And Then It All Changed
by Linda Rex
January 1, 2023, CHRISTMAS | New Year’s Day—Do you remember anything from when you were a toddler? One of the stories that goes along with the birth of Christ is an event which occurred when Jesus was about two years old. At that time, Scriptures say that Jesus and his family were living in a house in Bethlehem. What kept them in Bethlehem those two years? Were the couple there simply to avoid the notoriety going back home would give them?
The magi or wise men from the East came to visit Joseph and Mary, bringing gifts for the newborn king. Unfortunately, in their search for Jesus, they stopped in Jerusalem and enquired of King Herod as to his location. Herod asked his counselors what they knew about the prophecies of the coming Messiah and they told him that Bethlehem was where the Messiah would arrive. In response Herod sent his visitors from the East to Bethlehem with instructions to come back and see him and let him know where the baby was, so he could also pay his respects.
Even though the magi didn’t know the truth, God knew King Herod had no intention of letting the baby Messiah live. For that reason, he sent an angel to warn the magi, and they took a longer, more inconvenient way home so they could avoid returning to Jerusalem and endangering baby Jesus by reporting to Herod where they had found him.
This is where our gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 2:13–23, begins. Joseph, warned in a dream about Herod’s evil intentions is told to take his family and flee to Egypt. He immediately obeyed God’s instructions and began the dangerous and arduous trip, which was lengthened by the necessity of avoiding Jerusalem. Matthew recorded the horrific massacre of all infants under the age of two years which occurred shortly after they left Bethlehem. How must have Mary and Joseph have felt when the news reached them in Egypt of their close call!
Joseph, realizing that the hard work of his past two years disappeared in an instant simply because Jesus needed to be kept safe, must have had some real challenges in having to relocate and find work again. It is interesting God permitted circumstances to occur which would require that they end up in Egypt, and eventually then have to move back from Egypt, though up farther north in Galilee. Matthew, when recording these events, pointed out how each of them was a fulfillment of the prophetic word regarding the Messiah. Even though to Mary and Joseph these seemed like random events, in reality they were events which fulfilled God’s plan and purpose for his Son Jesus.
God grants us humans great freedom in living our lives, making decisions, and choosing whether to obey him. But none of the decisions we make prevent God from ultimately accomplishing what he has in mind. What they often do is complicate our lives and create issues for us when we don’t follow God’s leadership and guidance, or we work in opposition to God. But God can even take our opposition to him and use it to accomplish his best purposes and plans.
The story of the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem is tragic and heartrending. In many ways, it was a foretaste of what would happen to the Messiah himself. The blood shed that day pointed to the blood Jesus himself would shed on the cross on behalf of every person, including all those innocent ones who lost their lives. It was never God’s intention that the children die—that was the plan of the evil one and a sick king. But having happened, every child who died that day participated in Christ’s own crucifixion by the hand of broken, sinful people. And they rose, and will rise, in Jesus’ own resurrection.
Tears are often a part of our story. We’d all like to have stories which never have dark places in them, but the reality is that a good story includes both light and darkness. It is the conflict between the two which speaks to our hearts and captures our imagination. We know that our human existence in this crazy world is full of both sides of the coin. That is the reality of life right now apart from Christ.
What brings us joy, peace, and hope in the midst of such a place where evil stands in such strong opposition to what is good is the incarnation. It is that this God, who is greater than any evil that exists, has come into our human existence and taken on our human flesh. This God, though attacked by evil even as a child, continued to realign our human flesh with his eternal purposes and plans throughout his time here on earth, forging within our human flesh a capacity for genuine, other-centered love toward God and one another.
No matter how dark things get in our world, Jesus brings light. No matter what the evil one may attempt in a parasitic effort to destroy God’s good purposes and plans, he will ultimately fail. This child, born in such humble circumstances and threatened by human powers and evil plots, was guarded by his heavenly Father. He experienced the crucifixion of his human flesh in so many ways besides what happened on the cross. Here, in this part of his story, he became the one who lived when others died. He became the one who escaped while others suffered. But at the same time, he was the one in whom they suffered and died in his own cruciform offering. And he was the one in whom they will rise again in his own resurrection.
