head”. And the stuff he did, showed his authority, to those who followed him, and to those who didn’t! (Mark 1. 27)

Then, fourthly, he sends them. He called twelve “so he could send them out..” And he designates them “Apostles” which simply means people sent. “Out there” they are to put into practise the things they have learned, in particularly about

  • Communication (v. 14) They were to go and preach. That’s not a good word because we have overlaid it with layers of ideas from our own culture: “Go and explain what the Bible means; go and give them a three-point talk; go and bore them to tears for at least half an hour; go and explain of the meaning of the Greek words.” And in doing that we have robbed the word of its true meaning. Go and announce. Go and tell people, make an announcement. He doesn’t even need to tell them what to announce: it’s obvious. “The kingdom of God has come!” They could announce that the kingdom of God had come because they had been with Jesus. What they had seen, they were to talk about.
  • Authority (v. 15) – like Jesus – to do stuff. The thing Jesus mentions, the ultimate in one sense, is driving demons – unclean and tormenting spiritual beings – out of people. But that is the tip of the iceberg. In Luke 10. 19, Jesus tells the 72 whom he sends out, “I have given you authority … to overcome all the power of the enemy”.

Preaching and authority are closely connected: There’s authority in “preaching”: the authority of one sent, and the authority of one who has seen. A significant result of their being “with him”, is that they were able to be witnesses.

We are all different, and Jesus recognises that. In our learning styles some of us are Thinkers (who love theories and ask “Does it make sense?” ), some Planners who love organising and ask “What shall we do?” or “How should we do it?”) some Doers (who need to be active, who make things happen and ask “When do we start?”) and some Reflectors (who will watch stuff happen and wonder why it happens. They are the ones who ask “ Did it work, and why?”)

There’s a cycle in learning. We need right concepts, we need plans, we need action and reflection. You can begin anywhere. That will depend on whether you are a thinker, planner doer or reflector. But you have only learned the lesson when you have been round the circle at least once.

Conclusions…

Jesus’ way of dealing with people includes

  • calling them to community.
  • hanging around with them, talking about and demonstrating the Kingdom.
  • sending them out to do the stuff.

That is how he deals with us; it’s still what we need to respond to. Not just to believe stuff, but to journey with him. Bill Johnston says, “For me to prepare my heart means that I come to him in adoration first. I don’t come with a need for a message. I come out of desire to be with him. And I would rather have nothing to say and be current in my fellowship with him than have lots to say and be trying to find him. That’s the main thing for me – I make sure that I am current … that my relationship is fresh . It’s about feeling his pleasure which is the awareness of his heart.”

And to put what we believe into practise, responding to the call to go. Walking with Jesus is a process of what Mike Breen calls “invitation and challenge.” We need both: the invitation, the encouragement, to join something amazing; to engage with the amazing Kingdom of God. And the challenge to let the Kingdom change your life.

And it is how he wants us to deal with those he gives us. To invest time, truth and trust as we call people to community, and as we journey with them to teach, demonstrate and in turn be sent out. To give out both an invitation and a challenge. To take people round the learning circle, from theory to planning, practise and reflection.

© Gilmour Lilly September 2019

Attending to Jesus: Motivating passion!

John 11. 32-44

Our text is the shortest verse in the Bible,“Jesus wept.” … One of Jesus closest friends describes how Jesus responds to the suffering of three other friends as one of these three, Lazarus, becomes ill and dies. We know this story so well! It reveals so much truth, including the intense sense of Passion that motivated Jesus’ ministry…

What happened?

Jesus wept. The word John uses is literally about shedding tears. And the tense of the verb (aorist for those who are curious) indicates something that happened in a specific moment of time. Scholars suggest Jesus “burst into tears”. You know that thing when you are in an emotionally charged situation, and you are trying your best to hold it together, and one last thing opens the floodgates, the tears just flow. Get that. That happened to Jesus. He experienced intense sadness and grief. For Jesus, as for us, that was part of a complex mixture of emotions.

Jesus was deeply moved in spirit. (verse 33) The word carries the sense of anger. Matthew uses the same word to describe Jesus sternly warning two blind men not to talk about the healing he has just given them (Mt 9. 30). And the word is used in Classical Greek of horses snorting in their bridles as they wait to attack the gates of a city. So there’s something of anger, impatience, here.

He was troubled (verse 33). The word means stirred up, agitated, shaken. Same word is used to describe the water in the pool of Bethesda being stirred up (John 5. 7). Something upsets Jesus’ composure. Something is stirred up in the very depths of his being, like a pool fed by an underground stream.

We can see that passion, that emotion, in other places in the gospels.

  • John 2. 13-17. Jesus clears the Temple of all the traders in an angry and disruptive moment of protest that gentiles who wanted to worship were prevented by a few people who were cashing in on people’s desire to keep God’s law. Zeal (burning anger or desire or love) for your house will consume me”
  • Mk 7. 34 ‘Looking up to heaven, he sighed (groaned, moaned, as in childbirth), and said to him, “Eph′phatha,” that is, “Be opened.”‘  (In the next chapter, 8. 12, he groans because people come after him looking for “signs”)
  • Mk3. 5 He looked around at them with anger, grieved, vexed, mourning, pained (the word is again used of the pain of childbirth) at their hardness of heart 
  • Lk 19. 41 And when he drew near and saw the city (Jerusalem) he wept (ἔκλαυσεν) over it. He wailed, lamented, with uncontrollable, audible grief.

What caused it?

Empathy. Jesus was surrounded by grief. He had just had a conversation with Martha and then with Mary, and both of them had said – maybe with a challenging edge: “If you had got here sooner,, Jesus, Lazarus would not have died. This didn’t have to happen”. The second chat, with the more emotional Mary, also surrounded Jesus with the group of mourners (some of the professionals) whose wailing helped the close family to get in touch with their grief. Do you ever feel struck by the sheer amount of grief in a room, and carried along by that? It sometimes happens to me.

Love! Those who watched (maybe a bit more indifferently!) his the nail on the head. “He loved this guy!” And he loved Mary and Martha. He couldn’t face suffering and loss without an emotional response. Of course there are other aspects to love. At the beginning of the story, it almost seems like Jesus is cold, calculating and unemotional. His actions and responses seem very matter-of fact. He is concerned about

  • God’s glory (v. 4)
  • God’s timing (v. 9: recalls what Jesus says in John 9 about working while it is day)
  • God’s purposes. (v. 15: “for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe”).

