Jesus Saves (a sermon on Luke 8.26-39)

One of the most beautiful titles given to Jesus in the Bible is ‘Saviour’. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves us from something too powerful for us to control. We might think of a person in the grip of an addiction of some kind: perhaps an alcoholic or a drug addict. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Step two goes on to say, ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ This illustrates for us what it means to have a saviour, a rescuer, a deliverer.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is the Saviour of all who call on him. He doesn’t differentiate between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich or poor. As Paul says in our epistle for today, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) And today’s gospel reading is a powerful example of that.

Jesus and his disciples have just come through a storm on the lake. The disciples thought they were lost. Many of them were experienced fishermen, but even they were afraid as the waves rose and the winds howled and the water began to swamp the boat. They cried out to their Master for help, and then an amazing thing happened. He simply spoke a word of rebuke to the wind and the waves, and immediately the storm ceased, and there was a calm. The disciples were astounded: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (v.25). It’s as if God was giving the disciples a bit of preparation for what was about to happen. It’s as if God was reminding them that there was more to their Master than met the eye.

So now they land on the other shore, in Gentile territory; this is actually the only time in Luke’s gospel that a trip to Gentile territory is mentioned. As soon as Jesus steps out onto the land he’s met by someone we would probably have described as a madman. Luke describes him as ‘a man who had demons’. He’s totally naked, dirty and wild-looking, and he doesn’t live in a house, he lives in the local graveyard. Luke gives us a bit of his history in verse 29:

‘Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

Henry Wansbrough describes the man like this:

He is exiled from all civilisation, living in the haunted abodes of the dead and not even properly dressed. His strength is daunting and uncontrollable, and as soon as he has broken his bonds he rushes off into the hideous desert, the eerie home of evil spirits. What makes it almost more tragic is that the attacks seem to have been periodic, presumably with periods of lucidity in between. It was only when the attacks came on that people would fetter him in an unsuccessful attempt to restrain him. But he always ended up in the wilds. Such periodic derangements to a friend whom one thinks one knows are easily ascribed to a powerful and evil spirit alien to himself.[1]

A feature of stories of unclean spirits in the gospels is that they always know the identity of Jesus. Humans don’t; some believe he is the Son of God, some believe he’s an imposter, many don’t know, at least not at first. But it seems the unclean spirits are in no doubt about the identity of their great enemy, and this is true here. As soon as he sees Jesus, the man screams out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (v.28).

But Jesus is determined that the demon has to leave, and he’s already begun to command it to come out of the man. He asks the man his name, but it seems that the man is no longer in control of his personality. A voice from inside him shouts out ‘Legion!’—‘for many demons had entered him’, says Luke. A Roman legion has five thousand soldiers, so that was quite a horde of unclean spirits! They see a herd of pigs feeding on the steep hillside by the lake, and they beg Jesus not to send them straight back to the abyss, but let them go into the pigs. Jesus agrees, and immediately the entire herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and is drowned—a dramatic visual aid to convince the man that his old enemies are gone and vanquished forever.

But of course, we can’t expect the pig farmer to be pleased! The swineherds run off to town and tell everyone, and a great crowd comes out to see what’s going on. When they arrive they see a poignant scene.  No doubt the man is a well-known figure in the area, but he’s been completely transformed. Luke says he’s ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.’ (v.35). But the townspeople are afraid, and no doubt the owners of the pigs are angry, as we would have been if our property had been destroyed like that. They don’t rejoice over the man’s deliverance. No: they ask Jesus to leave them. They’re afraid of what might happen next if he hangs around!

What does Jesus do? Maybe they’re afraid that a man with that kind of power might force himself on them, but that’s not Jesus’ way. He gets into the boat, and the man who had been healed begs to be able to go with him. This is usually a request Jesus honours, but this is the only time in the gospels where he refuses: he’s got a more important plan for this man. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, Luke says, ‘proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Some modern readers of this story find the demonic element hard to take. Evil spirits aren’t part of our contemporary world view, and they give the story a kind of legendary feel. We would be more comfortable if this man was described as being mentally ill, in the grip of some sickness of the mind that has him hearing voices and shouting in a strange voice and exercising surprising feats of strength.

Other modern readers aren’t so sure. American psychiatrist Scott Peck, the famous author of a book called ‘The Road Less Travelled’, also wrote a book called ‘The People of the Lie’ in which he told some stories of his own encounters with what appeared to be evil forces, and how he had dealt with them. And Christians who minister in the developing world frequently tell stories of these sorts of ‘power encounters’ and what comes of them.

