Turn Us Again to Yourself
By Linda Rex
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.
How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.
One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.
God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.
Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.
But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.
We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.
So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.
Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.
The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?
Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?
I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?
Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB
Blinded by the Light
By Linda Rex
I was watching a show the other night in which a crime took place within the walls of a building. Everything about the crime involved hiding—the murder of innocent people, hiding bodies in cement, and so on. The objective of the main characters of the show was to bring the truth to light, thereby exposing the guilty parties and bringing them to justice.
It put me in mind of the conversation at our small group the other night. We were talking about how those things we bury inside of us can drive us and control us. They tend to become or fuel our vices. And often it is not until we bring those truths to light, by opening them up to the scrutiny of safe people, that we experience freedom from the habits or addictions which control us.
Anyone who has walked the path of a twelve-step recovery program knows how important it is to speak the truth, to be transparent about one’s brokenness and failures. And they know it’s most helpful to speak this truth to someone who has already walked that path of recovery, since they are most likely to be compassionate and gracious, while at the same time refusing to allow dishonesty about one’s problem.
One of the things we learn to do as we grow up is how to hide. We hide our hurts, our shame, our guilt, and we often find ways to self-medicate so we don’t have to face up to or feel our brokenness. We create an image or mask so that we can continue to function in our world.
Brokenness is unacceptable, especially when we’ve adopted a religious viewpoint that demands moral perfection. Darkness is preferable to light in these situations, because there is great fear and dread in being exposed for who and what we really are.
The thing is that we forget that God is light and in him, the Scripture says, is no darkness (1 John 1:5). In Psalm 139, the psalmist poetically describes how there is no place where God is not present—even the darkness is as light to him (v. 7, 11-12). The apostle John wrote how the Word came into our cosmos and took on human flesh, and became the light of the world, which lightens every man. (John 1:4-5, 9) There really is no way to escape the Light of God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
We cannot escape the Light God is, not even when we bury things deep inside ourselves. No matter how deeply we bury them inside, we still cannot hide them from the One who already knows all about them and loves and forgives every one of us anyway.
We cannot hide anything from God because he was, is and will be present in every situation and circumstance, and offers us his grace. He is intimately connected with our humanity through Jesus and in the Spirit, so he shares in all that we go through. He does not condemn—we are the ones who condemn ourselves and others.
Don’t get me wrong—just because God is present doesn’t mean that he is obligated to do anything about what we are experiencing. Most of the time we live, act and speak as though he’s not even present. We blame him for stuff that for the most part, we or someone else are responsible for. He gives us a lot of freedom as human beings and does not violate this personal freedom. God often waits until he’s invited and until it is best for all involved before he acts in situations.
This may cause us to feel that God is a capricious God, or a God who doesn’t care. Our view of God, unfortunately, is twisted or bent by the behavior and words of the people in our lives who were supposed to be reflecting God accurately to us.
Our view of God, then, if it is of a capricious, uncaring, unloving, God of wrath, will motivate us to hide. We will seek out the darkness, and having gone there, we will run as far from the Light as we can go.
Being in the Light is painful for someone who is seeking to hide in the darkness. This is why when someone is close to healing for some hidden grief or sin, they often find ways to avoid exposing themselves so they don’t have to speak the truth or face up to the reality of what they’ve done or what was done to them.
People who habitually live transparently and openly, in contrast, don’t try to hide their brokenness and failures. Rather, they are open about them and are willing to expose them to the scrutiny of others. They speak and walk in the truth. And as they do so, they not only find healing but they also help others to heal.
And notice, the focus in John’s writing was not on moral perfection, but on truth. Jesus is our truth—we live and walk and speak in him by the Spirit. He is our Light, and he enlightens each and every one of us broken sinners. And he does this so that we can bring that light to others who are hiding in the darkness.
There is much in this world that seeks to keep us focused on the darkness. There is a strong pull on each of us to hide and bury our true selves away. But the Light of God is already shining and there is no place to hide. There will come a time when every dark deed and thought will be exposed. But in Christ and by the Spirit, God has already provided a way for us to open our true selves to his Light even now.
We don’t need to hide, nor do we need to live bound by chains of darkness. We are not left alone in a dark world. God, in Christ and by the Spirit, is the Light of the world. Even now we stand, as we will then, in the brilliance of the glory of God in Christ and by his Spirit and share in the glories of the world to come. May our hearts and lives ever be open to his Light!