This simply shows Jesus in perfect balance: he is the perfect balance. There are various ways of measuring and describing our personalities: most of them are based on determining where we stand between two opposites: are we matter-of-fact thinkers or emotional “feelers”? Are we introverts or extraverts. Jesus won’t be put on the extremes. He feels (very deeply!) But he also thinks. He understands; he plans.

Oppression. B. B. Warfield says Jesus “burns with rage against the oppressor of men.” Behind the grief is the anger. And behind the anger is the enemy. The Kingdom, the rule of God, declares war, not on sinners, but on sin. Our warfare is against every weed that the enemy of our souls has planted in God’s garden: illness, injustice, starvation, manipulation, bullying, fear, deception, and death itself. Paul says (1 Cor 15. 26) “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Identity. Ultimately, it is Jesus Himself, his internalised identity, that produces these passionate responses. He feels what he feels, and does what he does, because he is who he is. He is “the resurrection and the life”: everything in him kicks against the presence of death. He is “the Messiah”, the kingdom-bringer and Spirit giver: everything in him resists what is not consistent with God’s rule. He is “the Son of God”, passionate about his Father’s will.

What did it do?

Sometimes grief and anger end up leaving us feeling drained and useless. In grief we want to hide in a corner and feel sorry for ourselves. In anger we want to shout and stamp our feet, or go online and vent our frustration on social media or yell at the TV, or break something. What did Jesus do? Where does Jesus’ emotion lead him?

I leads him to demand that the stone be rolled away from the tomb. Never mind the smell; never mind that it’s been four days since he died. Never mind that the body won’t even look quite Lazarus any more.

It leads him to speak to his father in prayer. Prayer is always to a heavenly father who loves us; it needs to be confident, even (especially) in times of emotional stress; and it builds faith.

It leads him to the place where he shows the Glory of God. It leads him to stand outside the tomb itself. and call Lazarus out, alive… And it leads him to give his life for the world. It leads him to the Cross and the resurrection. It leads him to work out in practise what it means to be the resurrection and the life. His motivating passion achieves salvation, forgiveness, hope and a kingdom.

So What?

So we have seen the glory of God! We know Jesus, the resurrection and the life. Anything else of the supernatural, only points to Jesus, the sin-bearer, the Messiah, the Resurrection and the Life. Seeing his glory, we believe, we worship;

And as we worship, we can be transformed. We present our bodies as a living sacrifice. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We begin to respond as part of the new Creation. We we catch the fire of Jesus’ passion. So what is your motivating passion?

© Gilmour Lilly September 2019

Attending to Jesus: Methods in Mission

John 9: 1-7, 13-16; 24-38

This blind guy is one of my favourite New Testament characters. I love his strength, his courage, the independence, depth and simplicity of what he says. He’s prepared to defend Jesus quite vigorously because of what Jesus has done in his life. So today, I want to look at how my all-time favourite New Testament Character, Jesus, and how he dealt with this blind man. We’re studying this because “Attention to Jesus” is our fourth habit for missional people. (If you want to go a bit deeper into some of the other big themes in this passage, like suffering and God’s purposes, click to have a look at a talk I gave in February 2016.)

Jesus’ method in dealing with people, involves what I will call Words, Works, and Wonders.

Words

The encounter starts with some words. A well-known idea. But a wrong idea. A Popular misconception. “God must be punishing somebody: that’s why this guy was born blind.” Jewish people believed in rewards and punishments in this life. Bad things happened as a direct consequence of sin. It was so popular that even the disciples believed it. But Jesus challenged it. His words challenged, and still challenge, the established ways of thinking that prevail in our world.

There are literally dozens of ideas – about God, people, the world, relationships, morality, prosperity, life and death.… that seem right, but aren’t! Maybe even some of them are right some of the time. But all of them are just people’s ideas. All of them point people away from a good relationship with God. All of them need to be gently, lovingly and intelligently challenged. Jesus’ words challenged his world’s easy assumptions.

And Jesus’ words reveal timeless and life-changing truth. Verses 4-5 say “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

  • What time is it? Its is day or night, a time of opportunity to reach out to God or not. Jesus’ words offer us hope: we are living in a time when it is possible to reach out to God. It’s daytime. God is still knocking on people’s doors.
  • Where did Jesus come from. “I must be doing the works of him who sent me!” Jesus’ words demonstrate the character of God, perform God’s gracious and generous will, because of who Jesus is and where he has come from.
  • What is Jesus’ relationship to our world? He is the Light of the World. That is one of the most profound statements. To help us discover how profound, tell me what you know about light. We all know what light is, when we wake up in the morning and the sun shining into our windows. Yet quantum physicists can tell you the speed of light, that it is a form of electromagnetic radiation, that is both a wave of energy and a stream of particles. It makes not just sight but life itself possible. It reveals truth, breaks up darkness. And Jesus says he is the light of the world. He comes into our world, shining with God’s energy, shows up what is dark and wrong, and makes it possible to see God and to have God’s life in us.

So Jesus speaks. And our world today still needs to hear Jesus words.

Wonders

Then in a breathtaking two verses, we are told about the miracle. Jesus spat on the ground, made a paste from spit and dry earth from the street, put in on the guy’s eyes, and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam. We don’t know how the guy found the place, but we do know that when he washed the mud off, he washed the blindness of his eyes and out of his life forever. He came back seeing.

Jesus uses a bit of himself. A bit of the planet, and a bit of the blind man. He performs an act of re-creating, taking dust, as he had at the beginning of time, and making something good out of it.

This is part of what Jesus means when he talks about doing the works of the one who sent him (his Father). John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus did loads of amazing things, but only records seven of them, plus the resurrection. And every one of those signs, every one of Jesus’ miracles, is a response to a need, and brings a positive change in someone’s life.