It all comes down to a question of our world view. Do we believe we live in a world that has unseen spiritual elements in it, elements that can act on people in our own dimension of reality? Well, obviously we do, because we believe in God, and God fits that description quite well! Do we then also believe in angels? It’s clear to me that many people today, Christian and non-Christians, do in fact believe in guardian angels, and they even have names for them and pray to them! Even if we don’t go this far, angel stories are part of our Christian scriptures—the angel who announces the conception of Jesus to Mary, for instance—and we don’t tend to be offended by those stories, even though we don’t fully understand them.

So if we grant that such creatures might exist, and if we remember that God seems to give free will to all his creatures, it’s not illogical to suppose that there may in fact be ‘fallen angels’: angelic beings who have chosen to rebel against God and work for evil purposes in the world. Certainly Jesus believed that and acted on that belief, and so did his early followers.

But even if we don’t believe that—even if we believe that Jesus and his disciples were people of their day with a pre-modern world view, and that this man was suffering from a particularly severe mental illness—that still doesn’t detract from the amazing miracle Jesus was able to perform. Psychiatrists spend years of therapy with people like this, and sometimes the improvements are only marginal. Jesus simply speaks a word of command, the evil forces leave the man, and almost immediately he’s dressed and in his right mind, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus and begging to be allowed to follow him. Jesus is truly the Saviour of all, even the last, the least, and the lost!

So what does this story have to say to us today?

We began by reminding ourselves of the beautiful title given to Jesus in the gospels: ‘Saviour’. I say it’s a beautiful title, but sometimes we Anglicans are ambiguous about it. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves people from forces or situations from which they couldn’t save themselves. But when we hear about people claiming that Jesus has ‘saved’ them, we sometimes get uncomfortable. “I’ve been saved,” they say, and they might even ask us, “Are you saved?”

Why does this make us uncomfortable? Maybe it’s because when they say “I’ve been saved,” what we hear them saying is “I’m better than you.” But if you think about it, that’s not what they’re saying at all. Imagine a person swimming out from a popular beach, going out too far and getting caught in a powerful current. Imagine a lifeguard going out to rescue them from this desperate situation.  ‘Desperate’ is exactly how the swimmer feels. She’s maybe even given up hope; she’s sure she’s going to drown. But then the lifeguard comes and brings her back to safety on the shore. She’s overwhelmed with gratitude; “Thank you for saving me,” she says. Is she claiming to be better than the others? Far from it; she’s been silly enough to get herself into a situation so dangerous that she was powerless to deliver herself from it! Only the skill of the lifeguard has saved her life.

We’re told in the New Testament that the cross of Jesus has brought the forgiveness of God into our lives. If God won’t forgive us our sins, we’re truly in a desperate situation, alienated from the only one who can give us the help and strength we need. And even in this day and age, many people believe that God can’t forgive them. Their sins and failures weigh heavily on them; they’ve tried to change, but the power doesn’t seem to be in them. I’m not talking about obvious things like murders and sexual assaults, although some people obviously are guilty of these things. I’m talking about our selfishness and self-centredness. We know it spoils our lives and the lives of people around us, and we try desperately to change it. But so often we fall back into the same destructive patterns of behaviour.

Can God forgive us? Can God give us strength greater than our own, so that the destructive forces in us can be cast out and drowned in the sea? Whether or not we literally believe in demons, we often use that word metaphorically, don’t we? We say of someone that ‘his demons got the better of him’, and we all know what that means.

The Gospel is Good News: it tells us that Jesus is the strong Son of God. By his cross he brings the forgiveness of God into our lives. Paul says ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting their sins against them.’ And if we’re reconciled to God, then the presence of God can be a present reality in our daily lives. God can breathe the Holy Spirit into us, and we can have access to a power greater than our own, rescuing us from those destructive patterns of behaviour, transforming us into people who love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and who love our neighbour as ourselves. And that’s a miracle, no less than the rescuing of the man with the legion of devils.

What’s our response to this story?

Some of us are afraid, like the townspeople. Jesus has only just arrived, and already he’s destroyed a herd of pigs! What’s next? What’s he going to demand of us? If we follow him, how much more meddling is he going to do? Is he going to tell us how to use our money, or how to vote in the next election, or how to treat the dodgy-looking characters we run into on Whyte Avenue?

