Advent

Turn Us Again to Yourself

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By Linda Rex

LOVE
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

Finding Gladness and Joy

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By Linda Rex

JOY
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

Thrown into the Wind

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By Linda Rex

PEACE
December 8, 2019, 2nd Sunday of Advent—Years ago, I recall walking out my front door and looking down over the hill into the area below the house where the nearby creek ran down into the river bottom. We had a few acres on the flat land which my husband Ray would plant with soybeans or corn. He would harvest the crop and it would be used to feed our cattle. In the fall I would look out over the crest of the hill and see the dust rise as he ran the combine through the field to harvest the grain. Every year as I saw the corn stalks being relentlessly drawn into the harvester and the golden grain pouring into the hopper, I would be filled with a deep sense of gratitude and joy.

Apart from those religious communities who still farm by hand, in modern America today when we read about harvesting crops, we no longer think in terms of threshing by crushing the shell of the grain and then throwing it into the air to remove the chaff. During John the Baptizer’s day, this was how it was done, so when he used farming metaphors in his preaching, he touched the hearts and minds of those people who were familiar with this process.

Removing the chaff from the grain meant removing that part of it which was inedible. When we eat corn on the cob, we are essentially removing the edible part of the grain from the part which is inedible. When I handed a dried ear of corn to our cousin’s horse Goldbrick, he would grab it, and then slowly remove each kernel off the cob with his teeth.

In the case of wheat, barley, or oats—which is more to the point—this means removing the tough exterior casing which holds the grain on the stalk. This part of the plant is more easily blown away, while the heavier grain falls to the ground and is gathered together, collected and stored. The chaff and stalks of the grain were often used as fuel, hence John’s reference to burning.

When the Jewish religious leaders came to the Jordan River where John was baptizing the multitudes, it is not real clear what their motive was for coming. What they were told was that just because their bloodline was Jewish, they would not automatically be included in the kingdom of God. According to John, they needed more than just an appearance of religiosity—they needed a change of heart and mind that would be expressed by a change of behavior.

John pointed out that the house of religious cards the Pharisees and Sadducees had built was about to be brought completely down. No longer were Gentiles going to be excluded from table fellowship, but any person’s right relationship with God would no longer be determined by lineage or performance but solely by faith in Christ. This would require a genuine change of heart and mind—a metanoia or repentance—in everyone. All needed to repent and be baptized.

What Jesus did in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension by taking on our humanity and restoring it was a complete game changer. The seed which was Christ was buried in the ground and in three days arose, bringing us all as a harvest of new life into the presence of the Father. As the firstfruit of all humanity, Christ arose into glory and sent the Holy Spirit so each and every person may participate in the divine life and love.

Jesus is the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Spirit blows like the wind, calling us to faith in Christ and turning our hearts back to the Father. The wind of the Spirit blows in and over us, not to sweep us away, but to remove those things which keep us from being truly and solely who we are in Jesus Christ. God allows the experiences of life to toss us into the air so that God is able to, by the Spirit, blow away the chaff, burn the refuse, and harvest each precious grain.

The way God works to reap of harvest of righteousness in us is so much like what Jesus went through. We are often brought to or led by the Spirit into places where we may experience crushing and brokenness—not to harm us, but so God is able to renew, restore, and rebuild us into the new humanity of Christ. The path to resurrection Jesus clearly showed is the path through the cross and the grave.

When God goes to work by his Spirit, to form us more completely into the image of Christ, we may find ourselves struggling to cooperate. Today’s culture seems to be addicted to painkillers—in other words, rather than feeling our pain, or dealing with our issues, or working out our difficult relationships, it’s as if we’d rather just take a pill. Or we may try to find some other way to escape or anesthetize our feelings or ignore the truth about what is really happening. What if the best thing I could do would be to deal with what’s right in front of me now, in this moment, with my hand in Jesus’ hand, trusting in Abba’s perfect love, giving and receiving forgiveness, and accepting the grace of God?

Matthew quotes John the Baptizer as saying that Jesus “will thoroughly clear His threshing floor”. In Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin Vincent says that the obsolete word “throughly” was used in the Rev. rather than the word “thoroughly”, in order to express how a farmer would start at one end of the threshing floor and carefully work his way across so that no kernel of grain was missed. I like this way of saying it, because in many ways, that is what Jesus is doing. He has made sure no one is left out of God’s eternal plan—while at the same time he has made room for our freedom to resist his love and grace. In Christ we are all included—by faith each one of us may freely participate in the finished work of Christ.

One day the earth will be filled with God’s adopted children who truly know their Lord and are fully known and loved by him. To know God, and be fully known by him and fully loved by him, is what we were created for. This divine communion is what God always meant for us to be included in. By the Spirit, we have a real participation in God’s love and life, as we trust in the finished work of Christ, the divine Seed, the Word of God who stood in our place on our behalf.

God’s judgment on evil, sin, and death is that they are to have no place in our human existence any longer. In Christ, they are defeated foes which one day will be cast into the “lake of fire” and consumed. God’s passionate love for his adopted children leaves no room for anything which may mar the beauty and grace of our oneness with him.

