Reflections from Rev Luke Williams and shared in the Tuckerbag.
Mark’s gospel doesn’t include the story of the birth of Jesus, and therefore the name ‘Emmanuel’ that the angel gives to the newborn isn’t used. But the meaning of this word - ‘God is with us’ - is certainly what we see in the life of Jesus in all four accounts of his life. We can’t come to the conclusion that the gospels tell us that Jesus simply showed us what God is like, although that is true. Jesus was more than that - God with us. He declared that ‘the Kingdom of God is near’ (Mark 1:15) because the King himself was now near.
God’s presence - where he dwells, moves and works - isn’t a straightforward matter. He’s not like us. Even when God the Son became like us to walk the earth, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit interacted with the Son in ways often beyond our understanding. And I’m not sure that we’ll fully grasp the triune (3 persons, 1 God) nature of God until we see him face to face. But one thing we do learn from the scriptures is that when God shows up, things happen!
When God ‘visited’ or ‘came near to’ the characters of the Bible, there was always a substantial effect on the person. It’s impossible to ignore a situation when God is close. It changes the atmosphere. Maybe you’ve had an experience where you sense God had entered the room, and it was a holy and transformative moment.
So how does this fit with our belief that as believers, God is always present with us, and that His Spirit dwells within us? If we sense that God is somehow closer in particular circumstances, isn’t that just because we’ve had our eyes opened for a moment? Sometimes, sure. But throughout the Bible, even in the New Testament after the Holy Spirit was ‘poured out’, God’s Spirit moved among God’s people in unique and tangible ways. Often the presence of God would even have a physical effect on people or surroundings.
The good news of Jesus began with ‘Emmanuel’ - God with us in the person of Jesus. But it continues with the promise that he is still with us, “even to the end of the age”, through the Holy Spirit. And just as Jesus moved from place to place having an incredible effect on the people he met with, the Holy Spirit does the same. Has he come near to you?
Maybe it’s been a while. Maybe you’ve never sensed or experienced the ‘closeness’ of God. Maybe you believe that God is present in the world and in your life, but nothing’s really changed since the time you didn’t believe that. Or maybe you doubt that “God is with us” because if he was, things would be different.
I believe God wants us to invite him to come close. To invite his presence. He wants to draw near to us, but desires an invitation. So why not ask? As we celebrate ‘Emmanuel’ this Advent season, lets also ask him to be ‘with us’, to come close. God might just be waiting for our invitation.
The Presence of God
What if God’s plan is to fill the world with his presence?
Mark Sayers, Australian pastor and author says that Progress is the God-void, humanistic, world driven version of Presence. We might define “progress” as human beings going after the blessings of God without God himself. While God’s desire is for the world to be filled with his Presence where all we rely on for provision, for health, for enjoyment, for comfort is his presence, the human driven way is to progress towards self driven wealth, provision, comfort and enjoyment where we don’t have to rely on God at all.
When Jesus looks around the temple, God’s special dwelling place at the time, he sees human efforts to rely not on God but trade, money, business. Things are not how they should be, and it moves him to action.
But what if God has a plan to fill the whole world with his presence, not just the temple? And what if that plan is already well and truly underway?
Jesus’ whole message in Jerusalem is to declare that the old temple would be done away with and a new temple would be built. At first we recognise that the new temple he’s talking about is himself. He is the one who God is now present in. But then we see that he’s not just going to declare himself to be the new temple, but also his followers. And through them (mini temples) all of whom together as individual stones form one world wide temple, God would fill the world with his presence.
What if God has a plan to fill the world with his presence? And what if he’s already doing it through us?
We Christians, especially those within the ‘Evangelical’ stream, have a theological issue that we need to deal with. And that is the assumption that omnipresence is the same thing as manifest presence. In other words, the belief that “God is everywhere” means there’s no such thing as God being tangibly or especially present in certain places, situations and people. This just isn’t true! Many of us have experienced the presence of God in ways that made those moments quite different to an ordinary moment like right now.
