Following and Sacrifice

At first thought, following Jesus seems easy. It seems a matter of changing your mind about who Jesus is, recognising and accepting him as Saviour, and acknowledging him as King and Ruler. I suppose it is easy, relatively speaking, to see ‘following Jesus’ as a ‘decision’. Western Christianity often focuses on people making ‘decisions’ to follow Jesus, or to accept him as Saviour. In some places, these decisions are pretty much the only thing that matters. So, evangelism strategies and even services are focussed around getting people to make those decisions.

Many people who operate from an atheist or agnostic point of view will sometimes ‘the decision’ as the major battleground: with the focus being on the intellectual arguments as to why someone should follow Jesus, or whether there is a God, or an afterlife, or whatever. This makes some sense, because the primary battleground is the inner realities of human life: the heart, the mind, the will, the soul. People do need to assess who Jesus is with their mind, they do need to yield their will and bow before Jesus’ supreme and majestic authority. People do need to offer themselves – to give their heart – to this King as worshipful subjects.

Even so, if all I give is my inner realities, as significant as that may be, I don’t think I have begun to follow Jesus the way he intends me to follow. The inner realities are the starting point, sure, but those realities are connected to my behaviour and my attitudes. Here’s the rub: Jesus wants the change in your inner reality to come to concrete, consistent, continual expression in a changed life. Behaviour. Values. Attitudes. Talk. Generosity. Relationships. Business ethic. Lifestyle. Eating habits. Sexuality. Yep, pretty much everything.

This is why yesterday’s thought was so challenging: ‘think of those areas where you are not obeying Jesus, and start changing them now.’

See, friends, it is easy to ignore the call to changed behaviour and attitudes, and just concentrate on the ‘inner life’. We’re OK with change, as long as we can ‘spiritualise’ it, and restrict that change to comfortable areas like ‘growing in knowledge’, or ‘having a stronger faith’. Stressing ‘inner change’ while neglecting behaviour change is like paying attention to the safety features of your car, but still driving like a maniac. It makes no sense. It endangers to your life and the life of others. James the Apostle reminds us that the Devil has excellent knowledge of God, and that inner faith without outward expression is nothing but death.

So, God is calling you and me to change. Real change. Change that will be difficult. Jesus, in Luke 9, says that following him is like losing your life (9:24).

Are you up for that?

Are you prepared to change those things in your behaviour and in your attitudes that you know really do need to change? Are you prepared to put to death your love of wealth? Or your proclivity to gossip? Or your thirst for influence? Are you prepared to step into the compassionate lifestyle God calls you to have? Are you prepared to reduce your personal comfort to maximise your engagement with God’s mission? Are you committed to loving the people as an expression of the love for God in you?

Jesus gave his life for you on that terrible torturous cross. He counted his heavenly glory as nothing. But is following him actually costing you anything?

True. There are burdens that come as a consequence of truly following Jesus. They are felt when you start working out what God has worked in you (Philippians 2:12-13). And while it’s not a popular thing to say to comfortable western Christians, these burdens hurt and they chafe and they are weighty. This is what Jesus calls your cross (Luke 9:23).

You want to follow? Then take up your cross. Take it up daily. And, knowing he has called you, this cross, his cross on your shoulders, becomes easy, and light.

One last thing: Jesus never calls you to do this work on your own. Through his Spirit, he is present with you. He will give strength and endurance. He will give you all you need to follow, to change, to carry his cross.

So, about that change: what will it be for you? Make a commitment now: write it down, share your change with a friend, and ask them to keep you accountable.

God wants you to flourish

It is no secret that from within the general camp of what might be called Reformed Evangelicalism there are a number of people who view God as a stern master whose primary interest is to impose rules, expose sin, and generally fume about how bad the world is.

Make no mistake: humanity is deeply and profoundly impacted by our rejection of God and our fall from grace. Call it what you will, but no one has to work too hard to prove total depravity. Have a look at what’s happening in the UK right now and you’ll see what I mean. Thinking about all that, we recognise that God is serious about dealing with crime, wrong, injustice, and sin. His commitment to answering the ills of our world, however, is borne out of his greater commitment to good, right, justice, compassion and love.

The Cross of Jesus is an historical reality not simply because God had to punish human sin, but more so because he wanted to bring people a life and an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. It makes sense, then, that the cross is followed by the resurrection. The death of Jesus is the unexpected door to eternal life.