What darkness are you facing today? What battle are you fighting? What loss are you grieving? What addiction are you shackled by? Does the New Year look bleak considering what you are facing?
Jesus reminds us that whatever our story may be, it is caught up in the midst of his Father’s great big story. And however bad the evil may be, it is no match for the greatness and goodness of our loving God. And it’s never over, until God says it’s over. So there is always hope, peace, and joy in Christ as we are held in the midst of God’s love and grace. We are forgiven. We are accepted. We are beloved. And we most certainly are included—invited into and held within the inner circle of Father and Son in the Spirit. Praise God!
Thank you, dear Jesus, for going to such lengths to make us a part of your Father’s story. Thank you for forging for us the gift of life in the midst of death, of grace in the midst of our failures to love and serve. Thank you for including us in your life with the Father in the Spirit. Amen.
“For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, ‘I will proclaim Your name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in Him.’ And again, ‘Behold, I and the children whom God has given me.’ Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” Hebrews 2:10–18 NASB
“Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.’ So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.’ But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, ‘Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.’ So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ” Matthew 2:13–23 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/olitand-then-it-all-changed.pdf ]
[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]
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The Big Story
by Linda Rex
December 25, 2022, Christmas Day—Lately I’ve noticed the tendency by those reporting the weather to focus on a big story. Rather than reporting the everyday weather and its tedious ordinariness, they sensationalize the next big winter storm or the possibility for severe weather. What will bring about the greatest amount of anxiety or fear seems to be the center of their reporting, rather than more positive, constructive stories which may encourage people and create hope.
But isn’t that really our tendency as human beings? We tend to gravitate towards the big story, no matter what it might be, simply because it will draw the greatest attention to ourselves or bring in the biggest payback. Why else would we exaggerate the size of the fish we caught or the size of the rack on a deer we harvested? When we talk about our promotion at work, do we add a few embellishments to make ourselves look really good?
On this particular Sunday, we have the unique experience of being able to celebrate Christmas Day. Our gospel passage for this Sunday is Luke 2:8–20, which, along with verses 1–7, is often read on Christmas Eve or morning in many homes. It tells the biggest story of all, of when God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, being born of Mary and placed in a lowly manger.
The first one to tell this story was not human, but an angel, sent by God to shepherds. These hard workers were out in the fields at night, tending to their flock of sheep. It is possible that the lambs in their flock were destined for the altar of sacrifice in the temple. Though these shepherds were considered unclean by the religious leaders because of their occupation, it is instructive that God valued these people who were ostracized. The angel appeared to these everyday, ordinary people, telling them their Messiah had been born and was lying, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a manger.
To back up his big story, the angel was accompanied by a large number of angelic messengers who began praising God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (NASB). Imagine what an impact such an experience must have had on these down-to-earth shepherds! After the angels left them, the shepherds immediately made plans to go and see for themselves that this story was true.
Like good reporters, these shepherds went to double-check their facts, looking throughout the small town of Bethlehem’s stables to find the baby laid in a manger. They soon found Mary, Joseph, and the baby just as the angel told them. Now they had the biggest story of all to be sharing with everyone they met, and so they did. Their story created a sense of wonder and astonishment in the hearts and minds of those who heard it.
I wonder sometimes if the traditions and merchandising of Christmas has caused us to lose sight of the reality that we have been included in the biggest story of all. Do we realize how magnificent what happened that night really is? We get wrapped up in making sure we observe the correct day, or have the correct traditions, or the best presents, or even that we spend the day with the right people, and we miss the wonder, the glory of the greatest story ever told—that God came to be with us, that God took on our human flesh. What is more amazing than that?
