[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for April, 2016.]
It was Passover time, something that all Jesus’ disciples had observed or participated in since they could remember. They all knew that every Passover ever celebrated for over 1400 years had the Exodus from Egypt as its focus; the great act of deliverance whereby God set his people free. But this one would be different in ways no-one would have ever dared to imagine. Jesus would shortly say, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” In one simple pronoun, He claimed the right to a higher and more meaningful remembrance than the entire Exodus event! He also made it clear that this was a permanent change “As often as you do it…” But before Jesus made His great claim to superior remembrance, He did something else which was equally profound. Jesus, the recognised leader and teacher, washed His disciples feet. (See John 13:1-17).
According to the 19th century scholar Alfred Edersheim, there was a point early in the Passover ceremony when the head of table would rise and wash His hands, so those present might have expected Jesus to leave His place at the table in order to do just that. Instead He confounded them all! He stripped off His robe and tunic, picked up the hitherto unused towel, wrapped it round His waist and took the place of the lowest servant, washing feet that should have been done as soon as each had arrived. No wonder Peter protested. Jesus was reversing all the accepted social rules he knew!
He was also pricking their consciences! Luke tells us that the disciples had disputed again over who was most important. It may be a guess, but perhaps it was over who would sit where! (As we know, views of self-importance have the nasty habit of intruding where they should not.) How quietly pointed then Jesus’ actions must have been! How rebuking! Here was One who had healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed the storm, confounded the subtleties of Pharisee and Sadducee now acting as a lowly hired help, declaring also that this was an example to be followed by his disciples.
Jesus modelled a humility that only one fully secure in self-understanding can show. He did not fear anyone’s disapproval to be confident in who He was. He is the Eternal Son come from the Father and going back to the Father. If the Father called Him to be a servant then a servant He would willingly be and all without any loss of face. The Christian has this same assurance. We are the Lord’s, no matter what others think. But Jesus had a higher purpose than just modelling humility. He was pointing to their need to be clean. His words to Peter and the others, not understood at the time, would become clearer as the next few days and weeks unfolded. They would realise that He was really saying, “Peter, if you cannot accept my humility in washing your feet, how will you ever accept that I have humbled myself to wash away the filth of your soul?”
Ultimately, real humility can only spring from a life transformed by the gospel. Only the Spirit can give us the self-understanding we need to serve, and nurture an attitude that does not draw its motive or endurance, however subtly, from pride. When there is no glory for self, false humility will quickly grow weary and give up. It should not surprise us therefore, to see that as Christianity is increasingly pushed to the margins of our society, we lose the general social willingness to volunteer and serve that has contributed so much in the past. It should not be so with Christians. We are salt!
Dear reader, if Jesus has washed your sins, then you can joyfully serve others and be a real blessing, even if it seems you are only ever given the lowliest of tasks to perform.
[first published in the March 2016 Congregational Notes.]
It is a basic and unmistakable truth of the whole of Scripture that “the soul that sins shall die.” It was declared to Adam and Eve in Eden, affirmed by all the priests and prophets, demonstrated at the Cross, and repeated in the New Testament letters even after Jesus rose again. As the Shorter Catechism states in Answer 84, “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.”
By this rule the prophet Jonah certainly deserved to die. He deliberately disobeyed a very clear command and provoked God by his rebellion. So God sent a storm from which there was no escape. All hope was lost, until finally Jonah confessed his sin and his folly. The sailors, hearing that he was a prophet of the God who sent the storm, asked him what to do. (Wisely, they sought the mind of God!) Jonah, speaking as a prophet, asked to be thrown into the sea. In effect, he told them, “The soul that sins, must die.” They obeyed and discovered that they lived! And Jonah? He was swallowed by a fish! Doubtless he expected to die and the sailors surely believed he was dead but he did not die! God sent a great fish. And so we find him in Chapter 2 praying to the very One whose word it was that he be cast into the sea, i.e. into the sentence of ‘death’. God had decreed his death and ordained his life. He must pray! Here wonderfully, amazingly, is the grace of God at work.
We know how the story continues but when Jonah prayed, he did not know how it would end. He only knew that God had ordained that he should live and that this was from His mercy alone (v.9). He made no bargains. He did not even promise to go to Nineveh if he was freed from the fish, because he did not presume that all would be just as it was before. Sin has consequences. But despite this, there is in his prayer a sense, a real hope, that there would still be a calling for him and a testimony to give to others even if it were only to be in the temple in Jerusalem (see vv 4 & 9). He understood that he lived by the grace of God and that in some way God would still use him. The mind of one who has been given life instead of death is daily amazed at His saving mercy and is happy to accept any area of service, however humble.
