By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB
By Linda Rex
I think the story of St. Patrick is a fascinating one. I never knew until a few years ago I could read his writings and learn quite a bit about this man in the process (for example, go to: https://archive.org/details/writingsofsaintp00patr). In his writings, we see a man just like you and me, who struggled in his relationship with God, in his own personal life, and in coming to know what it meant to follow Christ and to live this out in a pagan culture in which his life and well-being were always at risk.
In my life, years ago, the March 17th holiday celebrating his life was lumped, along with many others, into the category of pagan holidays. I have since made the effort to learn the story behind the observation of this day, and most specifically, the story of St. Patrick’s life and service to God in spreading the Trinitarian gospel of love. I’ve come to see there is something to be said for pausing in the midst of our life to reflect on the beauty of the Trinity, and to once again embrace our calling to lay it all down so others may know God as he really is.
What struck me about St. Patrick’s life was not just the suffering he went through as a slave among the Celtic people who stole him from his home. Rather, what really hit home was the choice he made later in life when he was free and at home with his family, to leave it all behind and go back to the Celtic people who had so disrupted his life, so they could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This resembles so much what the apostle Paul wrote when describing the ministry of God to us in his Son:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8 NASB)
When we think about the Word of God, who was God and who was With God, who lived eternally in this inner relation of interpenetrating love and mutual submission, we must realize at some point, God had all he needed—he was at perfect peace, in perfect joy, in such glory and splendor there was no reason for the Word of God to come to this far country, to enter our darkness and blackness, except—love. There is no other possible motivation for doing such a thing—but this is what Jesus said he did: “For God so loved the world he gave…” The Father’s love was so great, even the Father was part of the coming of the Word into our broken, fallen cosmos.
I remember as I first read the story of St. Patrick, I was horrified by the experiences he went through in his simple effort to love God and to share the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus. Why would anyone choose to go through such experiences? Apart from the love of God placed in their hearts, they wouldn’t. It is only the love of God himself which could enable us to give so freely in the midst of such danger, hostility and abuse. The freedom to give one’s life completely in this way is a participation in the freedom of God to give himself completely to us, to humanity, even when he knew it meant he would experience suffering and death at our hands.
This has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks—just how much do we as comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed, well-employed people of any nation, creed or language, express this same willingness to set aside the benefits and comforts of our lives for the sake of sharing the love of God in Christ with those who are caught in the darkness of evil, poverty, suffering and grief? Does it break our hearts that others around us do not know who God really is, and that he loves them just as much as he loves us? Do we care enough to do as Jesus did—leave all the blessings for a time so others might experience God’s love?
And yet, this is a struggle for me. What does it mean to truly love another human being? Is it best to just give a hungry person money? Or is it better to help them find a way to feed themselves? Is it best to give someone money for a place to stay for the night? Or is it better to let them experience the consequences of refusing to get sober so they could stay at the mission at night and eventually get a job and own their own home?
Really, what does it mean to leave our comforts so others may find comfort? What does it mean to show and teach our neighbor the love of God in Christ?
We cannot fix other people, but we can sure bring them to Christ and participate with Christ in what he is doing to heal, restore, and renew them. We cannot, and should not, do for others what they should be and could be doing for themselves. Carrying other people’s loads in their place is not healthy for them or for us (Gal. 6:5). And yet, God calls us to be available to help others who are overburdened beyond their ability to bear up (Gal. 6:2), for this reflects God’s heart of love.
Loving others should not arise out of a sense of guilt or shame, but out of a genuine concern and compassion which comes straight from the heart of the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. It is best to be discerning in our loving of others as ourselves. Loving another person doesn’t automatically mean we give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Loving another person may mean saying no, or telling them the truth in love, or asking them to get the help they need so they can heal, grow or change.
This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s prayer: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9–11 NASB) Prayer and listening to God’s Word to us via the Holy Spirit and the written Word are important parts of knowing what we need to do to love others as ourselves.
We need the grace of God, God’s wisdom, insight and discernment to know how best to share God’s love with others. God gave St. Patrick a call to go to Ireland and he did—but then God also gave him the grace to do the ministry he called him to. We walk by faith, trusting God to guide our footsteps, to give us wisdom in how we love others and tell them the truth about who God is and who they are in Christ. As we keep in tune with the Spirit, God will guide us and teach us how to love each unique person he puts in our path.
Abba, may we each be filled with your heart of love toward those who are caught in darkness, suffering and difficulty. May we be willing to leave our blessings behind as you ask us to and be willing to struggle and suffer and lay down our lives, so others may share in the Triune life and love with us, through Jesus our Lord and by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7–10 NASB
by Linda Rex
The other night in our weekly discussion group, we talked about why God allows bad things to happen to innocent children and to “good” people. I put “good” in quotes because in reality, the goodness any of us do have is merely a reflection of and participation in God’s goodness. So why does God allow people to harm others, especially the innocent and those who are defenseless?