What was it like for Mary that blessed night? She had to give birth in a strange place under very uncomfortable circumstances without the comforts of home. She knew the angel had told her the child she gave birth to was the Messiah, but now there were shepherds coming and telling her they had also seen and talked with angels. It is no wonder Mary often pondered these things in her heart, mulling them over and coming to terms with the wonder of being in the midst of a story much greater than herself—something which began long before she was born, yet included her and Joseph, and the little baby Jesus, lying in the manger.
Perhaps we need to follow Mary’s lead, and take some time this Christmas Day to drink in the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we ought to quietly contemplate the significance of the incredible gift of love the Father gave in giving us his Son by the Spirit in such a down-to-earth human way as a baby born in humble circumstances, laid in a manger, swaddled, fed and diapered like every other baby his age. What does it mean that God gives the biggest story of all to humble misfits, who are considered unworthy to be included in temple worship? What does it mean that God became man, to live and die like we do?
It is not enough that we just consider all this, though. The lesson we learn from these shepherds is that we take this biggest story of all and we share it with others. We include others in the good news that Christ has come. We let others in on the story, letting them know that they too have an important role to play in what God is doing in this world. What man may deem is unimportant, is considered essential by God when it comes to telling his story. How might God be wanting you to share this good news with others? How might God be wanting you to be a part of his story?
Heavenly Father, how delighted you must have been to see your Son in a new way, a way you had never seen him before, as a human baby, held and cared for by human hands. May your celebration of your Son’s human birth remind us to celebrate anew Jesus’ birth with a deep sense of wonder and gratitude, and to share this good news with those around us. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us and becoming one of us, so we could be with you and the Father forever in the Spirit. Amen.
“And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’ When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.” Luke 2: 8–20 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/olitthe-big-story.pdf ]
[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]
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In Search of Christ
By Linda Rex
December 26, 2021, Christmas | Holy Family—I remember years and years ago walking downtown to do some shopping with with my mother and two brothers. At that time, the Los Angeles, California suburb of Monrovia was a picturesque city of about 30,000 residents located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. We often made the trip downtown to use the library, visit the grocery store or thrift shop, or to visit some of the little shops located on Myrtle Avenue.
On this day I recall that while we were visiting a clothing store, we inadvertently lost my younger brother. He was really little at the time, so we were very concerned about what might have happened to him. During our search, I remember looking under all the clothing racks, hoping he might simply have been playing hide and seek. Eventually, we looked up and down the street in different stores, and I remember us even going to the police station in our effort to find him.
This event of my childhood often comes to mind when I read Luke’s account of how Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus as they returned home from Jerusalem with the other travelers. It was not unusual, apparently, for the parents to travel in different groups rather than as a couple, so it’s possible that Mary simply did not realize that Jesus wasn’t with Joseph, or vice versa. And with the number of people traveling together on pilgrimage, they might have simply assumed he was with relatives or friends. Considering the circumstances, it would have been easy to lose track of him.
Imagine the shock, though, when they discovered Jesus wasn’t anywhere to be found. They had, quite simply, lost the child who was to be the Messiah (as if that was even possible). Their subsequent frantic search for Jesus was, from their point of view, perfectly understandable.
The story takes a profound turn, though. It seems the last place they thought he would be is the very place he had been all along—in the temple, sitting at the feet of the teachers of the law of God. When they found him, Mary said to him, “Why have you treated us like this? We have been anxiously looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49 NASB) Apparently, they had forgotten or not understood who he was. Where else would he have been but in his heavenly Father’s house?
Today, as I reflect on this story, it again occurs to me that we participate in this story in a very special way. In it, Jesus teaches us where we can find him when we feel as though we have lost him. We may long for a relationship with God and in searching for him, cannot seem to find him anywhere. Or there may be times in life when we may feel as though we are fatherless or orphaned, or as if we have been abandoned or forsaken. We may feel as though we are left alone, without anyone to care about what happens to us. Or we may long for deep relational connection, but in all our efforts to connect, we are left shattered and broken, trying to bring back together all the pieces of our life.