The Spirit calls to us to let go of all that chaff and allow the divine wind to blow it all way and to bring a harvest of God’s righteousness in each of us. As we continue to live each day in the already/not yet of God’s kingdom, turning away from ourselves and turning to Christ, we can experience a deep sense of gratitude and joy in God’s presence, rejoicing with him in his bountiful harvest of golden seed, of bringing many adopted children into his kingdom.

Dear Abba, thank you for your careful attention to your divine crop, for the Seed of eternal life you planted in your Son Jesus and are working to harvest even now in each of us. Grant us each the grace to repent and believe, to turn from ourselves and to trust solely in Jesus Christ. Baptize us anew with your Holy Spirit and fire that we may fully reflect your glory and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, | For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord | As the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:9 NASB

“The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:10-12 NASB

Is That the Alarm—Already?

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By Linda Rex

HOPE
December 1, 2019, 1st Sunday of Advent—Years ago my body clock used to wake me up before my alarm went off at five in the morning. I was grateful for this because there was nothing I hated more than to be woken from a sweet dream by the hideous drone of the alarm clock. I’ve had that alarm clock for years and now when I set it and then turn it off, in the morning it still buzzes. It’s on those days when I’m trying to sleep in and it wakes me up anyway that I have a distinct desire to throw that old alarm clock in the waste bin.

Back when the apostle Paul was writing his letter to the people in Rome, I doubt very much he had an annoying electric alarm clock. But he understood very well the need for us to be woken from our sleep—to resist our tendency to find that place of least resistance and stay there.

We are entering the season of Advent, when we reflect on and celebrate the entering in of the Word of God into our humanity in the incarnation. The people of Israel had longed for many years for their messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors. They had the scriptures preserved by their prophets and priests which told them about his coming, and they longed for him to bring to pass the new age of the Spirit when they would be given the heart to obey and serve their God.

The sad reality of the first advent of Christ was that when he did come, he was not recognized. He was not what the people expected, so they rejected him and in the end saw that he was executed in an excruciating death on the cross. What they longed for and wanted for so long, they did not accept, but denied and rejected. They preferred their spiritual sleep, their political power, their religious trappings, and their physical comforts rather than being willing to awaken to their need for the Messiah to deliver them from evil, sin, and death.

If they had been alert to the spiritual realities, they would have remembered the lesson found in their history in the story of Noah. The people of Noah’s day had their focus on eating, drinking, and all the everyday activities of their lives. Even though Noah and his family were a clear witness to them of their coming destruction, these people ignored the warning. They had the opportunity to be saved, but they refused it. The ark was built, the animals—who obeyed the call to be saved—were placed on the ark, but when the flood came, only Noah and his family entered into that salvation and survived the flood.

When Jesus spoke of his second advent, he used the story of Noah to alert people to their tendency to ignore the warning signs of coming destruction. As human beings, we often know the right thing to do, but we don’t do it, even though we know the possible consequences of not doing it. We realize that following our flesh reaps us death and destruction, but we still choose to listen to its desires and fulfill them. We have been given deliverance from evil, sin, and death in Jesus Christ—but what do we do with this gift? This is a critical question.

As human beings, our sinful proclivities draw us down a path God never meant for us to go. And this is why Jesus came—why we celebrate the season of Advent. Jesus came to free us from our sinful nature and to write within us a new heart and mind which wants to live in the freedom God created us for. God in Christ took on our sinful humanity, lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into the presence of the Father. This is the spiritual reality of our redeemed human existence—the objective union of God with man in the person of Jesus Christ.

God has done in Christ all that is needed for our salvation. He has built the ark, gathered the animals, and has everything in order, ready to save us. We are as good as saved—evil, sin, and death have been conquered by Jesus. We have new life in him—the flood of God’s grace and love has come to cleanse the earth, but are we on the ark? Are we living in the spiritual reality of God’s redeeming grace? Or are we still asleep—laughing at the idiots who would build a big boat when there is no rain or water to be seen?

Paul emphasizes our need to wake up—for our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Indeed, the more we grow in our relationship with our God, the more we see our need for redemption, and the brighter the light of his redeeming grace is in the dark places in our hearts and lives. We can continue to live as though God has not saved us, is not saving us, will not save us. Or we can wake up to the reality that this is exactly what has happened, is happening, and will happen.

Advent is a time to be reminded of our need to wake up to the signs of the times—Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and is coming again to restore all things. We need to be alert to the spiritual realities and live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved adopted children. The family we have been adopted into does not live in the darkness, but in the light. Our Abba loves and is loved, and this is what we are created for—to love God and love our neighbor.

Our old ways of self-centered, self-reliant, self-indulgent living are but a bad dream. We have a new life we have been given, the life of Christ, and we are to waken and live in the truth of who we are in him. Our loving Father says to us, “Get out of bed, get your dark pajamas of evil, sin, and death off, and put on the heavenly garments of grace and love, the Lord Jesus Christ. Get busy in the new day of your existence in the kingdom of light.”

