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?

Test yourselves… what?

Read: 2 Corinthians 13:5-10

I have often wondered about this verse: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” I mean, wouldn’t I know whether I am in the faith? Don’t I know my own motives, whether I really do entrust myself to Jesus?

There will always be some who will say that ‘looking for evidence of faith in myself is man centred and therefore a false confidence. If this is where you are at, your problem is that Paul commands such self reflection. And if your view of Scripture is that it is God breathed, then you have to say the God commands it. So it seems to me that if God commands it, it is a very good thing to do. And perhaps any protestations about it being man centred are just duck shoving.

Who are you when no one’s looking?

Tom Wright helps us understand what is in view here:

“[Paul] suggests that they … should submit to a self test. Before he arrives, they would be well advised to run through a checklist of the signs that indicate whether Messiah’s life, his crucified and risen life, is present. For Paul, that is the very centre of what it means to be a Christian (see Romans 8.9-10 and Gal 2.20). When you look at yourself in the mirror, do you see someone in whom King Jesus is living and active, or someone who once knew him but now seems not to? When you listen to the sort of things you yourself say, does it sound like words that might have come from King Jesus himself, or are you simply talking the same way everyone else does? When you find yourself with your brother and sister Christians, do you respond to them as brothers and sisters, as people in whom you see King Jesus also living, or are they just ‘other people’? And when you settle down and quieten your mind and heart, to pray and wait for God, do you know and sense the presence, the life and the love of King Jesus close to you, within you, warming and sustaining, guarding and guiding, checking and directing you?

“These are searching tests, but they are the kind of thing Paul has in mind

[Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians, p.142-143]

Q: When no one is looking, does Jesus still rule your heart and dominate your thoughts?

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?

God and the Live Export Beef Trade

Read: Gen 9:7-17

In his book, ‘Engaging God’s World’, Cornelius Plantinga observes that Genesis 1 opens our eyes to the core character of God. In his act of creation, God answers the formlessness of the heavens and the earth with his creative word ‘Let there be light.’ While Plantinga does not make the point directly, I have wondered whether the essence of God’s grace is to give out of who he is, and what he has, to cause others to flourish.

Once you start thinking this through, you start to see it everywhere in the Bible. You see it in creation itself, in God’s call of Abraham, and ancient ‘nobody’; in his establishment of his covenant with insignificant Israel, the birth of Isaac, Israel’s entry into Canaan; even in King David, who simply did not cut it when it came to how a King should look. Most of all, we see it in Jesus’ coming into the world to bring grace and life and truth. We see it in his commitment to his mission, and his self sacrifice (Phil 2). We see it in God’s mission through the church, and to the church’s call to sacrifice and servanthood. It is everywhere: God wants his world to thrive and his people to flourish. This is not some prosperity driven gospel of success. The flourishing life God wants for his world is that they thrive in his self giving gracious character. He wants us to thrive in being like Jesus.

…the essence of God’s grace is to give out of who he is, and what he has, to cause others to flourish…

This passage in Gen 9 speaks of the covenant the Lord makes with ‘all life on earth’. I believe one of the applications here is that God loves all life. His Spirit makes life abound! These words in v.17 get us thinking about our responsibilities, not just to human beings, but to all forms of life, and the environments in which they live. A few days ago, ABC’s Four Corners exposed horrible practices of some beef export companies. It was ghastly footage to anyone who viewed it. Imagine, then what God thinks! Maybe he was weeping. Maybe he still is.

Maybe God weeps at the indifference shown by some of his people to questions of environmental concern. We all know there are priorities: the well being of other people is paramount. But that does not mean God’s people can dumb down matters of environmental stewardship and the just use of land and creation.

Since we are images of God, we are called to care about the things God cares about. He loves life. He wants it to flourish and thrive. And Jesus his Son is his means of reconciling the whole cosmos to himself.

Q: Do you think Christians have typically denied their environmental responsibilities? How have you seen this?

A Straight Line with a Crooked Stick: How God works in broken people like us

Read Isaiah 45:1-11

The Old Testament tells us that certain special leaders were anointed with oil: prophets, priests, and kings. In addition to that sort of ‘anointing’ we read passages that refer to a coming ‘anointed one’, God’s promised Messiah (see Ps 72:8, Ps 18:44-48). This promised Messiah is the one whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus Christ (see Matthew 16:16).

What surprises me in Isaiah 45 is that this term is applied to Cyrus, a Persian ruler. Cyrus was a non-Jew. He was not a worshipper of the One True God. He was devoted to Marduk and other pagan deities. Had he ever presented himself to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, he would not have been accepted as a worshipper with the people of Israel, and instead he would have been confined to the outer courts. So it’s pretty amazing that the Lord calls Cyrus ‘his anointed’. The Hebrew is even more challenging: the words ‘messiah’ is used.

History tells us that in the first year of his reign, Cyrus issued a decree which allowed all exiles to return to Jerusalem, worship the Lord, and rebuild the Temple (2 Chr 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–3; 6:2–5). So this pagan king was used by God to bring his promises to fulfilment. God used a crooked stick to draw a very straight line.

We are all crooked sticks, but God does his work through us

But then, was Cyrus so special in that regard? Sure he was, in the historical sense, and by reason of the fact that he’s the only pagan to be called a ‘messiah’ in the Bible.

On the other hand, doesn’t God use all of us to bring his purposes to completion? Even if we were to regard ourselves as mature Christians and devoted followers of Jesus, isn’t it true that we are all failed and fallen people? Crooked sticks, all of us? For sure. Still, God promises to work through us, and bring his will to completion as he works through people in his world. Even through people who would not identify themselves as ‘his people’.

When our culture is so driven by self interest and cynicism, it is overwhelming to know that we are not left at the mercy of random and naked forces. In some mysterious and incredibly comforting way, God is at work in our world. We are not on our own, not left to our own devices.

Today, this day, with all the stuff you have to deal with, this God has chosen you to do his will. He will work through you. He loves to do that, and he wants you to love him and honour him in return. Your commitment to delight in this is called ‘obedience’ – your glad response to his overwhelming love, grace and power.

Q: How does this truth help you survive in a world where there is so much evil? Does this truth help you worship God, or make it harder for you to do so?

Grace is free, but it’s not cheap

Read: Deuteronomy 7:6-16

Have you ever noticed that we love hearing about God’s grace, but we are not so keen to hear his call to obedience?

Do you ever wonder how God feels about that? Maybe he feels like a lover who showers their mate with affection, gifts, and security only to find that their mate is indifferent and does not reciprocate. I don’t know: would God be more grieved, or broken, or angered? Maybe all of that together, and more.

Grace is free, but it is not cheap. If we have little desire to obey, we cheapen whatever it cost God to give grace in the first place. The cross of Jesus tells us the cost to God was beyond our imagination.

If we have little desire to obey, we cheapen whatever it cost God to give grace in the first place

In Deut 7, we hear how God acted in grace to draw people to himself. And as much as we believe in grace, the verses which follow remind us that we still have a deep sense of responsibility to obey. They also remind us that how we obey will have profound consequences in our lives.

Obedience is no burden. Is a lover burdened when they respond to their mate with warmth, love, and commitment? Is a lover burdened when they rest on the shoulder of their mate, keen to do whatever will express their joy and happiness to be in relationship? Obligation doesn’t even come into it. This is all about opportunity, privilege, and joy.

Our responses to God should be like that. As we obey God, we get to live for the sort of world that he delights in. His love is our motive. His love is the cause. His love is the goal.

Q: Think of one area were you have been resisting obedience to God. Think about how much he loves you, and what that love cost, and then make a resolution to change some specific behaviour and attitudes