Jesus says to you and me, “Why are you looking for me?” It may be worthwhile to take some time in quiet reflection to consider the answer to this question. What are we really searching for? Is it possible that we are needing a compassionate and forgiving Friend who will not criticize or condemn us? Is it possible that what we have been struggling to find is actually our loving Father—the One who deeply cares for us and wants to be a part of our life? Do you and I even realize what we are really searching for and need is the Savior Jesus?
And if it is Jesus we are searching for, then why is it we are needing him? Our hearts and minds can tell us a lot about what it is that is really going on inside if we are willing to slow down and pay attention. Too often we, like Joseph and Mary in this story, are so busy going about our everyday lives that we don’t attend to our connection with the One who cares for us so deeply. We can just assume he’s around somewhere or that someone else is tending to him, not realizing we have gone on ahead without him.
What is it we are truly longing for and needing? Why do we do what we do? What do our patterns of life tell us about our relationship with God and with others? We may be surprised to discover that things are not as we first assumed. We may find that what we have been searching for has been right where it needed to be the whole time we were looking for it!
When we do realize who we are looking for and why we are looking for him, then we are able to attend to Jesus’ reply, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” Where do we search in order to find Jesus? We are meant to find Jesus right now in his Father’s house by the Spirit. In the biblical view, we can experience the presence of our Lord right now by the Spirit in a three-fold location: 1) at work in this world, in all he has made and he sustains, 2) in the house of God—the gathering of the body of Christ, the Church, and 3) in the house of God—our hearts and minds.
We are not meant to search everywhere trying to find God. When we search for God, we are meant to awaken by faith to the reality that Christ has come and is present right now by his Holy Spirit. In Jesus by the Spirit, God has made a home for himself within our human flesh and within the body of Christ, the Church—why search everywhere else seeking to find him?
You may be wondering what happened to my younger brother—did we ever find him? Yes, actually we did. When we went to the police station, we were encouraged to go back home and wait to hear from them. And, surprisingly enough, when we got home—there my brother was, waiting for us. He had made his way home, all by himself—something we had never expected him to do.
I believe that if we were to take some time in silent reflection, asking God where he is and how to find him and then waiting for his response, we might discover that he is where he always has been—very near and very present by his Holy Spirit, at home in our hearts and lives. It is by faith in Christ that we come to the realization that he has come to dwell in us by the Spirit.
In Colossians 3:12–17, the apostle Paul tells us to “put on” the nature of Jesus Christ, to “let” the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and the word of Christ richly dwell within us. These are actions that are a response to what Christ has already done within our humanity by living our life, by dying our death and by rising again, bringing us home to the Father. As we trust in him and in his finished work, we find that in the sending of his Spirit, Jesus Christ is genuinely present in our individual lives and in the Church. We don’t have to look everywhere for Jesus in order to find him. Rather, we do need to respond to his real presence within and in our midst right now by the Holy Spirit, placing our trust in him and gratefully doing everything in his name for the glory of our Father.
Putting our faith in the One who has made himself at home in human hearts and has brought us home to the Father is a life-changing decision. Pondering these things in our hearts as Jesus’ mother Mary pondered the words and actions of the eternal Son of God, her son Jesus, is an important spiritual discipline we can practice each day. Being baptized, studying the written Word of God, speaking with God in prayer, gathering with believers in spiritual fellowship, taking communion—these are all healthy ways to come to terms with the reality of who Jesus is, and what he has done and is doing in us and in our world by his Spirit. And there are so many other spiritual practices by which we are able to actively participate each day in Jesus’ loving relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. For Jesus has made us now and forever at home with himself in the presence of the Father and made himself at home with us and in us by the Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, thank you that we have a home with you even now through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, that we don’t have to look everywhere in order to find you—you’re closer even than the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. You have made your home in us and our home in you. Holy Spirit, awaken us anew to the realization of God’s real presence and abundant love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him. Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’ And He said to them, ‘Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?’ …” Luke 2:44b–49 (41–52) NASB
O God, Restore Us!