We sometimes get obsessed with trying to figure out when Jesus Christ is going to return again. But Jesus says to us, “Wake up. Be attentive to my presence and coming right now.” The advent or Parousia (coming and presence) of Jesus Christ is actually one long extended event. Jesus came over 2000 years ago, died and rose again, but sent his Spirit, being present with us even now, and will come in glory when he returns again.

The calling for the church is to live awake to the real coming and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ right now—to live in a constant state of expectation, longing for his real presence in our everyday lives, alert to what he is doing and will do even now to redeem, restore, and renew all things. We are encouraged to put off our old ways of self-centered living and put on the new life given us in Christ. Yes, the alarm is going off and we may not want to admit it, but the truth is—it’s time to wake up!

Dear Abba, we’re finding it hard to get out of bed, to awaken to the glorious reality of our new life in Christ. Help us to get our old pajamas of evil, sin, and death off and to gladly put on our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly garments of love and grace you have handmade for us. Holy Spirit, keep us ever awake to the spiritual realities, to God’s presence in each moment of every day, and enable us to live in the truth of who we are in Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.

“Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. Romans 13:11–14 NASB

See also Matthew 24:36–44.

When Christmas Gets Messy

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By Linda Rex

LOVE—The Christmas celebration at my house this year hasn’t been at all what we anticipated or planned. The lovely Christmas tree with its shiny ornaments and bells was taken out by one half-grown kitten. Our other cat never showed much interest in the tree, but we knew this might be a different story with the kitten, and it was.

We didn’t mind losing the tree–it was an old artificial one and the base had been held together by hanger wire for a couple of years now. The kitten was fascinated with the the old tablecloth we used for a tree skirt. The tree skirt ended up torn in half, and carried to other parts of the house. Her obsession with the tree branches and one certain Christmas bell caused her to knock the tree over, and in the process, what was left of the tree base ended up broken.

The cat-astrophy meant all the ornaments and pretty ribbons were put away and the tree was taken down. But the loss of the décor, though sad, was not the end of Christmas. It just meant the celebration was going to be different this year. We’re already thinking about a cat-proof tree for next year.

This is a good illustration of what Christmas is about though. Our commitment to a little creature who in her innocent and fun-loving heart ruined our decorations remains unchanged. Sometimes love means disrupting our lives for the sake of another—maybe even not having things the way we prefer them to be. People and pets are messy, and they have the ability to inconvenience and irritate us. But love enables us to set such things aside or to deal with such things with grace, and to make room for people and pets in our lives anyway.

Our Christmas celebration has already ended up different than we expected this year with my son not being home with us. But we’ll still do many of the fun things we like to do—bake cookies, share with others, open gifts, and sing Christmas carols. We’ll celebrate Christmas with others at church, light candles at the Christmas Eve service, and take communion together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we’ll rejoice in the great gift God gave us in sending his Son to us for our redemption and salvation.

Somehow the fundamentals of Christmas really have nothing to do with the trappings of Christmas and have everything to do with the reality that God has come to dwell with man, and we are forever changed because of it. God’s love for you and for me was so great that he was not willing to allow anything to come between us, and he was willing to put himself at great expense and inconvenience for our sake to ensure that we would be included in his life both now and forever.

You and I are not much different than the little kitten who is just seeking life, enjoying a moment of pleasure without realizing or assuming responsibility for the consequences of our actions. We often go about our lives indifferent to the spiritual realities, not realizing the impact we have on those around us both in bad and good ways. Many times it isn’t until the tree falls that we realize what we are doing isn’t really a blessing for those around us.

We have a gracious and loving God who is well-acquainted with our faults and failures. God did something incredible and amazing when he created human beings in his own image. And he declared from the very beginning that what he made when he created us was very good. God doesn’t make worthless items. All he made is good—even the annoying little kitties who ruin our Christmas decorations.

It wasn’t enough for God to make everything very good. He ensured the restoration of our fallen humanity, and with it this fallen creation. He came himself in the person of the Word, taking on all that was fallen, and in himself Jesus made, is making, and will make everything new. In Christ, the messiest person has new life and hope for a new day. The miracle of Christmas is light in our darkness, hope in our despair, and peace in our anxiety and distress.

If you are struggling through a difficult Christmas this year, wondering how you will ever make it through, Jesus Christ offers you his hope, peace and joy, and the most gracious gift of love anyone could give—he offers you himself, in your place, on your behalf. He offers you his Spirit, the gift of love, grace, comfort, and renewal. He offers you his perfect relationship with his Father—one which is never ending and filled with love and understanding.

Life may continue to be difficult. Christmas may continue to be messy. The struggles may not seem to get any easier. But in the silent moments as you ponder the baby in the manger, do you not feel it? Do you not hear it? For you, the heartbeat of love, of tender care, of deep unending affection, will never cease—you are loved now and forever, and held in the embrace of the holy One, while the angels sing.

Merry Christmas!

