by IAN GREIG writing in THE LIVING WORD
The story that builds — as this week’s Bible readings take us on a time journey from OT prophecy to Jesus’ words and then teaching for the Spirit-filled believer of the Early Church — is about the way we live speaking to people about Jesus long before our words attempt to!
Sharing faith is one of those tricky areas which is borderline socially unacceptable. Time was, when we could go out to people at the bus stop, talk to them about Jesus and tell our story of how we met Him — and there’s still a place for that if we find people who to hear and keep our story acceptably brief. But we do have to be careful that we are not behaving like ‘charity muggers’, trying to coerce people into something they are not ready for — Jesus never did that.
This week’s story is about how the walk we have with God comes out of lifestyle, before words fill in the gaps.
We start with some headline verses from Psalm 81 about how God wants us to be people who listen to Him — and trust Him. Then we hear a prophetic word from Jeremiah about a time when God’s people seemed to have forgotten His goodness and deliverance and were turning to pagan religions. And sources of refreshment, not from God, but that they themselves had created.
Next we hear about Jesus’ invitation to a banquet held by an influential Pharisee, and how all the guests were jockeying for position to get the best places, close to the host. It looked good to be sitting next to somebody richer than you, but Jesus told them that the kingdom of God had a very different set of priorities which rewarded not our status but our hearts of mercy and compassion.
A generation later, we are in the Early Church where Christians are being reminded that living generously, caring and hospitable, and being there for one another in all their relationships and situations, was key. As those who knew God, they could trust Him as their provider and be distinctively free from the world’s chasing after profit and reward..
It’s a meaningful witness to others when Christians don’t need the status or wealth of the world to be significant, and when their praise of God through Jesus is supported by the compassion of Jesus.
Let’s start by looking at the headline Psalm reading in Psalm 81 more closely. It’s about the struggle between God’s covenant which required their loyalty for His provision and protection — and their pull to independence.
Sing for joy to God our strength… I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
“But My people would not listen… would not submit to Me. So I gave them over to… follow their own devices.
“If My people would only listen to Me… how quickly I would subdue their enemies …!
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him… But you would be fed with the finest of wheat…”
(Psalm 81:1, 10–16 excerpted)
Turning now to Jeremiah 2, this prophetic word echoes the psalmic’s words but is more specific about how Israel’s faith relationship with Yahweh had degenerated into a faithless religion involving pagan gods like Baal. This was a big change — Jeremiah has a graphic picture of stale, polluted water depicting how they had created their own source of spiritual encouragement -and this would prove to have devastating consequences:
Hear the word of the LORD, you descendants of Jacob… This is what the LORD says: “What fault did your ancestors find in Me, that they strayed so far from Me [following] worthless idols [to become] worthless themselves?
“They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness… a land where no one travels and no one lives?’ I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and… produce. But you… defiled My land…
“The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ [because they] did not know Me; the leaders rebelled against Me [and] prophets prophesied by Baal…
“Therefore I bring charges against you… and against your children’s children,” declares the LORD… Cross over to the coasts… send to Kedar… look, and… see… Has [any] nation ever changed its gods?… But My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols…
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken Me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
(Jeremiah 2:4–13 excerpted)
Sometimes we find ourselves in churches that talk ABOUT God but not in the sense of KNOWING Him personally. And the worship and word can seem more like reheated left-overs than freshly-prepared spiritual food. We need God’s living water and fresh bread for today, but we are like those in ancient times whose last resource source of water was rainwater stored in underground rock cisterns which tended to leak away leaving a silty and unhealthy residue. A bit more is required of us to find the waterfall, but it is life-giving rather than toxic.
If we are not meeting with Jesus by His Spirit when we meet, and giving Him space to speak int o our lives, we are making the very mistake Jeremiah pointed out, by drawing from what is stale rather than making the faith effort to fetch the fresh.
And next we do meet with Jesus, or at least observe Him being entertained by people who in many ways were making the same mistakes that Jeremiah had flagged up. The Pharisees were often wealthy and influential members of society, and they had created their own complexities of lifestyle obedience and worship to supposedly satisfy God.
But their idea of holy lifestyle wasn’t as holy as they thought when it lacked compassion for others and discriminated by wealth and status. Let’s hear the story from Luke 14:
…When Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee… [noticing] how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, He told them…
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
“But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to His host, “When you give a… dinner, do not invite your friends… relatives, or… rich neighbours [so that they] invite you back… Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. They cannot repay you [yet] you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
(Luke 14:1, 7–14 excerpted)
These middle-class Jews were using banquets as a way to secure status for themselves. Where one sat was of great importance, so to be on the top table or as close as possible to the host was the aim. It was also where the best food was brought!
They wanted to grow their status and significance in the here-and-now. Which isn’t unusual — we’ve all played that game. When we become Christians — when we give our lives to Christ — it’s one of the things that has to die. We are now longer building our reputation, but witnessing to His.
Jesus explained to His hearers at the dinner that the kingdom of God works the opposite way to status in the world.
The affluent ones should be hosting meals to invite people who didn’t have a lot to eat and who certainly couldn’t repay the compliment — but it would not go unrecognised by God at the time of eternal justice.
We show our values by how we live — ostentatious and self-promoting, or low-key but caring and dependable. What sort of friends or neighbours would you prefer?
And faith — if we are people of faith — is a key value. If we are upholding God, if we love Jesus, if we are people who have a direction and confidence in life from the Holy Spirit’s guidance — it shows. And that’s attractive to others in a way that a churchy or religious value never can be. One is inclusive, the other is exclusive.
The Pharisees claimed to be people of faith but actually behaved in ways that were judgmental and exclusive. Christians (with help from the devil’s deceptions) can easily fall into the same trap.
The writer of the letter to Jewish Christians gives us a kind of round-up summary of lifestyle prompts for believers to review. These are not new or difficult ideas, but they are common areas where we can all slip into worldly ways, and be showing lives that fall short of representing God’s unconditional love.
Persecution for us in the western world does not normally result in imprisonment. But we certainly should be concerned and standing with those who are discriminated against or treated badly because of their faith in Jesus. It happens in churches at the hands of today’s Pharisees.
And to be people of generosity, both emotionally and in practical ways, is a hallmark of Christians which is a good witness to the wider world.
So is a lifestyle that doesn’t have a focus on money and possessions but trusts God for the necessities and holds these things lightly. Here’s the excerpt from Hebrews 13:
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters [and] do not forget to show hospitality to strangers. By so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were… [imprisoned] with them… and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Marriage should be honoured by all…for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
Keep… free from the love of money [trusting] God [who] said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
…Say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider… their way of life and imitate their faith.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that openly profess His name [while doing] good and [sharing] with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
(Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16 excerpted)
And two particular distinctives of Christian life speak to those who we relate to in wider society. One is about the way we honour our shepherds who care for the flock and to build it up spiritually. This is not about giving pastors an opulent lifestyle (there has been plenty of bad press about that over the years) but in a world where respect for any kind of authority has become threadbare, to uphold the simple value of honouring those who give their lives to build up others, is a difference others will notice.
So is being people of praise, not brashly triumphant and exuberant when things are going well, but being people whose confession of Jesus in our lives does not waver when life is hitting a bumpy phase. This attitude of being free to talk about Jesus in praiseworthy terms, while showing what He is like by caring and sharing with others, also draws people to find God for themselves.
Which is where we started — our faith in God shines through how we live.