Advent

Our God of Hope

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By Linda Rex

ADVENT—Hope
What if you found yourself in the midst of a committed relationship in which no matter how hard you tried, you could never get it right? What if you were the one who was unfaithful, unloving, and insensitive? What if you found yourself too often breaking the other person’s heart rather than sharing your own heart in humility and gratitude?

If we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that at some point in our relationships, most probably more often than we realize, we are this way. We find ourselves saying hurtful things, being unfaithful in our thinking and/or behavior, and showing our loved one disrespect by the things we say and do. We may or may not care about the effect of our behavior upon them, depending upon the state of our own heart and our relationship with them and God.

We may find ourselves despairing of ever being other than what we are, of never experiencing the blessings of a life in loving relationship with another human being, or even with God.

The story of the Old Testament tells us how God, even while knowing what the outcome would be, entered into a relationship with human beings, calling them his own, and giving them life in relationship with himself. He gave them a way of life which would enable them to experience his grace and grow in their knowledge and understanding of him and his ways of being.

In spite of all of God’s efforts to love his people and to be gracious towards them, his covenant people more often than not were unfaithful and unloving toward him. They ignored his clear revelation of what life in the presence of God looks like, and chose to establish their own rules for living. They depended upon other people, themselves, and the things of the earth rather than relying upon God for everything. God’s most loving efforts were met with resistance, rejection, and disrespect.

And yet, God did not dissolve the relationship. He relentlessly pursued his beloved children. Yes, he allowed them to experience the consequences of their unloving behavior, but he never made it a condition to his relationship with them. He is a covenant God, who keeps his covenant relationships while at the same time being free to dissolve them if he wishes to.

He sent prophets who warned them of the consequences of continuing their unfaithful, unloving behavior. Jeremiah acknowledged their inability to fulfill their covenant commitment to their God apart from his gracious intervention. He called for God, The Hope of Israel, to intervene: “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for You are my praise.” (Jer. 17: 14 NASB)

In the midst of the darkest days of Israel’s history, they heard no prophetic word from God and were exiled far from their homeland. They knew they deserved the desolation of their temple and being removed from the land they loved: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.’” But God said to them, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.” (Isa. 49:14-16)

God’s word to his covenant people through the prophet Isaiah gave them hope. The prophet wrote of a messiah who would come to deliver his people from oppression and to usher in the new age of the Spirit, when “all flesh will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Isa. 49:26b)

And it was not enough for God to redeem his people and restore his relationship with them. He went on beyond and included all humanity in the prophetic word of hope. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s Suffering Servant who would come and restore his people and through them, all humanity: “And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and My God is My strength), He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations… Break forth, shout joyfully together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God.” (Isa. 49:5-6, 52:9-10 NASB)

Today we can look back on the events which took place following these prophetic messages. We know the amazing way God kept his word of hope which he gave to his people in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. We can recognize God’s faithfulness and compassion, and understand we are included in God’s redemptive work.

Because of what God has done and is doing for us through his Son, and how he is working today in and with us by his Spirit, we can have hope in the midst of our own difficult circumstances. We may find ourselves in dark places, but we can know Jesus is present with us in the midst of them by his Spirit. We know Abba is carrying us, faithfully loving us and working for our redemption and salvation.

And this gives us hope within our own broken relationships. We turn to Christ, to Abba, and by the Spirit gain the grace to live in ways with one another which are a reflection of the divine life and love. We find in Christ by the Spirit the ability to say no to that which is unhealthy and evil, and yes to that which is wholesome and healing. It is Christ dwelling within us by his Spirit who brings us into his own faithful, loving relationship with his Abba, and enables us to participate with him in it. And this overflows into our own human relationships as the Spirit flows between and amongst us all.

And so, the apostle Peter calls us to “fix [our] hope completely on the grace to be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13 NASB) We are to hope in Jesus Christ—in the God of hope, who is our blessed hope in every situation and circumstance, because he is gracious, loving, and faithful.