Dear Abba, you hold us as the holy mother held her Son Jesus, gazing with deep love and affection upon us, willing to do whatever it takes to keep us close to you, living in the truth of who we are as your beloved children. Comfort, heal, strengthen and help each of us—free us from our despair, loneliness, and grief. Grant us the grace to know we are beloved, held and provided for both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” Psalm 80:2a-3 NIV

“And he will be our peace…” Micah 2:5a NIV

A video of this blog may be accessed here.

Reason for Joy

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By Linda Rex

JOY—Who is Jesus to you? At this time of year, we often focus on an infant, born in Bethlehem, who was placed in a manger. The Christmas story can seem like a sentimental fairy tale which really has no application to real life. How is does any of this apply to those of us who are struggling to find the strength to go through another day, to keep from drowning in sorrow and grief?

This sweet child in reality came into a world under Roman rule which was plagued by unrest and discontent. Jesus Christ was born in a Jewish culture which over the years had mixed with Greek Hellenism, and had substituted a historical religious faith with one based on political expediency, money and power, and faithfulness to a human standard and the seeking approval and applause of others.

The circumstances of this infant’s birth illustrate the difficulties which arise when a couple struggles to obey God’s call upon their lives while living in the midst of an often violent and officially pagan culture. It seems that often their obedience to God was intertwined with their necessary obedience to the government. Joseph found he had to go to Bethlehem, to the region of his forefathers, because of a Roman census. But in doing so, he fulfilled the prophetic word about the Messiah. The family was told they needed to flee the wrath of the king and go to Egypt, and it turns out this was prophetically exactly where they needed to be to fulfill Scripture.

We are often so immersed in our culture, our circumstances, and our experiences, that we can easily believe God is uninterested, uninvolved, and indifferent to our struggles and suffering. We feel as though we ourselves cannot change anything, or that we must bring about change.

In reality, God is the one who must bring about real, lasting change. We forget that whatever we do if it is not founded in God himself, has no enduring value. What this means is that all which God created from nothing was going to return to nothing apart from the entrance of God himself into creation to redeem, restore, and renew it.

God worked even from before the beginning of this cosmos to ensure that what he made would endure and fulfill the purposes for which it was created. This meant orchestrating different events, working with and through different people and patiently enduring their failures, stubborn willfulness, and disobedience. And then, when the time was exactly right, when all was prepared, when the world and the Jewish people were prepared to give birth to the Messiah, the Word took on our human flesh.

The human story is one filled with struggle, pain, suffering, and death. But it is also filled with joy—joy in the midst of sorrow, grief, and dark nights. There is great joy expressed in the Scriptures by those who experience God intervening in their difficult circumstances and saving them in impossible situations. It seems that in reality, our Lord is a victorious warrior who loves to rejoice over us as we experience his love and grace in the midst of our darkness, hopelessness, and despair.

On that dark night when Jesus was born, the shepherds saw and heard the angels share the wonder and joy of God over his Son’s birth. Our heavenly Father had waited and prepared for a long time for this special event—it was a wonderful, joyous occasion which he knew would change things forever. He knew that in giving his one unique Son, he would in time have many other adopted sons and daughters as his beloved children. And this would bring him even greater joy.

Advent is a great opportunity to reflect on our need to wait on God—to learn to wait as God waits. We wait, not apathetically, but intentionally, working to prepare the ground for the planting of the Word of God. John the Baptist came to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah. He had a significant role, for he was to testify that this person who he baptized and who received the Holy Spirit in a special way was indeed the Messiah.

His words seem harsh to us—he was critical of the religious and civic leaders, and called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. But he never pointed to himself—he always pointed away—to the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus would transform our humanity in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and would send the Spirit so that each and every person could participate in that true renewal and transformation he had forged for them.

Today we wait for the return of Christ, the second Advent, in the same way. We prepare our hearts and our lives by removing the weeds of sin, self, and Satan through repentance and allow the seed of God’s Word to penetrate into the core of our being. We receive the gift of God’s indwelling Christ, the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, and we walk in the Spirit day by day. We daily testify to the truth of who Jesus Christ is—our Savior and Messiah, the Redeemer, the One who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire.

We testify to the reality that Jesus Christ, beyond his entrance into this world as a tiny infant, is our divine warrior who went into battle on our behalf. He left behind all the glories and privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity. And he fought in hand-to-hand combat against sin, evil, Satan, and even death. His weapons of warfare involved submission, humility, and simplicity, and the ultimate weapon—death and resurrection. And he won. He rose victorious, ascending to his Father, carrying all of humanity into his Abba’s presence.

What Advent and the birth of Jesus mean for us today is that in the midst of darkness, loss, sin, evil, and even death, we can have joy, real deep joy. This joy reaches beyond our human experiences into the true spiritual realities where we are held in Christ in the presence of Abba by the Spirit. There is hope, peace, joy, and love in the presence of Abba, and it is all ours—we are fully victorious in Jesus Christ. Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God in Christ. We, even on a dark and gloomy night, can gaze upon the face of the divine Son and rejoice, because he is a victorious warrior!

