This week we’re talking about how God radically changes our lives, if we let Him.
This is the message which grows out of The Living Word study on the set readings for Sunday, February 13 — that’s from the Revised Common Lectionary which is followed by many different churches and chapels in the English-speaking world. See also this week’s video How Knowing God Transforms our Lives
Let’s allow this week’s Psalm to sets the scene for us:
Blessed is the one who does not… sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord…
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither — whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away…
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
Excerpt from Psalm 1
Jeremiah warns against self-reliance which he says is like a curse
Jeremiah would have been very familiar with this Psalm. And he uses the same picture of a healthy, tree able to continually draw water to stay verdant. By comparison, the one trying to grow where the supply of moisture is unreliable will be dying back when it should be shooting up:
5 This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 “That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.
7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him.“
8 “They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah continues with a comment on what theologians call the depravity of man:
9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
10 “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”
In asking, who can understand the way that the human heart is deceitful, he is posing the question, why are we so fallible, so prone to go wrong?
And his answer is that that we are already corrupted, prone to every kind of deception including the hard-to-spot self-deception. He is reminding us that apart from God will inevitably go astray — like that dodgy ball in the bowling alley that cannot run true and will always fall into the gutter.
Of course, we don’t think of ourselves that way. Our way always seems right to us. But Jeremiah continues: “I, the Lord, search the heart and examine the mind…” The Lord’s standard is absolute truth and holiness — and there are consequences for our actions, both good and bad. That’s a problem if we are not good at telling the difference.
However, there is good news, also from Jeremiah, which we can reference in passing. He was the prophet who most clearly stated that God would establish a New Covenant. In this new relationship, we would no longer have to learn half-understood rules of what is right and wrong, but would have a spiritually-inspired inner witness, a sense of spiritual guidance like having God’s law written on our hearts. Instead of deceiving ourselves, we would want to do what God wants.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah…
…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people…they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will … remember their sins no more.”
Excerpt from Jeremiah 31:31-33, 34
This new covenant is liking having the sense what pleases God within us, instead of that pull of independence that pulls us out of His will. That new covenant is, of course, the covenant that Jesus came to establish.
And that leads us into Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 which speaks of a different aspect of how God transforms us.
Jesus teaches the fundamentals of the kingdom of God
The people He was addressing had come — travelling on foot for days — to receive ministry. And they were poor: in poor health, poor mental health, barely making ends meet — and spiritually poor and discouraged.
17-18 [Jesus] went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of His disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases.
Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch Him, because power was coming from Him and healing them all.
20 Looking at His disciples, He said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24-25 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
This is sometimes called the ‘upside-down kingdom’ because all the values are the world’s values inverted. However, it is not a manifesto for having a ‘poverty spirit’ where everything has to be cheap and inadequate to somehow please God. We don’t need to look for insults and exclusion to be more holy — the opposition will find us, and it may be as much inside the church outside. It rises up when when the kingdom of God grows in us and people and their ways start to feel threatened..
Since the earliest times of the Christian church there has been a temptation – actually a deception – which seeks to water down the truth of the gospel and substitute something less demanding and easier for ‘enlightened’ modern people. As Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things…”
To talk about the Cross is offensive as both Jesus and Paul recognised. It was a thoroughly distasteful punishment, reserved for the lowest and the worst in society. Who wants to think about that?
To become excited about this new and greater covenant that comes to us as believers as a result of the blood that Jesus shed in self sacrifice — that’s not a nice gentle kind of religion. It has the flavour of raw faith, radical believing, and submitted discipleship.
Jesus is alive!
Paul, addressing his situation that has arisen in the church in Corinth, sets out plainly and repeats for emphasis, the core truth about Jesus the Messiah and how He gave His life for us, but then was seen by the disciples who knew Him best and hundreds of others for a period of time, before being seen to ascend into heaven:
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
15-16 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
17-18 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Jesus is alive! And spiritually very much present with us now!
Let’s recall Jeremiah’s picture of the tree continually refreshed by a limitless supply of water. That’s how we can be, if we turn to God and rely on Him as our supply. And it is also our picture of Jesus, surrounded by people and calling out every need and lack, injustice and bondage and saying that they do not have to be rejected or excluded, hungry or hopeless. Trusting God brings a heavenly reward and it begins now. As Paul’s teaching reminds us, it rests on first trusting in Jesus and what He has done — His death making a way for us to have new life, His resurrection a pattern for ours. We build on that fundamental trust in Jesus, by trusting Him in all our different situations and receiving His guidance and spiritual enabling — because we can. Jesus is risen and He is alive — and transforming our lives day by day, as we invite Him to.