This fear is very real, even to religious people. Many religious people are fine with religion as long as we’re in control of it! We like the Sunday service, but we also like knowing when it’s going to end, because, you know, we live busy lives, and God needs to stay within his boundaries and not break out! That’s the problem for these Gentiles in our story today. They were fine with the gods as long as they stayed at arms’ length! But Jesus was bringing God too close! And maybe you feel that way too. Maybe this story is getting too close to home for you.

The neighbours are afraid, but the man himself has been delivered. He’s clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and the thing he wants more than anything else is just to go and be with Jesus. And maybe, a few months down the road, Jesus was glad to see him and hear about all the things God had been doing in his life since he was saved. But not right away. Right now the story is buzzing in the air, and the last thing Jesus needs to do is take the prime witness off the scene. Jesus and his disciples are being sent away, but the man is not. He can stay and tell the story, and who knows how many other lives will be changed as a result?

Let me close with three last points of application.

First, as I said at the beginning, Step One of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Do you sometimes feel powerless over some force within? You wish you could be different, but something’s got you chained. It might be a fear. It might be a destructive habit that’s hurting you and the other people in your life. Francis Spufford describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’ (he actually uses a far stronger word than ‘mess’!). Do you know about that? Would you like to be set free?

Second, do you believe that Jesus is in fact the Saviour, not just of the world, but of each individual in it, including you? Step Two of A.A. says ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ ‘A power greater than ourselves’—what a beautiful description of the Holy Spirit! Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him, and the Spirit will get to work in our lives producing his beautiful fruit. Galatians says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (5.22-23) That’s what God can do in us, if we ask him to fill us with the Spirit, and if we then keep in step with the Spirit day by day. Are we ready to ask him?

Third, as you begin to experience this work of grace in your life, you will find yourself in a social situation that gives you opportunities to share your story. Jesus might not be welcome, priests and pastors might not be welcome, but you are! Yes, we’d love to go off with Jesus on retreat for a while, just to bask in his presence, and he may well allow us to do that. But he’s going to teach us and shape us on the road as well, in our ordinary lives, among our friends and colleagues. What’s our call? “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And what did the man do? He didn’t just talk about God; he sharpened the focus. ‘So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1.8b). Witnesses tell what they have experienced. If you are a Christian, then the presence of Christ in your life is making a difference. That difference is your story. You don’t have to be delivered from a legion of devils. Your story might be as simple as the hope Jesus gives you that the future doesn’t have to be the carbon copy of the past. Whatever your story is, Jesus needs you to share it. That’s how his kingdom goes forward, one story at a time, one heart at a time.

[1]Henry Wansbrough: Luke (Daily Bible Commentary); Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers; 1998.

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Good News about Jesus (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter on Acts 5.27-32)

I’ve often noticed that when a new baby is born, no one in the family has to be reminded to spread the good news! The parents make the initial announcement and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls and then, just when they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Auntie Susan—you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always call her ‘Auntie’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Auntie Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard—your mom called me an hour ago!”

That’s how it happens with good news—no one needs to tell us to spread it. When we’ve had a wonderful experience that enriched our lives, no one has to tell us to share the story. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony was fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be—I know you’d enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? We would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on. 

We sense that excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the time of the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.

It’s appropriate that every year in the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them hadn’t actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experienced him as a living presence in their lives when they went out to share the gospel with others.

Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. This story probably takes place several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem: sick people are being healed and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the members of the religious establishment are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ. 

Morning comes and there’s consternation in the ruling council: where are the apostles? Apparently they’re back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them a tongue-lashing: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28). 

This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Christian message, the Good News. What does he have to say?

First, he affirms that Jesus is Lord. In verse 31 he says, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour”. The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as ‘leader’ often means ‘Prince’ or ‘Ruler’. So the good news Peter proclaims is that Jesus is the true Ruler of the world.

Around the world today many people feel as if they have no control over their own lives. They feel helpless in the face of what are often called ‘forces beyond our control’. They might be workers who’ve lost their jobs because of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know the feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name. 

In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ had a face and a name: he was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful and his cult was spreading around the Mediterranean world. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’: after all, he was the Lord of the known world and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees: the rich families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. Most of the members of the ruling council—the people who had arrested Peter—were part of that group.