Thank you, Abba, for the precious gift of your Son. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, pain, and sorrow, but for lifting us up and giving us the victory over evil, sin, Satan, and death in Jesus. Holy Spirit, bring us close and enable us to see clearly the face of the Father in the face of his Son, so that we can fully participate in the divine love and life Jesus has created for us. Abba, fill our hearts overflowing with your joy, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“The LORD your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.”
Zeph. 3:17 NASB

A video of this blog may be accessed here.

Walking in a New Way

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By Linda Rex

PEACE—I awoke this morning to negative news. Apparently last night the law-abiding citizens of this city were put in danger by the exploits of those who defy the law as our law officers sought to bring them to justice. Then I read that some friends of the family lost a loved one—another loss in my list of recent losses. There are times when it seems like it’s safer to be in bed than out of it.

Seeing and experiencing the evil and pain in this world can really weigh us down. Though I would never want to grow indifferent to suffering and loss, there are times when I wish I could always keep an eternal perspective about such things. It would be nice to be able to only focus on the benefits of such things rather than on the pain and grief they bring with them.

This morning my daughter called up the stairs to let me know her almost grown kitten had found a new toy. She was tossing it around and hiding it under things and playing with it. She was really having fun. But what disturbed my daughter was that it wasn’t her favorite mouse toy—it was the real thing.

There was absolutely nothing evil or bloodthirsty in what the kitten was doing. She was just enjoying her new toy—embracing the joy of play. But the poor mouse, on the other hand—it had an entirely different perspective. It had merely been doing its thing—finding a warm place to hide during the winter—when suddenly, its life was over and it had become an object of delight.

In this instance we can see two completely different perspectives as to what has happened and to what is currently going on in a situation. Perhaps this can help us to understand a little better what it means for us as human beings to live in a world where we are constantly experiencing the results of our human brokenness while at the same time we are participants in the entering of God’s kingdom into this broken world. We may only feel pain, suffering and grief, but we are actually participating in God’s joyful dance of love, grace, and peace.

Loss, separation, pain, evil—these cause suffering, anxiety, fear, and grief, and a host of other feelings and consequences we were not originally intended to experience. We were created for joy, peace, hope, and to share in the love of our heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ in the Spirit. This is the “way of peace” we were created for.

C.S. Lewis, in “The Problem of Pain,” talks about how human beings were created to live in joyful obedience to and full dependency upon God. We were meant to be and were masters of our flesh and our world, as we drew upon God for our life and our strength of will. But we decided in Adam that we would take to ourselves the prerogatives which were solely God’s. We became self-sufficient, self-centered, self-directed. And rather than walking in the garden to commune with our Creator, we walked away from the garden and began to establish for ourselves a new way of being.

The problem is, we chose a way of being which was non-sustainable. We do not have the capacity within ourselves apart from God to properly manage ourselves or our world, much less to live in harmony with one another or to continue our existence. What the incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmastime, means is that God took our plight seriously, took on our humanity, and reformed it in himself. As God in human flesh, Jesus lived a human existence which was fully dependent upon his Abba and completely and joyfully obedient to his Father’s will. He redeemed us, forging for us “a way of peace.”

The enemy of our soul has always sought to destroy us by the incessant lie that we do not need God and we most certainly do not need one another. He deceives us into believing that our human perspective about everything is the true reality—that our experience of what is occurring is what is actually at work in this world. He tells us there is no life beyond this life, or that what we do now does not affect what comes after, or that if we work hard enough and achieve a high enough standard, we’ll receive abundant rewards in the hereafter.

Notice how all these lies we are bombarded with us tell us we are sufficient within ourselves for whatever is needed in every situation. To live in full dependency upon God and in joyful obedience to his will is something contrary to our broken human way of being. We resist this, and seek a multitude of methods to avoid having to surrender to the reality God is God and we are not. And we experience suffering, grief, pain, and sorrow as a result.

Christ has come. He has reconciled all things with God and has brought humanity up into the love and life of the Trinity—by faith we participate with Jesus in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. As we participate with Jesus, we find ourselves walking in the “way of peace” he forged for us, and we find by the Spirit we have the capacity for self-control, other-centered living, and joyful obedience to God we would not otherwise have.

In Christ, we are new creatures—experiencing a new way of being—Christ in us, the hope of glory. We find as we die with Christ to ourselves and our old way of being that Christ’s new “way of peace” finds greater and greater expression in us and through us. And we begin to experience real peace—peace within ourselves, peace in our relationships and in our communities.

As we turn to God in real dependency upon him in every situation, heeding the Word which tells us to “cast all our cares upon him” (1 Pet. 5:6), we begin to experience that peace “which surpasses understanding” (Phil. 4:6-7). We find a deep joy even in the midst of our sorrow and grief. This is the blessing of the amazing gift of God in his Son Jesus Christ we celebrate during the Advent season.

Abba, thank you for not leaving us in our brokenness and our stubborn resistance to your will. Thank you, Jesus, for forging for us “a way of peace” which we have not known and which we desperately need. Holy Spirit, enable us to turn away from ourselves and to Christ, trusting in his perfect relationship with Abba, and enable us to walk in the “way of peace” we were created for through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,/For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, … To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,/Might serve Him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. … To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,/To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:68, 75, 79 NASB

A video of this blog may be accessed here.

