The Greatest New Beginning Ever. (Thinking Through Acts 1:1-5)

What is the biggest new beginning the world has ever seen?

Some might point to the conclusion of WWII, ushering in a post-war era, or the the dropping of atomic bombs, ushering in the nuclear age and a nuclear arms race. Some might point to the Reformation, or the Enlightenment, or of course, the current pandemic. Has anyone in the world been immune to the changes it has brought?

Whatever we might think has been the biggest “new beginning” humanity has experienced, let me suggest that the biggest and greatest new beginning ever can be found summed up in the first few verses of the book of Acts:

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…

Acts 1:1-2 (NLT)

The writer, in speaking of a first book, is referring here to the Gospel of Luke in which he wrote about the birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The biggest new beginning the world has ever seen is Jesus!

You don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate how Jesus has had a great impact on world history. Yes, Christians have sometimes had a negative impact, but there can be no doubt Jesus has changed the course of world history. Of course we can also think about the impact Jesus has had in many, many individual lives.

As the book of Acts opens, we learn about how Jesus has been the greatest new beginning ever seen:

During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles…

Acts 1:3 (NLT)

Central to this new beginning is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. There are different ways of looking at how the death and resurrection of Jesus works, of how the events of that first Easter have brought a new beginning. Though there are others, here are three keys ways:

First, Jesus took our place, suffering the consequence of our sin, so that we may have eternal life.

Second, Jesus had victory over evil, sin, and death. Though it looked like the powers of evil had won at the crucifixion, actually it turned out that God had the victory. As Bible scholar N.T. Wright often points out, Jesus is not a failed messiah, but the true king. Good triumphs over evil in the end because God triumphs, and God is good. Love wins in the end because God wins, and God is love.

Third, Jesus is the example of what love looks like. God came to us in Jesus, we killed Jesus, God loves us anyway and offers reconciliation. If everyone responded to offence the way that God responded to the offence of humanity at the cross, what a different world this would be!

When we hold these three perspectives together we see a wonderful new beginning with the expectant hope of eternal life though we have not earned it, the knowledge that Jesus is Lord though we don’t always perceive it, and the example of the better way of love though we don’t always live it. The suffering and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything.

Let us continue in Acts:

…and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive.

Acts 1:3 (NLT)

It was obvious to the disciples and everyone else in Jerusalem that Jesus was killed. It likely took a wee bit more convincing that he was alive. However they were convinced, not that they had seen a ghost, nor that Jesus was simply resuscitated to life in the here and now, but that Jesus was raised to new life with a new kind of body. The disciples and many others were convinced enough to change their whole perspective, and convinced enough to suffer and die for what they knew to be true. The resurrection changed the disciples. The resurrection changed everything. It was a wonderful new beginning.

Let us continue,

And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.

Acts 1:3 (NLT)

We can take note that during the forty days between resurrection and ascension, the Kingdom of God was a special focus for Jesus as he taught his disciples. Therefore the Kingdom of God really ought to be a focus for Jesus followers today.

We may think the focus of Christianity is “how to get to heaven when I die.” We think, therefore, that the new beginning will be when we die. True, that will be a wonderful new beginning, but there is much more to it than that.

We are reminded of how Jesus taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What are we praying for when we pray that? Are we praying for the end of the world?

Here is one way to imagine “Thy kingdom come.” What do you imagine that future will look like, when we are with God in the age of resurrection?

Will there be poverty then?
No, so let us deal with poverty now. 
Will there be racism then?
No, so let us deal with racism now.
Will there be abuse, sexism, discrimination, bullying, war or…?
No, so let us deal with these kinds of things now.

Will people be suffering from mental health and depression then?
No, so let us help people who suffer from these things now.
Will people battle addictions or other kinds of inner battles then?
No, so let us help people who are facing these kinds of battles now.

Will there be a concern for truth then?
Yes, so let us pursue truth now.
Will there be justice then?
Yes, so let us pursue justice now. 
Will people feel free to be honest then?
Yes, so let us make space for people to be honest now.
Will there be a love for reconciliation, then?
Yes, so let us pursue reconciliation now.

Will we be a people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and things like these then? (See Galatians 5:22,23)
Yes, so let us open our lives to the Holy Spirit to be nurtured in these qualities now.