O non-Christian, this Easter season, do not ignore why Jesus died! Do not forget that you are under condemnation for your sin and that it is only by the mercy of God that you live at all! Realize too that even if you know only a little of what there is to know of Jesus, you at least know something! Even if you only know what Sunday School told you years ago, you are accountable for that. Will you act on it or not? If reading this is the first time that you hear it, know that Christians say there is hope in Him “in this life and that which is to come.” To do nothing is to despise his merciful slowness and to dare him to harden your heart further. How much more earnestly than Jonah should you pray? God declares that your sin deserves death! If Christ died to bear punishment for sins, but not for yours, then you know what you still deserve!
Likewise O Christian, this Easter season, do not forget to say with loving awe, ”I do not deserve the life that I have now or that life which is to come, and the life that I do now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” You owe him everything. So how will you live for Him? What can you do? What gifts, however small you consider them, do you have? He “owns” them so do not despise them. If you are willing to bring them to Him, He will surely use them for His glory in ways that you have never expected.
[First Published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2016]
Every year at the end of January, discussions about the appropriateness of Jan 26th as Australia Day are raised. Some do it with good intent, some out of naiveté, and still others with a desire to stir up mischief, so it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference. Some even suggest a change of name to Invasion Day as if that somehow would make things better. Amidst all the chatter, it is important that Christians have a measured response. Simply decrying “the past” as if somehow it is uniformly bad is not the way to go, just as trying to claim that the past was all good will not hold. The issues are complex and the historian’s caution is apt when looking back to the written record; deeds which “disturbed” the human sensibilities of the day are more likely to have been recorded and the more “normal” deeds of humanity overlooked. Wrongs were done, perhaps even in the name of the Church, and it is understandable that there will be the desire to pass on to future generations all the unresolved hurts and hatreds of the past. In some cases, sadly, it even becomes a mark of identity.
Much of the present attitude to our nation’s past is also hostile to Christianity, so that Christians must be careful; it is too easy just to “join the chorus.” The issue goes way beyond human rights for if we can paraphrase Jesus, “what shall it profit a man if he gains all human rights but loses his own soul?” Where old sinful attitudes remain they must be rebuked, but the Christian must also point out that any corrective which still discriminates, affirms aboriginal culture in its old mythology, or builds an integrated Australia where Christianity is sidelined, is equally sinful in the eyes of God. So the Christian critiques all ‘sides’ in the debate, even when it’s politically incorrect to do so.
History gives us many examples where hurts and hates are passed down through the generations, but it also tells us that this never facilitates reconciliation. Along with the acknowledgement of wrongs, there must be a letting go and a recognition that not all consequences of past actions can be undone. Calls for reparation are easy to make but that alone will not solve the problem and may well make it worse if later generations are forced to make reparation or carry the penalty for actions they did not commit.
The Christian’s interest in noting past sins is not to re-live them or re-assign the guilt for them to future generations. Rather it is at a higher level and looks to see what God has done. As with all sins, it draws attention to them in order to highlight the holiness and law of God which weighs every culture and every person in its balances and finds all wanting. “There is none righteous, no not one.” In Acts 2 & 3 Peter accused his hearers of the great sin of putting Messiah to death. His message was simple: let those who were guilty repent of this sin and seek His mercy, just as others were to repent of other sins. Their descendants would not be guilty unless they too continued to hate and reject Jesus as the promised Saviour. Peter’s point was not to perpetuate guilt or to perpetuate the hostility between Jew and non-Jew but to affirm the wonder that God had evangelized both groups through and despite the actions of sinful men!
The same Bible which critiques sin in every age reveals the only hope for our future: God’s grace in Jesus, in Whom there is forgiveness and full satisfaction for all sin, not just those injustices that hurt us or our ancestors. Only in Jesus can the past really be let go, and a new future be embraced by even the most down-trodden. This is the radical way that Christ set for his followers: “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you.” It transformed the Roman world, it can transform Australia’s.
[First published in the congregational “Notes” for January 2016]
Many of us are familiar with some of Aesop’s Fables, in which the antics of animals become the vehicle for wry observations about human nature. One of the most well known tales is the “Tortoise and the Hare” in which a tortoise, tired of the hare’s boasting, challenges the hare to a race. The hare is convinced that the tortoise is a fool, and races off thinking this will be no contest, leaving the plodding tortoise far behind. But the hare soon tires and decides that, because the race was so easy, there is enough time for a rest. The hare lies down for a sleep, but over-sleeps and during that time the tortoise creeps slowly past and crosses the finish line first. The moral of the story as Aesop told it? “Slow and steady wins the race”.
Aesop was not the only ancient to teach morals of behaviour using events in the animal world (many are found in the book of Proverbs) and we should not be surprised that God has ordained that we should find ways in His creation to illustrate the follies, quirks or wisdom of human nature . The apostles themselves used the idea of a race as a illustration for the Christian life, (1 Cor 9:24; Heb 12:1, et al.) so it is not surprising that we might find parallels with The Tortoise and the Hare.