Lift Up Your Heads

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By Linda Rex

HOPE—Last night I read a post on the local police precinct page which told the story of a missing person. Struggling with depression due to the loss of a loved one, this person left her life behind and disappeared into the metropolis of Nashville.

As I read this story, my heart went out to her. I thought of what I might say to someone in her situation. It’s really hard to find anything meaningful to say to someone who is extremely depressed—I’ve been there, and it just doesn’t help.

My genetic makeup means my postpartum depression with both of my children turned into clinical depression, and in times of extreme crisis, I am susceptible to depression. I remember one day I forced myself to take my newborn son for a walk even though I was in a horrid blue funk. I could barely get one foot in front of the other. When I got home, I received a call from the nurse who helped with my pregnancy—she lived nearby and had seen me out walking. She asked me a few questions and then told me I was depressed. “Call the doctor,” she said.

I made the call and I’m glad I did. I learned that my mother had suffered this same difficulty with having her children and it was a natural response to what had happened to me. Depression is not something to be ashamed of or to pretend isn’t happening. It’s a real thing, and needs to be dealt with. If we need medication to help get our brain readjusted, then that is what we need. If we need counseling to change the way we respond to people or events, then we need to get it and make the changes needed to get well.

We express our love to our family and friends by getting the treatment we need, whether counseling or medication, and we keep with it, even though we may think we don’t need it any more. Some forms of mental illness require ongoing medication—we need to be humble enough to keep taking it even though we think we don’t need it any more. This is a real struggle, and I can understand when a person wishes they could live without this necessary medical intervention.

Taking into account our need for medication and counseling, though, we also need to grasp the reality to the core of our being that we are now and forever held in God’s love. We are entering the time of Advent, the time in which we contemplate and celebrate the coming of our God into our humanity in the infant Jesus, and we begin with hope.

The people of Israel and Judah had wrestled in their relationship with God for millennia. God called them into relationship with himself, explained to them what it looked like to live in relationship with him, and gave them a way of grace, of sacrifices and liturgy, through which they could draw near to him and express their love and devotion to him. As time passed, this nation turned away from God, experienced the consequences of having done so, and then turned back again, only in time to turn away again. Finally, God allowed the destruction of the temple and the captivity of both Israel and Judah.

In time God set the nation free to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. But from that time on, Israel/Judah has always been under the control of another nation. Between then and the time of Jesus, they experienced oppression, the desecration of their temple, and the lack of prophetic leadership. Lost in the darkness of God’s silence, the nation cried out for deliverance. And where there was such darkness, gloom, and despair, God entered.

We can get so focused on our despair, on our suffering or loss or the feeling that we are left all alone, that we often miss what is right in front of us. Indeed, as Luke writes, when we see everything falling apart in our lives or our world, that is when we need to realize that our redemption is near. God’s kingdom is at the door—for the simple reason that God is present, God is near, in the person of Jesus Christ.

God indeed entered Israel’s darkness and suffering, though in a way which was different than expected. God may have had a heavenly choir blessing the event, but God’s coming or advent was the birth of a baby placed in a manger, in humble circumstances, completely dependent upon his mother and father and caught in the midst of a dangerous world which was already seeking his death.

The coming of the Word of God into human flesh sparked the death of Bethlehem’s infants—the evil king Herod could not stand the thought of anyone being king but him. And yet, in the midst of this darkness and evil, the light had dawned. God was present in the person of Jesus Christ. God was experiencing every circumstance we go through in our broken world, coming to know personally the pains and trials of our human existence. He knew laughter and sadness, joy and pain, loss and blessing—everything which makes us what we are. And he did not sin.

It was not enough that God came to us to be where we are and what we are. He gave himself over completely to us, allowing us to do to him whatever we willed. He allowed us to pour out on him all our wrath against God, all our refusal to allow God to be the God he is. Since creation we have sought to make God conform to our will, refusing to submit to his. And Jesus paid the price for it, even though he didn’t deserve it.

Darkness—in so many ways. It may have seemed, as Jesus hung on the cross, that there was only death and oblivion ahead of him. But he knew the secret of hope: When everything is falling apart, our redemption is closer than ever—it is near, right at the doors. How did Jesus know this? Because he knew his Abba intimately. He knew that even though it felt like he was abandoned and all alone, that nothing could ever separate him from his heavenly Father. Nothing, not even death or evil, could separate the heavenly oneness of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s love, which binds us to him, never fails.

Because of who Jesus is—God in human flesh—and what he has done—died in our place and on our behalf, rising again from the grave—we have hope. We may lose friends and family members to death, but we are bound together in Christ both now and forever, and death no longer has power over us. In Christ we have the hope of the God’s presence in our every day lives and circumstances in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s ascension to God, bearing our humanity, and the sending of the Spirit, means we are never alone, ever. This is our hope.