Are we waiting to die before things can get better, before we experience a true new beginning? There is no need to wait, Jesus is already king, we are his kingdom people now.

It has often been said that there are two gospels, an evangelical gospel (you get to heaven when you die) and a social gospel (we can make this earth a little more heavenly before we die). In fact there is is just one gospel, the good news that Jesus is king, the Kingdom of God is here and near, and we are invited and enabled to be a Kingdom person forevermore, beginning here and now.

We are not done yet,

Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 1:4-5 (NLT)

This new beginning brought about a new normal which persists even today; the Holy Spirit is now running rampant in the world. This new beginning, this Kingdom, is not happening without God. It is not going to happen without us either.

In Conclusion.

With Jesus came a massive new beginning for the world. In Jesus God’s kingdom is both here and near. It is a massive new beginning that God is doing in the here and now, which will lead to something bigger in the there and then. It is a massive new beginning that we are invited to participate in. It changes the world, it changes our communities, it changes us, it changes everything.

Are you ready for a new beginning?

Now is the Time to Push for Passion About God. But is it Time to Be Pushy? (Thinking Through Ezra and Ruth)

Great to be getting back to normal, right? We are back into the swing of things in our post-pandemic world! Except that we are not. Whether in society or in church, it feels like we are taking faltering steps back to normal. When the pandemic hit, everything changed as if someone flicked a switch. As one of our leaders has said, it now feels like someone is playing with a dimmer.

We are living though an experience that God’s people of the Old Testament times could relate to. When the exiles returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon they must have been glad to get back to normal. Except that it was anything but getting back to normal. Everything was in ruins including the temple and the very important city walls. In returning, God’s people were not stepping back into normal, they were stepping into a new normal, a new not-as-good normal.

A time for greater excitement.

Enter Ezra who prays a prayer that challenged the people of his day, and is a challenge for us in ours. Let’s break it down into two parts:

I prayed,
“O my God, I am utterly ashamed; I blush to lift up my face to you. For our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, we have been steeped in sin. That is why we and our kings and our priests have been at the mercy of the pagan kings of the land. We have been killed, captured, robbed, and disgraced, just as we are today.

Ezra 9:6-7 (NLT)

Here Ezra recognised that they were in a mess because they were messy people who had created a mess. They had lacked enthusiasm for God, breaking their covenant with God, and hence they experienced exile and the reality of a city and people in ruins. Confession is the moment we reorient our perspective around God’s perspective. Ezra did that and called for that.

Perhaps it is time we did that too?

Ezra’s prayer continues:

But now we have been given a brief moment of grace, for the LORD our God has allowed a few of us to survive as a remnant. He has given us security in this holy place. Our God has brightened our eyes and granted us some relief from our slavery. For we were slaves, but in his unfailing love our God did not abandon us in our slavery. Instead, he caused the kings of Persia to treat us favorably. He revived us so we could rebuild the Temple of our God and repair its ruins. He has given us a protective wall in Judah and Jerusalem.

Ezra 9:8-9 (NLT)

Here Ezra recognised that God is indeed good, and that God has granted the opportunity to build toward a better future. Yes, technically the Persians were in charge, so things were less than ideal, yet ultimately, God was in charge, so this was a time of opportunity, a time to reach for a better ideal.

It may feel to us today like a pandemic is in charge and everything is still in a mess, but ultimately God is in charge, there are great opportunities for a better future.

While we have only looked at a portion of Ezra’s prayer, we could summarise it this way: it was time to get excited about God. Today we can say, it is time to get excited about God! These strange days are an opportunity to stop seeking the same old, and instead to reorient our lives around God.

So how do we express that greater excitement?  

If we were to read all of Ezra’s prayer, and indeed the rest of the book known by his name, we would see how that excitement ended up being expressed. Here is one part to give us a taste:

While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”

Ezra 10:1-4 (NIV emphasis added)

In case you missed it, Shekaniah was proposing that the best way to express excitement about God, was by doubling down on the purity of the people, and the best way to do that was by sending all the foreign wives away along with any children borne by them. Ezra agreed and indeed this is what happened.