But here’s the point: what happened on calvary had its beginning, not only in the fall, but in creation itself. God’s core desire that his world should thrive. He causes life to abound. He wants you to flourish. I love the way Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’ interprets John 10:10: “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of”.

‘I have came so they may have life and have it to the full’ – Jesus

Once you see this core desire of God in Scripture, it’s everywhere:

• God’s act in creation is the first great statement of what He wants to do: he is all about expending himself to cause his creation to thrive

• He draws Abram into his covenant, blessing him that all nations of the earth might be blessed through him

• He chose Israel so they would show the world around them his design for life, as expressed in the ten commandments

• Jesus came to reconcile people back to God, to remove the sin and rebellion that separates people from God, and to bring them into life that can never end. Is there a more poignant illustration of God who gives (of) himself to bring flourishing life to others than the cross and the rising again of Jesus?

• He pours his spirit into his church and into the lives of his people so they grow well into the life he has for them, bearing fruit that honours him and brings his plans to exression

• He sends his church into his world to carry his good news of life and hope to people in darkness, and that their death and fallenness can be overcome by his grace

• His people are called to live as salt and light, bringing to expression the sort of world that God delights in. At our very core, we will find ourselves longing for this world. And God wants that world to flourish.

• When Jesus returns, he will reunite heaven and earth, and bring to full and perfect expression the world God delights in. It will be wonderful, beautiful, full of life, and safe – more wonderful than anything we could ever hope for or imagine

Simply put: God wants you to flourish in him. This is not a narrow and selfish preoccupation with getting what you want. It is being consumed by striving for what God says our world needs.

Ultimately, this is not a human centred endeavour: our single minded focus is on the glory of Jesus and the honour of God who is bringing all this about.

God wants you to thrive in this kind of life, and being one who is redeemed and owned by Jesus, I cannot think of a more stimulating day to thank him.

Q: what is your primary mental picture of God? Does it bear any resemblance to the above?

The God Who Implores: Can we contemplate worshipping a God who would beg for anything?

Read 2 Cor 5:11-21

Try and remember the last time you begged for anything. I mean, seriously pleaded and entreated anyone for something. After we get past the trivialities of begging as a child for a puppy, or pleading with an adolescent son to get out of bed and go to school, we start to struggle. Perhaps the more common examples of serious begging are in situations of life change: a cancer, unemployment, relationship breakdown. No doubt, we’ll find a few examples of serious begging there.

As I read 2 Cor 5:16-21, I find myself challenged by the images in v.20

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV)

Or as it read in the Authorised Version

“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, AV)

Can we conceive of God as a begging God? As a God who implores?

Some time ago I tweeted the same thought: If God would beg for anything, what would it be?

My fiend Wid responded: I find it so difficult just to imagine how God can beg for anything…

Me too.

But that does not change the fact that this passage opens our eyes to the God who begs. We read of God ‘making his appeal through us’ (v.20).

I think we get that: God as paraclete. God who comes beside to encourage. God who urges us forward. God who draws us close, and into his own grace. We can live with that.

But God begging? A mendicant God? An imploring God?

Luke tells us of a man, covered with leprosy, who fell with his face to the ground and begged Jesus to cleanse him (Luke 5:12). He tells is of a father, desperate for his son to be relieved of his demonic oppression, begging Jesus intervene (Luke 9:38). And he tells us of a demon possessed man in a graveyard, begging Jesus not to torture him (Luke 8:28)

This is the word, the image, Paul uses in our passage: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV)

Could this be one of the most astounding images of God we find in the Scriptures? The creator God, the Sovereign Lord, the everlasting father, the omnipotent one … imploring, begging, entreating people to be reconciled to him?

Could this be one of the most astounding images of God we find in the Scriptures?

John Calvin says:

[this passage is] an unparalleled commendation of the grace of Christ, inasmuch as He stoops so low, that he does not disdain to entreat us

Think of a few other Scripture passages:

In Luke 15, the parable of the prodigal god, the younger son has returned, there is a glorious reunion with the father, there’s a celebration, but the elder brother is so angry that he refused to go in and join the party. But the father went out and … pleaded with him (15:28).