Thank you, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for sending us your Son, and giving us your Spirit. Thank you that you are The God of Hope who rescues us from sin, evil, and death, and you meet us in the midst of every relationship by your Spirit so we may live together in oneness, in a recognition of and respect for our uniqueness and our equality. Grant us the grace again, to trust you in every circumstance, and when things grow dark and dreary, please shine your bright rays of hope in and through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 NASB

Reaching for Joy

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Advent: JOY
By Linda Rex

This time of year can really be difficult for some people. It seems that the songs we listen to, the Christmas movies we watch and the stories that are told tell about all this lovely holiday joy we should have. And yet, so many of us struggle just to put one foot in front of the other and make it through another day.

I don’t think God expects us to walk around all day, every day, with a big smile on our face. That’s actually kind of creepy, you know. Because it’s not real. God gives us our humanity back renewed in Christ and it’s a humanity that feels things deeply, that sorrows and grieves as much as it laughs and sings for joy.

I read a devotional this morning from New Life Ministries that reminded me the psalms in the Bible are filled with expressions of the whole spectrum of our human existence. There isn’t an emotion there that Christ didn’t feel. It is good to read them and experience God’s heart joining with our heart within the full expression of our humanity.

The psalms tell us that the trees and the animals and all creation sing for joy in praise to God. Over and over we are called to rejoice even in times of persecution and difficult circumstances. If it was left up to us to find the joy to do this, we couldn’t do it. Because, humanly, we tend to allow our situations and struggles to define our emotions rather than the other way around.

But the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus counted his sufferings—the cross and its shame—as joy. He was able to do so because he looked beyond them to the glory that was to come, not just for him, but for us as well. He went first so that we could follow.

We find our joy in Christ. He lives forever in the divine joy he shares with the Father in the Spirit. He calls us to look beyond this life to the life he purchased for us and gave us in the Holy Spirit. He lives in us today and gives us his joy. He gives us the eyes to see beyond our present circumstances into the kingdom of God he brought in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

This is why the apostle Paul repeatedly reminded people to keep their eyes on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1-4). We need to keep a spiritual vision of there being so much more to life than this everyday human existence we currently have. Our joy comes from knowing this is not all there is to life. There is somethings very transcendent going on and we get to be a part of it right now.

One of my favorite hymns of joy came to mind this morning. It is a classical piece that causes my heart to overflow with joy as it is sung. It reminds us that our joy comes from beyond us and overflows in our hearts from Christ in the Spirit. It is my prayer for you this holiday season, that you experience God’s divine joy in a profound way through Jesus and by his Spirit. Amen.

Hymn to Joy
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the happy chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph song of life.
Henry J. van Dyke, 1907
Sung to “Hymn to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1–2 NASB

The Mystery of Peace

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Advent: PEACE
By Linda Rex

This past Sunday was the Advent service at Good News Fellowship during which we lit a candle for peace. As we moved into the time following the sermon, and we listened to Casting Crown’s powerful song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,”1 I couldn’t help but think how feeble our words and efforts are at keeping peace.

Truly we are so dependent upon something outside ourselves to live at peace with one another. I think that we all recognize our inability to be at peace with God, ourselves and one another—if we don’t, we ought to. Our do-it-yourself peace nearly always falls short in some way.

In Romans 12:18, my New American Standard Bible says this: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” The New International Version is very similar: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This particular verse says that to the best of our ability, whatever depends upon what we say or do, we are to live at peace with one another.

And truly, that is often our approach to how we live in relationship with one another. We just do the best we can, but we can’t always guarantee there will be peace, especially if the other party doesn’t want to live at peace with us. They might be nasty, horrible people to be around, and living at peace with them is just an impossible thing to do. So sometimes we can’t help but be nasty back.

But there is another translation that kept coming to my mind as I thought of these things. The King James Version, which is taken from the Latin Vulgate, puts it differently: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” The Catholic Bible, which has the same source, puts it this way: “If it be possible, as much as is in you, have peace with all men.”