So Wonders, supernatural signs that show God’s compassion and bring healing, feeding, or freedom, are part of Jesus’ way of reaching out to people. What happens when God works a wonder? People wonder. The neighbours wondered. They couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the blind man, walking about seeing everything. The Pharisees, the hard-line religious right, who thought it was their job to check up on every infringement of god’s law, wondered. They couldn’t get their heads around how someone who as they saw it “broke the law” (by making home-made eye-ointment on the Sabbath) could possibly be bringing healing from God. Wonders, are the things that come from god, that make other people wonder, and as a result point them towards God (if of course they are ready to let God do something in their lives!)

Works

But the works of God include more than the wonders.

  • Choosing the Sabbath to do the healing, and thus “breaking the law”, was part of the work. Jesus often healed on the Sabbath. Breaking down structures that oppressed people and made coming to God complicated and difficult, was part of the work.
  • The formerly blind guy got thrown out of the Synagogue – a real insult, loss and possible threat. If you weren’t allowed in the synagogue, you were marked out as a bad lot. You lost that sense of bing part of a worshipping and supportive community. This guy has been healed. But he has no training, no skills, questionable support from family, and no longer any reason to be begging.. So this was serious. What does Jesus do? He finds the man… because at this point in his life he needs support.

Over and over again, Jesus does that. When he heals the woman in the crowd (Luke 8. 45-48) he is not content simply to have her sneak away with her body healed: there is human contact, and the encouragement to “go in peace”. After that, when he gets to Jairus’ home and raises his wee girl from death, he then says “give her something to eat!” When he passes under Zacchaeus’ chosen hiding place up a tree, he doesn’t walk by but speaks to Zacchaeus. When he raises Lazarus from the dead, he tells the bystanders to “unbind him and let him go” (John 11. 44). He attends kindly to Lazarus’s practical and emotional needs. When he feeds the five thousand and the four thousand, it’s more than a miracle: it’s a banquet. Everyone is organised, so the weakest and smallest aren’t left out in a kind of free-for-all.

Part of the work of God, is approaching people, valuing their humanity, dealing with their emotional needs, enabling them to experience community, drawing them into a relationship with god… , looking after the weak, challenging oppression.

You could even say, that the wonders – the supernatural signs – are a subset of the “Works”. They – along with other acts of kindness and provision and challenge, harness our humanity, in the power of the Spirit, to minister to the humanity and brokenness of others.

Jesus’ way, is about words, works, and wonders. When he touches our lives, we believe, we worship, and we can’t help talking about him, touching the lives of others with his words, works and wonders.

© Gilmour Lilly September 2019

Attention to Jesus: Truth

Who He is and what He does. John 1. 29-42

We encounter two guys called John in this chapter. One is John the Baptiser, who has the the main supporting role in the story. The other is the young fisherman who wrote the story down, John the brother of James. They have some things in common:

  1. A relationship with Jesus: John the Baptist was his cousin; John the fisherman was one of his closest followers.
  2. An understanding of the important truths about who Jesus is and what he does.
  3. An passion to draw attention to Jesus.

We’re going to begin with the Baptiser, Jesus’ cousin. People thought he was wonderful. He looked and talked radical – like one of the old prophets. He identified with the poorest of the poor, living a life of absolute simplicity out in the countryside. He challenged hypocrisy and challenged it hard, as he prepared the way for Messiah. But then, he began to realise something: to notice that his cousin ( a few months younger than him) was standing out from the crowd, as someone really special. One day Jesus came to be baptised by John, and John nearly refused to do it because he recognised that Jesus was miles better than he was. But eventually he did it and then he saw the Holy Spirit coming down from Heaven like a dove and resting on Jesus. Then he knew. And he started to be a bit rude, and to point his finger. (He didn’t care about being rude: this is the guy who called the religious leaders a brood of vipers!) “Look – see that guy there – he’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John is speaking out TRUTH ABOUT JESUS. Truth about who Jesus is and what he does. Truths that were and are important enough that John the Fisherman, John the Apostle, carefully remembered and wrote them down.

  1. Jesus is the sin-bearer. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29; see also v. 36). The Old Testament is full of references to Lambs used as a sacrifice, especially to take away people’s sins. When God tested Abraham (Gen 22) he provided a ram as a sacrifice in place of Isaac. When the people of Israel escaped from Egypt, each family had to sacrifice a lamb so that the angel of death would “Pass over” their homes (Ex 12). And then there is the wonderful passage about the suffering servant (Isa 53: “ We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”)
  1. Jesus is God. “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (v. 30). Wow! Jesus was about six months younger than John. And he was quietly working and learning while John launched into public preaching. But John knows from his parents the story of Jesus’ birth he has seen the Spirit descend on Jesus. He has heard the Father say “This is my Son, I am pleased with Him.” Beginning to piece the bits together, he realises that Jesus, though the younger of the two, is actually older than him. In fact he says literally “After me came a man who became before me, because he was before me.” Jesus jumped the queue in front of John, because he existed before John was even conceived. The other John, the fisherman turned Apostle, writing this gospel, makes it his first priority to establish this truth: Jesus is God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word as with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God and without him nothing was made that has been made.” (v. 1) “The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and we saw his glory, the glory of the only begotten from the father.” (v. 14)
  2. Jesus is the Baptiser. This conversation took place after Jesus had been baptised.And God had told John, that the person on whom the Spirit lands like a dove, will Baptise people in the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Source, the Giver of the Spirit.Jesus has the Spirit, in order to give the Spirit.Life with Jesus is life in the Spirit.Life in the Kingdom is life in the Spirit.
  3. Jesus is the Messiah. The day before, John had been asked “Are you the Messiah?”. He answered, “No!” (v. 19f) and then said his job was to prepare the way for the Messiah (v. 23). So he knew Jesus was the Messiah. In Isaiah 53, it was the messiah who was “Led like a lamb to the slaughter”. It is the messiah who says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” in Isaiah 61. With Jesus, not only is sin forgiven; not only is God revealed; not only is the Spirit given, but the Kingdom, the Rule of God, begins to break into our world. The other John. celebrates this as he tells us that Andrew says to peter, “We have found the Messiah” (v, 41)

Like John the Baptiser, and John the fisherman Apostle, we need these big truths about Jesus. Who he is and what he does. We need to give attention to Jesus, theologically. (And I hope you are realising by now, that theology doesn’t have to be overpowering, boring or difficult.) But what are we going to do about them? What are we going to do about this Jesus?