Sometimes we are simply ‘more aware’ that God is present with you - I get that. But the ark, the tabernacle, the temple, the dwelling places of God in scripture were not simply “places people were somehow more aware of God” - his presence was there in a special way. And now we who follow Jesus are somehow being made into new temples. We are to be carriers of his presence.
Are you experiencing the presence of God in prayer, in proclamation of the gospel, in living the counter cultural way of Jesus? He wants us to experience his closeness - the beauty, joy, peace and love of his presence in and with us.
Ask him to come near to you, even right now. To fill you with his presence, his Spirit, once again.
Why is soccer the world game?
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural ‘Propel’ conference on the Gold Coast. This was a 3 day event hosted by a new network of evangelical congregations and leaders in the Uniting Church, and was a great hope filled time of connecting with God and dreaming for the future of our movement. I’d love you to join me in August next year for this conference!
At one of the sessions, the speaker - a pastor of a very large church in the eastern states - told us about the experience of his leadership team retreat around 10 years ago. They had one question on the agenda for the whole 3 days: how do we make a disciple of Jesus? Simple, right? Especially with a number of PhDs on the team and leaders who had been in ministry for decades. By the end of the 3 days they had come up with... nothing. They had struggled to find any sense of consensus around what is simply required to help a person become and stay a follower of Jesus. This pastor realised they had a serious challenge on their hands. If the essence of the great commission is to ‘make disciples’, they weren’t doing it. Or if they were, it was mostly by accident because they were ‘doing church’ and hoping that people became disciples of Jesus along the way, somehow.
Throughout the next 10 years, this church community went on a journey of discovering what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus. This pastor shared with us at propel the moment things started to ‘click’ for him. A friend and colleague asked him one day “Why is soccer the world game?” The answer being that it is so simple, so accessible, that even if you have a scrunched up piece of paper or a coke can, you can play soccer. “That’s how simple discipleship needs to be” said this friend. And he pointed out that Jesus made it that simple for his disciples also. We are the ones who have complicated it.
Clearly it’s not ‘super simple’ to run a church or execute effective outreach programs, just as it’s not a simple thing to organise the soccer world cup or coach the winning team. But simply being a disciple of Jesus, like soccer itself, is straight forward at its core. And we grow and develop with practice.
I’ve shared on a number of occasions that being a disciple of Jesus is to listen to God and do what he’s asking of us. Do you believe it’s that simple? If not, why not? What else would you add? If you do feel it’s this simple, can you identify the voice of God? What might help you become more attuned to his voice?
As a church that is committed to ‘live and love like Jesus’, may we notice and live the way of Jesus - he listened closely to his Father’s voice (see John 5, 8, 12).
The Way of Jesus
What would it be like if our vision to be a thriving family of God and see our communities transformed was to become a reality?
I posed this question on the front page of last month’s Tuckerbag. It’s vital that as God’s missionary people we have a vision of the Kingdom reality we long for here on earth and let that pull us forward. A dream that may not be a fully constructed picture or plan, but a hope and a longing that is God inspired.
But almost more important than consideration of what the vision may look like is how we get there. In short, we are called as God’s people to more fully live into our identity as sons and daughters of God our Father, and bring his Kingdom of peace, love and justice to earth - we simply describe that as “a thriving family of God, transforming our communities”. That could, and will, look like a range of things. But the way there is very specific. It’s a carefully laid path, walked first by Jesus, and only this path will lead to the place God has prepared for us.
That path is made clear to us smack bang in the middle of Mark’s gospel where this account of Jesus’ life transitions from focusing on who Jesus is (the Messiah) to the kind of Messiah he is, and how he will exalted as King. And this is what Jesus says: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.” Mark 8:34-35 NLT
The way of Jesus, the path to life, is death. Death to self. Death of comfort and security. The death of all that holds no value in the Kingdom economy.
It’s easy to start thinking that following Jesus is not all that different to what the culture around us calls good and noble. In reality, the way of Jesus often means losing what the world values. It hurts. It takes sacrifice. It feels like carrying a cross. Or even like dying.
But on the other side of dying to self, is new life. And that new life is Christ himself. The vision we head towards is actually nothing more, and nothing less, than Jesus. When he is everything, and everything else is nothing, we’ve reached our vision.