In the midst of horrific loss and destruction, God is still near. When we have lost those dear to us, are caught in despair and feeling all alone, the truth is we are never alone. Immanuel—God is with us. When things look as though they are coming to a catastrophic end—God’s redemption is near. Lift up your heads—for here he comes!

Thank you, Abba, for loving us, for sending your Son to dwell in our humanity, redeeming us from all we brought upon ourselves. Holy Spirit, grant us the great hope of Jesus, that we may know with certainty that Abba loves us and will never leave us, no matter how things may look right now. Grant, loving Spirit, that we might experience the reality of Immanuel, God with us, in Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near.” Luke 21:28 NASB

Christmas Sorrow, Christmas Joy

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By Linda Rex

Lately I’ve been going out the door in the morning saying to myself, “We need to take the tree down—it’s been up long enough.” I don’t know what it is about putting away the Christmas decorations, but I just don’t like doing it. Not because of the work involved, but because of the temporary loss of the reminder of the goodness, joy, and peace God brought in his Son Jesus.

I love the colors and the nativity scenes. I enjoy the way all the decorations remind me of why Jesus came. I have observed the Old Testament holy days, and I have observed the Christian holy days. This particular one, Advent and Christmas, has an amazing ability to capture the heart and mind of young and old. We find ourselves singing of peace, hope, love, and joy. And we feel our hearts warm up towards others in new ways when they wouldn’t otherwise.

This season also has the capacity to bring great sorrow and grief. When the Christmas season is a source of sadness and regret, it can leave such pain in our hearts. The pain, I believe, is so deep and real because it is an expression of great loss—a loss Abba never meant to have happen.

Indeed, it was not God’s purpose we live with sorrow, grief, suffering, and loss. It’s not what we were created for. No, he meant for us to share in his eternal life of intertwined oneness with God and one another. We have all been bound together in Christ, and we all gain our life and being from the God who made us.

Our lives and experiences are all interwoven together, and we are meant to be living in the same uniqueness of personhood with equality and oneness of being God lives in as Father, Son, and Spirit. We were not meant to have to suffer sin’s consequences or death. No, we were meant to share life together as beloved children of God in the hope, peace, joy, and love we celebrate during Advent.

The good news about taking down the Christmas tree is we get to put it back up again next winter. The seasons come again and again, and we are reminded anew of the miracle of the Christ child, of when God came in human flesh.

This year taking down the tree reminds me of how Mary and the disciples took Jesus’ lifeless body down off the cross. No doubt they dreaded the process—and it was very painful for them. Even though Mary knew this probably would happen to Jesus, I’m sure it did not make it any easier for her to accept when it did.

Even though we celebrate the birth of Messiah at Christmas, we are reminded anew of the end which loomed over him his entire life. Abba knew the hearts of humankind—that we would not protect and care for his Son, but would reject and murder him instead. Abba’s love for us, though, was greater than any concern he may have had for Jesus in his humanity. Both Abba and Jesus knew at some point the celebration would be over, and the Christ would take the path to the cross. But they also knew that would not be the end.

When we take the ornaments and other doodads off the Christmas tree, we wrap or box them up, and we lay them in tubs, and put them away in a dark closet for a year. In this same way, the human body of Jesus was taken down off the cross, wrapped in linen, and then laid in a tomb. The door to the tomb was shut and then sealed. As far as the disciples knew, this was the end of the story for Jesus. He was shut away in the grave, gone from their lives.

But it was only a passing moment of time. Jesus told the disciples he would lay in the grave for three days, and then rise. The grave would not conquer Jesus—it had no control over him. For Jesus was God in human flesh—and his Abba was not going to leave him there, but would by the Spirit raise him from the dead.

The story of the infant in the manger does not end with Christmas, but follows throughout the year the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the grave, but actually gains momentum—the movement from the grave to his presence with Abba also involves the sending of the Spirit to indwell human hearts. When we look at Jesus Christ today, we find he is busy and active in this world, fulfilling the mission Abba gave him long before any of us existed.

Though the ornaments and decorations for Christmas may lay in the closet again for a while, I know eventually we will pull them out again. We will put up our worn-out tree with its twinkly lights, and be reminded of the ever-living Lord our Light, who was pleased to dwell with men. We will hang our homemade ornaments and colorful ribbons, and remember God so loved us, he gave us his Son Jesus Christ. As we set out one more time the little nativity set, we will be encouraged that God’s love never fails, but is new every morning.

In spite of evil, in spite of death, and in spite of the brokenness of our humanity, we have hope, peace, joy, and love in Abba’s perfect gift. The Spirit reminds me again today not to sorrow, but to be thankful. Whatever prayers I may offer for the suffering and grieving, God has already answered in the gift of his Son Jesus, and he will answer in the presence and power of his Holy Spirit. Whatever comfort I may offer someone in the midst of their sadness and loss is only an echo of the divine Comforter sent by Abba through his Son Jesus.