Firstly, we WORSHIP. Knowing who Jesus is, giving attention to the truth about Jesus, puts us in our place. And our place, is on our knees in wonder, worship and adoration. John says “he ranks before me” (NIV, v. 30) John the Baptiser also says “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (v 27) and “He must become greater; I must become less.” (Jn 3. 30). Worship is more than nice words and gestures. It is our lives laid down at Jesus feet. For John, it meant that this followers started to follow Jesus instead.

And secondly, lastly, we MAKE JESUS FAMOUS. John the baptiser says, “The reason I came baptizing was so that Jesus might be revealed to Israel” (v. 31) The Greek word translated “reveal” means to make someone famous. To make something public. To make something clear. Like Sam Phillips “discovering” Elvis and Johnny Cash: which really means he launched their careers, and made them famous. If like Sam Phillips with Elvis’s voice, we’ve discovered the amazing truth about Jesus, we want to make Him famous!

Jesus, not religion, or Church, or the Bible, or Calvin or Billy Graham or John Wimber or the latest worship artist, is central in our message.

In v. 35, John the Baptiser is standing around with two of his followers. One is Andrew, Peter’s brother. The other is very likely to have been John, the young fisherman. And he too, became someone who wanted to make Jesus famous – but all over the world. Three times in telling this story, John the fisherman uses a Hebrew or Aramaic word, then explains what it means. “Rabbi, which means teacher” (v. 38); “Messiah, which means Christ” (v. 41); “Cephas, which means Peter or the Rock” (v. 42) John the Fisherman Apostle, sent out to make Jesus famous, knew he had to do that in language that ordinary people, all over the world, could understand. And sometimes we need to do that, by saying what Jesus said to the two followers: “Come and see”. We make Jesus famous, not just by our words but by what people see in our lives.

© Gilmour Lilly September 2019

“Eating Out”

Luke 10. 1-12

We learned a couple of weeks ago, about the huge significance of “Eating” in the Christian life.

  • It’s been a metaphor and an embodiment of God’s grace since the days of the patriarchs, from Genesis to revelation.
  • It’s a hugely significant factor in the life of healthy Churches: one of the simplest ways of “doing life together”.
  • And as our Hospitality extends to people who don’t know Jesus, it is a wonderful way of blessing, building relationships and nurturing conversations that give space for the Holy Spirit to move…

Luke 10 tells us about how Jesus sent out 72 of his followers on a mission trip into the villages where he was about to visit – like he had already sent the twelve disciples. And a significant part of their work, involved going into villages and towns and trusting God to persuade someone to let them stay over, eating what people offered them. So I want to talk about “Eating out”. I don’t mean eating at a fancy restaurant, but eating on someone else’s invitation, on someone else’s territory. And this passage gives us three commands, and three accompanying Principles, for all of our mission, that apply in particular when we eat with people who don’t know Jesus.

Missional Vulnerability

“Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” (v. 3)

In an encounter between a lamb and a wolf, which would you rather be?

Public Domain image by Gary Kramer

Lambs among (literally in the middle of) wolves is quite an extreme image. “Lambs” suggests inexperience, smallness, innocence, the inability to defend themselves. Lambs separated from their mothers are somewhat lost. Have you ever heard the lambs bleating for their mothers? Lambs are usually born in ones twos or rarely more that that. Wolves born in larger litters and are pack animals. They are organised, determined and smart. Lambs among wolves could easily end up becoming someone’s dinner.

Vulnerability is a key principle in mission. Saying “Come to us” is kind of safe, for us. Going to others is more frightening. We are more vulnerable. That vulnerability is not a hazard to be avoided: it is an essential principle in mission. It’s great to invite people to come and eat with us. It may be more significant to take the risk, of going and eating in the middle of a bunch of other people. We fear rejection, ridicule, embarrassment; we fear being asked questions we can’t answer; we fear losing an argument; some of us fear “Contamination” by contact with people outside the Church. But we mustn’t let that stuff stop us. Prov 22.13 call the guy who won’t go out in case he gets eaten by a lion, simply “lazy!”

Michael Frost tells the story of a Southern Baptist pastor in Portland, Oregon. This guy’s next door neighbour held regular “Margarita and poker nights” in his basement, and always invited the pastor. Now Southern Baptist Pastors tend not to drink alcohol nor to gamble and a Margarita is an alcoholic cocktail. So he never accepted the invitation. Frost (who teaches mission) asked the pastor how many timed he had ever talked about Jesus with his neighbour. Guess the answer: it was less than one. So Frost challenged the pastor to accept the next invitation. His neighbour was really surprised, and the pastor had more conversion about Jesus than he had for a long time.

The command is to go! Mission is about being sent. We are called to mobility: to go among people who need the Good news of the Kingdom. Yes, that is going to be a vulnerable place. To be the only believer in your home, or in your group at School, or in the place where you work, may sometimes feel a wee bit vulnerable. Like you are surrounded.

Listen: Jesus isn’t fazed by that. He knows what he is doing. He knows where he is sending us. Like lambs among wolves, sure. But the Shepherd is with us by his Spirit. His rod and staff comfort (have compassion on, give rest to) us.

Kingdom Simplicity

“Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.” (v. 4)

What would you want to take on a mission trip? 

Jesus says literally “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. And no idle chatter on the way.” The underlying principle is simplicity for the sake of the kingdom. We are there to say “Peace: The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

Mission doesn’t need to be resource-hungry. It needs simplicity that is committed to and depends upon the realities of the Kingdom of God. We need to be among people as those who have nothing to offer – except the Kingdom of God. Eating with others – showing hospitality, and moving vulnerable among people, letting them serve us, is a way of demonstrating some of he values of the Kingdom. Food doesn’t need to be complicated or fancy. We are not there to impress people. We are not there to sell something. We are not there to recruit for our organisation. “Eating out” can be having beans on toast in a neighbour’s kitchen, sharing sandwiches at school or eating in the works canteen.

The command is to Lighten up. The command is “Do not carry stuff.” Let things go. Opt for the Kingdom way of living, of being among people, and of engaging with God’s mission. We need to keep life simple, so that there is room in our lives for the Kingdom of God.