By Linda Rex
December 19, 2021, ADVENT | Love— As I put out my nativity set in my living room each year, I hide the baby Jesus away for the miracle of Christmas morning. The shepherd watches from a safe distance, and the wise men with their camel are hidden back on a shelf temporarily until closer to that day. On that sacred evening we celebrate on Christmas Eve, I bring out the baby Jesus and pause with wonder at the miracle of this special event. The shepherd draws near to worship and the wise men on their journey come closer, seeking this chosen One.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in relationship with this God who would go to such incredible effort to draw every human being to himself in the miracle of the incarnation. I personally know the anguish and struggle that go with giving birth to a firstborn son, and the incredible joy and wonder which result when holding him in my arms for the first time. How could this marvelous bundle of possibilities have ended up in my arms? What does God have in mind for his life? How much more amazing must it have been for Mary to consider the wonder of being chosen to bear the Messiah!
But there is an undercurrent to this marvelous story which I believe is important to understand, and it goes along with this theme of being in relationship with God. And it is this: Jesus came because it was the will of God that he do so. He came because it is the nature of God to love and care for those he has created and brought into relationship with himself. The divine Son came willingly, and obediently, as an expression of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. The Son of God knew the Father in the Spirit, and trusted fully in his love—so he freely offered himself in obedience to the will of his Father.
My heart is heavy right now with all I see going on in my world. We are experiencing the consequences of our continual choices to do things our own way—to decide for ourselves how we will live and how we will treat one another and this world we all live on. I am broken by the way we live and the consequences of our choices. And it breaks my heart to think about what our children and grandchildren will be having to deal with when my generation has passed from the scene. What a price we pay for doing things our own way!
I often hear this time of year that the reason Jesus came was to die on the cross. In one way, I agree with this, but in another, I feel as though it truncates what Jesus actually came to do. The author of Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in whole burnt offerings and’ sacrifices ‘for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God.” ’ … By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:5–7, 10 NASB)
I believe the Scriptures teach us that Jesus came to bring us into right relationship with God and subsequently with one another. Doing so required so much more than simply dying on the cross. It also involved being conceived in the womb of a woman, being a babe in her arms, growing up as a child into adulthood, and learning a trade at the feet of his father. Jesus experienced all of the everyday activities of our human life in a human body, being tempted in every point, but without sin. The forging of our true humanity occurred throughout his life, from birth even to death and on into the resurrection and ascension. In his human existence on this earth, Jesus “learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, … (Heb. 5:8–9 NASB).”
The song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” comes to mind as I am writing this. In this hymn which expresses our deep longing for our redemption and salvation, I hear echoed our longing for this transformation of our human existence:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go
O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
(Latin Hymn, Translated by John M. Neale and Henry S. Coffin; Adapted from Plainsong by Thomas Helmore)
We also need to attend to the reality that there was a substantial difference between the responses of the two representative females in God’s story: Eve did not believe God, and ate of the tree she was told not to eat of, while Mary believed God’s word to her through the angel Gabriel and told God to do with her as he wished. In Eve, disbelief resulted in disobedience and all of the subsequent result of that as sin and death entered our human existence. In Mary’s belief and obedience, we find the life-giving God enters into our death- and sin-bound human existence in the person of Jesus Christ and restores our true humanity in his life, death, resurrection and ascension—making possible our right relationship with the Triune God now and forever in the gift of his Son and his heavenly Spirit.
What if we willingly surrendered our independence, our preferences, and our expectations to the God who came to us to bring us into right relationship with himself? What if we, like Mary, believed that God was good and loving, that he was faithful and trustworthy, and that he sought what was best for us? What if we actually said to God each day and in each moment, “Do with me as you wish”? What if we indeed brought every thought captive to the will of God in Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)?