This can be a difficult question to answer sometimes, because not everyone is open to the possibility of owning responsibility for the way we as humans live our lives and the many ways we hurt and abuse one another. It is as if we want to hold God responsible for our faults and shortcomings.
It’s God’s fault, we say, that so-and-so abused his neighbor’s child, and so he grew up to be an abuser of children. It’s God’s fault that priest or pastor was unfaithful to his wife and destroyed his marriage. Sounds whacky, doesn’t it? Is it really God’s fault we make stupid choices and hurt each other?
Think about it. Say, you are a parent and you have three children, and you send them to play outside. You tell them to behave themselves and to not get into trouble. You want them to get along and have fun while they are out there.
In about an hour, you begin to hear screaming and crying, so you go out to investigate. One child is on the ground, with a big bump on her arm, obviously in great pain. Another child is yelling at the oldest child, tell him what an idiot he is. The oldest child is holding a large stick, with which he quite obviously hit his sister. Now I ask you—how could it possibly be your fault that your daughter got injured and all your children are quarreling?
Well, we could say it is your fault, because you sent them outside to play by themselves. You didn’t go with them. We could say it is your fault because you didn’t watch them every minute they were out there, telling them what to do and what not to do as they were playing. We could say it is your fault this happened because you allowed your children to play with sticks. There’s a lot of ways in which we could place the blame on you—but would you really be at fault?
Placing blame nearly always happens when we are not willing to be responsible for what is ours. If you want your children to grow up into healthy adults, they need opportunities to learn how to play nicely with others. Part of that learning process is having minimally supervised playtime where they have to apply what they have learned about getting along with other children. As they negotiate the rocky road of relationship building, they will make mistakes, and injuries will happen. As parents, we just try to minimalize the hurts while maximizing the learning.
God didn’t just send all humanity out to play though, and then ignore them. That’s the difference. What he did was to take on a human body in Jesus Christ, and join us in our humanity. He experienced, just as we do, the ups and downs of human life, including the unjust and degrading imprisonment, torture and crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. He allowed us as human beings to dump our worst on him so he could redeem it and turn it into his best.
Because, in Christ, the worst we as humans have done has been turned into our transformation. We have a new humanity which Jesus forged in the midst of all he lived and suffered while he played with us here on earth. We don’t have to stay in the brokenness which is ours, but can embrace the gift of a new way of thinking and being, and Christ’s way of living together. He illustrated for us and formed in us the unity amid diversity in equality the Father, Son and Spirit live in, and sent his Holy Spirit so we can live in this way with one another.
But we as human beings have always insisted on doing things our way. Just like stubborn, rebellious children, we believe we know what is best, and that our way is the only way that matters. And we are reaping the results of this way of believing and behaving. And God is not at fault in this—we are.
It’s okay to accept the reality we are messed up human beings. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves. We do not live the way we are meant to live. And that’s why Jesus came—so we could share in the truth of real loving relationship with God and one another.
God doesn’t prevent all the bad things from happening to us, but rather takes them and uses them as a means to heal and restore relationships with him and with others. These bad things, if we are willing to place them where they belong—at the feet of Jesus, become our stepping stones to a greater maturity and a deeper walk with the God who created us.
Assuming responsibility for what is ours is key. We need to own the truth when we mess up our lives. As human beings, we need to accept the reality we are broken and flawed people. This is not God’s fault, other than he allowed us the freedom to choose, so he would not have robots or animals, but persons who could live in loving relationship with the divine Persons.
God has given us personhood. And this personhood means there are things which are ours and things which are God’s—and the line really doesn’t become blurred, except in Jesus. He, as the perfect God/man, is the one who takes what is ours and transforms it, healing it, and restoring it to the place where God meant for it to be in the first place. Jesus made and makes for us the decisions we ought to have made but didn’t—and then by the Spirit—he gives them to us.
But we are always responsible for what is ours—God doesn’t do for us what is ours to do. We receive what Jesus has done and begin to live in the truth of who we are in him. We no longer live as bratty children who stubbornly want our own way. We begin to play nice, and to get along with our siblings the way we should so we can have a happy family.
We take the bumps and bruises, the encounters with hurtful people, and allow God to transform them into compassion, understanding, and a willingness to help and heal others. We comfort others who are suffering with the comfort we receive from Christ in the midst of our own suffering. And stronger, healthier relationships of love and acceptance result.
In Christ, all these negative, hurtful experiences can become the means by which God binds us to himself and to one another—if we are willing. When we stop blaming God and put the blame where it really belongs and receive the grace given to us in Jesus Christ, we find ourselves beginning to heal and to have a heart to help others who are in need of healing and restoration. May God give us compassionate, understanding hearts as he works to heal and restore all we have broken and wounded.
Heavenly Father, thank you for forgiving us all the times we do not get along with one another, and when we hurt and abuse one another and ourselves. Grant us the grace to bring our wounds and broken selves to you, to allow you to transform and heal us with the life you have given us in your Son Jesus. May we become more and more like you each day, learning to live in the truth of who we are as your beloved, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3–7 NASB