Gospel Connexion

“Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you.” (v. 7-8)

Are you an explorer or a settler? 

Eating with people is a good way of staying around, of making connexions, starting conversations and telling stories. The French are possibly better at this than we are. Meals in France are traditionally lengthy, time consuming. Not surprising for a country that has more varieties of cheese than there are days in the year! Snacking is looked down upon. The idea of grabbing a sandwich at your desk is seen as strange. They eat a good meal three times a day. Food is to be enjoyed and it is to be shared. Eating together is an expression of staying around. It is about presence.

A few days ago, someone said in a radio discussion (about the environment) “Nobody got converted through a pie chart. We are narrative beings.” I want to add, people can be converted through pies, because we are narrative beings, and the narrative, the story telling – that can happen when we share food, could point people to a saving knowledge of Jesus. It is as Alan Hirsch says, possible to eat your way into Heaven!

Eating out involves graciously allowing others to help us. That is the way Jesus did it: he allowed a group of women to support him during his earthly ministry Luke . No surprise that these women developed a faith that kept them walking with Jesus to the day he was crucified; to the day he rose again, and to the day the Spirit came at Pentecost. He actually asked the woman from Samaria (John 4) to give him a drink. And sipping water from her water jar, Jesus was able to ask her some very searching questions, so that she eventually went back to her village saying “Come and see someone who told me my whole life story. Could this be the Messiah?”

The command is to stay. To be present as redeemed humanity, with people. To carry the grace of god, the Kingdom of God and the Spirit of God, into the homes of men and women of peace.

© Gilmour Lilly August 2019

Genesis 32:22-32. A mysterious figure wrestles Jacob

This passage about Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man is, I think, one of the most fascinating and intriguing sections in the whole of the Bible.  It seems like such a random thing:  a mysterious wrestling match with a mysterious figure.  And yet this is what God uses for one of the most important aspects of the Bible’s overarching story lines.  The name Israel comes into being here.  And Israel remains a key name into the New Testament and beyond into our lives today.  We are part of God’s people ‘Israel’.  As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians.

Gal 6:15-16  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.  Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule – to[b] the Israel of God.

The name Israel is closely connected with Blessing.  Not only in Genesis 32 but all the way back in Genesis 12 and in some ways to the beginning of Genesis.  Abraham is Jacob’s Grandad and in Genesis 12 Abraham receives his calling and his blessing.

The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

 ‘I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
 I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’

That Blessing given to Abraham will become a part of Jacob’s story.  In my talk this morning I will give some background as to who Jacob is; and how he came to be crossing the river Jabbok where the wrestling match takes place.  On our journey this morning I will also cover three types of wrestling that we encounter today in our everyday lives.  The first is sibling wrestling; the second is adult and child playful wrestling; and the third is wrestling entertainment shows such as WWE. 

Sibling Wrestling.

I come from a large family and am the oldest of 8 siblings.  After me I have three brothers ranging from 1 – 4 years younger than me.  After my brothers I have 4 sisters.  My sisters are between 6 and 15 years younger than me.   Sometimes in large families there becomes a natural split in the middle, an older half and a younger half.  That very much happened in my family.  I grew up playing with my brothers while my Mum looked after my little sisters who played together.  Us older ones would often stubbornly refuse to let the little ones play with us. 

Amongst the many games I played with my brothers was play wrestling.  Sibling play wrestling though is never just playing.  In our play wrestling as young children there was always the concept that at the end of all our playing, one sibling would be the strongest, and that point was never lost.  We played wrestling as children because of sibling rivalry.  To this day we remain a competitive family.

For Jacob and his brother Esau that sibling rivalry through wrestling began before they were even born.  They were twins and they shared their mother’s womb.

Genesis 25:22-23 says that the babies jostled each other within [their mother, Rebekah] …, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So, she went to enquire of the Lord.  The Lord said to her,

‘Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
    and the elder will serve the younger.’

The brothers were wrestling even in their birth.  Esau came out first, but Jacob was clinging onto him by the heel.  Jacob means ‘he grasps the heel.’  That is the literal meaning anyway; but that word in Hebrew also had the metaphorical meaning of ‘he deceives’.  Names matter and maybe Jacob took the identity given to him by his name too far.  He remained the kind of guy that was always one-up on his brother, even if that meant winning through trickery or deceit. 

 In ancient times being the first born was important.  The first born got all sorts of advantages; and although the two brothers had come out the womb together attached to one another hand to heel, technically Esau was the eldest.   But twice Jacob deceived Esau out of the advantages he had as the first born – there was no way he was up for letting Esau get the best deals as the elder sibling.  The first time he tricked Esau out of his birthright; and the second time, with his mother’s help and guidance, he deceived Esau out of the moment their blind Father Issac wanted to give Esau a special blessing as his first born – the covenant blessing that had been passed from God to Abraham and from Abraham to Isaac.

The particular blessing that Jacob managed to get in place of Esau was this ‘…
 May God give you heaven’s dew
    and earth’s richness –
    an abundance of grain and new wine.
 May nations serve you
    and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
    and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
    and those who bless you be blessed.’

The ending to that is exactly the same as part of the blessing given to Abraham and his descendants. 

So, Jacob seemed to be in a constant battle with his brother in a bid to be the one to come out on top.  To be the brother than won all the good stuff going and any advantages that there were to be gained within the family.

There wasn’t much in the way of blessing left for Esau that wouldn’t undo Jacob’s blessing and Esau felt so angry he wanted to kill his brother.  Jacob had to leave for his own safety.  With his parent’s knowledge and blessing he journeyed to the distant land of his uncle Laban – his mother’s brother.

Jacob spent 20 years with Laban.  He worked hard looking after Laban’s animals for 14 years so that he could earn his two wives, Leah and Rachel.  The final 6 years he earned his own flocks out of Laban’s as wages tor tending the flocks and working hard to keep all the animals safe.

 When Laban agreed to give a wage Jacob’s competitive streak kicked in again.  He figured out ways to get lambs to be born with specific markings.  So whatever marking Laban and Jacob agreed to as Jacob’s wages:  spotted, speckled, streaked, or dark coloured, Jacob would breed the strongest sheep to produce the required markings, so he would get all the strongest flocks and Laban, his own Uncle and Father in law, got the weakest. 