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), making his way to his own death, he looks on that city, the geo-spiritual heart of Israel. This is the city where he will die. It is full of people who will bay for his blood. They will prefer Jesus Barabbas to Jesus, Son of the Father. He pictures the thorns, and the nails, and his own disgusting death. And he weeps for that city, beseeching them, that they may still change.

Even in the OT we hear this gracious Lord pleading with wayward, rebellious, adulterous Israel:

““Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! ” (Ezekiel 18:30–32, NIV)

Are these words of anger? Or do they reveal such a depth of grief that has our Covenant God imploring his hard hearted people toward grace, forgiveness and life? Isn’t this the heart of our gracious Saviour, our loving Lord, for the lost? The rebellious? The broken? Those far from him?

And could there be a more poignant illustration of the God who begs for people to find life than the Cross, upon which the Prince of glory absorbs, for all eternity, the sin and punishment of his people?

See how much God loves us? O how he loves us!

Thinking about my ministry, and yours, the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ God has entrusted to us, would we say the priorities, behaviours and actions of our ministry reflects the heart of this imploring God?

Does my congregation image this God, and beg for the life of sinners?

Is it a place where God implores people, through us, where we implore people, for God?

Is our denomination an imploring denomination?

Can our communities hear God imploring them in our words?

Can they see, and feel, this God imploring them in our actions and our ministry priorities?

Perhaps the more challenging question is this: Are God and I actually interested in the same things?Do we really share the same heart for the lost?

Despite the strength of these words, it is not hard for us to think these thoughts as we read them now. It is harder to act on them beyond this moment. And to keep on acting on them. And to lead from them, and to serve into them.

Around one year from now, the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia will be meeting in Synod. God forbid that all our discussion, planning, and decision making be reduced to one or the other theory, or view, or approach, or process.

Think of all the discussions we have had and are yet to have about
Mission. Whether fourfold task, or some other strategy, whether we should lean more into church planting or not.

Think of our discussions about developing leaders: What leadership models should we be looking at? How can we build an ethos that develops leaders and trains others?

Think about all the discussions we have had about worship: should we be progressive? Traditional? Conservative? Ancient? Emerging?

I sometimes wonder if all our discussions about such things amount to little more than an annoying squeak in the ears of this God whose passion is to implore people to be reconciled to himself, through us.

These few verses put all our efforts into stark perspective.

And I am challenged to lean more into this mendicant mission and ministry, into the heart of the God who begs.

Prayer: God, let us be deeply moved by how you implore rebellious humanity to be reconciled to yourself.

May we reflect this same divine passion as we gladly embrace this ministry of reconciliation!

Q: Identify one thing that would change in your church as a result of God’s passion to implore people to be reconciled to himself. What will you do to better reflect the ‘God who begs’ in your own life and ministry?

John Piper interviews Rick Warren – a definite ‘must watch’

I have just taken 90 mins to watch this excellent interview between John Piper and Rick Warren. It is definitely worth your time to do the same. Here’s why…

Piper  Warren

You can view the interview here:

My interest was piqued because Warren’s Purpose Driven Life was incredibly influential some years ago, having become one of the biggest selling books of all time (after the Bible). PDL was also a great resource for the development of the small group ministry at Redlands Christian Reformed Church in 2003. That we could have sermons, small group studies, and reading materials all themed together was a terrific way to launch into our small group ministry. We have never looked back.

Beyond any organisational aspects, the subject matter of the Purpose Driven Life was also a great encouragement and stimulation to us. That’s why we could not understand some of the negative criticism levelled at the book. Rick Warren was denounced from some quarters as a mean centred theologian, light on theology, as one who played fast and loose with the text of the Bible, as well as a raft of other criticisms.

So when Rick Warren recently published the interview between John Piper and himself, I thought that was not to be missed. John Piper is of course one of the more popular reformed evangelical voices in the USA. His views are widely received and respected in circles where I serve amongst the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia.

If you’re a person who loves the reformed heritage, I would encourage you to watch the interview in its entirety. As you do, you may just

* Be challenged: that there is good reason to be respectful of Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose Driven Life’ and thankful for the contribution his work has made to Jesus’ Kingdom and glory

* Be surprised: that there is not so much separating Rick Warren and John Piper. Well, that’s how I saw it. You draw your own conclusions

* Be reminded: that we need to be balanced and gracious in the way we deal with what other Christian leaders say and do. Australian Christian leaders are sometimes a little too quick to engage in the tall poppy syndrome. We are not immune to this weakness, friends.