A few years ago, American pastor Kevin deYoung wrote a blog post called “The Glory of Plodding” in which he lamented the tendency to despise the perceived ordinariness of Church life and to prefer flashier, shorter-term alternatives for growth. Zeal for the kingdom of God is a good thing, but the kingdom of God is not built on human strength, and both experience and wisdom tell us that Christian progress is more like a marathon than a sprint. Unless we recognise this, what starts out with the flash and fanfare of the hare can often end in a whimper of exhaustion where congregations lie down and stop altogether. And stopping completely is just what the devil wants.
DeYoung’s title is appropriate for much of the Christian life; it is a glorious tortoise-like plodding! Like the first century Athenians (Acts 17:21), our age is constantly after something new—and faster! Christians are not immune to cultural pressures and can be deceived subtly into thinking that modified Gospel presentations which are “fast”, “spectacular” or “flashy” will succeed in building the Church where steady, faithful presentations have failed. But if the truth be told, there are no shortcuts, and God has ordained that it is often the steadily unspectacular which bears most fruit for Christ, because there is far less room for us to take glory for ourselves (1 Cor 2:4-5).
Recently I had occasion to look at the 160 or so editorials written for these Notes over almost 13 years. Not surprisingly, there were common themes for most of our New Year editions: faith, trust, learning from God’s past faithfulness, looking long-term for our future eternity, God’s right to change our plans, our resolve to walk in greater godliness and prayerfulness, etc … So, what new things can be said at the beginning of this year? Not a lot! Nor should there be much that is radically new, as all these same things are the stuff of living for Christ ever day, and if anything, we know that we all need to be reminded of them far more often than once a year!
It is this very sense of sameness that can foster discouragement, especially if we think there has not been much advance in our life over the years. But if your eyes are fixed on Jesus and your desire is to follow Him according to His word, then your faith will have been strengthened. Perhaps what you see as lack of progress is just His keeping you in the right place so that you will be best able to serve other “plodders.”
[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes”, December, 2015]
If there was ever proof that our age is caught up in the idolatry of materialism, it is seen in the way in which our celebration days have been captured by the tradition that they must be accompanied by giving a gift. We may even subtly be encouraged to make others feel guilty if they have not done so for us! And the advertisers tell us that our gifts must be new, and preferably expensive—nothing second hand! Astute manufacturers, aware of our passion for the new, carefully plan obsolescence, limited product life and upgrades so that we will become dissatisfied with what we have and keep on desiring something “new” even though we know from experience that the joy of the new will still surely fade away. We are so captive to this behaviour, that the health of our national economy often hinges on a good Christmas trading period!
In a world where everything declines, is there necessarily anything wrong in desiring something new? Like many other desires, so much depends on our motives. Right towards the end of the New Testament, the Scriptures reveal that Jesus Christ Himself also desires new things. He desires a whole, new, sinless creation! We read, “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said … Write: for these words are true and faithful.” [Rev. 21:5] This is the One who in the beginning saw all that He had made and declared it to be ‘Very Good.’ So why does something made by God and declared ‘Very Good’ need to be made new? Does the work of God fade? Does God, like us, get bored? Certainly not! Clearly something happened to spoil the work and to make the “New” necessary and desirable to Jesus.
That “something” was of course, the entrance of human sin through the disobedience of one representative man, Adam. He rebelled against the authority of God and as a consequence, all human existence ever since has been under judgment of decline and death. It was not always so and it will not always be so, but it is our lot now. And as decline and death are penalties for sin it is natural that mankind looks for ways to post-pone their effects—everyone will put off judgment day if they can! But despite all our wonderful science, judgment cannot be put off forever. There will come a time when at the very least our bodies will wear out like old clothes, and in death we will stand before the pure Holiness of God. Only the sinless will be able to remain, all others cast away forever. What will you do then? More importantly, what are you doing now? You cannot make yourself new yet to remain on that day you must be made new! You must be ‘born again’ with an eternal life. Who can do it?
Enter Jesus! And enter He did, in the wonder of His incarnation. Out of His free love for sinners, the Eternal Son of God took on a true humanity through his miraculous conception. He was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth and taught throughout Palestine. He was crucified and buried in Jerusalem only to rise victoriously (and bodily) three days later. In so doing He paid sin’s penalty in full for all who repent of their sin, seek His grace and trust in Him. Death and its preambles now carry nothing penal. If we die in Him, we enter eternity. He alone can make us “brand new”.
This is the Christian message; the only “reason for the season” and the only reason behind the angels’ song of “peace on earth” and the shepherd’s joy. The Newness Jesus brings comes as a gift. It can be asked for, but never be earned or deserved. And unlike all other Christmas gifts it will never break, fail, go become obsolete or lose its power to delight. Is your “reason for the season” that Christ is making YOU new?