The good news is that this is the very reason Jesus came. Jesus took our stubborn willfulness and turned us back toward obedience to the Father—even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus bore the suffering and agony of our rejection and resistance to God upon himself, took it to the grave, and emerged offering us new life in himself. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).”
What a lovely reason for the season! All that is left for us is to respond to Christ’s gift in faith, being filled with the Spirit and pouring out our gratitude in praise like Elizabeth, Mary, and Zacharias—all participants in this miraculous event. What we could not and would not do, Jesus did in our place and on our behalf. Such great love expressed to us by God above! We humbly receive with open hands and hearts, and respond with gratitude, saying, “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” Your life, Jesus, for my life. Thank you, Lord!
“O God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.” Psalm 80:7 NASB
“Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.’” Luke 1:39–45 NASB
Shout for Joy!
By Linda Rex
December 12, 2021, ADVENT | Joy—During my recent retreat, I spent some time on a pleasant property out in the country, where the rolling hayfields were dotted with limestone and the trees were covered with autumn-colored leaves. On my walks outside, I would pass by a small fountain of water pouring down over a pile of rocks and into a lovely outdoor pool surrounded by cattails and aquatic plants. The steady rush of water from fountain to pool gave the area a feeling of restfulness and inspired a sense of renewal.
As I was looking over the passages for this Sunday, I was reminded of the many ways in which the replenishing properties of water were used in Scripture as a way to describe the Holy Spirit—the living presence of God himself. We are reminded that there is only one cure for the unending thirst in our soul, and that our efforts to fill that emptiness on our own will inevitably end up fruitless.
Indeed, we were created for joy, but we often find our human experience falls way short of joy. If anything, we experience everything but joy in this broken and hurting world. But the apostle Paul told us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Phil. 4:4 NASB)!” How in the world do we rejoice in the midst of our everyday struggles, difficulties and hardships? How do we find true joy when all we are given are ways to experience temporary pleasures and fleeting happiness instead?
There’s a story in the Old Testament about when Israel was traipsing around the wilderness and began to complain because they were thirsty. The place where they had been led to by God did not have any water sources. As they focused on their lack of water, they began to believe that God was not with them. They kept their eyes on what they didn’t have, and forgot what they did have—the presence and power of God in their midst (Ex. 17:1–7).
So often, this is our own issue. We can get so focused on our circumstances, or on the immediate situation—the politics, the environment, the people down the street, whatever we are concerned about—and lose sight of the spiritual realities. This is the problem. We forget that we have in our midst the Source of living water—God himself in Christ by the Spirit, living and active in our lives and circumstances.
This is God’s word to us: “Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; … The LORD your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will [renew you in his love], He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zeph. 3:14–17 NASB). God calls us to joy because he is living, present and active as the One who victoriously conquered over evil, sin and death.
During Advent we are reminded to watch attentively for the coming of the Righteous One, the coming of God into this world to deliver, restore, and renew. As we draw near the celebration of Christmas, the coming of God into human flesh becomes the focus of our worship and praise. God has not left us alone in the midst of our darkness. No, he has come to us. The Word of God, the eternal Son who has always lived in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, has come, taken on our flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again. He is that baby, born to Mary on that blessed night, for the sake of every human being. He is the fountain of living water in the midst of our arid desert. He is the spring of renewal and refreshment in a dying world.
We are called to be attentive to the reality that God in Christ by the Spirit is our salvation. “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation,” Isaiah wrote. “Cry aloud and shout for joy…for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 12:2, 6 NASB).” Shout for joy! God has come to dwell with man! Rejoice in triumph! Jesus is a victorious warrior, who is exulting over us with joy and renewing us in his love. Christ has come, and freed us from evil, sin, and death! He has brought us hope, peace, joy and love!