Not surprisingly Laban got frustrated when Jacob kept ending up with the strongest animals, so he kept changing which markings would be Jacob’s wages.  He changed Jacob’s wages 10x and every single time Jacob would end up with the strongest animals.  And so Laban gets angry with Jacob and feels like he is stealing his animals.  Laban doesn’t quite get to the point of wanting to kill Jacob but nonetheless he kind of just runs away from Laban because Laban is angry.  He goes on the advice of God actually.  God tells him to go back to the land of his fathers and his relatives and that He, the Lord, would be with him. 

Jacob heads back to his homeland with his family and everything he has earned with his hard work – and trickery.  When Laban realises that Jacob has sneaked away he chases after him. 

But God has still got Jacob’s back and God warns Laban not to let out the full force his fury on Jacob and to try and remain neutral.  Laban and Jacob promise not to harm each other; then they part ways and Jacob continues on his journey.

What do you think of Jacob?

Jacob doesn’t have the strongest relationship with God.  When he was initially running away from Esau God had appeared to him in a dream about a ladder and promised to be with him and watch over him.  The dream impacted Jacob but didn’t seem to quite believe the dream fully because he made a vow that the Lord would only be his God only if he did bring him back safely to his father’s household.  In all his achievements he rarely realised that it was God working through it all.

Adult and Child Playful wrestling

As Jacob nears his home land he sends some messengers ahead of him to tell Esau that he is on his way.  The message he receives in return is that Esau is on his way to meet them with 400 men.  And this is when suddenly Jacob panics.  He normally knows how to have the upper hand but it sounds like Esau is coming to kill him as he was keen to do 20 years ago.  But Jacob has a young family to protect and he can’t stand against 400 men.  His usual strength and intellect may fail him in this encounter and he doesn’t know what to do.

Jacob the deceiver comes up with a trick idea:  He designates his family and his herds and flocks into two parties in the hope that one would survive.  He then spends time in prayer.  Through the night he comes up with a further trick and sends several very large gifts of animals to Esau ahead of him – each gift separated out from the others so they arrive at different times, and each with a message that Jacob was coming behind. His hope being that the gifts would calm Esau.  He sends his gifts ahead of himself and his family and stays in the camp another night with his family and flocks.

Most likely his anxiety, fear, and over-thinking keeps him awake because in the middle of the night he gets up, wakes his family up and helps them ford the river along with all his possessions. Presumably still designated into their two parties.  It seems the river is shallow enough to wade through.

And then he is left alone. 

He is alone in a shallow river, or on the muddy bank of the river.  Standing in pitch darkness, on the threshold of his homeland, alone with his fearful thoughts.  His last fight in that homeland had been the one to wrestle the blessing off Esau, the one that now left him fearful of Esau’s retaliation. 

Mystery figure wrestles Jacob by the river Jabbok in pitch darkness

Then completely out of the blue he is attacked by a man who wrestles him.  In the pitch darkness he can’t see who it is but Jacob stands his ground against this unseen man and the two of them wrestle.  They are matched equally in strength and persistence and so the wrestling continues through the rest of the night.  Presumably the two of them are wrestling for several hours before the sun begins to rise.  It must have been pretty exhausting but Jacob is always a determined guy and keeps the fight up.  There are clues in Jacob’s story that he is a pretty strong guy so he may be wondering why he can’t quite get the upper hand over his unseen attacker.

The clue that it is a very real and very physical fight, rather than a dream, is the physical limp that Jacob eventually receives.

 Eventually Jacob senses that this is God he has been wrestling.  It may seem strange that God chose to come to Jacob in such a physical manner but I think there are clues as to why within the concept of parenting.

When my girls were little they often wanted to play rough and tumble games with their Mum or Dad – including Wrestling.  Rose in particular loved to play wrestling.  She called our wrestling games ‘battle force’.  In Battle force we would play on the bed I share with my husband, usually chucking pillows and duvets down the side to break any accidental falls off the bed.  The aim of battle force was simply to get the other person down for a count of three seconds. 

I tended to let Rose win most of the time, but not every time.  The challenge as the adult over a much smaller and weaker child is to give the effect that she is actually stronger than you – which is easier said than done.  Another challenge is to play even when you’re tired or busy. And that’s something I was a bit rubbish at.

Children like to play wrestling because it can give them the effect of power, and the effect of control.  But I think the physical matters very much too. It’s a lot like a hug but with a great deal more effort. 

The main thing parent child wrestling does is to build relationship.  It builds intimacy and trust in a safe manner.

There are a whole variety of reasons why play wresting is really beneficial, and it can depend on the individual child’s need; and I reckon that wresting was the perfect way for God to be a good parent to Jacob.  And God wasn’t too tired or too busy to meet Jacob at the river for a wrestling match.

In a book about play therapy with children, the author suggests rules for wrestling.  Some of the rules are these:

  1. Provide basic safety (Well Jacob was wrestling in a shallow river, or perhaps in the mud on the river bank.  It likely was a safe place for wrestling with soft landings).
  2. Find every opportunity for connection (Jacob needed connection.  He needed relationship.  Although God had appeared to Jacob on a few occasions in the past, the two of them didn’t seem to yet have fully connected.  Jacob didn’t yet have complete trust in God and was relying on his own strength and canniness to get him through life).
  3. Increase their confidence and sense of power. (I believe that God matched his strength to Jacob’s and fought all through the night because a need to feel strong and powerful was linked with Jacob’s identity.  He didn’t seem to like being second best in anything. Jacob didn’t lose the wrestling match even after the hip dislocation.  God didn’t actually want Jacob to lose his confidence or feel weak.  Jacob had been struggling against a sudden feeling of powerlessness as he considered facing Esau and God does want to help him overcome that sense of powerlessness.)
  4. Use every opportunity to play through old hurts. (Later in the book the author says this: ‘You may need all your strength to make sure no one gets hurt when children kick and fight hard.  They aren’t wrestling any more, but releasing a huge pile of terror and anger: They may be only dimly aware that you are there, holding them and making sure no one gets hurt…This happens because children have been hurt and scared, and you may be shocked that they have these emotions inside of them.  The wrestling opened the door for the release of these heavy feelings.’  Genesis 32 says that Jacob was in great fear and distress.  God let Jacob work out all the frustrations and fears he had in a physical, energy draining wrestling match.  At that moment it was fear of Esau that was getting to him most of all but there were other hurts Jacob had to work through.  I reckon he sensed the unfairness of the ancient tradition of the eldest getting the benefits and that was why he had fought so hard to get the benefits that tradition said Esau should get.)
  5. Provide just the right level of resistance to the child’s need.  (For Jacob’s situation God needed to match his strength to Jacob’s exactly.)
  6. Stop if someone gets hurt.