The thing that struck me in these translations were the words, “as much as lieth in you” or “as much as is in you.” From this vantage point, this seems to be a call by Paul for us to draw upon an inner peace that lies within us.

So that brought up another question. What did Jesus mean when he told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27)? In some way, Jesus gave us his peace and this peace is in us, and as much as that peace lies within us, we are to have peace or live in peace with one another.

Indeed, the Apostle Paul talked often about a mystery he was given by God to preach to the Gentiles—the mystery “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27) He calls this same mystery “the mystery of godliness.” (1 Timothy 3:16) It is Christ in us, by the Holy Spirit, who enables us to be the peace-filled people that we were meant to be. It is Christ’s peace in us that we draw upon so that we can and will live at peace with God and others.

Our ability to live at peace is a participation in Christ’s peace. The question then, is not in our ability to live at peace with others but in our willingness to respond to the Holy Spirit’s gift of the peace of Jesus Christ placed within us. Paul says to the Colossians, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts….” The peace of Christ has been given to us—the question is, does that peace rule in our hearts?

God has shown us great love and grace—extreme good will. He has even shared with us his very own nature, his life in Christ through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. And that was not enough for him—he sent the Holy Spirit so that we could participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. Therefore we have God’s peace within us by the Holy Spirit. The peace of Christ is in our hearts. But do we let Christ rule?

Our struggle is with the reality that sometimes being at peace means that we have to suffer, to be taken advantage of, to be harmed and devastated by the evil others do to us. We forget that Jesus Christ took everything humanity could throw at him and bore it on the cross. It is not enough that we only take the good from others—to share in Christ’s sufferings and in his glory requires our willingness to take the evil as well, and to respond with love and grace.

We have many brothers and sisters today who are willingly sharing in Christ’s sufferings for his sake. They believe that to respond to the atrocities being done to them with violence is to participate in the evil themselves. They refuse to deny the Savior who rescued them and drew them into relationship with the God who loves them. God has poured into them by his Spirit the ability to bear with grace severe persecution and genocide.

Jesus Christ did not give us his peace as the kind of peace the world gives. Our human peace exists only as nation forces another nation into submission, or buys another’s cooperation through trade agreements. Or we silently allow ourselves to be destroyed while others take advantage of us, use us and abuse us. When these fragile methods of peace fail, we are often at war with one another again. This kind of peace is false and futile. It is not the divine shalom God calls us to and has given to us in Christ by the Spirit.

There is the peace of God present in the world today—this mystery of godliness—Christ in us, our hope of glory. This peace that God gives us passes all understanding when we turn to Christ in the midst of our struggles, disagreements and suffering. There is a capacity to live in peace in impossible situations that comes from beyond us and fills our hearts and minds. This is the gift of God poured out on us in the Holy Spirit.

The question is not, is peace possible? The question is, will we let God’s peace rule us? Will we, as much as lies within us, live peaceably with one another? When God’s peace rules us, and we live with all that is within us of Christ in the Spirit—there will be a change in the whole fabric of our human existence.

In the meantime, we only see the surface—the wars, the suffering, our broken humanity. The mystery, though, is at work. Deep beneath it all is a peace that passes understanding, that we can draw upon now to live at peace with one another in difficult and impossible situations. This is the true peace we have in Christ and in the Spirit. May you experience that peace in a real way this Christmas and on into the New Year.

Heavenly Father, our Prince of Peace, remind us again of the peace you have given us in your Spirit that passes all understanding. Renew our hearts and minds, and enable us to live in your peace with one another. Thank you for being gracious to us in the midst of our refusals to live in peace with one another—grant that we would surrender to your peace at work in us and in our world. And grant your grace and deliverance to all to suffer today because others near them refuse to live in your divine shalom. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.” Colossians 3:15 NASB

1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7670CXvPX0