We need to grab hold of the spiritual reality that God in Christ has come and by his Spirit is present and real right now in us and with us. He knows we need spiritual water and is more than ever ready to provide it—are we receptive and open? Are we awakened to our need, and rather than complaining, are we humbly asking for God’s supply?
Jesus calls to us and says: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37–39 NASB).” “… whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:13–14 NASB).” Jesus, in his self-offering, is the endless supply of spiritual refreshment and renewal we need in every part of life. By the Spirit, he is present and available, and will fill us as we repent and turn to him in faith.
It is ironic that in the gospel passage for this Sunday we find John the Baptizer contrasting his water baptism with Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire of judgment is something we get very concerned about, not realizing the significance of Jesus’ self-offering in our place and on our behalf. As God in human flesh, Jesus forged into our humanity the love of God and crucified in himself the sin, evil and death to which we had enslaved ourselves. In the resurrection we find that all that chaff that is not part of the fruitfulness of life in Christ was blown away. The apostle Paul wrote that “from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:16–17 NASB).” Humanity has new life in Christ! This is reason to rejoice.
So, what will you do with Jesus Christ? What will you do with the reality that God is now in the midst of us by the Holy Spirit, offering to each of us the living water of life in relationship with God through Jesus? Will you gaze anew with wonder and joy on the Christ child this year, gratefully receiving the life in the Trinity he has brought you in his life, death, resurrection and ascension? Will you receive from him the living water he has given—the blessed Spirit of life in Christ Jesus?
We have every reason to rejoice. We are not left alone, abandoned to this crazy world and all its darkness and despair. God has cracked open the rock and poured out abundantly his living waters of salvation, and calls us to drink deeply, to satiate our souls in his real presence in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. Jump in the river! Dance in the shallows! Soak it all up! Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!
Thank you so much, dear Father, for not leaving us hungry and thirsty for your love and grace. Thank you for planting us by your streams of living water and offering us reconciliation, refreshment, and renewal—life in Christ by the Spirit. Fill us anew with the joy of salvation. Enable us to celebrate this year with a real sense of your presence in us and with us by your Holy Spirit, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.” Luke 3:16–18 (7–18) NASB
See also Philippians 4:4–7; Zephaniah 3:14–20; Isaiah 12:2–6.
Keeper of the Anointed One
By Linda Rex
December 29, 2019, HOLY FAMILY—In recent years, specifically here in America but in other areas as well, there has been a lot of effort expended in an effort to lift women to a place of dignity and worth not previously experienced in society. Although I have been immensely blessed by the results of this effort and am very grateful for the efforts of those who have gone before me, I have been saddened to see that when we seek to rectify one problem, as is typical with us as humans, we tend to create another.
I’ve noticed that with the rise of the worth and dignity of women has come a demeaning and disrespect of men. Too often we have criticized and condemned as a whole this portion of the human race in our efforts to correct what has failed to be encouraged and supported in the other. I feel we have fallen into the trap of either/or thinking rather than understanding that God did not mean worth and dignity to be given to one in place of the other. He meant it to be given to both. Every human being is made in the image of God, and so is worthy of dignity and respect.
In the light of this, the reading for this Sunday tells us about events which happened after the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is a twelve-day celebration which begins on December 25th, and included in this celebration is the Sunday we celebrate the Holy Family. The role that Joseph and Mary have to play in Jesus’ story is significant, and I believe there is much we can learn about how to be a man of God from the little bit we read in the gospels about Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather.
First, we need to understand that Joseph was living in a very patriarchal society. He was a Jew and he was bound by the requirements of the law as taught by his rabbis in the synagogue and the other Jewish leaders. He was a man of character and sought to live rightly before God. When he was betrothed to Mary and she told him she was expecting a child, his immediate thought was to put her away privately. This would have gone against the traditions of the elders, but he did not want to hurt or shame her unnecessarily. This showed a heart of grace and humility, and compassion.
