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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

When Truth of Being Hurts

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By Linda Rex

In this discussion about truth and the truth of our being, it occurs to me that just having truth or being people who value truth is insufficient. God, who is truth, has sent the Spirit of truth through Jesus who is “the way, the truth, and the life” to us to dwell in human hearts. So we have the Spirit of truth available to us at all times.

But the reality is that even though we have the truth at our disposal, we also need a huge helping of God’s grace to go with it. Truth without grace and love is dangerous and destructive. Being truly open about one’s self or being authentic about who we are can bring about deeply painful and horrific consequences when it is told to the wrong person, and/or at the wrong time, and/or in the wrong way. Anyone who has been the victim of malicious gossip or Internet bullying is well aware of this fact.

Living out the truth of our being does not automatically ensure that the people in our lives are going to accept or embrace this reality when it appears. Jesus lived authentically his whole life and look how he ended up!

Sincerity, integrity, authenticity were a part of his nature, but the people around him often did not appreciate this, especially when it exposed their own hypocrisy, insincerity and deceitfulness, and their own prejudices. In fact, whenever we find Jesus pointing out the truth of who he was and the truth that the listeners were not living in agreement with their truth of being as God’s children, we also see them plotting his death and destruction. In these situations we see the huge contrast between, as Paul puts it, the expression of fleshly wisdom and the administration of the grace of God through holiness and godly sincerity.

Fleshly wisdom in this area is the natural human response of self-preservation and self-protection through image-management, manipulation of others, pretense and hypocrisy. Soon we become like the white-washed tombs which Jesus talked about—they look great on the outside, but on the inside is only death and dead men’s bones. We may think we’re fooling everyone else, but we’re really only fooling ourselves.

Because all the pretense, image-management and spinning of the truth in the world cannot remove the reality that we are completely and thoroughly known and loved by a God who knows us down to the very depths of our soul. The Spirit of truth doesn’t just dwell in heaven, but in human hearts—and he knows the truth of who we really are. In fact, the Spirit of truth is the very Breath of God who breathes life into our human bodies so we live and breathe every moment of every day.

The reality is, if he decided to do so, the Holy Spirit could just stop breathing life into you or me and we would simply die. When Peter pointed out the truth to Ananias and Sapphira they both had conspired to lie to the Spirit of truth, they died on the spot—their breath left them. They had been trying to be something they were not by impressing the early church with how generous and good they were when in reality they were hedging their bets because they didn’t truly trust God to care for them and provide for them if they donated all they had to help others.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I have on occasion been equally guilty of image-management and being generous under false pretenses. It has only been due to the love and grace of God that I am still breathing and doing ministry today. I’m reminded by all this to treat the Spirit of truth with a great deal of respect—honoring him by being sincere and truthful—but I am also reminded that in the end, it’s all of grace.

So in receiving God’s grace to be sincere, authentic and a person of integrity, I also receive the grace to love and forgive others who are insincere, inauthentic and lacking in integrity. In receiving God’s love in the midst of my mess, which is who I really am, I am able to offer to others the freedom to be the beautiful mess they truly are.

God is always at work to bring the truth to light, because it is in his nature of truth. He is the Spirit of truth, and Jesus is the truth of our being. God will not stop working to bring us all to the place where we are people of integrity, honesty and authenticity, because he is conforming each one of us to the image of Christ, who is truth. This is why we put our faith in Jesus Christ, in the Truth, and not in ourselves or in any one or anything else. May God complete his work in each of us to bring us into all truth, and may he grant us the grace to love and forgive others as well.

Thank you, God, that you are our God of truth, our Spirit of truth, our Messiah who is the way the truth and the life. Thank you that you are gracious and loving at the core of your Being, for we are fully dependent upon your grace and love. Thank you, Spirit of truth, that you overlook our shortcomings, for without you we would not live and breathe. Finish, Lord, all your work of transformation so that we may reflect you as you really are, in truth. In your name, Father, Son and Spirit, we pray. Amen.

“For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.” 2 Cor. 1:12

The Irrevocable Blessing

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by Linda Rex

One of the most unbelievable and amusing Bible stories is the one about the talking donkey and Balaam the seer. As a child I would imagine what it was like for the prophet to be riding along, trying to get his donkey to go where he wanted, even striking him to force him through a narrow passage. And then, all of a sudden, the aggravated donkey started talking: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?” What a start that must have given Balaam!