Now, in this context, Peter and the other apostles made this great Gospel announcement: “The world has a new King, Jesus the Messiah, the one who will bring justice and peace for all. He’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true his rule is hidden at the moment, but don’t be deceived by appearances: he will have the last word! Not Caesar, not the Sanhedrin, not the High Priest, but Jesus! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”

The true ruler of the universe is Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian. Our baptism is our citizenship ceremony, the moment we placed ourselves under the authority of this new King. Or, for most of us, the moment our parents placed us under his authority—an authority we accepted for ourselves when we were confirmed. 

What does that mean for us? It means no prime minister, no premier, no multinational business, no philosophy or ideology, can have more authority over us than Jesus. Following his teaching, seeking first the Kingdom of God—it’s our joy and delight to make these things the highest value in our lives. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian.

But we might ask, “How do we know all this? How do we know Jesus is Ruler and Saviour of all?” And the answer is, we know because God raised him from the dead.In verse 30 Peter says, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” 

Peter was there, of course. He was one of the first to be called to follow Jesus. He’d spent three years following him around the country, getting to know him better, sharing in his mission. He’d come to believe Jesus was the Messiah: the king like David who God had promised to send, the king who would set God’s people free from foreign oppression and establish the earthly kingdom of God. And what would be the sign of this? The sign would be that God would give the Messiah’s armies victory against God’s enemies.

But this didn’t happen. Jesus showed no interest in military or political power. And when the time of the great confrontation finally arrived, God didn’t deliver him—God abandoned him. At least, that was how everyone saw it. Instead of leading a victorious army in the name of God, Jesus was hanged on the cross, the symbol of Roman oppression. When the apostles saw that, there was only one conclusion they could draw: Jesus was a false Messiah and they’d been wasting their time. 

But then on Sunday morning the reports began to come in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. Peter and John confirmed it. Later on, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive, and she brought the message back to the astonished apostles. That afternoon a couple walking out to the village of Emmaus met Jesus on the road. In the evening ten of the eleven were gathered in the upper room where they’d eaten the last supper, and suddenly there he was among them! They knew he wasn’t a ghost, because they touched him and saw him eating a piece of fish. 

And so the appearances went on for the next seven weeks, and the apostles gradually realized what it meant: God had vindicated Jesus. Jesus was the true King. Jesus was so powerful that even death couldn’t keep him down. And now all who followed him were promised a similar resurrection. So they had no fear of death: why would they? They ignored the threats of the rulers and told everyone they met that Jesus was alive and was Lord of all.

Jesus is alive from the dead. He’s won the victory over the ultimate weapon used by all oppressors to keep people in their place: death itself. God has made him the true Ruler of the world and Lord of all. Now: what does that mean for us? Two things: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Look at verses 31-32:

“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Forgiveness of sins is the central message of the Gospel. It’s what scandalized people about Jesus when he walked the earth: the fact that he wandered around announcing forgiveness to the most unlikely people, the rich and the poor, respectable and outcast, great and small. The message of the Cross is that God loves his enemies and refuses to take revenge on them. All who repent can be forgiven. All they need to do is turn to God and ask.

At first the apostles didn’t realize how wide this was meant to be. Peter talked about Jesus giving ‘repentance to Israel’. But gradually as time went by the apostles became convinced that God had a much wider group in mind. Jews and Gentiles—worshippers of the God of Israel and worshippers of the Greek and Roman gods—the message was meant to go to everyone. God wanted everyone to have the chance to hear this good news and experience the joy of Jesus for themselves. 

Forgiveness of sins is still central. Many people today are burdened by their guilt. It’s like a huge weight on their backs, bearing down on them. Never mind God’s standards: they can’t even measure up to their own standards! “How can God ever love me? How can I be sure God would forgive me?” The Christian answer is clear: Jesus said it, and God confirmed it by raising Jesus from the dead. So you also can be raised from the deathly hand of guilt to the new life of forgiveness and peace with God.

And you can also experience God’s presence in your life today. That’s what the Holy Spirit means. Ancient Israelites may have seen the wind as a sign of God’s presence. And so when they looked for a word to convey their sense of God’s presence with them, they found the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, which means ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. Their scriptures told them that at the moment of creation a wind from God moved over the waters, and when God created humans he breathed into them the breath of life. The Spirit is God’s breath. He lifts us up from spiritual death and breathes God’s new life into us.