When an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife and that the child to be born to her was conceived by the Spirit and was to be called Jesus, Joseph had an important decision to make. This decision required an immense amount of faith—was this really a message from God? Did he believe that this is really what he should do? Apparently, he believed, and then acted on that belief.
How many men today take seriously the dreams they have? Would a man I met on the street, or even within the doors of my church, recognize when they had an angel of God speak to them? How many actually listen to and obey the voice of the Spirit? And how would they respond if they were asked to do something which would require this kind of humility, grace, and lifelong commitment? I have gotten to know some men over the years who I believe would, but I have also met and known many who would not.
What about when Joseph had a dream which told him to pick up his family and travel to Egypt on a moment’s notice because the king was searching for his child in order to kill him? If Joseph had not believed and obeyed this dream, they would have stayed at the house, and Jesus would have been killed. The faith and trust of Joseph, his willingness to listen to and be attentive to the voice of God, was critical in the survival of the Christ child.
In the same way today, we need men who are willing to slow down long enough to listen to and hear the voice of God. God’s Spirit speaks all the time, but often we are too busy or preoccupied to hear his voice. We are often too invested in the things of our flesh or in our daily occupations to do what the Spirit asks us to do. Women and children often long for the men in their lives to take the lead spiritually. They yearn to be able to rest in the knowledge that their spouse or parent is listening to God’s voice and following the lead of the Spirit. One of the best gifts a man can give the people in his life is a willingness and effort to listen to and follow the Holy Spirit.
I’m personally grateful for the many men I know who have a passion for the word of God and prayer, who are strong men of faith, who are humble and have servant hearts. They are compassionate and understanding, yet they diligently oppose anything which may harm others or create distress for those who cannot defend themselves. These men radiate a quiet, steady strength, and an ability to lead others merely by following the Spirit themselves.
We must not underestimate the power that a man has to impact the society around him simply by how he listens to and follows the voice of the Spirit. His capacity to humbly listen to and submit himself to the voice of the Spirit and to the needs of his family is critical. The admonition in Ephesians for a man to lay down his life as Jesus laid down his, if it were followed, would transform this society and our families today (Eph. 5:25-29).
Joseph had to care for his family, but uprooting them on a moment’s notice to move to an entirely different nation must have been a very difficult undertaking. And then, after a few years, he heard that voice again, telling him to return to his native land—King Herod, the one who wanted to kill Jesus, had died. Joseph was still concerned about the well-being of his family, so he took them to Nazareth to live. And this was where Jesus grew up.
We don’t read much about Joseph after this. We find him taking his family to Jerusalem for the holy days about the time of Jesus’ bar mitzvah. But after that, not much is said of him. But what we do know is that he fulfilled the calling God gave him, to be the keeper of the Anointed One, watching over him and protecting him as he grew up, and providing for him and his family.
What man today isn’t called to this same role? Maybe it’s not quite the same, since Jesus is not here on earth in his flesh right now. But the Holy Spirit was sent to dwell in human hearts, and we as human beings were meant to be the dwelling place of God himself. Jesus lives in each person as they trust him in faith. Just as he worked through Joseph, God calls men today to be keepers of the Anointed One, leading others in their lives by listening to and following the lead of the Spirit. God means for men to be image-bearers of the Divine One, caring for those in and with whom he has come to dwell.
Thank you, Abba, for giving us men of faith to lead us and watch over us. Continue to call to yourself the men in our lives, giving them a heart and will to listen to and obey your Spirit, to lead us by following you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,’ the angel said. ‘Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. … When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. ‘Get up!’ the angel said. ‘Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.’ So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. … So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” Matthew 2:13–15a, 19–21, 23 NASB
Finding Gladness and Joy
By Linda Rex
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?
Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?
We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?
Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.
And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.
A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.
This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.
Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.
Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.
Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?
So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.
Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?
This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?
It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.
May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.
Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB
“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB
When Christmas Gets Messy
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.
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.
Walking in a New Way
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
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Christmas Sorrow, Christmas Joy
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