This story from Numbers 22-24 captures the imagination of children and adults alike. But by focusing on the more unbelievable aspects of the story, I think we can miss a fabulous expression of the love and devotion of God to his people and to all humanity that is hidden in these passages.

Balak, the king of Moab, was getting nervous. The huge multitude of Israelites was traveling through the plains near him. The Amorites had attacked them, but they had defeated the Amorites, taking away from them land and cities that had once belonged to the Moabites. Balak feared that his nation would soon be overwhelmed by the Israelites and be defeated as well.

So Balak sent a message to the seer Balaam and requested that he place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam’s reputation was such that the people of his day believed that whoever he cursed would be cursed and whoever he blessed would be blessed. Balaam countered this by saying he could only do what God allowed.

As the story progresses, we see that every time Balaam tried to curse Israel, he ended up pronouncing a blessing over them instead. Balak, of course, was offering Balaam great wealth to do as he asked. But Balaam was unable to curse the nation of Israel. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and not cursed. And no prophet, king or anyone else was going to reverse God’s will.

Finally, after three tries, Balak and Balaam gave up. Israel not only had a blessing declared over her three times, but in the midst of this blessing, God predicted the coming of a scepter rising from Israel—this statement we understand today to be a reference to the coming Messiah.

It was God’s will that Israel be blessed because God had chosen Israel to be his very own people. He was in covenant relationship with them. And one day all people would be blessed through them—this was a promise he made to Abraham, their forefather. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and through them in their Messiah, all humanity would be blessed. And nobody can curse what God has determined to be blessed.

Even though in the future Israel would sin over and over again, turning away from God to the local gods of the nations around them and participating in their sins, God did not revoke his commitment to send a Messiah. He did not stop loving them and working for their ultimate blessing and the blessing of all humanity in Christ.

Israel, and all of humanity for that matter, have rejected God and disobeyed him, yet none of this has annulled our eternal relationship with God in Christ. God in Jesus took on our humanity and joined himself to us forever. Our relationship with God is secure—we are “blessed … in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3 NIV) God may chasten us as sons (Heb. 12:7 NIV), but his love and blessing do not change. We are reconciled to God in Christ—we live in union with him. It is now a question of fellowship or communion, not union.

We are all God’s children, in Christ. Our badness or goodness does not alter God being for us, with us and in us. It does, however, alter our experience of this reality. When we deny who we are as God’s children, made to reflect his image, and we attempt to live outside the divine life and love, we experience alienation from God. We believe we are outside, excluded from God’s household, when in reality we are included, having been created and renewed in Christ to live in relationship with God and each other. So we experience fear and anxiety instead of God’s love, power, and self-control.

God has included all humanity by making a place for each person at the wedding supper of the Lamb. And he has handed to each person the appropriate wedding garment, Jesus Christ. We can choose to not even show up at the banquet. Or we can refuse to trust in Christ at all and depend solely upon our own ability to put together the perfect wedding ensemble to wear. Or we can choose to put on Christ instead of our old garments of self-justification and carnality and fully experience the joy of the wedding party. God has given us the freedom to choose. What will we trust in? What do we believe to be true about ourselves and about God?

God has determined to bless all humanity and not to curse us. He has determined to bless us with salvation, with an intimate relationship with himself in Christ through the Spirit. All the efforts of the evil one and his cohorts to curse you and me or to destroy that relationship are futile in the face of God’s heart toward us in Christ, which is good. We are all under God’s blessing, not his curse.

And with that being the case, shouldn’t we guard against ever cursing another human being? There ought to only be praise on our lips, for God has determined that they are his chosen ones as well, and they are under his blessing, not his curse. The evil one and our sinful nature may find many ways to lead us into sin, but none of these change the reality that we are reconciled with God in Christ and are held forever in an intimate relationship with him in the Spirit.

Holy God of Glory, God of Israel and of all humanity, I thank you that you have chosen us as your people, and you have done and are doing everything in your power to ensure that all humanity might share in your blessings forever. Renew in each of us a vision of who we are in Christ, and grant us the grace to experience for ourselves and to share with others the wonder of the intimate relationship you have given to us in Jesus Christ. In whose name we pray. Amen.

“He took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? … Then he took up his discourse and said, “Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? “Behold, I have received a command to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it.” … “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.” Numbers 23:7–8, 18-20; 24:17

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. James 3:9–12