“In Our Time”
What would it be like if our vision to be a thriving family of God and see our communities transformed was to become a reality?
Throughout history, God has moved by his Holy Spirit in amazing and profound ways. Often He has used the most “ordinary” and unlikely people, men and women with humble hearts, to bring about the most extraordinary transformations of communities and even whole nations. If you study church history, you’ll often find that behind people like John Wesley, Charles Finney, John Stott, and Charles Spurgeon were a group of praying people interceding and crying out to God to move powerfully by his Spirit.
Words like “revival” and “awakening” sound like something a bit out of reach, and may even have negative connotations for some os us. But “revival” is simply what God does among his people in a time and place when their hearts are turned fully to Him. So I’d like to encourage each one of us to be praying “God, would you bring revival. Would you move powerfully again in our time. And may it start with me.”
I shared some stories a few weeks ago (see Like Jesus, Part 13 - on thebillabong.org.au) about times God has moved powerfully throughout history. I believe He is planting ‘seeds of faith’ in the hearts of many Jesus followers right now, that we would believe He might bring revival again, here in Perth, in our time. Maybe there’s a dream you have for God’s Kingdom to come here “in Canning Vale as it is in heaven”. If that’s you, I hope the following is an encouragement to you:
One church family that is asking God to do what only he can do is ‘Kings Cross Church’ in the UK. One of their leaders recently wrote this in their journal during a time of reflection about ‘threshold moments’:
Threshold moments are equally beautiful and terrifying. They have the capacity to make or break the vision. As you stand on the cusp of everything you ever did, hopeful, you survey the land that now lies before you, your eyes tracing the intricate shapes that settled on the horison - too good to imagine. This is what has been stirring for so long. This has been the cry of your heart for years. Hidden deep down, but now here it is, that first glimpse of dream turned reality. Within reach, right before your very eyes. So nearly there. And as you stand at the threshold of everything you’ve ever dared dreamed about with that cocktail of excitement and fear rising in equal measure, that other voice kicks in. The one that gently tells you to take a step back from the threshold. It whispers to you that passing through that door will have its costs. It’s too good to be true. Or even worse, what lies in front of you is all a mirage and you’d be foolish to walk through. It will disappear as soon as you enter. It’s better to survey the land from the doorway, to distance yourself from it just in case, to stand at the threshold just watching. It’s better to quietly let the dream die now before sacrifices are made, bridges are burned and there’s no safe way back. Threshold moments have power. Many see them as the end of a long journey. They finally glimpse what their hearts have longed for but they stop, exhausted and find themselves settling in the doorway to all they’ve hoped for, never actually crossing through and taking hold of it. Tired and exhausted they find contentment in the reasoning that they’ve made it this far, that they can see it from a distance. But the truth is that these threshold moments are just the start of the adventure. They’re only just the beginning. So step in, take courage, and move forward. You have been called for such a time as this.
Could we be at a “threshold moment” as a church? If so, what might God be calling us into in the season ahead? I invite you to be praying, sharing, dreaming and engaging as we discern this together in the coming months and at our church lunch and congregational meeting on 11th August. Grace and Peace! Luke.
Getting away to pray
I recently read this story in a book called ‘How to Pray’ by Pete Greig, leader of ‘24-7 Prayer’. As we engage in a time of prayer in the lead up to Pentecost, I wanted to share it with you, and pray it motivates us to spend time in the quiet place with our heavenly Father.
I was eating a Hawaiian pizza in an Italian restaurant with an old Franciscan priest called Brennan Manning. It was near the start of 24-7 Prayer and he was plying me with questions. We were using knoves and forks, which isn’t how pizza is meant to be eaten. ‘So you guys are praying night and day?’ I nodded. ‘All the time?’ I caught a mischievous twinkle in his eye. ‘So tell me - how do you even know when you’ve prayed enough?’ I garbled an answer, trying to explain our model. How we were praying in shifts in dedicated rooms. Trying not to sound defensive. Trying to ignore his ill-concealed amusement.