* Be encouraged: Piper and Warren are so gracious to one another and so warm in their interaction. I found myself saying ‘I wish I would interact a little more like that’. They made me desire to honour Jesus more in my work

Q: Leave a comment and let us know what you think about this interview

Watch what God does, and then you do it

Read Eph 5:1-20

The command to ‘imitate God’ seems impossible to honour. How can failed and fallen human beings imitate God? True, but that’s not what Paul is getting at. He is asking us to imitate God in his values and character toward people and their world. This makes it more exciting than impossible, right?

The immediate context has to do with forgiveness and love, but as we move through the chapter we hear the writer dealing with the broad scope of life, and how relationship with Jesus transforms it.

Make no mistake, we do these things because God is making us new through Jesus, and because he is at work in us (Eph 3:14-21). God’s work through Jesus means the changes he calls us to are not impossible. What God calls us to attempt he will enable us to achieve.

With that in mind, here are a few questions to get you thinking about how you can watch what God does, and then start to do it:

* How can I show grace and forgiveness to those who have hurt me? Who are the people who are waiting for my words of grace? What will I do to bring grace in these situation?

* How can I help the people around me to thrive? What are their needs and how can I address them?

* How can I help my community to show grace to the poor, the needy, and the helpless?

* How can I help my neighbourhood to be a community that God would delight in? What needs to be done, or developed?

* What injustices are there around me, and how can I join others in addressing and correcting them?

Q: If we ere to do these things consistently, do you think Christians and the church would have more credibility?

Q: What other questions might be helpful as we consider this topic?

Offended?

Read Ezekiel 34 (again)

The audacious message of grace is Jesus has offensive undercurrents. Not that God is offensive, but more that we might find his grace offensive.Think about it: Paul reminds us that the message of the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness to many (1 Cor 1:23). That puts it mildly. It was so offensive to Jews in his day that several times they sought to kill Paul. Stephen was put to death because the Gospel tripped the religious leaders up (Acts 7). Other NT church leaders were also put to death. Jesus himself dies on a torturous cross.

Why does the message of Jesus provoke such strong reactions? Maybe it’s because God himself becomes the shepherd, and take on a position of weakness and powerlessness. It does not sit right with our human categories of power, authority and leadership. But that is what God does. Jesus, true God, made himself nothing (Phil 2:7). On the cross, Jesus takes into himself the sin, guilt and punishment of those who hate him. As he does, we observe a heinous transfer where Jesus becomes becomes our sin. And why? So that you and I might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

The offence, then, is how Jesus – God’s perfect Son – had to become our sin in order to set us free. The other angle is this: we could not, can not, and never will be able to bring ourselves to God, and find his life, without Jesus. Jesus is our only hope, because all we have to offer, even our very best, is stained with the fall’s ugly pollution.

I am broken and humbled by this Jesus, who just keeps loving me, and others, and he does not stop. This love is the measure of my own. And God’s own commitment to rescue and redeem through his servant hearted, sacrificial act in Jesus, is the measure of my own commitment to mission.

Q: What does this audacious grace of Jesus say to your inability and failing? How does it make a difference to what lies before you today?

The Audacity of Grace

Read Ezekiel 34:11-16

I am struck by the contrast between the abusive shepherds of Israel and the Lord, who is the good shepherd. A context of the shepherd’s self interest and abuse we are drawn to the breathtaking faithfulness of the Sovereign Lord. He knows all, and decides to do all to change this ugly pastoral picture into a one of peace, tranquility, protection and blessing.

More amazing is that God does this despite the terrible situation before him. He could have sold the farm, written off the loss, and done one huge cull. His lavish grace draws him to do something else: he took on the shepherds job himself and got to work changing the situation.

What he promises here: to search to restore, to care for, to rescue, to bring to pasture, he has done in Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10), and Jesus continues this work through his church (Matt 28:16-20; John 21:15-19).

When people fail, God will find other ways to bring his purposes to fulfilment

God takes our failing and rebellion upon himself. God steps in and brings restoration and hope to our brokenness. This is the audacity of grace. And we have to learn from his undying commitment to his own saving purpose. When people fail, God will find other ways to bring his purposes to fulfilment. Jesus’ death and rising is all the proof we need.

Q: What do these verses say about your own style of leadership, or about the challenges faced by your own church?