Today I want to invite you to take a deep breath! Jesus Christ is the true Ruler of the universe. God has shown this by raising him from the dead. He is alive forever and is longing to pour out the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who will believe in him. Today Brad and Lizelle are going to stand up and profess their trust in God and their desire to live this new life. They want Blake and Sophia to experience it too, which is why they’re bringing them for baptism.

But the promise isn’t just for Blake and Sophia and Brad and Lizelle: it’s for all of us here. Your sins are forgiven! God’s Spirit is the breath of life in you! Jesus is alive forever, and so there’s no need to fear the power of death. We can go boldly from this place, full of joy in our Risen Saviour, full of confidence in his Holy Spirit who lives in us. So take a deep breath, and then go and share this good news with someone who needs to hear it!

Wandering in the dark and walking in the light

‘Once again Jesus addressed the people: “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall wander in the dark; he shall have the light of life.’” (John 8.12 New English Bible).

The REB revisers changed this NEB translation to the more common ‘no follower of mine shall walk in darkness’, but I’m struck by the vividness of the NEB rendering: ‘wander in the dark’. I’ve done a lot of that wandering in the dark, trying to find the right way forward. It might be a relational issue with a friend or loved one, or a problem in my parish that I need to find a solution for, or a time when my relationship with God seems to have gone dry and barren, or my struggles with my own sins and weaknesses. I seem to spend a lot of time wandering in the dark.

Today’s psalm includes the familiar verse ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119.105 REB). What the psalmist says about the Torah, or Law of God, John’s gospel applies to Jesus: he is the Word of God, so he is the light of the world. His light shines in the dark places and shows us how to live, how to love, how to serve God, how to be a blessing. The opposite of ‘wandering in the dark’ is following Jesus. Lord Jesus, help us today to intentionally shape our lives after your teaching and example. You have shown us the way, so now help us to follow it—to follow you—so that we may have the light of life. Amen.

All change!

One of the Pharisees, called Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Council, came to Jesus by night. ‘Rabbi,’ he said, ‘we know that you are a teacher sent by God; no one could perform these signs of yours unless God were with him.’ Jesus answered, ‘In very truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he has been born again.’ ‘But how can someone be born when he is old?’ asked Nicodemus. ‘Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘In very truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from water and spirit. Flesh can give birth only to flesh; it is spirit that gives birth to spirit. You ought not to be astonished when I say, “You must all be born again.” The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit.’ (John 3.3-8 REB)

‘New birth’ is a metaphor for transformation, or, more accurately, for the beginning of a process of transformation. Many people today equate it with ‘accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour’. I have nothing to say against accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour, but it seems clear to me that many who have done it don’t appear to be in process of transformation. Meanwhile, there are others who have a less clearly defined conversion experience but are obviously changing and becoming more like Jesus every day.

‘The wind blows where it wills’. You can’t control the Holy Spirit or tie him down. All you can do is open yourself up to his work in faith. Faith—trust in God—is the key to all this. We aren’t going to decide where this journey leads. God is the one who decides that. Faith is taking his hand and going with him on that journey, trusting that he knows best and that the end result will be blessing for all. We can’t see the end yet, so we have to take it on faith.

God, thank you for the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the likeness of Jesus. It really is like being born all over again, it’s such a huge change! What’s the next step in that change process for us? Help us not to be afraid of it, but to trust you and cooperate with your Spirit, so that the work of the Kingdom may go forward in us. Amen.

The Gospel of God

‘After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and believe the gospel.”…Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”’ (Mark 1.12-13, 17 Revised English Bible)

I like to find little Gospel summaries in the pages of scripture. I don’t believe there is any one exhaustive statement of what the Gospel (‘good news’) is, but there are many explorations of it.

In this passage the ‘gospel of God’ that Jesus announces is ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you’. The kingdom of God isn’t about going heaven when we die. It’s about the answer to our prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. When God’s just and loving will is done on earth as in heaven, God’s kingdom is upon us. The Gospel invitation is to put our faith in this good news and to repent – i.e. to change the direction of our lives so that rather than living out of the values of the kingdom of evil, we live into the values of the coming kingdom of God.

But that’s not all. Every disciple of the kingdom is also called to be an agent of the kingdom. As soon as they accept the call to be disciples, Jesus begins to make his new friends ‘fishers of people’. They spent years learning the skills and patience of fishermen. Now they will begin to learn a new set of skills, which will need even more patience and reliance on God. The kingdom of God advances one heart at a time, as the new disciples spread its message of hope and invite people to come in.