The truth is that we were praying non-stop because we were desperate to see more people saved, more people healed, more miracles, the activations of hundreds of languishing prophecies. We were standing on tiptoe, trying with all our might to reach a big, red switch labelled ‘REVIVAL’. Surely the whole point of night-and-day prayer was that it equalled the maximum amount of praying you could possible do. This was the dial turned up to eleven, the secret sauce our mediocrity required.
The priest put down his fork and picked up a slice of pizza in his hands, clearly more interested in it that anything I was saying. ‘So, would you like me to tell you how we see praying in the contemplative tradition?’ he asked. ‘Please,’ I said with a sigh.
‘Say you spend sixty minutes in the prayer room. It’s your quiet time, right? Your chance to read a bit of the Bible and check off your prayer list for the day?’ I nodded. An hour of prayer seemed pretty good to me. Frankly, I thought he should be impressed. None of us had ever dreamed we’d pray this much.
‘Well, if that’s really how you think prayer works, I guess you should consider your time in the prayer room as an hour off. The hour in the day you don’t pray.’
‘Wow,’ I said, a little too enthusiastically. No clue what he meant. The priest sighed, pushed back his chair and stared at me. ‘Look, what if you spent your hour in the prayer room just re-centering yourself the Lord? Enjoying his presence. Listening to him in silence. Not bombarding him with words and lists and all that dutiful, earnest…’ - he was saving his pizza around absentmindedly - ‘... all that religious activity!’
Suddenly he reached across the table and patted my chest. ‘You wanna know how God changes you in here, Pete? Silence! Contemplation! That’s how you pray continually. It’s like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet doing the one thing needed, while he sister is getting all hot and bothered in the the kitchen.’
‘I hear you,’ I said slowly, and this time I meant it. ‘I get it, but…’ How honest could I be? ‘But if we all just sit around listening to the silence, how will anything ever get done? What about intercession? What about the way the early church prayed? What about all the problems in the world?’
The priest took a sip of his Pepsi. ‘I’m not against intercession and all those other kinds of prayer,’ he said. ‘In fact, I think they’re essential. It’s just that they’re not enough. The world is so full of need. You watch the news and there’s so much tragedy. How many things do you have to your prayer list after that? And then there are you friends: marriages breaking down, kids bullied, money worries, relatives dying. It’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming. There has to be another way. That’s why I asked how you know when you’re prayed enough. I wasn’t being facetious.’
‘And you think the way to address the world’s problems is silence?’ I countered.
‘No. I think the way to address the world’s problems is presence.’ I stared at him blankly. ‘What is the hour you spend in the prayer room is when you refocus on Jesus so that you can carry his presence with you into the other twenty three hours of the day with a heightened awareness that he is with you, he is for you, that he likes you, that he hearts your thoughts? You start to pray in real-time. You instinctively lift situations to the Lord in the actual moment that you experience them - while you are watching that distressing new report, or hearing about your friend’s latest crisis. You’re no longer deferring all your prayers to some later, holier moment, because you whole life is becoming that holier moment.’
May this inspire us to go to the quiet place, whether the prayer room or your own prayer space, and connect with Jesus, that we may take his presence with us everywhere we go.
The “Inner Circle”
Aside from a few weeks over the Easter period, our sermons at The Billabong have been focussed on the opening few chapters of Mark’s gospel. The end of Mark chapter 3 closes out a section focussed on Jesus ministry and the various reactions to it, before we start to hear Jesus teach and tell a few more stories (parables) in chapter 4. And the last few words of chapter 3 paint a picture of Jesus ‘inner circle’, gathered around him to listen and learn.
This ‘inner circle’ includes, but is not limited to, the twelve he chose to be “apostles” a few verses earlier. It’s actually a pretty packed house, but some, like his blood family are very clearly on the ‘outside’. And Jesus makes a surprising statement when they ask to see him: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
He even defines those sitting and standing around him as his family. Families, by definition are exclusive. You don’t just invite yourself into someone’s family! But the almost paradoxical thing about Jesus’ “inner circle”, those he now calls his “family”, is that it’s open to all. You don’t need to have special birthright or be connected to the right institution or religious system - faith in Jesus is all that’s required (I encourage you to read Romans to learn more about this - especially chapter 9).