Father, the first thing you created in our cosmos was light—light that is a reflection of your unchanging, faithful divine light. You are the Light of the cosmos, present in all things at every moment. Thank you for the grace you give us that we can be real, living and walking in truth in your presence without fear. Thank your for calling us out of darkness into your marvelous light. Bring to light the hidden things so we may find healing and wholeness. Inspire and empower us to share that light with others so they may enjoy its brilliance as well. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:19–21 NASB
The Relationship Factor
by Linda Rex
If I were to summarize the programs currently available on my cable television, I would say that the majority have something to do with either crime and murder investigation, magic and the supernatural, or broken and confused relationships of some kind. If I work at it, I can occasionally find something uplifting and educational, but it seems that any more, movies rarely have community at their core.
Yesterday I was reading an article posted by a family member which showed that tests on mice indicate that the best antidote for drug addiction is healthy relationships with family and community, and meaningful things to do with one’s life. (See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html) This did not come as a surprise to me, since I’ve been told in the past as a parent that the best way to keep my kids off of drugs is to build a strong, loving relationship with them. There is something powerful and significant about relationships based on love and grace.
I believe that society’s current obsession with materialist consumerism, as James Torrance calls it, contributes to the prevalence of addictions in just about every form imaginable. We are preoccupied with taking care of our needs, wants and desires. If we are barely scraping by financially, we can begin to see the world through the lens of how we are going to take care of our needs—food on the table, gas for the car, paying our growing medical bills. Even if we are comfortable financially, we may often still struggle, because we see the world through the lens of desire, passion and loneliness.
In either situation, our focus is inward, toward ourselves. We are preoccupied with taking care of what we believe needs to be taken care of. Taking care of our needs is indeed an important thing to do, but the way we go about meeting those needs is significant. Too many people are trying to meet the needs of their body, soul and spirit on their own, without any faith, hope or love in their lives. So many of us are living as isolated human beings, without meaningful, loving relationships with others.
I saw this many times when I served doing intake at Greenhouse Ministries. When a person or family came in with catastrophic circumstances in their life, they were often at a place of dire need. Those who had some form of relational support, especially those who had a personal relationship with God and with a community of faith, would approach their circumstances with serious optimism and hope. They were just looking for a little help to get over the hump.
Others who had none of these things were often overcome by despair, desperation and could only think about getting their next meal or a place to stay. When asked about a relationship with God, they thought of it only in terms of making it to church, which for many of them would have been problematic, seeing that they probably would not have been warmly welcomed even if they had shown up at church on Sunday. It’s not hard to see how many medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol so that they don’t have to deal with the pain of loss, loneliness and despair.
I believe God is calling the church today to open up our hearts and doors to people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and cultures. He is calling us all back into loving, intimate relationships with him and with others—he’s calling us into Christian community. He never meant for any of us to go through the struggles of life alone.
When we seek first to build authentic, wholesome relationships with others that are centered around a common love and devotion to the God who made us and sent us his Son Jesus Christ and his Spirit of love, we will find that all the rest will fall into place in new ways.
The early church had many of the same struggles with poverty and need that we do today, and they met those needs through sharing and caring. It was that loving community which bore witness to the love and care of God for each and every one of us which he demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is what is meant by the kingdom of God or universal church. It is a community of faith, hope and love centered in Jesus Christ.
We, as followers of Jesus Christ, have a lot of repenting to do, and a lot of growing as well. It is God’s love and grace given in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit which has been so transformational for us. We dare not try to keep it to ourselves, but rather must begin to open it wide to the world around us which is in such desperate longing for faith, hope and love expressed through relationships. To feed the hungry, visit the lonely and imprisoned—this is more than just meeting physical needs—it is meeting the deep hunger of the human heart for relationship with God and with others that we were created for. It is being truly human.
Thank you, Father, that you have given yourself to us in Jesus and through the Spirit, opening yourself up to us in a relationship of love and grace. Impart to us your heart of faith, hope and love, and pour out from us into others your Spirit so that they may join together with us in Christian community. Bind us together in love and grace. Through Jesus, our Lord and in your Spirit. Amen.
“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:31–33 NASB