Whatever these decorations mean to me, they are merely pointers to a greater reality, to a real hope which we have in the love and faithfulness of God as expressed in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. As they come down and are packed away, I am reminded every death now has a resurrection, because of what Jesus has done. Jesus cannot be stuffed in a box or a tomb and put away. No, he inevitably will rise in greater glory and majesty, for that is just Who he is—our glorified Lord and Savior. And one day we will rise with him. What a joyful day that will be!

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and sharing every part of our lives. Thank you, Jesus, for taking us with you through death and resurrection so we may share life with you, Abba, and the Spirit forever. Please be near with your comfort and peace all those who are facing grief and loss. Your heart and mine go out to them, and I know you will send your Comforter to heal, comfort, and renew. Thank you again for your faithful love and grace through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are dread every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him. And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people.” Acts 13:27-31 NASB

Our Springs of Joy

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By Linda Rex

Advent—JOY

As one who has suffered on occasion from the blight of depression, I have a sympathetic heart for anyone who experiences living in this dark place. When a person is in the midst of such sadness and grief, it can take all of his or her effort just to do the simplest tasks of life.

This is not a place other people can come to and pull the sufferer out of. It is rather a place where those near and dear can come alongside and offer support, prayer, and encouragement. The best gift a person can offer to one suffering with depression is a constant and faithful relationship—a living presence with a willingness to sit in the darkness with the one struggling.

Sometimes we choose our darkness. Sometime the darkness is a result of other people’s bad choices. And other times, the darkness just is—it exists through no fault of our own. It is merely a result of health issues or circumstances. Darkness—an inner weight of crushing sadness and grief, or just loss of joy—can happen to anyone. Being depressed is not a sin, although it may at times be a symptom of an inner struggle.

For some of us, being depressed comes easily. The negativity through which we see the world becomes a lens which darkens our view each and every moment of our lives. This causes us to miss many opportunities for joy. We can be so used to the darkness that when the light enters, we close our eyes to protect them from its brightness.

Here during Advent, as we approach Christmas and the New Year, we may find ourselves resisting the holiday spirit, and feeling overwhelmed by loss and grief for various reasons. It is hard to feel upbeat when your heart is broken and your thoughts are filled with memories of what was and what could have and should have been. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness during a season which should be filled with great joy.

The Holy Spirit calls to us during Advent to remember the One who joined us in our darkness, who didn’t feel it was enough just to say he loved us, but who actually came and sat in the sadness, grief, sorrow, and death with us. For God it was not enough just to be gracious and loving—he did gracious and loving. He took on our humanity and lived shoulder-to-shoulder with each of us.

God’s judgment on sin and our proclivity to evil and our preference for the darkness was the precious gift of a baby in a manger—the Word of God in human flesh—Immanuel, God with us. God’s judgment on our darkness was a gift of joy in the Person of his Son. He judged all humanity worthy of grace and worthy of salvation, worthy of his presence in the midst of their evil, suffering, and death.

That dark, starry night as the shepherds sat with their flocks on a hill outside of Bethlehem, God entered this broken world welcomed by Joseph and Mary as the fulfillment of the word of God through an angel. This little baby may have seemed insignificant and unimpressive in his humble circumstances, but his birth was the cause of the celebration of the angels. As we read in Luke 2:

“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (Luke 2:8-14 NKJV)

Here was a message from God to his people—a message of peace and good will from God toward his people—a message of joy. These shepherds were astonished and overwhelmed, but their response was to seek out this baby to welcome him.

In our personal darkness, we may feel as though God has forgotten us, or as though we are lost in a dark night, barely holding ourselves together. But the truth we need to be reminded of is that God’s heart toward us has not changed. He is faithful and he still loves and cares for us. God has come into our darkness in the Person of the Word of God, and in Jesus Christ has lived our life, died our death, and carried us from death into life in his resurrection.

And it was not enough for God to join us in our broken humanity. He also sent his Spirit—pouring out on all the gift of life in his Son. The call to faith, is the call to believe in and embrace the joy, the good will of God toward each and every person in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. God has given us an inner source of joy in the gift of his personal presence in and with us in the Holy Spirit. As the psalmist said: “All my springs of joy are in you.” (Ps. 87:7b NASB)

The reality is, when we are in a dark place such as depression, depravity, or despair, we need a source beyond ourselves to raise us up and deliver us. We need a source of joy which is real and endless, and which will not be squelched by our stubborn desire to remain in the darkness. We need “springs of joy” to draw upon.

And God has given us this in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. We celebrate the breaking in of heaven into our darkness this time of year, and we find in the birth of Jesus Christ the hope, peace, and joy we would never have otherwise. He is the source of our true life, a life which God has lived in for all eternity, a life he is determined to share with you and me for all the eons to come. He calls us to trust—to believe in the truth: God is here. God is near. And he is with us forever. Immanuel—the most precious gift of all!

Dear Abba, thank you! Thank you for the precious gift of joy. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, sorrow, grief, and depravity, but giving us a way out—your own Son. Fill us by your Spirit with all your hope, peace, joy, and love—we do not find these things within ourselves. They are a gift. And so we thank you, and praise you with the angels, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth and sing for joy and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout joyfully before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98 NASB