God wrestles with Jacob as his Parent, because of Jacob’s past identity as a wrestler since birth, and because of Jacob’s fears, and because Jacob needs a deeper relationship with God. 

For us too we have our fears that we need God to help us deal with.   Like Jacob was we too are recipients of the promise that God will always be with us, and the recipients of the blessing given to Jacob in Genesis 12.  We too are children of God.

But like Jacob we can forget these things, or lose hope.  And maybe we could do with a bit of wrestling to help us deal with our difficult, negative feelings; or our worries about the future.  I don’t think I’ve ever wrestled as an adult with someone of equal strength  but I have found that doing something physical like running or punching pillows helps with frustration. And hugs help too.  Wrestling is an interesting combination of hugging and energy releasing activity so it’s pretty great at dealing with horrible feelings.

Jacob was worried about meeting Esau because of his past treatment of Esau.  What are you worried about?  You are a child of God and he’s got your back just like he had Jacob’s.

Wrestling Entertainment Shows.

The third type of contemporary wrestling that is relevant to this passage and that is wrestling entertainment shows.  The difference between play wrestling and entertainment wrestling is that the hurts and frustrations to be worked through are written into scripts rather than being real.  They are essentially TV dramas based around wrestling.

I think this is relevant to the story of Jacob, not because the story wasn’t real life, but because God isn’t removed from putting a bit of controlled wrestling into our storyline as a twist in the plotline.  In fact, as said at the beginning this wrestling match is a key in the Biblical Narrative that affects us too: The background to the name Israel is fighting.

Jacob wrestles through the night not knowing who he is wrestling.  But, as the very first light of day begins to dissipate the utter blackness, Jacob might now begin to discern some of the features of the mystery man.   But this is when the figure, who is actually in control of the script and the story, makes his move to end the wrestling and get away. 

He touches Jacobs hip and it dislocates and asks to be let go because it is daybreak.  (Remember the rules of play wrestling above?  Stop if someone gets hurt.)

One of the reasons for playful wrestling in parenting is to build relationship and to build trust.  In order for that trust and relationship to be developed between Jacob and God going forward God included a carefully controlled injury within the fight. 

Hurting Jacob easily at the moment of his choice when they had been wrestling hard all night showed that the attacker could have done that any time – but chose not to.  And asking to suddenly end the wrestling match just at the very first sign of a wee bit light gave Jacob the hints he needed to start fitting the pieces together of who this guy was This was someone supernatural; and so he asked for a blessing.  There is a sense of trust in that.  Having wrestled through the night he now trusted his wrestling partner to be a being who would give a good blessing.

His personality trait of persistence is a good personality trait and we can be persistent in seeking a blessing of some kind too.

There is general agreement among scholars that the blessing is the name change which is followed by a farewell blessing.

The blessing of the name change, and the sudden disappearance following a farewell gives Jacob the full realisation that the encounter was with none other than the Lord.  Not and angel, but God himself.

God asks Jacob his name before giving a new name because he wants Jacob to say it aloud.  Jacob is saying ‘I am a deceiver and a wrestler – a heel grasper’.  And that gives God the opportunity to contrast it with a new identity. Israel means God fights or God strives.  Though the explanation given is somewhat different than the name meaning.  The explanation: ‘because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome’ highlights that Jacob has achieved great things – he does have strength and intelligence.  But it also highlights that God has been with him thus far in all his achievements. 

The new limp and the blessing of the new name go together.  Combined they show that, although Jacob’s strength had been God-given, he should not rely solely on his personal strength and cunning in life.  He wins battles because it is God with him that does it.

Blessing and loss go hand in hand in Genesis 32; and for us as individuals or as a congregation we too may need to lose something before we can fully receive a blessing. 

We may think we need certain things to survive – but the reality might be that these things are actually holding us back from fully trusting God and fully committing our future into his hands Jacob needed to lose the strength he had in his legs through his hips so he could learn to stop relying on his own strength and wits and learn to trust God. In that was his blessing.  For us – God may be wrestling with us so that we can give up some things that we hold dear before he can bless us.

What might we need to give up in order to strengthen our trust in the Lord, move into the future, and receive a blessing? Or maybe we’ve already lost it by a touch from the Lord, and need to let go and move on?

Maybe it is even long held traditions that we think are essential to our wellbeing but are in reality, the things we need to lose.

As we wrestle with God, and with his Word to us in Scripture, we may find that we come away injured by God’s challenges to us.  But after losing stuff we need to keep fighting on for a personal blessing.  Keep being patient and not giving up.

The new name and the new limp gave Jacob the confidence he needed to face his brother.  When Jacob says that his life was spared in this encounter with God it includes a realisation that Esau would not kill him because God was at work fighting on his behalf. As it turns out Esau runs to hug his brother as soon as he sees him and their relationship is renewed and strengthened.

As God’s people Israel, sometimes we too need to stop striving to do things on our own strength, and to trust God to take us safely into the future.  As Zechariah 4:6 says Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty.

Just as Jacob was upset that Esau might end up more blessed than him, sometimes we look at other people or other congregations and think they are more blessed than us.  But I think the story of Jacob’s wrestling match shows us that God is aware of supposed injustice and he wants to bless us too and he is indeed on our side and striving for us. 

Jacob was blessed by grace.  God broke tradition and chose the younger brother over the elder to be the continuation of God’s covenant people.  Jacob learned in that wrestling match that he had been chosen by grace; and he realised that one-upmanship was not what God intended.  In his old age he chose to bless each of his own sons equally by grace.  And we too are under God’s grace.  So, let’s hold on tight with persistence and patience as Jacob did for the blessing God wants to give us.