Are you in Jesus’ “inner circle”? The good news is that you don’t get in because of special privilege, status or birthright - in fact those who think those things give them access to Jesus actually find themselves on the outside. All that’s required is a sincere desire to be with Jesus, to learn from him, to walk closely with him and bring yourself, fault and all, to him. Anyone can join the circle. Anyone is welcome into the family of God.
Jesus is Lord
One of the themes we find in the gospel of Mark is the unveiling of the authority Jesus has been given by the Father. This is an authority over the spirit realm, the physical world and sickness, authority to forgive and to speak on behalf of God, authority over laws and biblical mandates, authority over all things. Jesus is becoming Lord of all. The crucifixion, which we will remember, in just a few weeks time, is the climax of this story. But it's not the way we'd expect someone to be 'crowned' as the one who has been given authority and dominion over all of creation.
The words of Jesus in his final hours are staggering. This man who is being revealed as Messiah - promised King of the Jews, is humiliated in every way possible. Yet he submits himself fully to God and accepts his humanity, not using his divine authority to escape the pain but saying "I thirst". Having declared the entry into this world of God's Kingdom, he lives what he has preached this Kingdom to be about when he prays "Father, forgive them". And to a man with no opportunity to prove his faith in Jesus through good works, he sees the heart of a repentant criminal and declares "Today you will be with me in paradise". In the midst of his greatest pain, he still cares for his mother saying "behold, your son", he takes the weight of the world and cries the words of the Psalmist "why have you forsaken me", and having obeyed God to the end without fault, shouts "it is finished" and "into your hands I commit my Spirit".
For me, Lent, Holy week and the Easter weekend are times to reflect on the staggering 'other-worldliness' of Jesus and be reminded of the reasons we worship and serve him as Lord. In this world, submission and suffering does not equal power and authority. But his Kingdom, which will have no end, is established through an extravagant love like no other. And it's this sacrificial love, his life given up for us, that is the final stamp of his authority over all things. Even death itself.
So it's with praise thanksgiving that we say Jesus is Lord! Not anyone or anything else will be our Lord and Master with love, grace, kindness and mercy. And not anyone or anything else is worthy of our worship, devotion, service, time or attention. He alone is worthy. The cross proves it.
May the worship we express with our whole lives return wholly to Jesus this Easter as we declare that he is Lord.
The Controversial Jesus
This year we're journeying through the gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings, and as of mid March are just starting to read about the words and actions of Jesus in his 3 year ministry. Mark (or 'John Mark', the writer of this account) focusses a little more on the events of Jesus' life and less on his teachings and parables. It's the shortest of the 4 gospel accounts, one that challenges us to simply observe the life of Jesus and consider how our lives might look different if they are modelled after his.
Some of what Jesus did and said may be surprising to us, even (or especially) in the church world, but still quite comforting and reassuring. For example, the fact that Jesus started off not with a bang but walking along the beach taking an interest in some ordinary fisherman reassures me that he's interested in ordinary folk like myself and will choose the least likely for his great purpose. But much of what Jesus did and said is not just surprising, it's controversial. Sometimes, it's downright scandalous!
The chances are that if we are not challenged by the life of Jesus to speak and act in ways that don't feel "right", we may be following Jesus from a distance. Jesus challenged the assumptions of people in his day about marriage, money, the Bible, God, forgiveness, and most importantly himself. I suspect that the differences between the 1st century culture and ours today are not that great, and that Jesus would still be a controversial figure.
But I don't think Jesus is the same kind of controversial figure as various political or cultural commentators in our world today. Jesus is different, whilst the pattern of his life does (or should) make us uncomfortable as he calls us to change, we are simultaneously drawn to him and want to change because we know his heart for us is deep love and compassion. Some may be repelled from Jesus and his followers because of the controversial things he says and does rub them the wrong way, but only if there is no knowledge of his pure motivation of love.
I pray that over the course of this year you will be made uncomfortable by the controversial Jesus and simultaneously be drawn closer to him as you understand his motivation of love in moulding your heart and mind to become more like him.
Grace and Peace,