Is this a scary thing? It doesn’t have to be. It’s not about Bible-bashing or manipulation. It’s simply about living our lives openly, in such a way that our words and actions are a good advertisement for the hope of the gospel. And when opportunities for conversation arise, it’s about being willing to take them, trusting that the results will be in God’s hands.

Lord Jesus, thank you for calling us into your kingdom of justice and love. Make us fishers of men and women, so that your justice and love will spread throughout the world. Amen.

(One Year Bible readings for February 15th are Exodus 39:1 – 40:38, Mark 1:1-28, Psalm 35:1-16, and Proverbs 9:11-12)

“Be patient with me!”

‘The man fell at his master’s feet. “Be patient with me,” he implored, “and I will pay you in full”’ (Matthew 18.26 REB)

This parable of Jesus tells of a servant who had been embezzling funds from his king. By the time he was discovered he owed a sum of ten thousand talents. I’m told that this was several times the annual tax revenue of the province of Judea.

What sort of self-deception could persuade the servant that he could ever repay such a debt? And yet that’s what he asked for: time to repay. But his master was wiser. He simply forgave him the whole debt.

I wonder how many times, when people ask God to forgive their sins, what they’re really asking for is more time to repay. ‘Be patient with me, Lord. I’ll reach your standard if you just give me time. I will. I promise.’ But God is wiser than we are. He knows our weakness far better than we do. Comforting though it might be for us to hold onto the illusion of our own perfectibility, we have to humble ourselves, tell the truth, and trust ourselves to the indestructible love of God.

Father, I have tried many times, but I haven’t succeeded in making myself perfect, in love or in anything else. I have to work very hard, even with your help, to make a small change in my character, especially now that I’m sixty and have had so many years of practice being selfish and self-centred! All I can do day by day is ask you to forgive me for my sins and strengthen me to do better tomorrow. But the Good News tells me that you will answer that prayer. Thank you for that, and help me not to forget to pass that forgiveness on to those who have wronged me. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Exodus 5:22 – 7:25, Matthew 18:21-19:12, Psalm 23:1-6, and Proverbs 5:22-23)

A Head Wind and a Rough Sea

‘As soon as they had finished, Jesus made the disciples embark and cross to the other side ahead of him, while he dismissed the crowd; then he went up the hill by himself to pray. It had grown late, and he was there alone. The boat was already some distance from the shore, battling with a head wind and a rough sea. Between three and six in the morning he came towards them, walking across the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were so shaken that they cried out in terror: “It is a ghost!” But at once Jesus spoke to them: “Take heart! It is I; do not be afraid.”

‘Peter called to him: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you over the water.” “Come,” said Jesus. Peter got down out of the boat, and walked over the water towards Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the gale he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, “Save me, Lord!” Jesus at once reached out and caught hold of him. “Why did you hesitate?” he said. “How little faith you have!” Then they climbed into the boat; and the wind dropped. And the men in the boat fell at his feet, exclaiming, “You must be the Son of God.”‘ (Luke 14.22-33 REB)

‘The boat was already some distance from the shore, battling with a head wind and a rough sea’ (v.24). Lord, that’s what life so often feels like! We think we’re making progress, and then something unexpected comes at us out of the blue, and suddenly the winds are howling and the waves are tossing us around. It might be a family crisis or a health issue or conflict at work. It might be a crisis of faith prompted by a question we just can’t hold off any longer. In church, it might be the gradually shrinking attendance, or the difficulty fulfilling people’s ever-changing expectations with the limited resources on hand.

Lord, when the winds start to howl and the seas start to toss us around, we get scared. All too often, our faith isn’t up to the task. We’re doing the best we can, Lord, and sometimes we feel you’re being a little unfair to us, rebuking us for our lack of faith! After all, we can’t see you like those first disciples could! And even they had problems trusting you, even when you were standing right in front of them! So please be patient with us, Lord, when those storms toss us around. Give us a sense that you’re in the boat with us, and you will bring us safely through. Help us believe, and when our faith isn’t up to the challenge, please make up what is lacking. We ask this because of your love for us. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 44:1 – 45:28, Matthew 14:13-36, Psalm 18:37-50, and Proverbs 4:11-13)