Eating together

Acts 2. 42-47

We are looking at five practises for mission, focussed around the word “bread”. B is for Blessing and R is for Relying on the Spirit. Today, right in the middle, we come to the shortest, simplest, and easiest of the five. I don’t need to define it. We all do it. “EAT!”

Specifically, eat with other people. I’m not talking about me stopping working on this to eat a packet of crisps. Most of us eat twice or three times a day. That’s twenty-one times a week. You can push that up to 25 times a week if you include coffee and cakes. Now how about if we took just some of these meals – and made them meals with other people? And how about if we took at least one of these meals – and made it a meal with people who don’t know Jesus? For some of us, that’s dead easy!

We’re looking at the life of the very first Christian Church, in Acts 2. 42-47. It would be very easy to dismiss “Eating together” as just a tiny detail. But it’s important: it was important enough for Luke to mention it in his story. It isn’t a silver bullet. There are actually no silver bullets, no guaranteed simple tricks that will revive the Church. So we set it in context.

Firstly, these guys were committed.

“They diligently, doggedly devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and the prayers.” (v. 42) God had done something dramatic. Jesus had got a hold of their lives and saved them. Now they were committed to learning how to live this new life the way God wanted them to.

  • The teaching of the Apostles, their witness to the truth about Jesus, his story (what he had done) and its significance (what it shows us about God, and about our life in him”
  • Fellowship. Having something in common. They had a common heritage in Judaism. They had all been brought up to worship Yahweh; God the Father in Heaven. The all had Jesus in common:they knew that Jesus is God the Son and had died for them. And they had all received the Holy Spirit. It would be inconceivable to have a Trinitarian encounter with God in common and not let that affect every other part of life. So they were committed, to the “common life”.
  • Breaking of bread: the uniquely Christian act of worship we sometimes call Communion.
  • And the prayers. They still took part in the regular prayers of the Temple; and the Church had its own times of prayer

There is no quick and easy way round commitment. You can sit down and munch on burgers or curry, week in week out. And it will not transform your life, without there being a real commitment to the Lord Jesus and to the disciplines of following him in community.

Secondly, it was part of the strategy of the Spirit.

The miraculous was happening. (v. 43) The whole story of Acts is the work of the Spirit. The experience of seeing believers speaking about God, in all the languages of the Roman world, had made them curious. They had heard the Good news; 3,000 had been baptised. And the Holy Spirit was still at work. There were signs and wonders continuing. And the Spirit was busy building community, bringing qualitative growth to these three thousand new believers, and in a slower way than before, bringing people to faith. The next number that’s mentioned is a total of five thousand, in ch 4. 4 and that was days or weeks later.) So eating, was part of the strategy of the Spirit.

Thirdly, it was an expression of the common life.

They shared what they had (v. 44). Basically, they started to do life together. That’s an interesting concept! Some churches have done interesting things with that. Bishopbriggs Community Church began its life in a big house, where they worshipped in the living room. When they outgrew that, they got a site on a disused brickworks and built a new Church centre – and twenty houses and eight flats, all owned and lived in by Christians! David Watson lived in a substantial Victorian Vicarage in York and for a number of years had an “extended family” sharing life with his own family. In his story “you are my God” he describes the joys as well as challenges of life in community. It’s not for everyone. But we all need in some way to share our lives and our resources. To do life together. And eating together is one of the simplest – and most Biblical – ways of doing that.

Fourthly, it was a context for worship and spiritual growth.

Breaking of Bread took place in homes (not in a religious building, interestingly!) And whether as part of “Breaking Bread” or separately, they partook of food with glad and thankful hearts. Breaking bread was associated with meals together. I H Marshall says, “The idea is that they held common meals which included the breaking of bread” (cf 1 Cor 11. 17-34)

  • Sharing food is a way of focussing in on God. Of all the the good things we do in Christian worship – welcoming people, music, Bible reading and teaching, prayer, sharing news, giving gifts, using gifts – there’s one thing that Jesus told the Church to do when it gathers: breaking bread. And that goes back to the mists of ancient history: food was the test of Adam and Eve’s obedience to god; food was how Abraham received the news that he was going to have a son of his own. Food was how on more than one occasion Jesus showed himself alive after the resurrection. Food is going to be part of the experience of the new Heaven and the new earth. At the Breaking of bread, god once again invites us to dine with Him!
  • It is an essential element in Christian Discipleship and in Christian mission. Discipleship isn’t about filling in the boxes in an bible workbook. It isn’t a programme to get you to do more things for the organisation of the Church. It is about growing, through shared lives, shared stories, shared ideas, shared responsibility. Round a meal, or a cup of coffee and some biscuits, we can get to know people; we can make our story much less preachy; we can let our hair down and relax together with our brothers and sisters. Discipleship can happen when we eat together.

Lastly, it was a springboard for Mission.

These new believers still hung around together in the “Solomon’s porch” part of the temple. That is partly about the fact that as followers of Jesus, they didn’t stop being Jewish, and it took them a while to realise that the message of Jesus was for all the people of the world. And it’s partly about being there, among their own people, unafraid of mingling with people who don’t know Jesus. It’s about mission.

At the very least, when we do discipleship with food, when we do life together, we rehearse simple skills that are useful in the mission context. Hospitality (“philoxenia” meaning “love of strangers” is a command in Rom 12. 13). Conversation (we’ll be coming back to that one!) and generosity (we’ve already looked at that one!) Sometimes, when we do life together, we do something that we can invite others into. We should be fully engaged in the world we live in (although there may be some places where we would be better avoiding!) We need to be meeting people who don’t know Jesus, eating with them, talking to them. We occasionally do food together as a whole Church. That can be hard work. We’re doing it today. Maybe we’re not always getting it right. But it is an important part of church because it is about doing life together.

The coming of the Spirit creates curiosity. The exercise of the gifts, the bubbling up of the miraculous, creates curiosity. So does the quality of our life together – if people can see it and experience it. And to welcome others to eat with us gives us that same possibility: shared lives, good conversations.

So people approved of the stuff they were doing. (v. 47) People were saved and added to their number. It’s possible to eat your way into heaven says Alan Hirsch.

© Gilmour Lilly August 2019