Imagine that you were there as a man who had a foreign wife, say a Moabite, and you have been commanded to divorce her and send her and the children you had together away. How does that strike you? Might you be wondering if this is really how excitement for God is to be demonstrated? While only four, at least four men expressed their doubts. Can I confess that had I been there, I would have been a fifth?

Back to placing ourselves in the story: As you walk home you hear someone reading the book of Ruth. You hear about how Ruth, a Moabite woman, had married a Hebrew man living in Moab. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, having lost her husband and two sons, including Ruth’s husband, decided to go back to Israel. She encouraged her two daughter-in-laws to stay behind in Moab. Ruth refused to stay and instead said,

Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Ruth 1:16 (NIV)

Naomi and Ruth returned to Israel. Eventually Ruth met Boaz who was her potential “kinsman-redeemer.” While we might imagine that this is a romantic love story, the focus of the book of Ruth is not the romance, but the fact that Boaz, in marrying Ruth, does in fact become her “redeemer,” with the consequence that Ruth becomes fully welcomed as a member of God’s people, Israel. The story ends by revealing the identity of Ruth’s great-grandchild, David. Yes, that David! The great king from Israel’s glory days.

So you begin to wonder, am I being asked to send my Moabite wife and our children away, yet there is Moabite blood in David, and therefore in all the kings of Judah?!

So, you think, how about instead of racing toward divorce and exclusion, the foreign wives are given the opportunity to say as Ruth did, “Your people will be my people and your God my God”? Could they not be given the opportunity to learn about God’s covenant and covenant people, to choose be included in that people? Instead it seems they were simply herded up and shipped off.

Many Bible scholars believe that though the story of Ruth was set in the days of the judges, the book of Ruth itself was committed to writing at the return from exile to challenge the powers that be. In a push for purity, people were pushed aside. The book of Ruth pushed back on this. In the book of Ruth God’s people were not defined by national purity, but by covenant love. Would not a nurture in covenant love, something Ruth expressed for Naomi, and Boaz expressed for Ruth, have been the better way?

So how does this help us express our excitement for God in our day? 

When we read only Ezra we may think there is a clear cut instruction to always push for purity no matter what the consequences may be in the lives of others. Many people bear scars, not from following Jesus, but from attending and participating in churches. We do well to remember that the book of Ezra relates history to us, and just because someone does something and it gets recorded in the Bible, that does not make it the best thing to do, the “Biblical” thing to do.

When we read Ezra and Ruth together, we realise they do not give us a clear cut “this is the way you express excitement for God, walk ye in it” kind of instruction. Rather, they cause us to reflect on what it should and should not look like to express our excitement for God. The Bible pushes us to seek wisdom and discernment. The Bible calls us to lay aside simplistic answers, to experience depth.

The foreign wives in Ezra’s day were not even given a chance. There is no record of an invitation. How many are never really given a chance in our day? Are people in our society really hearing an invitation to know the love of Jesus? Or are they only hearing us push for purity? Have we become so focused on the purity of the church, of building and rebuilding walls, of defining who’s in and who’s out, of shouting each other down, that any invitation is drowned out, that the one invited already feels pushed away anyway?

The fact that Ruth was a foreigner did not disqualify her from the possibility that Boaz could be her kinsman-redeemer and that she could become part of the people of God and an ancestor of Jesus. There is nothing about the people beyond the walls we have erected in the name of purity that disqualifies them from the possibility that Jesus can be their redeemer. Do they know that? Do we know that?

Yes, Ruth said to Naomi “your people will be my people and your God my God.” I suspect that Ruth saw something beautiful about the people and God she was committing to based on her experience of Naomi’s family. I don’t think the foreign wives of Ezra’s day saw much that was beautiful when they were herded up and shipped off. Are we expressing excitement for God as beautiful people in beautiful ways? Or is it getting ugly?

There is a tension here between Ezra and Ruth that is hard to resolve. Perhaps we should avoid easy answers, but learn instead to lean into the tension, learning to seek wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

In conclusion.

As we head into a new normal, let’s not get back to how things were, but rather move forward into a better future, where there is greater excitement about God, where there is an honest search for wisdom, discernment, and Holy Spirit guidance on how our excitement for God is best expressed.